Would a $2 Trillion Infrastructure Spending Surge Promote Good Planning?


Shortly before coming to work for Strong Towns, I completed a master's degree in Urban and Regional Planning. I chose planning as a profession because I care deeply about places—our human habitat—but also because I liked the high expectations the field seemed to set for itself. Planning's roots, in many ways, are not in government but in the kind of grassroots advocacy work that I do now. In our course on the history of planning, we talked a lot about complex systems and unintended consequences. We read Rittel and Webber's famous paper on how planning problems are "Wicked Problems"—the kind where just when you think you've so much as defined the problem you're trying to solve, the terrain shifts under your feet.

I liked our extensive discussions on the public interest that arrived at no conclusion—the near impossibility of defining what "good planning" is, and a willingness to attempt to do it anyway. I liked that the single figure most often revered by people who call themselves planners is Jane Jacobs, who was not only not a planner but a strident critic of institutional urban planning.

Of course, we do have institutions, plenty of them, and we have a professional organization, the American Planning Association. I've mostly appreciated the APA, both as a planning student and as an advocate who is a planner by training. At its best, the APA, through its conferences, publications, and network, elevates the work the profession does within our existing institutions by being a fantastic clearinghouse of good practices and good advice. The APA is a major reason that planners in very different communities facing similar problems are able to learn from each other.

So I'm dismayed to see, during the propaganda-fest that is this week's federal #InfrastructureWeek, that the APA has pretty uncritically adopted the line of Infrastructure Cult advocacy groups that we need a $2 trillion federal funding package from Congress and the President—more money for more everything so we can "build for tomorrow," whatever that means.

We think this flood of money, without first reforming the priorities of the agencies that spend it, would be deeply destructive. An increasing number of organizations agree with us, including Transportation for America, which released its Repair Priorities 2019 report this week with bold statements that appear straight out of the Strong Towns playbook: roads are liabilities, not assets, and it's irresponsible to expand a system we already can't afford to maintain.

Sure, the engineering and road-construction lobbying organizations like ASCE are unlikely to ever come around on this—their bread and butter is more money for more projects for more engineers.

But why APA? Is it obvious that more money for more infrastructure is in the interest of planners or the planning profession? I don't think so. It's dismaying that the organization representing a profession that holds itself to high standards of critical thinking still takes such a reflexive and poorly examined public stance on this issue.

What is "Well-Planned Infrastructure" Anyway?

I looked around my neighborhood for an example of this elusive “unplanned infrastructure,” and this is all I found.

The APA's infrastructure platform contains the following head-scratching paragraph (bold emphasis mine):

We strongly believe that well-planned infrastructure projects strengthen communities, boost the economy, and expand opportunity. They also promote a return on the public investment, in contrast with unplanned infrastructure that can waste public funds, damage communities and the environment, and otherwise lead to inefficient growth.

As a Strong Towns advocate, I am all about the part that says "return on the public investment." The problem is, the association they assert between this return and the magic of "planning" isn't remotely true, and it actually makes them sound ridiculous. What is "unplanned infrastructure"? A desire path? I would venture that all public infrastructure built in 2019 undergoes extensive planning. 

To give the benefit of the doubt, my guess is by "unplanned" they mean large-scale public infrastructure that is planned without considering the cascading implications for land use, economies, etc. They suggest that here:

At the same time, we know that a poorly designed infrastructure program can inhibit the shared prosperity, economic growth, and community development that we all seek. In this area of policy, details matter as much as funding.

....

Federal policy should consider the importance of location, help communities fully leverage investments, and connect infrastructure to related issues like housing and economic development.

Can't argue with that. Who would ever argue for "bad planning" or "no planning"? APA, meet straw man. The problem is that simply having the resources to do more planning doesn't mean we'll do a better job of considering those cascading effects of the wicked problem that is creating a good regional transportation network. (Or that such a thing—anticipating all the cascading effects of a new bridge or freeway or rail line—is even within our grasp. Anyone who's studied complex adaptive systems knows there's reason to doubt that it is.)

At our worst, as a profession, we planners tend to descend into the fetishization of process for the sake of process—and this is a tendency the APA seems too often to embrace wholeheartedly. If it goes through years of studies, interlocal agreements, associated comprehensive plan updates, tens of thousands of documented public comments .... it must be a good project.

