Sunday, February 1, 2015

The Burnham backlash: Make some 'small plans'

You can barely attend any conference of architects, planners or even local town planning boards without seeing, at some spot in the PowerPoint presentation, the famous quote from Chicago architect and town planner, Daniel: “Make no little plans,” he said. “They have no magic to stir men’s blood.”

But, as Alan Ehrenhalt points out in an essay in Governing magazine, “Urban Acupuncture Is Coming to America,” that view of city building helped promote a lot of what went terribly wrong in U.S. cities in the 20th century. Urban renewal is just Exhibit No. 1. So here’s Ehrenhalt’s suggestion:

“For the next century, it might be helpful if someone came along who could offer urban practitioners a dose of Burnham in reverse. Something akin to, 'Be careful about making huge plans, because they take forever, cost too much and generate myriad unintended consequences. Make small changes that improve everyday life for ordinary people; make them right away and build on small successes to try something a little more ambitious.’ ”

Ehrenhalt recounts the work of Jaime Lerner, a Brazilian architect who became mayor of Curitiba, a city of 1.7 million, and later governor of the state of Parana. It’s pegged to the fall 2014 release of an English translation of Lerner's book, Urban Acupuncture: Celebrating Pinpricks of Change That Enrich City Life.  (Disclosure: I’m a board member of the nonprofit Center for the Living City, which found funding for the publication of the English translation.)

The overall point, of Lerner’s book and Ehrenhalt's essay, is simple but too often overlooked by urban planners, city administrators and elected officials: Sometimes a small change is better than a huge project.