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The Globe and Mail

Review: The Trouble with City Planning, by Kristina Ford

A toilet is seen where a house stood before Hurricane Katrina struck.


Nobody loves city planners. They irritate developers because they won't approve ugly, tall buildings; citizens get mad at them when they do. They frustrate the expediency of politicians by referring to the bigger picture, only to incur the disdain of the chatterati because they don't think big enough. Kristina Ford has written an interesting and illuminating book on the realities of city planning, and one that speaks to more than just that profession. In The Trouble with City Planning, she uses the experience of rebuilding New Orleans after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina as a case study on why city planners are in trouble, and what they can do about it.

New Orleans is surely the sweetest, saddest city in the United States. Already in long-term decline after the collapse of its local oil industry, it was dealt a crippling blow by Katrina five years ago. Some 80 per cent of the city was flooded and hundreds of thousands of its citizens forced to leave. Images of residents stranded on roofs or milling in the emergency shelter hellhole the Convention Center became were etched in our collective consciousness. The United States government, under the hapless leadership of President Bush, seemed incapable of any quick, co-ordinated response, nor of understanding the magnitude of the disaster and its associated human suffering; the city government even less so.

Kristina Ford had been the director of planning for New Orleans and her story starts after the headlines faded and the reporters left town. The trouble begins with the process of trying to create and agree on a plan for the city's reconstruction. No fewer than five city plans were prepared in under three years, each a caricature of a particular style or school of planning.

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The first was the "perfect plan," true to the best traditions of the city, with well-designed new parks and boulevards. A new urbanist fantasy, it oddly omitted the provision of anywhere for all those who had fled the city to come home to.

The second, perhaps an inevitable reaction, was the "no plan plan." Just let the market decide and let the hopeless Mayor Ray Nagin do the deals. But nobody wanted to do a deal in a city still under water.

The third was the "just fix the neighbourhoods in need plan," do what has to be done so that people can come back home and don't worry about the big picture. That just wasn't possible.

The fourth plan promised salvation through "starcitecture." Enough said.

The fifth plan, "the leave everything the way it was before Katrina so we can get federal funding" plan, was the one finally adopted.

Ford cleverly uses this tragic, absurd and highly accelerated sequence of plans as a case study of the different philosophies and methods of contemporary city planning. What exactly she sees as "the trouble" is a bit elusive however. Sometimes there is not enough community consultation, sometimes too much. Political direction is essential, but planners need to be insulated from political interference. Planners' professional training is an asset, because it brings objectivity to an urban issue, but it is riddled with un-admitted assumptions. All true, but the great skill of good city planning is to live with all these contradictory notions and still know what to do.

Ford's subsequent prescription for the optimal city planning process is not the best part of an otherwise interesting and engaging book and doesn't translate that well to Canada. City planning is not in the same trouble here for a number of reasons. Nothing is more difficult than planning a declining city like New Orleans or Detroit. Our growing cities benefit from a dynamic which, although often unruly and raw, at least provides a direction that can be steered. And Canadian city government, for all its mind-numbing parochialism, does establish a more sober basis for planning than more politically fractured US cities. By temperament a distressingly modest profession, Canadian planners can nonetheless offer up a city like Vancouver, perhaps the best planned contemporary city in the world, a place worth all those troubles.

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Would we do better here in Canada at coping with a crisis like Katrina? Mercifully, we have not yet been tested, but the US experience in New Orleans, or in New York after 9/11, or after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, should give us no cause for complacency. The ordered prescriptions of city planning were never intended to be put under such stress. Only then do you discover what your city is really made of.

Joe Berridge is a Fellow of the Canadian Institute of Planners and was strategic planning adviser to Manchester after their 1996 bombing.

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