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The American Planning Tradition

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Robert Fishman, ed., _The American Planning Tradition: Culture and
Policy_.Washington, DC: The Woodrow Wilson Center Press 2000
(Distributed by Johns Hopkins University Press). ix + 328pp. Foreword,
maps, photographs, notes, tables, graph, contributors, and index.
ISBN 0-943875-95-1 (hard); 0-943875-96-X (pbk).

Reviewed for H-Urban by Jon A. Peterson, japhistqc@aol.com, Department
of History, Queens College of The City University of New York.

Is There an American Planning Tradition?

_The American Planning Tradition: Culture and Policy_, edited by
historian Robert Fishman and published under the auspices of The
Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, presents eleven
major essays on American planning and its history by an array of
distinguished, senior scholars.  All of the essays are of high
quality, and several offer exceptional insights into particular
topics.  Depending on one's interests, a reader may value this work
either for the cumulative perspectives it develops into American
planning or simply for its rich array of distinctive essays.  This
review will focus on the general thrust of the book, reflecting my own
special interest in the history of "city planning," meaning by that
term the Progressive Era-born conception of urban planning as a
comprehensive undertaking, best implemented by a general or master
plan framed by experts in order to shape the development of a city
and, often, its region.

When read for its perspectives on American planning history, this book
is both significant and problematic.  Significant, because it offers
fresh analysis of many aspects of planning.  Problematic, because it
begs a major question: whether there is, in fact, an American planning
tradition and, if so, how do we characterize it?  While many authors
have discussed planning as an activity in American history, among them
John Reps, Mel Scott, Mary Corbin Sies and Christopher Silver, and Don
Krueckeberg, to name a few, this work suggests that planning be
chiefly understood as a definable body of ideas -- what the book
subtitle calls "culture and policy"-- available to successive
generations as an intellectual resource [1].

According to Michael J. Lacey, who directs the American Program at the
Wilson Center and who has written the Foreword, this publication began
as a "debate between former Center Fellows John L. Thomas and Robert
Fishman over what to make of the deep-seated bias in the history of
America's regional cultures against the rise of the modern metropolis
that grew up to dominate each of them" (p. ix).  As their discourse
brought various themes and topics into view, other scholars were asked
to contribute.  The heroic task of defining the common ground made
apparent by all these exchanges fell to Fishman, who has edited the
work, written the introductory overview (Chp. 1), and furnished one of
the ten substantive chapters.

Fishman opens his introductory essay by claiming that "the American
planning tradition" gave rise to the "older forms of cities," most
especially the center-dominated metropolis built up during the "urban
century" of 1830-1930 and best exemplified by early twentieth-century
New York and Chicago (pp. 1, 6).  This phrasing suggests a unitary
interpretation of American planning, geared to the nation's historical
experience with the rise of great urban centers during the mid- to
late-nineteenth century.  But reflecting his debate with Thomas,
Fishman organizes the first sub-section of the book to highlight "two
traditions": that of regional planning, or regionalism, as interpreted
by Thomas (Chp. 2) versus "the metropolitan tradition" as explained by
Fishman (Chp. 3).  Because Thomas makes the world view of Lewis
Mumford with its deep hostility to the "imperial city" or
"_tyrannopolis_" his basic starting point while Fishman begins, in
effect, with the pro-metropolitan, Progressive Era planning ideas as
expressed most prominently by Daniel H. Burnham through the 1909 Plan
of Chicago and subsequently by Thomas Adams through the 1929/1931
Regional Plan of New York, one wonders at points if we are only
reading a sophisticated update of the famous exchange between Mumford
and Adams that was occasioned by the latter plan.

For example, Fishman, upholds the centralized metropolis as both a
historic and conceptual urban form that confers "a rich legacy of
possibilities for the economic and cultural revitalization of the
inner city, for a balanced transportation system, the limitation of
sprawl and other policies" (p. 23).  Thomas, by contrast, draws on
Mumford, Benton McKaye, Ian McHarg, Anne Whiston Spirn (represented in
this book by an inspirational essay on opportunities for planning with
nature in present-day Boston, Chp. 11), and still others to argue for
"the re-emerging philosophy of the commons -- land set aside for all
the people" (p. 62).  In effect, Fishman makes the vitality of the
early twentieth-century city his starting point, while Thomas begins
with nature or, more accurately, a "middle ground" in which man and
nature co-exist in a balanced setting, best exemplified, in Mumford's
view, by a region-wide mix of town, country, and wilderness found
during the canal era of the 1820-1850 decades.  To Mumford, at least,
this was a "golden age." It was certainly pre-metropolitan.