Exhibit A as counterexample: the Durham-Orange light rail line, a meandering route through areas with very little transit-compatible land use, at a cost of nearly $3 billion, now on life support (if not dead) because Duke University wouldn't play ball. After 20 years of not only planning this project but aligning all sorts of other plans, for housing and zoning and the like, to accommodate it. Twenty. Years. It's the Chinese Democracy of planning.

Curbed had a great piece last week about the utter waste of resources that Los Angeles's 405 expansion has proved to be. You can bet that was a throughly, exhaustively planned project involving every affected local government and agency. 

We do dumb things when we contort our local priorities to meet the specifications of federal grant programs instead of rooting them in pressing local needs.

Say it with me: More planning does not mean better planning. And this is where the APA's dual imperatives clash: to support planners (help them get well-paying jobs that put them in positions of influence) and to support planning (help our communities be more prosperous, resilient, and deliver a broadly shared high quality of life to their inhabitants).

A big pot of federal money for infrastructure might be a nice employment program for planners, but it is absolutely destructive of good planning. We do dumb things when we contort our local priorities to meet the specifications of federal grant programs instead of rooting them in pressing local needs. We've documented this on Strong Towns again and again and again.

Some of the best planning occurs in locations where there is a profound scarcity of top-down money. Scarcity forces us to be resourceful, and most important, it forces us to build things that will deliver a real, undeniable return on investment. When we can spend someone else's money, we no longer have that imperative.

Sure, a lot of good local planning also occurs with the help of federal money, especially grant programs that allow local authorities to decide how the money is used. APA never met a program like this it didn't like: 

Specifically, APA has called on THUD appropriators to provide at least $3.8 billion for CDBG, $1.5 billion for HOME, $150 million for Choice Neighborhoods, $1 billion for BUILD, and $3 billion for transit capital investment grants.

The double-edged sword of these acronym-laden programs, like BUILD (formerly TIGER), is that—especially when they come with detailed stipulations for what kinds of projects get the money–we start optimizing for the outcomes and features that the program nudges us to measure and prioritize, instead of stepping back and being holistic about what we want to do and why. Pretty soon we’re doing things that look like “good planning” from a very narrow, process standpoint, but are insane from an outcomes standpoint. (I’m not against all federal money here. Pure block grant programs—CDBG is one of the good ones—are better because the can be used in a huge range of ways that are applicable to almost any community; they don't push us to distort our priorities as much.)

This is where the APA’s dual imperatives clash: to support planners (help them get well-paying jobs that put them in positions of influence) and to support planning (help our communities be more prosperous, resilient, and deliver a high quality of life to their inhabitants).

I believe that "good" planning in a world of complex adaptive systems means something far messier, something for which a surge of federal money would be counterproductive.

I don't agree with my hardcore libertarian friends that cities would be better off without planners in their employ, or without zoning codes or traffic studies or environmental impact assessments. I think cities need planners, but they need the kind of planners who are students of complexity, who have a deep reverence for what they don't know—and those planners need to be tasked with cautious tinkering and prototyping based on community feedback and the results of incremental experiments.

The APA gets some of this—the need for bottom-up solutions that arise from real needs:

The vision and values of local residents are best represented and advanced by shifting decision making to local communities and empowering local and regional planning for guiding investments and engaging citizens.

There’s some other good stuff in the platform, like a recognition that autonomous vehicles will change cities in unpredictable ways. APA is also on board with the rejection of automobile-centric transportation planning that obsesses over mobility—how fast our cars can go. I'm really glad to see this recognition becoming mainstream in the profession.

But just when I'm nodding along with the APA statement, it devolves back into a vague, anodyne call for good planning again:

A new infrastructure package should include and expand opportunities for private investment that benefits communities and regions economically, but it must genuinely advance the right projects and the public interest.

It's abundantly clear that an infrastructure spending surge from this federal government at this point in our history will not "advance the right projects and the public interest." Federal infrastructure money hasn’t done so, for decades now. Fool me twice...

The APA, the appointed representative of a profession that has a pretty good claim (as professions go) to the job of understanding complexity and the dangers of unintended consequences, ought to know better.

(Cover photo via Flickr)