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Yes, planners used to actually plan cities

We're so used to the current paradigm where developers plan their own large subdivisions and determine so much of cities and infrastructure that we forget it didn't always used to be this way. Public bodies used to have a much more active role in shaping future infrastructure, instead of leaving it to the whims of each developer. Planning commissions were in fact created to promote quality public planning, not devote themselves to hours of debate over the color of a fence or a specific building's use, as is all-too-common today.

I'm reminded of this today by reading Pete Saunders' blog about an early 20th century design competition in Chicago:

Yet in many respects this competition itself represented the end of one kind of city planning, and the emergence of  another.

The seeds of the future direction of American land development are in the challenge to the competitors.  Rather than pursuing the rote extension of the street system and pattern, the competition's judges wanted "scientific methods" of land development.  What was lost in that transition was something taken for granted by cities at the time -- the presumed primacy of control of the public realm by cities.  Cities have been struggling to regain that control ever since.
Take a look at the submissions in the book.  The submissions are very different, from grid-based to geometric patterns.  But the assumption for nearly all was that they would fit within an established framework.  Their designs would be connected to the grid system just beyond it.  The city, having the final say, would establish a consistent framework or template upon which the city would be built, and not that developers would create piecemeal, disconnected parts that have little relation to each other.

Ever since, planners around the country -- myself included -- have deluded themselves in the development review process, evaluating subdivisions with only passing thought to their connectivity and impact, especially if the proposed development enjoys strong political support or seeks to attract a favored demographic to your town.

Once upon a time, city planners established the framework for the private market to flourish.  Today, the private market sets the tone, and we try to backhandedly set the framework.

No wonder our profession struggles with an identity crisis.

Saunders' post reminded me of two other efforts of Paul Knight, from the Great American Grid. Paul also has a site on Master Street Plans, and their role in American city planning. Here's a sample:

The goal of this website is to discuss these questions about master street plans and to refocus the issues of urbanism away from land use and toward land subdivision. Land uses change constantly, but the physical/legal subdivision of land becomes the permanent, physical basis of our towns and cities. Right-of-way lines stay with us for a long, long time; it is critical that these lines are set in such a way that it allows a walkable and vibrant urbanism to materialize. That’s where the master street plan comes in.

Parallel to the discussion on the Chicago competition was this competition that Paul organized at CNU 21 in Salt Lake City:

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Coinciding with CNU 21, Salt Lake City Interrotta was an ideas competition organized right here at The Great American Grid. The competition charged participants to design an entire 660′x660′ (10 acre) block. Twenty-eight submissions were received from both students and professionals. While most of the entries were developed in America, two of them came from Italy and one from Australia.

Both competitions show the wealth of ideas in subdividing the typical American grid, and both also point to contemporary issues in planning and urbanism. Now just imagine those being left to the typical suburban development market and you can begin to understand why our cities look the way that they do.

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