Without doubt, these two streams of thought about cities and their
settings can be identified and explicated but by doing so, the book
implicitly defines a "planning tradition" less in terms of plan-making
activity, which has been the norm in most analysis of planning
history, than in terms of prescriptive ideals about the form that
human settlement should take.

Much has changed since 1929 when Adams and Mumford squared off,
however.  Neither Mumford's regionalism, which was never implemented,
nor the center-dominated metropolis has fared well, especially since
World War II.  The present-day American cityscape, as Fishman
observes, now reflects the triumph of "the standardized corporate
model" of anti-city, sprawling development (p. 83).  Today's urbanism
is more multinodal than centered.  It is also radically transformative
of old urban cores and radically destructive of "nature" or " middle
ground" or what was once called countryside (nature domesticated by
family-scale farming).  Confronting this reality, both Fishman and
Thomas concede, as anyone must, that neither tradition has exerted
more than fragmentary influence on present-day urban form, although
Fishman upholds present-day Portland, Oregon, as a promising exception
(discussed in an excellent chapter by Carl J. Abbott, Chp. 9).

The further one proceeds into this bipolar discussion, especially into
the contributing essays meant to broaden it, the more one encounters
another, deeper reality about American planning.  Put simply, neither
one nor two but multiple "traditions" have addressed the nation's
urban and environmental past or, if "tradition" is too weighty a
word, then many historically distinguishable forms of planning.  The
contributing essays offer numerous examples, though that is not their
intended purpose.  Specifically, Michael Lacey (Chp. 4) focuses on
"national planning," beginning with the Gallatin Plan of 1808 for
canals and roads and then concluding with the nationwide conservation
initiatives of Theodore Roosevelt.  In effect, he spotlights two
"traditions" or bodies of thought, notably the internal improvements
program as advocated in the early nineteenth century, especially by
Whig politicians; and scientific conservation identified with Gifford

Another contributor, James L. Wescoat, Jr. (Chp. 5), sketches what can
be seen as two more traditions -- first, "watershed" planning, which
involves small-scale, upstream land- and water-management programs
historically geared to soil conservation, pollution control, and
riparian habitat protection, often as overseen by the Soil
Conservation Service; and, second, "river basin" planning, referring
to a long history of large-scale, downstream water development for
purposes of navigation, flood control, dam construction, and the like,
commonly done by the Army Corps of Engineers or the Bureau of
Reclamation.  Westcoat, Jr., contributes a remarkably informative
essay.  But while entitled "'Watersheds' in Regional Planning," it
catalogues and dissects developments that seem only tangentially
related to the socially and ecologically balanced regionalism so
eloquently traced by Thomas.

Political historian Alan Brinkley (Chp. 6), in turn, analyzes the
National Resources Planning Board of the New Deal years, which briefly
brought together city and regional planning thought, which emphasized
the physical city (Fishman's metropolitan tradition) with national
"social and economic" planning, and which had Hamiltonian roots and
stressed national economic policy and management.  This coupling of
two very different modes of thought, or "traditions," never worked
out, growing more strained over time.  By 1943, economic planning
prevailed within the Board, achieving real if watered down expression
in the Employment Act of 1946, which set up the Council of Economic

Yet another form of planning is emphasized by Margaret Weir (Chp. 7)
who analyzes the Congressional struggle in 1970-1975 over the National
Land-Use Planning Act.  If enacted, the federal government would have
funded land-use studies in all states willing to establish state-wide
land-use planning procedures.  This never happened.  Significantly,
defeat came at the hands of many groups, each holding what can been
seen as alternative visions of both environmental intervention and
"planning." The opponents included environmentalists who favored
federal regulatory action over state-level planning, mayors jealous of
their municipal prerogatives over land use, minority-group advocates
of community-based planning and control, and corporate and other
business interests whose power to plan their own land-sites was

