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Chavan, Abhijeet, Christian Peralta and Christopher Steins, eds.: Planetizen Contemporary Debates in Urban Planning.

Chavan, Abhijeet, Christian Peralta and Christopher Steins, eds.

Planetizen Contemporary Debates in Urban Planning.

Washington: Island Press, 2007.

183 pp.

ISBN: 1597261335

Planetizen Contemporary Debates in Urban Planning presents sweeping coverage of major planning topics selected from the Planetizen website. As Neal Peirce writes in the forward, the collection tackles the question of whether or not the historic pendulum has swung from suburbanization to compact cities in America. The editors argue that the "scales have tipped," and that an historic movement towards cities is under way. Their book is therefore intended to provide professionals and citizens with a deeper understanding of that historic change. Since part of that change has been the emergence of Planetizen as an electronic forum for the planning community, the book consists of twenty-six 3-4 page commentaries taken from the website, many of them followed by reader responses.

The first set of 7 essays considers "Sprawl vs. Smart Growth." Anthony Flint makes the opening argument for Smart Growth, contending that it will increase affordable housing while reducing infrastructure and commuting costs. This view is opposed by a set of interesting arguments focusing on the merits of single-family suburban homes. First, Wendell Cox makes a free market argument that suburban housing is good both economically and socially, and is not the source of central city decline. Harriet Tregoning presents her research predicting an oversupply of single-family suburban homes if Smart Growth is successful. Randall O'Toole expands the economic debate by arguing that single-family homes are engines of economic growth, contending that most small start-up businesses are financed by second home mortgages. Joel Kotkin presents a compromise, "New Suburbanism," based largely on the New Town experiments in the 1960s in Columbia, Reston and the Woodlands. Bill Fulton argues that the real force driving sprawl in California has been the post-Proposition 13 competition among local governments for higher tax base developments like auto malls. This section also includes a new view from Michael Woo, both a former Los Angeles City Councilmember and planner, pointing out that the new boom in high-density apartments and condominiums in downtown Los Angeles presents a logical opportunity for Smart Growth. This section has a balanced selection of representative arguments on the topics and presents some interesting new ideas. It uses reader responses and author rebuttals well, framing what turns out to be a surprisingly civil debate.

The "Transportation" section includes a variety of policy proposals and reports on specific projects. It includes articles on pedestrian-friendly community standards, pricing proposals for parking and highways, as well as an article by Kenneth Kruckemeyer proposing the expansion of alternatives to the automobile to include not only bicycles, but also Segways[TM], scooters and skateboards. The section concludes with a report by Michael Mehaffy on the Portland Orenco Station Transit Oriented Development (TOD), providing a progress report on the actual implementation of a TOD within the context of the Oregon regional planning law. This section features a less comprehensive selection of proposals than the first, and while it brings important policy alternatives to the collection, it does not add to the debate that is central to the book's stated purpose.

The reader looking to the section on "Urban Design" for an exciting debate on New Urbanism will be disappointed. Andres Duany's article lists his proposed principles for the renewal of architecture as a profession, without a serious reference to New Urbanism. Christopher DeWolf's argument against New Urbanism is his "Why New Urbanism Fails," although he quickly compromises on it in response to the selected reader comments. The section is completed by an essay on mixed-use and public facilities by Alexander Garvin; Jeff Speck's article listing ten proposed urban design standards based on the Mayor's Institute on City Design; and an article on Urban Parks by Fred Kent. While important articles, they also avoid joining the major debates in urban design.

Sidestepping the debate on New Urbanism, which the editors acknowledge to be "a polarizing force" (p. 74), is a major gap in an otherwise thorough collection. Rather than presenting the actual views of the partisans in that polarized debate, the editors have chosen to summarize the arguments for and against New Urbanism, neotraditionalism and green building in their introduction to this section. This is a departure from the treatment of the other topic areas in the book, which feature essays by the players in those debates.

A section on Disaster Planning includes "Recovering New Orleans" by Thomas Campanella, and the "End of Tall Buildings" by James Howard Kunstler and Nikos Salingaros, predicting changes in high rise planning after 9-11. A summary of the practical issues in post-disaster planning by Robert B. Olshansky puts the more theoretical articles in a practical light. The section is complemented by a short article by Ed Blakely arguing against the further fortification of American cities as a response to 9-11, based on his work on gated communities. This section is an acknowledgement of the importance of 9-11 and New Orleans to urban planning, and also reflects the work that remains to be done in response to terrorism and global warming.

The last section on "Society and Planning" confronts the issues of gentrification and the Libertarian response to planning in a balanced set of lively debates. John Norquist, representing the Congress for New Urbanism, frames the gentrification argument by asserting that "the gentry threat is grossly exaggerated" (p. 147). Charles Shaw responds that not only is gentrification real, but it is based on racism and the intentional creation of "two-class city-states" (p. 153). Balancing that conflict is an article by Constance Beaumont proposing locating schools in walkable neighbourhoods, to stabilize the same neighborhoods that are at the centre of the gentrification debate.

This section concludes with a presentation of the Libertarian critique of planning in the form of a transcript of a Planetizen email debate on the Lone Mountain Compact, which opposed comprehensive or centralized planning as violations of private property rights. The conflict between Libertarians and planners has been heightened by the recent US Supreme Court's Kelo vs. City of New London decision, which upheld the use of eminent domain for private urban redevelopment projects. Samuel Staley's article concludes that the Kelo decision ignores Constitutional civil liberties and gave planners unlimited power. The editors argue that Libertarians, New Urbanist and Smart Growth advocates have become reluctant allies in seeking reduced regulation, although the views of the "reluctant allies" in New Urbanism are not included in this set of essays.

This set of articles does a good job of illustrating why Libertarians believe that the only avenue to protect property rights from planners is direct democracy, such as the many voter initiatives appearing regularly in state elections. Thus, this last section frames the debate over the future of planning, and which direction the "urban pendulum" might swing next.

The volume does not contain references for further research, which limits its usefulness for an advanced course. It is also limited by relying solely on 3-4 page articles designed to fit on a web page, rather than those found in scholarly or professional publications. And its cautious coverage of New Urbanism is a limitation.

However, this is an interesting and thorough collection of essays that would be a good candidate for a reader in an introductory urban planning or urban studies course, as an introduction to basic urban planning issues, and for use as topics for class discussion.

Patrick S. McGovern, Ph.D.

Department of City and Regional Planning

California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo
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Author:McGovern, Patrick S.
Publication:Canadian Journal of Urban Research
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 22, 2008
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