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Learning, Again, Why Plans Sometimes Fail

Mary Newsom / Jun 14 2013

For Release Friday, June 14, 2013

Mary NewsomYou’d think I would have known better. After all, I’ve been writing about growth since before they called it Smart Growth, and I’m still writing about it now that it’s “resiliency,” or “sustainable growth” or whatever the next term is. I can’t count how many times I’ve explained that when you decide where you want urban growth to go, you must also decide where you don’t want it to go.

That’s why last week’s regional planning exercise was an eye-opener. I learned – or rather, learned again – some key lessons:

  • Real life doesn’t always work the way you think it should.
  • The general public doesn’t think nearly as much about these issues as we like to assume they do.

The exercise was RealityCheck2050, part of a multi-year, regional planning project called CONNECT Our Future that’s looking at the 14-county, two-state Charlotte region. RealityCheck, organized by the Charlotte chapter of the Urban Land Institute, hosted 400 people – among them some 30 elected officials.

We started by listening to speakers, including Ed McMahon of the Urban Land Institute (a Citistates associate), whose inspiring talk included this line – one I’ve heard so often I groaned: “Trying to cure congestion by building more lanes is like trying to cure obesity by lengthening your belt.”

Yet many in the audience laughed. People Tweeted it to their followers. Lesson No. 1: Sometimes city planner types forget other people are not immersed in this subject.

Then we began a game-like exercise at tables fitted out with Legos and a giant regional map. We were told that by 2050 the region of 2.4 million is expected to grow by 1.8 million and add 863,000 jobs. Each table had to stack hundreds of red and yellow Legos where we thought jobs and housing should go. We could mark out new transit lines with orange yarn, new highways with purple, and green spaces with green yarn.

Lego Building
The planning game used red and yellow Legos for new homes and jobs. But we forgot about green space until late in the game. Photo: Mary Newsom

Others at my table were a construction company official, a human services worker, a local school system employee, an elected official who owns land near a proposed but controversial highway, and a planner working in municipal government, but not in planning.

As instructed, we agreed on our shared vision for growth: Concentrate new development where infrastructure already exists. Cluster development near transit lines. Protect water quality. Protect farms and open spaces.

Then we began rapidly and somewhat haphazardly placing Legos and yarn. I stacked jobs and housing in downtown Charlotte. Across the table, the elected official began putting housing and jobs in the now-rural area near his property. The human services worker and school employee, standing near him, started following his lead. Next thing you know a rural farming area was coated with low-density housing and scattered jobs.

I don’t think they were deliberately ignoring our goal to protect farmland. I think they were unsure of what to do – the instruction booklet was hard to follow – and were copying the guy next to them – something most of us do in similar situations.

Around this time the planner at our table had to leave. The table moderators, two more planners, kept quiet and let us work. I began moving the Legos plopped in rural areas over to existing towns and along existing transportation corridors.

It took a while to place hundreds of Legos around the region. Only then did we look at our work and say, “Now, what about green space?”

We tried to draw in parks and farm areas with green yarn but kept accidentally knocking down the Lego towers. (It didn’t help that there was a wrinkle on our map, creating a sort of earthquake fault line for stacked Legos.)

We also didn’t add any new transit lines until near the end. That, too, involved clumsily knocking down Legos.

It occurred to me that our experience was a lot like real life.

Unless you first decide where not to grow, trying to retrofit a built-out area with parks and natural areas is difficult, clumsy and expensive. That’s true, too, with a transit line.

I knew those things. But building – at least, playing with Legos – is more fun than tediously laying out yarn. In our table’s zeal to play developer, we neglected basic planning. And my table mates had not stopped to think that putting houses and jobs in the countryside did not support what they said they valued: protecting rural areas and water, and clustering development near infrastructure.

By not understanding the effect of the development, they inadvertently undercut their larger goals.

Which is exactly how so many metro regions, including this one, end up being built out. People don’t stop to plan because, well, it’s less fun than building. And most of us, including developers, tend to copy what others do, because that’s what we’re used to seeing.

It’s easy for those of us who do pay attention to planning and growth to forget that most people in most places don’t.

