The modern paradigm of planning emphasizes, even mandates predictability. Ironic, given the increasing complexity of our undertakings as planners and urban designers. Most of us in the field today are working on multi faceted, complex, public-private joint ventures. And planners are increasingly looked towards as non-biased captains to guide these titanics through the stormy seas of community consensus, approval, financing and implementation.
It is no wonder then, that we amass a team of consultants for each project, who through their "highly specialized" skills can make projections and predict future outcomes based on planning assumptions. Market studies, trip generation projections, environmental impact statements, demographic assessments, all have become a part and parcel of most planning projects today. Add to these the current euphoria towards getting communities ready for the impending onslaught of Baby Boomers and Milleneals, and what we have is an extremely complex path to realization that makes many projects (including good ones) falter and fail along the way. Even when we do succeed and implement, the ground realities upon completion are markedly different from our operating assumptions. Just ask any developer who lived to tell the tale of the Great Recession.
We know that this uncertainty is here to stay. In fact, it is only going to get more frequent and severe. Climate change, political unrest and economic turbulence are all becoming the norm. So why have a system that falsely relies on outcomes that are impossible to predict? Why not create frameworks that deliver more adaptability instead? Let us stop trying to convince each other that we can predict the future and expend our resources in figuring out the best ways to adapt to a changing world.
Such radical rethinking of our systems requires a leap of faith, followed by constant tinkering and tweaking. But there are a few simple guidelines we can start with and improvise:
1. Identify the potential game changers early in the process. (Climate change, financial insecurities, market predictability, food insecurity, cultural shifts, to name a few. )
2. Keep the scale of investments as small as possible.
3. Do not reward bigness.
4. Expedite decision making. (Goes hand in hand with smaller projects).
5. Require multiplicity of use and embedded redundancy in all systems.
The pace of change in our built and natural environment is faster today than ever before. But communities should not have to drastically re-organize themselves after every disruption. We as planners and designers should foster adaptability in our communities that enables them to withstand, and even prosper with changing circumstances. This is the biggest challenge of our time and the greatest opportunity of our generation.