As I start to write today’s blog entry, my mind is a bit of a jumbled mess. I’m a bit of an information junkie. For whatever reason, a reason I haven’t completely figured out myself, I like to expose myself to as much information about what is going on in the world as possible. It’s not that I have some grand plan for how I’m going to use all of it. I am just drawn to find out what is going on in the world. To listen to others and how they are making sense of it all. To ponder what I think of it. Yes, I am Cliff Claven.

Given that our world has become overloaded with information, it is all too easy for me to read one story, link to a related story, which links to another story, which has a sidebar link to a completely different topic, and on and on and on. Well, in the spirit of a Dan Carlin monologue, I’m going to invite you into one of my rabbit trails. Who knows, maybe I’ll find some way to tie it all together into some profound observation at the end of this. Probably not.

My local newspaper had a story recently about how we may lose one of our community’s “public” beaches. I say “public” in quotes because the land is really in private ownership and through an odd series of events over the last 50 years, it has morphed into a beach with lifeguards and bathrooms and a snack bar and has even served as the host location for an annual wakeboarding contest. The story is about how the person who owns the land on which the beach is located is trying to gain control of the land again, which may just mean we’ll lose “our” beach.

This is not the only beach in our community that has just sort of come into being. There is another beach on an insanely narrow piece of land that runs alongside a County highway in between two lakes. It lies adjacent to a state-operated boat launch which I believe was also unplanned until it became so heavily used that the state figured they might as well make it official. All without any of support from “the public” in the sense that our elected officials and professional planners are “the public.” No city planner recognized them as a place of value. No elected official championed their use as a public gathering place. And yet, these two beaches have come to be such an integral part of the community that it is hard to imagine not having them.

Which made me think about Jane Jacobs, the infamous urban planner…who wasn’t really a planner…

Many of our readers are familiar enough with Jacobs to know that one of her principle observations about urban life was that things…just…sort of…seem to….happen. And that’s a good thing, she says.

One commentator put it this way:

It was the very randomness of things that she loved—she took solace from the unpredictability and messiness of the city while [Lewis] Mumford sought only to bring more order to it.”  

Jacobs recognized that when you get a bunch of people into a relatively small geographic area and they start interacting with each other, you start to get all kinds of quirky, unplanned outcomes that end up creating unique and interesting places. You know, the kind of places that so many are trying to create today with planning buzzwords like “planned communities” and “mixed use” and “third places” and “walkable neighborhoods”.

Which led me to read a few different articles about Jane Jacobs, one of which noted that part of Jacobs’ influence on the planning profession, whether she intended this or not, was to help bring about greater and greater levels of public involvement in the development of plans for their communities. The idea is that when you are planning the future of a neighborhood, or a city, or a county – your job as a planner is to go out and involve the public. Ask them what they want. Discuss with them what your experience and expertise  tells you, but ultimately its their community and they should decide.

But is that really what Jacobs was advocating for? She railed against people that had power and expertise as doing more harm than good. The villains at the time were top-down planners, architects, engineers and politicians who essentially imposed their way of thinking on the rest of us. But in our eagerness to involve the public so it can be “their” plan, have we simply shifted to a more subtle, but equally top down approach to planning? Are we still just taking a top-down approach, dressing it up with a little public input, and trying to “create” community? Are we substituting the will of a single planner or politician for the will of a small minority of involved citizens?

Which made me  think of a line from one my favorite folk singers, Greg Brown, who said in an interlude during one of his live recordings something to the effect of “All this stuff about intentional community is a bunch of crap. You’ve got to need each other.”

Which made me think of Big Top Chautauqua, where my wife and I had the pleasure of hearing Greg Brown perform, which made me think of Bayfield, WI – a town that couldn’t possibly have been planned in any contemporary sense of the word, but is one of my favorite places in the world to be.

The question bubbling up out of all this stream of consciousness for me is this: What is the right level of “planning” in a Strong Town? If we want Strong Towns to be great, unique, lively places to live in addition to being financially viable, my sense is that it is a lot less than some of us would tend to think. Much of what passes for community planning these days is really just finding new ways to make things neat. Tidy. Attractive. Efficient. To try and impose our own view (as planners and architects and engineers) or to impose the views of a relatively small group of involved citizens on the rest of the populace.

It’s not that these efforts are mean-spirited or don’t sometimes result in good outcomes. There is much we can do to plan ahead when we are thinking about building stronger communities – especially in terms of laying out infrastructure  and buildings and public spaces. But there is also something to be said for leaving some things up to the messy, the unpredictable and the unplanned. Because these are the things that help to make places that last. Places where people want to be. Truly Strong Towns.