Which means it’s easy for us to forget that although we’ve heard the same messages over and over and over until we’re sick of it, other people are only then starting to hear them: If you want to preserve open spaces you have to decide, from the start, where you won’t grow. If you want to cluster development where services already exist, you can’t allow development where services don’t exist (also known as “Growth Follows the Pipe”). And yes, curing congestion by building more lanes is like trying to cure obesity by getting a longer belt. That last slogan, at least, is likely to get a good chuckle from the audience.

Mary Newsom is editor and associate director of urban and regional affairs at the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute, where she directs the online publication, where this column also appeared. Views expressed here do not necessarily represent the views of the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute or the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. columns are not copyrighted and may be reproduced in print or electronically; please show authorship, credit and send an electronic copy of usage to


  1. Posted June 14, 2013 at 5:12 pm | Permalink

    Such a great reminder of how we are all blind to our blindness sometimes. Also a reminder of the essential role of visual literacy in our work. Only when we can visualize change, see unintended consequences emerge, can we make the critical choices of our time.

    As one Neal Peirce once said, “there is no time to waste.”

  2. Posted June 14, 2013 at 6:04 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for bringing these lessons—so often presented in dense professional prose—to us amateurs in such readily accessible mental images. Almost better than being there (and lots quicker).

  3. Posted June 14, 2013 at 7:00 pm | Permalink

    Ed’s point that we should not add more lanes to transit is said another way: Your solution to the problem simply adds to the problem.

    Here is a thought: why not stop increasing our population from 300 to 400 + million?? As was said well in 1974, when we crossed over the 200 million mark, ‘ there is no advantages for the USA to go to 300.’ IMHO, the experts 40 years ago were right.

    Now people seem hell bent to reach 400 in my lifetime…..just to prove we can do it? Is anyone thinking 7 generations into the future? NOT.

  4. Chris Bonney
    Posted June 14, 2013 at 9:27 pm | Permalink

    I took part in the Hampton Roads Virginia Reality Check, where we came to many of the same conclusions about values and clustering of new population in higher density and mixed used developments along existing transportation corridors, particularly existing and projected light rail corridors. Apinds like transportation was a bigger thing here, with almost nobody using up their “highway” yarn and most begging to be given more “public transportation” yarn. I wonder, though, how much of that was influenced by Ed McMahon’s presentation, which made such a strong argument for mixed use developments.

  5. Richard Schmoyer
    Posted June 16, 2013 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

    Dont go to 400 million? About a dozen years ago I attended an international conference in Groningen NL on brownfield re-use. Only six Americans attended. While on a field trip to Utrecht, I was walking through an infill site, when I commented to a Dutch and German planner, that I was very impressed with the way that the Dutch had protected farmland, open spaces and created distinct edges to cities. I still am impressed, but I was stopped mid sentence by the Dutch Planner. As the forth right Dutch are prone to do, He abruptly said “let me tell you something: Dutch people like gardens just as much as most Americans do. If we had your land resources, most of the Dutch would live just like you do, on your own plot of land with a garden, not in in multiple story buildings like we do now”. Then he said “Americans have so much land to spare, you dont know what to do with it.” If you look at the Farm Bill subsidies hat just passed the house last week, there is more than kernal of truth in this. However, it is also true that we have really messed up our entrances to cities and that makes our land use pattern look much worse than it really is. Roadside , big box , corporate food sprawl has destroyed the character that American towns once presetned to the world. “Same old, same old” Roadside development is exactly the same from one end of the US to another. This is much less the case in countries like Germany and Belgium, and ,yes, they do offer the whole range of McFood choices. As far as population growth is concerned, we have a rapidly aging population. Somebody is going to have to support all of the aging Americans, even the older boomers who espouse “you are on your own” economic philosophies, but who will not have the financial resources to take care of themselves without government support in another decade or less.

  6. Posted June 16, 2013 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

    Richard…seems like you have never seen someone blow on a balloon or a piece of bubble gum until it bursts. Sure, for 1-2 generations it will work. then what? Technology will solve the lack of water, pollution, etc?

    some hardship now would make it a whole lot easier for my grandkids.