Although the essays by Lacey, Westcoat, Jr., Brinkley, and Weir all
involve what Fishman calls "the quest for national planning"
(his sub-section title for these essays), they describe neither a
single subject nor outlook.  Nor do they represent explorations of the
two "traditions" identified by the Fishman-Thomas debate.  What they
document vividly and with considerable insight, however, is the
weakness of the federal government as a force in shaping local life,
including cities, and the far-reaching consequences of the federalist
structure of American governance, especially its deliberate
fragmentation of political authority and public initiatives, including
planning practice itself.  In this respect, the Lacey essay is
especially insightful in elucidating how democratic politics and
American federalism have thwarted centralized visions of the public
good that the planning impulse, when given national expression,
usually upholds.  Those who have blamed the weaknesses of American
planning chiefly on private enterprise should take note.

In principle, a more centralized national government in which the
states would have functioned as administrative units, not as political
centers with powers of their own, might well have enabled national
planning visions to triumph or exert greater influence.  That this was
not the case suggests that the deepest structures of American society,
those set forth as a consequence of the American Revolution, provide a
major key as to why planning in the United States is in essence a
fragmented art.  The consequence at the national level seems clear:
whether we look at the Gallatin Plan, at Theodore Roosevelt's
programs, or at the national land-use legislation of the early 1970s,
little came of these initiatives, and American federalism has much to
do with this fact.

At the state and city levels of public authority, the record also
appears weak.  For example, the New York Regional Plan of 1929/1931,
which Fishman describes as the "zenith" of the metropolitan tradition,
upheld a vision of a center-dominated metropolis on an unprecedented
geographic scale but failed as a plan.  And the regionalist vision,
with the possible exception of the Tennessee Valley Authority during
the 1930s, met a similar fate.  This book tempts one to conclude that
American planning history is much more a story of aspirations than

However, such judgments depend on where and how one looks at the
record.  American history is complex and multifaceted, and so is its
planning heritage.  If the fate of the Gallatin plan suggests an
incapacity for national initiatives, what are we to make of the
mid-to-late twentieth century interstate highway system?  Whether we
like this system or not, it stands out as a nationally planned and
fully articulated network built to a very high engineering standard
and notably successful on its own terms.  And at the state level,
going back to the Gallatin era, we can point to DeWitt Clinton's Erie
Canal and its imitators elsewhere as instances of consequential
state-level transportation initiative and planning.  In truth, many
aspects of the built environment involve planning, whether we are
focusing on buildings, parks, waterworks, university sites, waste
removal systems, shopping centers, airports, subdivisions, and so
forth.  Many scholars have devoted careers to analyzing these real, if
lesser and more specialized and often successful, forms of plan
making, among them Paul Turner on campus design, Joel Tarr on
wastewater technology, and Richard Longstreth on shopping centers [2].

The deepest puzzle posed by this book, when read for insight into the
nature of American planning history, is how to comprehend this subject
in a fruitful and historically realistic way.  Certainly, if we accept
the assumptions of this study, it is not by focusing on the multiple
forms of specialized plan-making just noted or to claim, as I would,
that American planning is a fragmented art.  More sweeping
perspectives are favored.

In this respect, Fishman's thinking lies at the heart of this work and
thus deserves special attention.  And no claim he makes is more
fundamental than his initial assertion that the metropolis of
1830-1930 be understood as the "creation" of a "planning tradition."
This claim, I submit, while productive of a very imaginative
discussion, ultimately mystifies and confuses what is ordinarily meant
by planning.

Contrary to Fishman, this reviewer sees the centralized metropolis as an
unplanned configuration brought about by the complex interaction of
private, market-based decisions and incremental government actions.  The
metropolis as it grew begot a planning tradition but is not itself an
expression of one.  Fishman is on solid ground whenever he highlights
specific choices and actions that helped to shape the metropolis, such as
the building of a railroad network throughout the nation's interior
during the mid-nineteenth century or decisions by various civic elites to
promote particular rail lines.  But the form taken by the city as a whole
lay beyond anyone's control.  A host of private and public agents,
operating within various geographical, technological, social, and market
constraints, yielded the outcome.  Parts were planned but not the whole.
Only the rare individual, such as Frederick Law Olmsted, possessed the
genius to grasp the entire developmental pattern and to respond to it in
influential ways.  But even his role was reactive.  At best, his schemes
only adjusted the result.  For example, Boston would have become a
metropolis with or without its Emerald Necklace.

