Master plans embalm embryos; they are a form of cryogenics.
— Joseph R. Myers

Unplanning is an interesting concept because it suggests that we need to ‘undo’ what we currently know and relearn a whole new way of doing things.
— Neil Perkin

Rumor has it that energy is seeping out of the Transition Town movement. I am not surprised. They went ‘whole hog’ for planning, and it is my carefully considered, worry-tinged opinion that the hog will do them in if they don’t come to their senses.

At the heart of the current TT process is the creation and implementation of the so called Energy Descent Action Plan for each locality. The Totnes group spent two years — 2 whole years! — on creating their EDAP. I am not the first person to wonder if the time, effort and money could not have been more profitably spent on actually “doing energy descent.” But it gets worse. The depressing secret is out: step #13 (sic) of their 12-steps is — groan — yet another plan (viz these documents from Dunbar, Scotland, for example).

Contemplating what to me looks like a bizarre cul-de-sac, I decided to poke my nose into the maze. The Transition Handbook tells us that those who fail to plan, plan to fail. Is it really so? Rob Hopkins, one of the founders, has in a recent interview been once again advocating “that intentional, design-led, strategic approach. The whole idea is that you’ve got a limited amount of time, limited resources, limited financial resources. Just running out and just starting to do stuff not in a strategic overview, in a strategic framework, could be a complete waste of time. ” Hm… — what if it’s the other way around? For help, I turned to the history of planning, which, before the advent of the planning craze in our time, meant mostly urban planning.

While the planning impulse probably harkens all the way back to Plato and his ideal forms, it came into its own by mid-19th century when “blueprint planning” formed a preamble to leveling town walls and historical neighborhoods in European cities, to be replaced with broad, straight thoroughfares, massive rows of new apartment buildings, and other monumental projects. In blueprint planning, the planner has an end-state in mind and seeks to achieve it through high levels of codification and control. All subsequent planning systems are variations on this theme. Adding embellishments like closer attention to goals, prediction and analysis, public participation, advocacy for the underprivileged, or lately, dressing up this process in hip, spiritual, green-friendly garb does absolutely nothing to change the underlying logic of control.

Next, I looked into planning literature, seeking evidence that planning works as advertised. The author of Urban Development: the Logic of Making Plans — a lifelong professional planner — examines the rationale behind planning and finds it wanting. He notes that plans are seldom updated despite exhortations to the contrary, that people don’t make and use plans the way planning lit says they do, and that “the lack of estimates of net benefits of plans is a major gap in research about planning.” In the end, he recommends that plans only be used as adjuncts to decision making, and specifically warns away from their deliberate implementation. After all, he tells us, human beings generally want to focus on issues, decisions and solutions and not on plans.

Is it then unreasonable to wonder whether those 19th century planners were so in thrall to their own egos and so worshipful of their own rationality that the entire planning concept is fundamentally misbegotten? What but an arrogant sense of their own superiority would drive them to trample and wantonly destroy what had evolved over centuries of human habitation, as countless people through the generations negotiated each other within the intimate intricacies of local spaces? Like hostile aliens they swooped down to raze all that well-loved, well-worn richness, all the irregularities, surprises and nooks that make vernacular architecture such a delight. It hurts, remembering.

In the New World, towns were decreed, then forced upon the land. It never seems to work well. Roads and alleyways connect properties, not intuitive landmarks. Paths for those who would walk are missing. Right-angle street grids pleased some long-gone technocrat but fail to please the human spirit, and the land itself got carved up by geometry-minded surveyors like a slab of cheese. It hurts, living in its midst.

Isn’t planning one of the tools we use to bludgeon the world into submission? Why then do we act surprised when it lies bleeding at our feet? Living forms flow from one state to the next. Civilized humans push and pull, always wrenching, wounding in our scramble toward some vaunted future. Modern planning provides a battering ram, doing unto the world according to our will.

Sometimes I wonder if Lewis Mumford was a lonely man; his understandings were so far ahead of his time. He had an answer to Rob when he wrote: “Organic planning does not begin with a preconceived goal: it moves from need to need, from opportunity to opportunity, in a series of adaptations that themselves become increasingly coherent and purposeful so that they generate a complex, final design, hardly less unified than a pre-formed geometric pattern. Towns like Siena illustrate this process to perfection.

Well, then, what does planning actually do, and why are people drawn to this way of ordering their thinking and doing? Here is my shot at it:

  • it enables us to linger in the safe cognitive realm, unsullied by hands-on messiness; it creates an impression that ‘something is being done’ and provides a handy cover for delays and procrastination
  • it gives us power to command tomorrow’s people to march to our tunes (but unless they are compelled, they probably won’t)
  • it provides a tool for those inclined to force the world to give them what they want
  • and it satisfies the hunger for a method that would help us bridge the gap between dreams and reality

It really comes down to ritual and incantations, doesn’t it. We all long for a magic wand that would give us the power to manifest our desires. But planning is black magic, machine-mind magic. Clumsy, always at least somewhat coercive, heavy-handed, inflexible, and absurdly linear, it is one of the reasons modernity is imploding all around us. If we are truly committed to coaxing “the world to come” with gentleness and regard for its own moment-to-moment unfolding, shouldn’t we seek to use and embody a process that truly works with the world?

If only we set the goals right, if we find the logical steps to get there, if only we march resolutely enough! Then we look away, baffled, when this path reaches once-promising milestones at the price of unplanned, untoward consequences. A far subtler tool is needed to lead us away from civilization’s impasse.

Christopher Alexander’s call for us all to reflect on the damaging processes we have inherited and to search in our daily life for processes that make for wholeness and life, tugs at my heart. Can you feel it? Another way is possible. On a clear day, I can see it emerging within the goodness of the present moment.

If we examine a complex natural system evolving, each next stage of its evolution depends on its previous stage. Mechanistic 19th-century science created a thought-model in which the next stage would be easily predictable from the previous stage. But it turns out that the world is not like the mechanical thought-model. More sophisticated discoveries have made it clear that in a complex system the next stage is dependent on the current configuration of the whole, which in turn may depend on subtle minutiae in the history of the previous wholes, so “trace-like” that there is no way to predict the path of the emerging system accurately ahead of time.

To create a living world, successfully, we must again find ways of making all building processes move forward in [an] experimental, responsive fashion. That one thing alone, as a kind of bedrock for all design and all planning and all building, will change the world.

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