Process isn’t the goal, getting to the best answer is the goal and only a fool believes that just because a particular process has led to a favorable outcome in one circumstance that means that the same process will lead to a favorable outcome in all circumstances. Woodrow Wilson lied when he claimed that he wanted to keep the U.S. out of a European war in order to get re-elected…and then proceeded to involve the U.S. in that war in ways which, arguably, led FDR to have to lie about wanting to keep the U.S. out of yet another European War so that he could be re-elected. Wilson’s lies were bad because WWI was idiotic and American involvement made the Versailles Treaty more onerous for Germany…which led to Hitler. Thank goodness FDR lied and maneuvered us into that war because one could imagine a victorious Germany under the Nazis without our involvement.
On the axes which have been labeled “chaotic-orderly” and “smart-dumb” the only area which interests me is the “smart” one whether achieved through processes that are orderly or those which are chaotic. Andres Duany makes the claim in numerous lectures that planners in mid century America were able to wield so much power in the process of city building because in earlier times their expertise had transformed the city for good. The problem with mid century american urban planning was that the planners were wrong, not that it was orderly.
Today, in my community, if you were to ask what the primary problem was with the downtown almost everyone would say a lack of parking. Business leaders say it, political leaders say it, employees in state office buildings say it, and visitors say it. City planners are among the few who know that it is an erroneous belief; it’s “dumb”. A private developer in Springfield wants to tear down a building at the corner of State and Main streets to provide more parking for an “urban boutique hotel”. The change would be “incremental”. The alteration to the environment would be at the scale of “the building lot”. It is also so amaaaaaaaazingly stupid that one wonders how a person could hold the thought in their mind that visitors to an “urban boutique hotel want to perambulate along the periphery of a surface parking lot” and at the same time stand upright and hold simple tools with an opposable thumb! It is the big, bad, city planner and the top down bureaucracy of the economic development office which keeps it from happening: orderly and smart.
MGM is building an enormous…not incremental…development in the downtown. The political process to locate it here was chaotic; multiple votes in the legislature to pass the law facilitating casino gambling in the state (to which I was opposed); opportunities for communities to opt in or out; multiple referenda at city and state levels; and approvals from various boards and commissions. The actual design of the project on the other hand has been top-down, orderly, and somewhat heavy handed. Thank god!
The result has been smart: a walkable, mixed use, low rise, casino resort in the middle of a neighborhood devastated by a tornado. The development connects outwardly to the pre-existing entertainment venues in the city instead of building new, expensive, self-enclosed ones. It includes market rate residential development and it includes middle brow entertainment opportunities missing in the downtown for decades such as bowling, ice skating, and movie theaters.
Further down the block from the new MGM casino I can point to a half a dozen small, building lot sized, incremental developments (a bank, a Dunkin’ Donuts, a fast food outlet, a car wash) which were allowed to be built as auto oriented places with crappy materials, inappropriate set-backs, and lagoon parking. Chaotic. Dumb.
Chaotic doesn’t lead inevitably to smart, and orderly doesn’t lead inevitably to dumb. I’ll take smart…orderly and smart, chaotic and smart, neutral and smart. Smart. And yes, I do know which decision is smart. Robert Moses was wrong and Jane Jacobs was right. And if Jane Jacobs had been the big, bad, bureaucrat demanding eyes on the street and multi use neighborhoods and Robert Moses had been the gritty community activist working for automobile access for cities…she still would have been right and he still would have been wrong.