Architects vs. EconomistsI've been doing some more thinking on the comprehensive urban planning debate, and I might have some insight into the two opposing perspectives, which I would characterize as architects vs. economists.
Let's start with economists. One of the major lessons of the 20th century is that economies are too complex to be effectively planned - as the gigantic failures of communism and socialism in Asia and Eastern Europe showed. Free markets are clearly the way to go. Economies can be "guided" somewhat, yes, but comprehensively planned? No.
At the other extreme, we have architects and their buildings. In this realm, clearly, planning is everything. Putting a bunch of construction materials and people on a site and letting the "free market" construct a building without a plan or coordination is clearly not going to work very well.
In between those two extremes, we have a big set of grey areas: economies -> regions -> metros -> cities -> neighborhoods -> streetscapes -> buildings. Free market economics is generally the best model for the left side, and architectural/urban planning for the right, but what about the middle?
Clearly planning can work at a level higher than a building. Think of the core Mall area of Washington DC, or master-planned developments like The Woodlands. The Woodlands may be pushing the practical limits of planning, though. Even with all their accolades, it looks like they left out a lot of stuff people want, because there is an incredible amount of commercial development just outside their boundry along I45.
Houston is a *big* city, and comprehensively planning it is probably a problem on the same scale as planning the economy of Cuba - and notice how well that's worked out for Fidel and the Cubans. Planning is more appropriate at the neighborhood and streetscape levels (like with TIRZ districts, area plans, and deed restrictions).
One problem seems to be that the loudest voice at the city level is biased towards architects and planners, who are very involved in urban affairs (it's their context and lifeblood, respectively), vs. economists, who can pretty easily ignore cities while being very successful in their field (the most famous "urban economist" being Jane Jacobs, who wasn't even professionally trained in economics).
Planners are basically architects on a larger scale, but one big difference is that architects have a building budget, while all planners can do is say "build this, or don't build at all" - essentially a giant obstacle course to builders and their plans, filtering out the ones that don't fit the vision. What does get built looks pretty nice, but it's the proverbial "visible tip of the iceberg" compared to everything that didn't get built or all the needs of consumers, land owners, and citizens that are not being met by "the plan."
At the end of the day, planning is unlikely to achieve what most of its supporters want. The opposite in fact. In almost all other cities, the planners specify density in some areas and not in others. The low-density "neighborhood protection" sails through, but activist NIMBYs use the mandatory public processes and reviews to shoot down most of the higher-density designations and projects - leaving a city with less density, less development, fewer pedestrian and mixed use areas, and less vibrancy. Portland is one of the few cities that has been able to use an all-powerful regional government entity (Metro) to ignore the NIMBYs and force the density through, but now even they are facing a voter backlash. What are the odds any Houston planning effort will get powers anywhere close to Portland's Metro? Pretty much zip, which means Houston would get stuck in the same position as just about every other city in the country that has adopted planning/zoning: low-density, low-development stagnation. No thanks. In the spirit of Jane Jacobs, I'll take a little "messy vibrancy" over that anytime.