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Shovel Ready: Razing Hopes, History, and a Sense of Place:
Chapter 5: Assumptions, Directions, and Visions

Go back to: Shovel Ready Home | Urban Renewal and Yesterday's "Town of Tomorrow" | ahead to: Rethinking the 22 Block Urban Renewal Project

[This information is from pp. 63-71 of Shovel Ready: Razing Hopes, History, and a Sense of Place: Rethinking Schenectady's Downtown Strategies, a master's thesis in city planning by Christopher Patrick Spencer (MIT, 2001), and is reproduced with his permission. It is in the Schenectady Collection of the Schenectady County Public Library at Schdy R 711 Spe.]

Planning theory is what planners need when they get stuck: another way to formulate a problem, a way to anticipate outcomes, a source of reminders about what is important, a way of paying attention that provides direction, strategy, and coherence. (1)

John Forester, Planning in the Face of Power

Urban redevelopment or renewal was well underway in Schenectady by the time Title I of the Federal Housing Act of 1949 [free PDF viewer required] made it an official program and continued through the program's abandonment in 1974. During the formative years of the program, planning was considered by many to be an almost scientific process. Planners were the experts, it was thought, and would understand the needs and aspirations of the community better than the community itself knew them. Planners would be able to apply rational thinking and a straight forward problem-solving processes to fix the problems that the community was facing. This "rational-comprehensive position," as John Forester explains is not part of the real or messy world but an abstraction. Further, it assumes that the decision-makers have:

In taking this abstraction further, it might be argued that a simple planning problem could be attacked using a basic problem-solving method of goals, objectives, and strategies. This process would begin with either a goal in mind or a problem that needs to be addressed. The problem could be thought of as where we are, and the goal as where we want to be. To reach the goal, may entail meeting a number of objectives or interim goals first. In order to accomplish these objectives, a plan of action or strategies must be developed for each. Using Schenectady's 22 Block urban renewal project as an example, the problem might have been thought to be: property values in the downtown area were too low, and therefore the tax revenue collected was too low. In correcting this problem, the city might have seen their goal as collecting more tax revenue in the downtown area. In order to do this the city may have determined that one objective that would have to be met to reach this goal would be a to create a higher land value in the lowest assessed areas near the downtown. And finally, the strategy they may have settled on to reach this objective might have been to purchase or use the powers of eminent domain to acquire all the properties in that area, clear the land, and resell it to a private developer.

Fig 5.01 [enlarge]

Abstract straight line problem solving process where P=Problem; O=Objective; G=Goal; B=Improvement; and T=Time. The dashed line represents strategies and the overall path.

If we simplify and abstract this process even more and begin to imagine it as a linear time series, we can represent it graphically as a straight line, or vector, with one endpoint being the problem, and the other being the goal. Points along the line would represent the objectives and the segments in between them would represent the strategies needed to reach each objective. The overall line would represent the intended path or desired trajectory. The horizontal distance between the problem and the goal would represent the time span from inception to completion. The vertical distance between these two would represent the improvement from problem to solution. The slope of the line would represent the degree of difficulty in reaching the goal.

At this point, using this problem-solving method the problems of a city seem simple and straightforward, and the solutions well within reach. But continuing with this abstraction it might be said that any point below the desired goal would represent an unintended outcome. Any point below the problem or starting point would represent the incorrect identification of the problem. There may also, however, be multiple problems, objectives, and strategies that would follow slightly different paths, but all directed towards the goal. These would be represented by a number of lines converging to one point. Likewise, there may be multiple goals coming out of multiple problems, in which case a number of lines would be crossing paths, running parallel, converging, or separating.

Objectives that are outside of the desired trajectory or any of the intended paths would represent ones that do not contribute to the overall goal. Each one of these points along the path and the path itself (from identifying the problem to setting the goal) would involve a number of decisions or assumptions. The more accurate the assumption or the more complete the information they are based on, the more predictable the outcome would be. Faulty assumptions would lead to missed objectives and unmet goals.

In the 22 Block redevelopment area for example, the city assumed that by tearing down the existing area, and creating a "shovel ready" site, developers would line up to redevelop the area. That assumption turned out to be faulty and the project took much longer than expected. From a planning perspective, this means that where time and money allow, each assumption should be based on full information or careful study, such as market analysis, preference surveys, demographic studies, or whatever other means of analysis will ensure that the assumptions are as close to certain as possible.

Fig 5.02 [enlarge]

A more complicated process affected by externalities causing an increase in time, worsening problem, and an end solution that cannot be expected to address the new problem.

