In response to a cartoon I posted yesterday on panethos.wordpress.com, (see above) a comment was made that planners are one of the reasons why so many cities look-alike. That was a very thought-provoking and rather disconcerting response.
With reflection, I would have to partially agree with the respondent. In too many instances, we as planners fail to fight the good fight and stand up for sound planning practices. Sure, we can be overruled by boards and commissions, but when one scans multitudes of master plans, long-range plans, comprehensive plans, and zoning codes from across the land, there are numerous similarities. What happened to context? What happened to most appropriate? What happened to all the criteria we should be (and were taught to be) using in our daily responsibilities as planners?
Certainly, some similarities between cities are to be expected. But if Boston looks like Birmingham, if you think you are in Scranton when you are really in Peoria, or if Tucson overly resembles Boise, then that is not a good thing. Variety is the spice of life and our communities should be as diverse, unique, and vibrant as each of us. Otherwise, what’s the point of having individually tailored plans and codes? We might as well have a national set of regulations that are applied uniformly across the nation to every village, town, township, city, or county.
Perhaps this is all simple case of, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” or of, “if the ordinance survived a challenge elsewhere, it should be good to use here.” Needless to say, these are both somewhat lackadaisical approaches, but they could go a long way towards explaining the conundrum of sameness.
As professional planners, it is our job, no, it is our duty, to develop plans and codes that are best suited to the locality. Planners are not supposed to become one-size fits all land-use fashion designers. Some of you may recall the humorous (and perhaps a tad politically incorrect) Wendy’s commercial from the 1980s mocking a Soviet fashion show. In the advertisement, a model wears the exact same outfit for every purpose. Hopefully, as planners we are not mimicking that commercial in the application of our profession. To do so would be a great disservice to ourselves, our communities, and our profession.