One drawback to assuming that the metropolis itself is planned is that
a planner must be identified.  To his credit, Fishman tackles this
problem.  The essays in this book, as Fishman readily concedes, make
clear that the nation has lacked ongoing institutional structures at
any level that make formal planning effective.  "American society," he
asserts, "inherently lacks the stability for long-term planning or the
social solidarity for collective action" (p. 4).  His solution,
drawing on Alexis de Tocqueville, who marveled that America produced
satisfactory communities without designing them, is to posit the
concept of an "urban conversation" taking place among all the
involved interests as "the ultimate source of authority that generated
the outpouring of investment in roads, bridges, waterworks, schools,
libraries, and other public facilities that so astonished Tocqueville"
(p. 5).  Through give and take, conflict and resolution, steps and
missteps, a common pattern was evolved.

Whatever one thinks of this solution, it is an elusive, if not
mystical, construct.  Even if we acknowledge that a consensus of sorts
often emerged on actions to take, the inchoate processes and conflicts
that produced it are not what most people mean by planning, especially
when the "conversation" typically occurred outside of existing
institutional structures.  This solution, apart from whether it
represents an adequate definition of planning authority, has another
potentially far-reaching, potentially fruitful consequence: it upends
a generation of urban historical analysis that has emphasized
transportation and communications as key determinants of urban form,
implicit in such terms as "walking city," rail-based urbanism, or the
"automotive city."

Finally, the most serious drawback to defining the source of a
planning tradition so loosely is to muddle our sense of what
constitutes planning. For example, at one point, when discussing the
suburban development that accompanied metropolitan growth, Fishman
acknowledges the upper-middle-class bedroom suburbs of the 1900-1930
era as "enduring ideals for suburban living" and then observes that
"the more modest middle-class and working-class neighborhoods that
took shape on the periphery" at about the same time represented "an
even more impressive achievement" (p. 12).  But these lower-status
neighborhoods, as Fishman frankly admits, citing Sam Bass Warner,
Jr.'s _Streetcar Suburbs_, represented speculative developments, which
is to say the virtual opposite of what is usually considered planning.

Given all the values, calculations, and constraints that enter into
speculative growth, a case might be made that growth of this sort
served as the vehicle for an "urban conversation," thereby yielding
the outcome so admired by Fishman.  But why call this process
"planning," no matter how satisfactory the outcome?  Why not simply
recognize that markets can yield positive, if unplanned results?  In
short, a loose, permissive definition of planning by comprehending so
much obfuscates what we commonly mean by the term.  Rigor is lost.
Activities that most people associate with the word are marginalized;
others that are more market-based gain undue emphasis.

Throughout, Fishman makes clear that the metropolitan tradition also
involves the more formal and familiar planning ideas of Frederick Law
Olmsted (Sr.), Daniel H. Burnham, and Thomas Adams.  But these
luminaries of American planning history, I would argue, should not be
understood as creators of the metropolis but as its reformers.
Historically, they stepped onto the urban stage only after the
centralized metropolis had begun to emerge.  Responding to its growth,
they devised ways to modify it, by introducing and protecting open
space (Olmsted in many cities), by refining and integrating
transportation arrangements (Burnham in Chicago), and by repositioning
economic, residential, and open space functions (Adams in the New York
region).  None of them envisioned an alternative urbanism, that is, a
new overall pattern for human settlement.  That kind of thinking, far
more radical and utopian, became the domain of the regionalists who
repudiated the prevailing metropolitan pattern and opposed its

_The American Planning Tradition_, while replete with challenging and
provocative interpretation, is much more than a disengaged scholarly
study.  Its major premise is the failure of the present-day urban
pattern in the United States, especially the post-metropolitan sprawl
that has both reconfigured urbanism itself and fundamentally
jeopardized the middle ground prized by regionalists.  In effect,
Fishman and Thomas partially resolve the Mumford-Adams debate by
identifying present-day urbanism as the common enemy.  Fishman, who
has done as much any urban historian to explicate this new order,
suggests that it is now bankrupt and near exhaustion.  Thomas, more
realistically, notes and celebrates a gathering, almost Hegelian
reaction to it.

