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  • Writer's pictureCasey Anderson

Planning and the Pitfalls of Futurism

"It's tough to make predictions, especially about the future" - Yogi Berra

When I'm asked how we should plan for the impact of self-driving cars, pandemics, or the possibility that robots powered by artificial intelligence will fundamentally alter where and how people work, I point to this passage from the Wedges and Corridors plan adopted in 1964 to govern the development of Montgomery and Prince George's Counties:

“It is too early to predict the role that may be played by helicopters or other means of air transportation within urban areas, but the possibility of a substantial role must be kept in mind . . . . Small airports at the edge of urban corridor cities will play an important role if helicopters or other vertical take-off vehicles come into wide use."

Well, that didn't happen, but there was no harm done, because the Washington region did not build dozens of small airports to accommodate commuting by helicopter. Yet planners keep predicting - despite many of these kinds of misfires - because they think that's their job. After all, if planners can't make reliable forecasts about how change will shape our lives in the future then what is the point of planning?

The authors of the Wedges and Corridors plan were pretty smart, but in retrospect some of their ideas look like something out of Le Corbusier by way of The Jetsons

This entirely reasonable yet wrongheaded question sets planners up to fail. It's not just that predicting economic, social and technological change is difficult - and that bold claims about the direction and implications of these kinds of change are a recipe for looking foolish. The more basic problem is that it misconceives the role and value of planners, who are actually pretty good at making recommendations about how to set a place up for success in the future, not because they have a crystal ball but because they know a lot about what has succeeded - and what has failed - in the past.

Perhaps the best example of the assumption that the mass adoption of a new technology would change the way people live - and that therefore planners should work to accommodate this change at the expense of other considerations - is the influence of the automobile on planning for most of the 20th century. As the cost of manufacturing dropped and incomes rose following World War II, car ownership became economically accessible to more and more Americans, and planners responded by optimizing for the convenience of cars rather than the quality of places.

There's no question that cars are tremendously useful and beneficial machines, but it's equally clear that they are dangerous and destructive. By making automobility the explicit or implicit foundation for so many land use and transportation decisions, planners inadvertently and unnecessarily made the bad parts of ubiquitous car ownership worse - sprawling subdivisions that come with serious economic and environmental costs and where social and physical isolation are the flip side of the space and privacy sought by many residents.

Cul de sacs feeding wide arterial roads with bumper to bumper traffic are a hallmark of many American suburbs, with land use and transportation planning leaving little or no convenient and safe alternative to driving. Photo: Flickr user Pranav Bhatt

Yes, but surely we need to plan for (fill in the blank), right?

None of what I have said so far is to suggest that autonomous vehicles, artificial intelligence, terrorist attacks and countless other events, trends, and developments that may not even be on our collective radar screens will have no influence the way people live and work. As Donald Rumsfeld pointed out, we will face not only known unknowns but unknown unknowns, which by definition elude attempts at forecasting.

"Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth" - Mike Tyson

This does not, however, mean that planning is useless in the face of unpredictability about the future - it simply means that plans must incorporate flexibility and adaptability, with heavy doses of humility about our power to see into the future and realism about our ability to exercise control over the forces responsible for events and trends driving change.

Planning for flexibility and adaptability

One way to operationalize this idea is to plan for a range of scenarios, incorporating flexibility or parameters to guide decisions when new circumstances arise. For example, Montgomery County's new comprehensive plan, Thrive 2050, does not even try to predict future trends in the market for office space, much less attempt to identify specific locations that might be suitable for new office buildings. It notes that life sciences and hospitality are sectors where the county enjoys certain advantages but does not suggest that any particular industry or sector is a “must-have” to boost job growth.

This approach reflects an acceptance of the fact that that planners can neither predict the future nor create jobs simply by zoning for office or specific industries. The reality is that the county, like most jurisdictions, has a significant excess of office space that needs to be occupied, repurposed or redeveloped. Before COVID, Montgomery County had around 1,500 office buildings with 72.5 million leasable square feet of space, of which 12 percent was vacant, reflecting a steady long-term decline in space allocated to each employee by both private sector and government employers, and the pandemic accelerated this trend.

Montgomery County planning policies have been adapting to smaller office footprints since 2014 by using “Commercial Residential” (CR) zoning to provide flexibility for a range of uses to respond to market conditions. The downtowns of Silver Spring and Bethesda; the new life sciences hubs anticipated in the Great Seneca Sciences Corridor and White Oak; and emerging town centers in Germantown and White Flint have zoning capacity as well as physical space for tens of millions of square feet of new office space if needed, but they also can (and should) accommodate residential and retail development.

Scenario planning vs. predicting a single future

"Plans are worthless, but planning is everything" - Dwight Eisenhower

The drafters of the Wedges and Corridors plan were right to consider how new mobility options might influence the way people would live in the future, but by focusing on a single possibility - commuting by helicopter - they not only guessed wrong but missed an opportunity to test their plans against a range of possibilities.

Autonomous vehicles are another example of how planning for multiple scenarios is often a better approach than predicting - or attempting to guarantee - a specific outcome. Elon Musk has been promising to deliver fully-autonomous Teslas every year since 2014, and I have lost count of the number of reports, blog posts, and articles predicting that self-driving cars will revolutionize transportation or even "society at large."

Sooner or later, autonomous vehicle technology will mature, but the implications are uncertain. Maybe self-driving cars will make ultra-long distance commutes more palatable, encouraging workers to live far from their jobs, hollowing out urban areas and drastically increasing vehicle miles traveled. On the other hand, maybe autonomous vehicles will end car ownership as we know it, with self-driving vehicle picking up passengers on demand with pricing based on usage, reducing the need for parking and the demand for driving.

The dream of flying cars never really went away - and it might become a reality - but planners shouldn't spend too much time and energy worrying about it. Image: American Society of Chemical Engineers

These are among the many possible effects of autonomous vehicles, and planners should be thinking about them - but they should hesitate to make sweeping land use or transportation decisions based on assumptions about self-driving cars without building in a healthy amount of flexibility to respond as events play out in the real world.

A focus on what has been proven to work, not what might happen next

An understanding of what makes human settlements (whether they are big cities, rural villages, or anything in between) successful is valuable knowledge. Planners should feel confident making recommendations based on the factors that have proven important in many different times and places - and less confident in assumptions about future trends. Likewise, planning should be less about vision and more about responding to forces that are outside the control of local government but must be channeled or at least managed.

In a future post I will describe what I see as the enduring elements of successful human settlements. For now it's enough to say that unlike forecasts about the course of scientific, economic and social change, planners have a plausible claim to be experts on the subject of what has made cities, towns, and villages work and their authority - as well as usefulness - is at its high point when they lean on this knowledge to make recommendations about strategies for the future prosperity of the communities they serve.

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May 30, 2023

In some cases, for example EV charging stations, society does make a bet on the infrastructure for a new technology before we have a full sense as to how it will play out and the extent of need. Would I be correct to interpret the post to mean that while we'll want to think through some of the planning implications of those bets, (i.e. changing demands on the electrical grid and maybe more public facilities during the transition), that chasing after the second and third order implications are a distraction even when various levels of government are making direct investments?

Casey Anderson
Casey Anderson
Jun 14, 2023
Replying to

Yes, that's part of what I'm saying - and I'm also trying to make a broader point that we should be planning to adapt as opposed to planning with the objective of reaching a specific end point in a specific way.

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