Any project or planning process is also likely to be affected by a number of forces that act on it from the outside with the potential to delay or prevent it from reaching the stated goals. These externalities may include such things as changes in the economy, changes in retail habits or preferences, shifts in family demographics, or cutbacks in federal funding. Long delays in any project caused by any number of things can set off a long chain reaction making externalities more likely to affect the outcome. In Schenectady's urban renewal project, faulty assumptions caused an increase in the time span from project inception to completion and left it more vulnerable to externalities. During that time span, the economy had worsened, more people had moved to the suburbs, and additional shopping malls had been built and were capturing an even larger share of the retail market. Therefore, even if the initial proposed project had been correctly suited to deal with the initial problem, the project as designed would either be less effective, or would need to have been augmented to meet the rising intensity of the problem. The more a project is prepared to deal with the externalities and changing circumstance or the more adaptable it is to unforeseen circumstances, the more likely is its success. There are, of course, any number of unforeseen circumstances that can arise during the duration of project that cannot be planned for or predicted. In the majority of cases, however, where a project is considered to have failed due to "unforeseen circumstance" it is more likely caused by the lack of exhaustiveness in accounting for externalities or making assumptions.

But in reality, using straight lines to represent the planning process is often difficult and sometimes impossible. In many cases the process would more likely resemble the messiness of a number of highway interchanges, traffic circles, dead ends or other paths with no clearly defined direction, starting point, or termination. It would also likely have to be drawn on an x-y-z coordinate system to represent the third dimension of the many possible unforeseen circumstances and externalities. As John Forester points out, the real conditions under which planners operate are more likely to include:

But to a larger degree, even when the problems are correctly defined — objectives and strategies developed, and goals met — the outcome can be something that is, in effect, worse than the problem or just not desired. This may occur because of a lack of vision, or lack of understanding about where the community wants to go. If for instance, a city decided automobile congestion along its Main Street was the problem, and the goal was to allow it to move more efficiently, by eliminating parking, narrowing sidewalks, and getting rid of crosswalks, they could meet their goal. But in effect they would have destroyed many opportunities for human contact. The goal, although met, would not be desirous. But if, however, part of their larger vision was to create a lively and convenient downtown that encourages human interaction, it would be clear that creating a highway though their downtown would not add to the environment they are trying to create.

Fig 5.03 [enlarge]

Citizen's Bank Plaza which celebrates its location at the confluence of two rivers and the importance of that site.

Fig 5.04 [enlarge]

Night view of the recently rediscovered Providence River.

When Providence, Rhode Island began its revitalization, it not only had a number of goals and objectives it wanted to achieve, but it also had a vision in mind, a story it wanted to tell, and an image it wanted to project. Its story and founding had been one of water, both a freshwater spring and its location along major riverways. As the settlement began to grow, its reliance on the water intensified. Water became the lifeblood of the shipping and later manufacturing industries. But as the waters' importance to the city grew, the city's respect for it diminished. By the 1980s, traffic improvements had widened the roads and bridges to the point that there was almost no sign of the Providence River. The River, and its importance to the city was a story that many felt was worth telling. Plans were drawn up to uncover the river and local artists began to illustrate tiles and create other exhibits that would line the new bridges and walkways and help tell the story. Development was directed where it would have the greatest impact and help reinforce and respect the rivers' edges. At the confluence of the Woonasquatucket and Moshassuck Rivers, the site where Roger Williams landed in Rhode Island in 1636 and settled Providence, a financial center with ground floor restaurants and plazas was designed and erected to mark and celebrate the coming together of those two rivers and the beginnings of a city.

Fire had also been an important part of Providence's story. A number of homes had been burned during King Phillip's War in 1775 and more buildings lost during a great conflagration in 1801. These events shaped the city and altered its development pattern. The understanding of these stories also adds to the richness of one of the city's newest and most famous ephemeral events, Waterfire. During this nighttime event, fires are lit along the river while music is piped under the bridges and played along the river's edge. Thousands of people line the river, eat in the nearby restaurants, view the art that has become part of the river and adjacent streetscape, and in essence, become part of the story of the renaissance of the city.

Providence's rebirth could not have happened without a vision or a story to tell. Everything they did reinforced or added to the story. But if instead, they only had a goal of revitalization along with strategies and objectives to meet those goals, the opportunities that they discovered and uncovered might have largely been missed. There would have been nothing to direct development along the river. Buildings might have been built along the covered river with no orientation of respect for it and in such a way as to prohibit future reclamation of that great resource. A number of projects might have been considered a success if they helped in any way to revitalize the city, but without the vision, Providence might only be the story of a city that was revitalized, or rebuilt, but not one that was reborn. The river might have gone unnoticed and unappreciated. People today would not be going there to discover it and take part in its story. The story of the past might have been lost, and the present and future story of the city would read much different.

When entire areas or neighborhoods are removed and redeveloped all at once, such as in the 22 Block area, their stories, however interesting they might have been, are largely lost. The new story of the area has no link with the past, and therefore provides no continuum from the past to the future. The story of the process, however interesting and filled with drama, conspiracy, or tragedy, is for the most part irrelevant. What matters to most people is the outcome, what is left in the wake of the process. Good planning entails improving the social and physical aspects of the community. It should assist in managing change for the better, not prohibiting it or insisting on change for its own sake. When the goals are met, but the outcomes are not generally desirable, it can often be traced back to a lack of vision.

In addition to the lack of vision that plagues many communities as well as the projects or initiatives that they embark upon, there are a number of other mistakes that are often made. The following is a brief list of some of the common pitfalls that projects often fall into:

  1. Inappropriate Transfer: Many projects are tied to a particular region or a climate. When they are transplanted to other areas that are quite dissimilar, they often fail. The pedestrian promenades and sunny boardwalks that are prevalent in more temperate climates often failed when tried in the northeast, because of harsh environment most of the year.
  2. Geographic Fit is an element that is often lacking when small or mid-sized cities plan projects as if they are in the center of a much bigger metropolitan region. Projects that would typically draw from a small radius in a highly populated region, end up having to draw from a radius that is much larger and often not feasible in the less dense markets.
  3. Project Inertia involves the forces that allow project proposals that are no longer viable to continue. These are often projects where either the conditions that originally made them viable have changed or the projects themselves have changed. Constrained by tightening budgets and other changing circumstances, projects are downsized to the point that they are really no longer feasible and should be scrapped. But when these projects involve powerful backers and those who have staked their reputation on the their completion, they become unstoppable
  4. Unrealistic Expectations can endanger projects that are dependent on a long list of improbable factors falling into place in order to make them a success. If any of the variables fail to fall into place, these types of projects often fail. Usually those pushing these types of projects are not the financial backers.
  5. Government Money can often do more harm than good. Goals that were reflective of the community's wishes are altered to fit the needs of grants or program applications. The added money often changes the scope of the original project so that it no longer serves the community. The strings attached to the "free" state and federal money often prove to be costly and too restrictive.
  6. Corporate Entitlements are often doled out by the cities that can least afford to do so. Invariably, these cities outspend their budgets trying to put together tax incentives and other benefit packages to lure big businesses into their community. In addition, they often agree to make costly infrastructure investments to serve these new businesses. When these subsides run their course, these businesses often leave for the next community that will agree to subsidize their expansion or relocation.
  7. Images of Grandeur: While it is important for cities to strive for greatness, too many smaller cities try to become something that their size and location make improbable. Instead of striving to reinforce those qualities that are attainable and make them more livable, some communities endeavor to become something much more than they ever could and end up achieving something much less than they should.
  8. "Progress" at any Cost: Cities and mayors in particular feel that if they are not building then the city is dying. Many backwards and irreversible steps are made in the name of progress. Anyone who opposes such projects is considered to be living in the past or against progress. In the meantime, progress toward meaningful community goals is stifled.
  9. Unfulfilled Goals or a lingering project memory often puts old proposals back on the table. These are typically plans that have remained in the collective memory of the community. Sometimes they are seen as unfulfilled goals and end up as priority projects despite the fact that many have forgotten why they were so important in the first place. When these projects are finally built, they may be based on the needs of years past rather than today.
  10. Personalities and Alliances: Many bad proposals and projects get built while many good ones go unrealized because decisions are based not on the soundness of the idea but by the people involved. Those that are part of this process, soon lose sight of community goals and are unable to evaluate any proposal objectively.
  11. Missed Opportunities & Unrealized Assets: This is usually related to projects that don't happen or to the siting of ones that do. Often cities miss opportunities to get more of an impact from a project because it is located away from areas where it could add and gain benefit from the uses around it. In addition, many projects fail to take into account the many local assets that are right before them, and spend millions of dollars to attract businesses or uses that are no different than those already in the community.

By considering the projects and initiatives of the past, we can begin to understand where things have gone wrong and explore ways to avoid costly mistakes in the future. For cities, each project and proposal is filled with numerous assumptions that must be made. Faulty assumptions or unrealistic goals will only continue to ensure that projects or initiatives do not meet their goals. But when these goals are not based on a vision, they cannot help a community to move forward in a meaningful way that enables them to capture and benefit from the stories that are all around them — just waiting to be told and added to.

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