Scientific American announces that city planning is not sufficiently scientifical, and then shows us their pet rock, bell bottoms, and macrame

In my planning theory class, we spend a decent amount of time wondering about how you build knowledge about the future. Science isn’t one of them. It’s not that I don’t think science is important to understanding the future–it’s that planners aren’t scientists and haven’t pretended to be for quite some time.

Like about half a century.

That’s one of the reasons this bit from Scientific American so annoyed me: Urban Legend: Can Urban Planning Shed Its Pseudo-scientific Stigma?

Now, I have had more than one of my op-eds hatcheted by a headline writer, but really? There are so many sloppy/uninformed/ignorant assertions in this article, I can’t even begin to count them. But I’m gonna try because I’m pissed that these people are dumping on my field when they obviously know jack about it.

First, the writer, Sarah Fecht, either doesn’t understand the terms she uses, or is just sloppy: urban design and planning are not the same thing, and yet she wafts back and forth between the terms as though they are the same. They are not. There are theories that bring them together, but they are not interchangeable topics. Why not? Urban design is a subfield of city of planning, but it’s also subfield of archictecture. That means you don’t get to use the part to explain the whole .

Second, Fecht goes on to show us that real-deal scientists, like a physicist, are doing the job explaining those urban-y things that urban design/urban planning/urban-y urbanness not-science are not scientifical enough to explain, only the topics have little to nothing to do with urban design:

Geoffrey West, a physicist at the Santa Fe Institute who studies urban growth, agrees. People who study cities “are dealing with maybe one of the most complex systems in the universe,” he says. “The idea that you could reduce it to an equation is extremely hubristic.” Yet he and others are using computer simulations, modeling and mathematics to begin to tease out the simple rules that give rise to urban complexity and diversity. For example, West has devised formulas that use a city’s population to predict the size of the metro police force, the number of people with AIDs and the annual tonnage of carbon dioxide emissions. The predictions are accurate 85 percent of the time.

Oh, I see, you mean a physicist does urban modeling with more than one equation–ha! there’s something social scientists have never thought to do, that more than one equation thing-y. (Only they have done so, for years.)

Except that city planning or urban design have precious little do with the number of people who have AIDs or how much police force a city needs. Subject #1 is generally medical, subject # 2 is generally public management, and a gifted undergraduate show you the relationship between population size, fuel consumption, and carbon dioxide emissions.

But hey, you planners never thought of that (only we’ve done it for years) and it’s 85 percent accurate! NEENER NEENER.

Wait….how accurate does science have to be in order to be science and not pseudo-science? I thought science had to be 100 percent. I guess if a scientist does a-theoretical descriptive calculations to derive obvious predictions, it’s GOOD pseudo-science, and definitely not hubris since he’s allowed for more than one equation?

Then there’s this:

How can these two viewpoints—of science and design—be reconciled? Mehaffy suggests that urban design theory and urban design practice could have a relationship like that of life science research and medicine. A doctor doesn’t spend all of his time in a research lab, but he relies on scientific knowledge to guide his decisions on a case-by-case basis. The art comes in the form of tailoring diagnoses and prescriptions for each individual patient.

What a wonderful analogy! Art and science together! Why, by gum, I really wish we crippled-by-our-not-science-y-selves planners had thought of that!

Only we did. IN FREAKING 1980!!!!

Birch, E. 1980. “Advancing the Art and Science of Planning.” Journal of the American Planning Association. 46 (1): 22-49.

She followed up in 2001 with

Birch, E. 2001. “Practitioners and the Art of Planning.” Journal of Planning Education and Research. 20: 407-422

But, but, but….that planner who observed that 30 years ago couldn’t be right because she wasn’t a scientist! Not only that, but she’s a girl!!!!

I have some theoretical quibbles with Birch’s ideas in these manuscripts, but whatever. The point is that these folks are re-inventing wheels and patting themselves on the back for it, and deciding that urban professionals and scholars who are not-science are just badly trained in science, and that’s the core problem with cities.

Only it’s not the core problem, and they’re too ignorant of urban scholarship to know that. Urban planning, of course, had its love affair with scientific management. Which modernist profession didn’t? Name one.

The core problem in planning concerns decision-making about shared urban geography. Yes, there are urban social scientists of varying quality making arguments that inform those ideas, and designers offering visions, and there are performance evaluations of different plans and policies–but those things are separate fields.

Didn’t any of these scientists read the Foundation series by Isaac Asimov? How about Plato? Anybody read Plato? Because the urban world has never lacked for its philosopher-kings.

How about the title: Might urban planning become a science in the future? That’s a question with legs.

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