I have three of the city’s old master plans that I keep by my bed. The oldest, “(It’s) TIME (for Springfield)” was the equivalent of a Chick tract, The Watchtower, or The Book of Mormon in terms of my conversion to urbanism. Sadly, they contain about as much reality as the aforementioned. Like faith, it did generate excitement and hope. I think I have a predisposition to see the usefulness in the cast aside, or perhaps it has something to do with just a general contrarianism, so I would always prefer refinishing an old piece of furniture to buying a new one, or reading a used copy of a classic novel to acquiring a freshly printed one.
Be that as it may, the master plans were an intentionally popularized form of urban planning and gave me a soft introduction to the vocabulary and grammar of the cityscape which James Howard Kunstler, William Whyte, and Jane Jacobs would later use to further educate me. In my youthful innocence these plans represented the reality of what would inevitably become. It is clear to me now what truly happens. One community somewhere develops a master plan, or better said has it developed for them. The plan contains generally good ideas, some popular wisdom, and some concepts vetted by actual experience along with some bad ideas. The publication of the master plan coincides with a regional boom of some sort in no way connected to the plan. Because nothing succeeds like success, cause and effect are inverted and the concepts contained within this master plan become dogma. They are followed rigidly by struggling community after struggling community until they fail repeatedly. That plan is cast aside for the new cure-all which comes from a town which, not coincidentally, just experienced a tech boom, a resource boom, or some other in-no-way-connected boom.
Again, most of the ideas are probably good. I’m sure very few concepts like “kill all of your children and criminalize vegetables” get through the process, but belief in the undeniable and universal ability of convention centers, “meds, beds, and eds”, and pedestrian malls to resurrect your town becomes widespread, and is then rejected.
Even good ideas can’t save every place. Should we believe that not one civic leader, not one master planner, not one urbanist in Bridgeport, New Haven, Hartford, Springfield, Albany, Worcester, Schenectady, Rochester, or Akron has ever had a good idea and that no one in Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Denver, Salt Lake City, Phoenix, or Las Vegas has ever had a bad one? Some places have thrived and others have suffered for reasons which go well beyond any “great man” (or great woman) and his (her) ability to bend reality to his (her) will.
Design matters, but is not decisive. The plan you have on the table, and the zeitgeist, just might determine the form your city takes if it coincides with a moment of unexpected growth. Springfield had its greatest moment from the middle of the 19th century to the middle of the 20th. We have a rump of the best building types America has ever produced from stately brick office buildings and French Second Empire townhouses, to monumental City Beautiful structures and Victorian garden districts. But not because we “deserve them”. We had the good fortune to grow while these things were in vogue. Phoenix has done its thing Postwar and has steel, glass, and soon to be delaminating veneers of vinyl and pseudo stucco roasting in fields of asphalt pavement. Even Portland, Oregon with its urban growth boundary has only pushed the stroading miles of parking lagoons (2:30-5:00) out a little further from its core. But its plan eventually DID make a difference within the core. It has done a better job of growing as a Postwar city than Seattle or Atlanta.
Therein lies the core of the argument. Better design gives you better design and nothing else. But while it is no guarantor of economic success or social relevance, it means that your city, rich or poor, will be a better place to be rich or poor. My home has a Walkscore of 91. It doesn’t change the fact that knuckleheads shoot one another around here. It doesn’t make the prostitutes more attractive. It doesn’t mean that 90% of the kids at my daughter’s elementary school aren’t receiving free or reduced price lunches. It means that it is a better place to be despite those things. If there is one thing I have seen in thirty years of city living, it is that doing the right thing is not a guarantee of success unless you define what is right by what succeeds. The most beautiful public space in the region is mostly unused and its periphery is mostly vacant. Meanwhile, I could name any one of a thousand horrid strip malls which are filled to capacity with businesses and frequented by seemingly limitless numbers of customers.
The master plan then should be a guide to building the place in which you want to live, not the bait which will magically lure vitality. Phoenix and Portland both prospered. One is just a nicer place to be. Troy, New York, and Waterbury, Connecticut are similarly struggling formerly industrial cities in the northeast, but one has done this to itself:
And the other still has this:
A master plan can act as a magic feather and give the sort of confidence which could have a marginal impact on the direction in which a community goes, and my conversion alone says something positive about the idea of putting the fantasy future out there to encourage people to dream, and to trap a few true believers.
It is not “if you build it, they will come”, it is instead, come, only if you build…this: