Warren Godfrey guest post: “I’m not anti-planning; I just think we overdo it”

For the first post of 2014, I’m excited to share this guest perspective on elegance,  sustainability and (over)planning from Charlotte area engineer/planner Warren Godfrey. E-mail conversations with Warren have really broadened my thinking about sustainability in the built environment and I think you’ll see why when reading this.

I’m not anti-planning; I just think we overdo it, by Warren Godfrey

Engineers and planners tend to try to “fix” problems; searching for magic cure-all’s. Re-reading this Strong Towns blog post on rational responses really got me thinking about the mentality with which professional engineers and planners like me approach these so-called problems, and my mind immediately went to elegant solutions. As Leonardo da Vinci said, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”

Communities working together and formulating rational responses as they go always win out over prescribed master plans.
Communities working together and formulating rational responses as they go always win out over prescribed master plans.

Elegant solutions are the way to go, but most of us engineers and planners are hesitant to devote our time and energy to a difficult-to-define cause that is outside the box of parameters that we already know. Or, as Henry Ford put it, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” In my opinion, we’ll only see faster horses and better mousetraps unless we change our current thought processes.

If I were asked to design faster horses over and over again, each subsequent iteration would require more and more resources and yield fewer and fewer results. This is just like the S-shaped learning curve for experience vs. proficiency. Over time, our proficiency increases; but proficiency eventually levels off, and even may go back down as we get sloppy. I see us getting sloppy with many of our recent economic development, planning, and engineering efforts. We spend exorbitant amounts of money on towns that are dead or dying, roads and bridges that will never be used as planned, and “pie in the sky” legacy plans that will collect dust on a shelf. The worst part is that after throwing money at projects and parading them around as the remedy for all of humankind’s problems, we have really only succeeded in saddling ourselves, our kids, and our grandkids with a crippling debt burden.

No matter what the sales team says, planners and engineers alone cannot prescribe long term solutions that ensure more vibrant and sustainable communities that lead to a higher quality of life. Instead, we must step back from the details and really ask ourselves the fundamental question: “How can we do a better job figuring out what the problems are before and while we implementing solutions?” In my experience, people working together in their communities and formulating rational responses as they go (planners and engineers can help) always win out over cut and paste, one size fits all master plans.

I understand how tempting it is to sit back and let it all be, or to call in the professionals. The problems can seem too big, with no obvious elegant solutions. But I also know that in situations where communities just jump in and trust their instincts as thinkers and innovators, they end up much further along while making much better use of scarce resources.

I’m not anti-planning; I just think we overdo it. There is no need to impose artificial deadlines or constraining scopes, which only limit the possible solutions. Overly planned solutions based on the isolation of just a few variables can disguise negative consequences. Avoiding over planning makes possible priceless opportunities for communities to work together and experience new things while experimenting with different ideas; opportunities where everyone feels like they are making a difference on a daily basis, because they are!