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Urban Planning

“It's hard to make accurate predictions, especially about the future.”

Information Systems Prolog

The simple process of predicting the future is difficult enough. Predicting the impact of a significant planned change is even more difficult. There is a kind of Uncertainty Principle at work. We plan a change with a view to establishing, post change, certain desirable or required characteristics. Problem is, the process of installing the change can and often does alter what we would see as desirable or required.

I saw this clearly in my work with information systems. Users were generally able to describe what changes they would like to see with a new information system. When the new system was installed, it then became apparent that a somewhat different set of changes were desirable or required. The new information system changed the environment enough that what was desirable or required changed, often in very significant ways.

This information system planning reality manifest itself in several ways. Some significant number of new information systems were deemed to be failures when completed. The goal of freezing the specifications during development proved almost impossible to realize. Very few information systems were installed exactly as they were initially specified. Exact budgetary predictions proved notoriously inexact, with overruns that could be anywhere from 5% to 500%. The simple “waterfall” approach didn't work – it was impossible to complete a step and never come back to reconsider.

A number of ways were developed to work around this Uncertainty Principle. A central feature common to most efforts was to take only small steps, testing each step to see what further changes would be required. Working in the information systems domain simplified the process – the steps were mainly “virtual”, existing as changed patterns of zeros and ones stored on a disk. It cost time to build the new pattern of zeros and ones, but there was virtually no cost to the physical process of overwriting what was on disk.

Still, there was and is a great management and political appeal to pretending that the plan for a new information system is exact and that everything will go as planned. A decision is required for which someone could be held accountable. Basing the decision of exact planning numbers provides a kind of political protection - “How was I to know that the system would exceed its budget and not deliver the expected benefits? I made the best decision with the information I was provided. What more can you expect?”

Urban Planning Introduction

I lived with all of this as an information systems professional. I like to think that we made progress with incremental development, with spiral development and with rapid development methodologies. Then I retired from active consulting. We moved to downtown Toronto. Recently, a developer proposed to put twin 55 storey condo towers just outside my study window. This was only one of a gaggle of new condo buildings are under development in downtown Toronto – there are something like 10,000 proposed new condo units within 500 meters of my study. My attention naturally turned to urban planning, specifically as it would impact our downtown neighbourhood.

Downtown Toronto in 2015 may not be typical, but it is interesting. Last year, Toronto had more high-rise buildings underdevelopment than any other North American city. There is a downtown building boom on in Toronto. The problem isn't attracting developers, it's channeling their eager investments in socially, environmentally and architecturally beneficial ways. NIMBYism is rampant – the pace of change is furious and that in and of itself makes many people uncomfortable. But there is an important background question about the best way to plan in this environment.

The Uncertainty Principle applies – it's very difficult to predict the impact of new developments. This applies both to an individual proposal and to the overall planned impact of multiple proposals within an area. The actual planning process is a hodge-podge of different kinds of rules applied at both the local and the provincial levels. A number of planning responses can be observed at work in downtown Toronto. There is no obvious “best” way to plan. Two planning archetypes illustrate what has been happening.

A new building is proposed. The local stakeholders rise up in arms. “How dare they propose such a dense, tall, oppressive, monstrosity just next door.” Those local voices are seen as strong enough to warrant striking a Working Group. The stakeholders are all invited to join the Working Group. One possible spin-off could be a second Working Group that participates in development of an area plan. It happened with the building proposed outside my study window. But there were a number of “special” conditions that applied in this particular case, and might not apply elsewhere.

Urban Planning Alternatives

In Toronto, developers always have the option to take their proposal up to the provincial level. Specifically, after 180 days, if the city has not ruled in ways satisfactory to the developer, an appeal can be made to the Ontario Municipal Board, (OMB). This provincial body has the power to overrule virtually any municipal planning decision. And the OMB operating procedures are stacked in favor of the established and well-funded stakeholders. “Experts” have the only important opinions before the OMB – it's a quasi-legal body that bases (almost) everything on precedent and expert opinion. One commonly cited estimate is that full participation in an OMB hearing will cost at least $100,000.

In the case of the building outside my window, the developer held off going to the OMB. They really wanted to find ways to make their proposal attractive to the stakeholders. They held off for over two years and worked with all of the local stakeholders to find a mutually acceptable compromise. Not every developer is prepared to wait that long. Tens of millions of dollars in land investments and building plans must site idle during the process. The special conditions in this example apply in too few cases.