Fresh thinking is needed, they both agree.  Indeed, Fishman believes
that a new conversation has already begun, some of it finding
expression through the new urbanists, notably Andres Duany, Elizabeth
Plater-Zyberk, and Peter Calthorpe (none of whom are directly
represented in this volume).  Thomas simply points to the "hundreds of
nature conservancies, land trusts, shoreline commissions, park
planners, housing agencies, and land owner compacts across the
nation," through whose ad hoc efforts some of the vision of the
original regionalists is brought forward but with a more ecological as
well as more opportunistic twists (p. 62).  In fact, both new urbanist
and new environmentalist sensibilities inform many of the essays.

This work, while sounding an alarm, is more an academic effort than a
call to arms.  It is best seen as a scholarly resource to those who
enter the fray or who want to understand it.  The high levels of
historical generalization and the sophistication of argument will cut
against popular appeal.  Some chapters, while interesting in their own
right, do not cohere well with the whole.  Arnold R. Hirsch (Chp. 8),
for example, offers a probing essay explaining the failure of New
Orleans to embrace urban renewal during its heyday elsewhere in
America.  And Judith A. Martin and Sam Bass Warner, Jr. (Chp. 10),
analyze Oak Park in Chicago to illustrate both how local initiative
can yield a pattern of local exceptionalism, in this case with respect
to racial integration, which has been achieved in Oak Park though
ignored elsewhere in America, and how on another front, that of
locally vexed storm-water flooding and sewage pollution, a locality
can succumb to inherited citywide infrastructure decisions and policy
inertia, impeding newer, more environmental sensitive alternatives.
Both chapters, however, reinforce the most powerful sub-theme of the
book: the diversity of American planning engendered by federalist

Even if the discussions triggered by the Fishman-Thomas debate spiral
off in unexpected directions, those who want to explore
metropolitanism and regionalism as historically based prescriptive
traditions and resources for current discussion will do well to
consult this work.  Thomas's essay, in particular, is an historian's
tour de force, illuminating both the original regionalist impulse and
its links with present-day thinking.  Fishman's contributions,
especially if read simply as commentary on metropolitan urbanism,
vividly demonstrate that this heritage remains a basis for addressing
the urban predicament as now experienced, particularly its patterns of
sprawl and environmental devastation.  In short, this work belongs on
the shelf of any American planning historian or activist curious about
the historical firmament in which their ideas and aspirations are

[1] John W. Reps, _The Making of Urban America: A History of City
Planning in the United States_(Princeton: Princeton University Press,
1965); Mel Scott, _American City Planning since 1890_(Berkeley:
University of California Press, 1969); Mary Corbin Sies and
Christopher Silver, eds._Planning the Twentieth-Century American
City_(Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996); Donald
A. Krueckeberg, ed._Introduction to Planning History in the United
States_(New Brunswick, NJ: The Center for Urban Policy Research,
Rutgers University, 1983).

[2] Paul Venable Turner, _Campus: An American Planning
Tradition_(Cambridge, Mass. and London, England: The Architectural
History Foundation, New York; The MIT Press, 1984); Joel A. Tarr,
"Sewerage and the Development of the Networked City in the United
States, 1850-1930,"in Joel A. Tarr and Gabriel Dupuy, eds._Technology
and the Rise of the Networked City in Europe and
America_(Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1988), 159-185;
Richard Longstreth, "The Diffusion of the Community Shopping Center
Concept during the Interwar Decades," _Journal of the Society of
Architectural Historians_ 56 (September, 1997), 268-293; and Richard
Longstreth, _City Center to Regional Mall: Architecture, the
Automobile, and Retailing in Los Angeles, 1920-1950_(Cambridge,
Mass. and London, England: The MIT Press, 1997).

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