As is our tradition at the end of each year, we are sharing our best content from 2015. This piece, written by contributor, Daniel Herriges is one of my favorites that he wrote this year, and a very popular one. Having recently started a masters in Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Minnesota, Daniel has wrestled with his place in this profession that we, at Strong Towns, sometimes criticize for being too rigid, too bound to rulebooks and historic practices and an "it's always been done this way so why change it" attitude.
In this essay, Daniel frames urban planning students as the "conservation biologists" of the urban ecosystem. He writes:
Our cities aren't healthy. Most of them are far from stable and resilient. And planners need to be, not necessarily the doctors, but definitely the conservation biologists of cities. Our job is to understand many of the facets and interconnections of the urban ecosystem, enough to at the very least have a pretty good idea of what not to do (because it will make things worse).
We're so glad that Daniel is here to share his wisdom and his experiences as a new planning student. This essay eloquently encapsulates the tensions and paradoxes present in this field. -Rachel Quednau
It's a glorious early fall Monday in Minneapolis, the kind of warm, dry, clear day that is the reason people here put up with the weather the rest of the year. I'm on the University of Minnesota campus, beginning my second week of study toward a Master's degree in Urban and Regional Planning. The fact that I grew up right across the Mississippi River in St. Paul has a lot to do with my decision to come back here for graduate school—I have an abiding love for my hometown, my family still lives here, and it's great to be back up north. (Though you should probably ask me again in late November.)
One question that I reflected on in deciding to take this career step for myself, and that was greatly informed by the work I've done with Strong Towns, was, "Why planning?" What am I hoping to do with this degree? What will I do with it that I can't do without it? Is this where I can do the most good?
We're hard on planners here at Strong Towns. One of our favorite themes, which I myself have written about, is the limitations of top-down planning and micromanagement. Cities are complex systems. They are full of informal relationships—spatial, social, economic—that defy easy explanation and that make a mockery of our attempts at prediction. Government intervention in such systems, more often than not, has a track record of being "orderly but dumb." At its worst, it can be horrifically destructive...