The University of Winnipeg’s Institute of Urban Studies will soon publish a collection of speeches made by the Winnipeg-born city planner Earl Levin. Entitled City Planning as Ideology and Practice: Ten Speeches by Dr. Earl A Levin, this book will include 10 of Levin’s lengthy speeches, which span the years 1965 and 1984.
Levin’s speeches read like thoughtful but fairly informal essays. It’s remarkable, as effectively delivering speeches of this magnitude is something of a lost art today.
It seems unlikely that today’s Power Point presentations by planners (or the stunted, Power Point-like speeches made by politicians) will be published decades from now. Usually deprived of context, they will prove to be rather useless artifacts to tomorrow’s historians and biographers.
Levin’s speeches, on the other hand, provide great insight into the man and his time—when city planning would transition from big, top-down plans that focused on physical transformation and strong land use control, to the more mixed use, ostensibly ground-up and socially-oriented planning that took hold in North America by the end of the 1970s.
It was Jane Jacobs’ 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities that would do more than any other work to signal the beginning of this transition. More than an attack on the look and function of new projects—large, Modernist developments that made no room for mixed uses and street life—Death and Life went after the pseudo-scientific approach to post-war city planning it.
Underlying Jacobs’ criticism was the belief that the life of a city is far too complex for any one mind—or one central group of minds—to comprehend and determine outcomes for.
In downtown Winnipeg, where Levin devotes significant attention to in this book, much of the revitalization effort has been based on this simplified belief that a certain building project will revitalize the surrounding neighborhood, and the bigger the project, the greater its effectiveness.
But Levin admitted there is only so much planning could do to change the prevailing public attitudes and economic climate of city.
In 1965, even as great portions of Winnipeg’s downtown and North End were cleared away for new, mega-scaled developments, he told a Toronto audience that in spite of the vast efforts of planners to make more attractive and efficient places, “our cities continue to grow more ugly and function less efficiently.”
So while a city must plan, as any household, business or organization must, it cannot plan the marketplace and individual action—which is the complex set of interests of many people who are doing many different things.
A city can plan for outcomes, but it can’t successfully plan those outcomes themselves. People act on different sets of incentives, and a project intended by planners as a “tipping point” for private investment downtown can end up inhibiting further investment.
Occasionally in these speeches, Levin’s practicality would venture into starry-eyed territory, such as in a 1980 speech before the University of Manitoba’s Faculty of Architecture, where he idealized city planners as stewards of every citizen’s needs and aspirations.
Later in the same speech, Levin correctly observed that planning can only be as effective as government’s willingness to follow its own policies. And in a city like Winnipeg, where cutting red ribbons is more important than cutting red tape (or introducing new red tape where necessary), focus on policy and planning quickly gets tossed aside at the first opportunity.
City planning is a complex business, and even the man who was perhaps Winnipeg’s greatest planner continually sought to understand the nature of it.
While he correctly pointed out that good plans can get hampered by the insularity of local business and political culture, he seemed unwilling to accept the limits of planning to fully comprehend and control the vastly complex, continually changing system of actions and connections that are the essence of cities.
Robert Galston is a University of Winnipeg student who writes about urban issues. Visit his blog at http://riseandsprawl.tumblr.com.
Published in Volume 65, Number 26 of The Uniter (June 2, 2011)