One common alternative is for the developer to go to the OMB as soon as possible. This has a number of practical effects. The voices of local residents are muted – they are not generally recognized as experts. The discussion moves out of the public eye – a Working Group makes little sense for a proposal that has already gone to the OMB. There remains, however, an interesting discussion window. It will be six or more months before an official OMB hearing can begin (at least for current proposals in downtown Toronto). During that window, negotiations can and do take place. But a stakeholder need to be recognized as a “party” for them to be an active participant. And parties must be prepared to pony up the required $100,000 (for lawyers and experts).

In many cases, a compromise is reached. The developer negotiates with the city's planning staff and with the local member of city council. That local council member, called a Councillor in Toronto, is the one who must introduce any required zoning by-law changes. S/He is in a powerful position, but the impending OMB hearing acts to sharply limit the concessions that can be won. The process takes place in a largely private setting outside the purview of the other stakeholders.

Background Concerns

However it plays out in specific cases, there are some important background concerns that rarely come to the fore. In an ideal situation, new residential units would not be approved until after appropriate neighbourhood park space had been committed. And additional occupants in a neighbourhood would not be allowed until after appropriate public transit had been committed. Neither has happened with any regularity in downtown Toronto. As a result, the park space per downtown resident is less than one square foot, and declining. And it is now very difficult to get on a downtown subway train during rush hours, often requiring that riders wait for several trains to go by before they can board.

The entire process leaves quite a bit to be desired. The Uncertainty Principle will apply. There may be limited exceptions, but they will largely be confined to far-seeing experts who are able to realistically project into the future. The non-expert stakeholders will face an inevitable challenge in realistically predicting the impact of proposed changes. Put that to one side. How should the allowed or encouraged changes be described? Zoning by-law changes for specific buildings are possible and practical. Proposed zoning by-law changes for an entire area are a remarkably blunt instrument.

The Plan Itself

Form based building codes have been offered as a superior alternative. Some considerable success has been achieved, especially in new developments. Form based codes have been successfully used to guide such developments, resulting in walkable and transit oriented areas. One observed problem is that such new areas often lack the vitality and inspiring diversity that can result from the incremental development of an area. There can be too much sameness when one form based set of building codes is applied across an area.

A logically attractive alternative would be to constrain changes through use of a pattern language which recognized a limited number of harmonious problem solutions. New developments would be constrained to adopt a similar way of addressing the challenges (the problems) that have to be confronted by developments in the area. Exceptions could come from an appeal to modify the approach to a problem or to extend the list of problems for which there are recognized patterns. It all hangs together logically and has great conceptual appeal. But far too few people, stakeholders or not, easily recognize the power of an appropriate pattern language.

There are several “grand” schemes that, some hope, will provide a better way to plan and guide development in an area. One potentially appealing alternative when it can be applied is to declare an area to be a Heritage Conservation District (HCD). Toronto has had considerable success with its HCDs. Neighbourhoods and shopping districts in Toronto have thrived under HCD protection. When an area has already begun the gentrification process, establishing an HCD seems to work. The HCD can be used to lock down those features of the built environment which attracted gentrification. The critical pre-condition is the gentrification needs to be solidly established. Alas, that's not the case for the Yonge Street outside my window.

Another alternative that is being discussed is use of what Ontario calls a Development Permit System (DPS). An area plan can have real teeth under the DPS. There is only the most limited appeal to cases outside the area or to expert opinion. If a proposed development doesn't fit with the area plan, it gets rejected. There may be a technical question about whether or not a proposal fits, but there would be little opportunity to creatively interpret the plan to produce a favorable decision in particular cases. There is a gross timing issue about DPS applied to the Yonge Street outside my window – the lead time is such that there would be little left to guide by the time a DPS area plan was developed and approved.

And the DPS approach suffers from a serious political drawback. Local stakeholders are very often called into action, not by abstract planning exercises, but by proposals that ask for too tall, too dense, too much of everything that is undesirable in a new development. The key trigger point with the DPS approach must come before the lion's share of proposals are submitted in an area. The planners get excited about the DPS area plan, but many of the local stakeholders will not be motivated until they see the actual threat.

Muddling Through Uncertainty

The current approach is an almost ad hoc combination of features. Details could certainly be improved. I would like to see the OMB confined to decisions about the planning process, and leave planning to planners and other stakeholders. I would like to see the suburban requirement to devote 5% of a development area to parkland adjusted so we get more than a square foot of parkland for each downtown resident. But these are details. The ad hoc features that combine to shape the future of Toronto are doing a not too bad job. It's uncomfortably accidental, but that might not be a bad thing. We're less likely to make grand mistakes the way we too often did in early post-WWII urban planning. It's messy and accidental, but that's an important part of what makes it work in the real world.