Thinking Small and Other Big Planning Thoughts

Aired 7.25.2015 on public radio KBU.FM, and streamed everywhere:

Some thoughts on the current state of planning, bad and good.

First, the bad. Perhaps one of the most oft used clichés of planners, penned by Daniel Burnham, a famed Chicago architect, is “make no little plans, they have no magic to stir men’s blood.”

And the bigger, the better, the flashier the more desirable, for these are the projects that attract the media, especially when served up at well catered press conferences, and dominate the design buzz.

Architecture schools certainly seem to like the showy designs; they bedazzle the star struck students and lend the fawning faculties a false feeling of being au courant, especially if they can cozy up to a celebrity architect.

But frankly, historically, few of these conceits tend to be built, and those that are, these days in Asia and the Mideast, appear corrupted by their coarse commercialism. However, massive and seemingly magnificent, like dinosaurs, I feel; they are doomed to die.

I haven’t been to Dubai yet, but in the studied, slick photos, its overt development looks soulless. And I found projects in an emerging Asia, such as Shanghai’s vaunted Pudong, off putting.

In the west these grand schemes have tended to fall by the wayside, humbled buy hubris and bungling bureaucracies.

Here, these ignominious traits I feel actually serve the public good, and prompts some positive planning news.

I am talking of the increasing interest in human scale design, low tech and low cost solutions: how they serve the every day user, and make cities more livable.

Be they a response to the reduced circumstance of the 21st century, at least for us 99 per centers, or out of the frustration with the current convoluted planning process, community groups appear to be taking more control over their immediate environments.

And so we are seeing parklets popping up on sidewalks, makeshift [plazas carved out of street corners, bike paths elbowing traffic lanes, pedestrians getting the right of ways –generating in once dormant downtowns and elsewhere that long sought sense of place. Hard to define, you know it when you are there.

This desirable urban amenity is explored and encouraged in two books, “How to Study Public Life,” by Jan Gehl and Birgitte Svarre, details the ideas, opportunities, and challenges, of this bottoms up planning effort in which the authors have been very much involved , Gehl in particular, a sort of Johnny Appleseed of the common sense planning school.

“Tactical Urbanism” by Mike Lydon and Anthony Garcia , also reviews the history of the planning effort, and adds a wealth of implementation strategies. Both books are well recommended to one and all challenged by this very street wise, humanistic initiative.

I’m Sam Hall Kaplan, and this is the city observed, on 97.5 KBU and

















Published by


Parallel careers as an urban planner and a journalist, principally at present airing commentaries on pubic radio 99.1 KBU.FM The many arrows in my quiver have included Emmy award winning reporter/ producer for local Fox Television News, design critic for the Los Angeles Times, urban affairs reporter for The New York Times, an editor of The New York Post, contributor to various popular and professional publications, news services and broadcast outlets, including Reuters, NET, NBC, CBS, NPR and the BBC. Founding editor of the East Harlem (NY) Independent. A diversity of professional positions and consultancies in the private and public sectors, (Metro, Disney Imagineering, Howard Hughes, M. Milken, NYC Educational Construction Fund, US Comptroller of the Currency etc,) assorted academic appointments (UCLA, USC, CCNY, Art Center etc.), and always open to new challenge. And let us not forget fashioning sand castles and acting on 90210, crafting TV docs, design reviews, master plans. Books: "The Dream Deferred: People, Politics and Planning in Suburbia," "L.A. Lost and Found," an architectural history of Los Angeles, "L.A. Follies," a collection of essays, and co-author of "The New York City Handbook." Writings have appeared in academic texts, commentaries on the web, scripts for TV, and wherever, latest the Architects Newspaper, The Planning Report and Planetizen.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *