Failures in urban planning

Now, let us look at failures because there are also some spectacular failures, too. When I talk about failure, I am not talking about failure in absolute terms, but rather failures compared to what the planners were trying to do. I am not judging policies, which are political and therefore cannot be judged objectively. I define as planning failure an inability to implement a well defined and declared policy, irrespective of the value of this policy itself.

Now, let us look at failures because there are also some spectacular failures, too. When I talk about failure, I am not talking about failure in absolute terms, but rather failures compared to what the planners were trying to do.

I am not judging policies, which are political and therefore cannot be judged objectively. I define as planning failure an inability to implement a well defined and declared policy, irrespective of the value of this policy itself.

In European cities, planners, starting in the ‘50s, tried to limit the growth of capital cities like London and Paris. They tried to limit it because they thought that large cities would be unmanageable.

Planners used a lot of resources trying to limit the growth of large cities, but it never worked. I am not saying that it was a good idea to try to limit the size of capital cities.

I am just saying that they were planning to do it, and they didn’t succeed. They did not succeed in limiting the size of cities, because in fixing their objective they ignored the demand indicated by markets.

Another European planning failure was planners’ attempt to increase the amount of intra-urban trips using public transport, and this didn’t work.

There are still a lot of people using public transport in European cities, but the amount of trips done by car has been increasing every year, and the share of public transit is constantly decreasing.

Again, I am not saying that this is necessarily a bad thing, but it is certainly a planning failure. The objective of the planners was to maintain or increase the amount of trips done by public transport and in all major cities this proportion of trips has decreased and keeps decreasing.

In some American cities, one of the major failures of planning has been the deterioration of the city center. The centers of many American cities have been decaying, and planners for years have been trying to recreate economic vitality in these centers, and they have not always been very successful. In many cases, it has not been successful at all.

There are of course a few exceptions, like New York and San Francisco, for instance, where the inner city has maintained a high level of amenities and economic activity.
American planners have always advocated an increase in the proportion of public transport trips.

However, despite heavy investment in public transport, and advocacy of transport oriented development the amount of trips done by public transport has not increased and has generally decreased in most American cities.

The inability to implement the long stated objective of increasing the share of public transport has been one of the most glaring failures of urban planners in the United States.

We can see that the experience of planning around the world has not always been positive. We should be well aware that there are no real fool-proof urban planning models. There are some successes, there are some failures, and we have to learn from both.

The next step is to try to ask, what can be learnt from past planning experience? What should we do to be more efficient in implementing planning objectives?

I am going to try to describe an urban planning method, which could be used, to improve the odds for a successful planning result.

In my opinion, there are really six steps to be followed when working on an urban plan, each of these steps are important.

Step 1: define priority objectives.
Step 2: develop a strategy consistent with objectives;
Step 3: identify and quantify inputs;
Step 4: identify and quantify outputs;
Step 5: project and monitor outcomes;
Step 6: project and monitor citywide impacts.
Let us now use an example in order to understand better what each step consists of.

The first step, defining priority objectives. Let us imagine that the government in a particular city is concerned by the high price of housing which has become unaffordable to a large part of the population.

The priority objective would be then to decrease the price of housing. There will be of course other priority objectives, but in this example we will concentrate on this first housing objective.

Second step: developing a strategy. There are many possible strategies to lower housing prices. One possible strategy might be to develop new land. The role of the government will be to develop additional land where new houses will be built by developers, not to build the houses themselves.

The government strategy, in this case, would be to develop new land in the suburbs in order to increase the supply of housing and in the long run decrease housing prices for all.

Third step: Identify and quantify inputs. This is rather simple. In this case, it will be just to quantify the cost of developing new land, -- including planning and regulating land use in the new area – how much money the government is going to put up, how much will be borrowed and recovered, how much land is to be acquired or used in order to develop the roads; and finally how many government employees and consultants will have to be used to implement the strategy.

Fourth step: identify and quantify outputs. This task will require calculating the length of road and infrastructure network to be built. Don’t forget that building roads and other infrastructure is not the objective. The objective is to have more houses at a lower cost at the end of the planning period.

Fifth step: calculate projected outcome. Project outcome will consist in calculating the area of land which is likely to be developed by developers and how many houses are likely to be built on this newly developed land.

This is not a direct output because the output is going to be only the roads and the infrastructure, but it will be important for the planner to know exactly how much area of land is likely to be developed because of the infrastructure network built by the government.

Of course, the outcome will depend on the density, and on the land-use regulations which will be used in this area. The outcome will depend on how many dwelling units will be built there, although the dwelling units are not going to be built by the municipal government.

But it is very important to identify that as a project outcome. It is very important for planners to differentiate between the outcome (the final result: housing) and the output (the participation of the government in the form of new area plans, new regulations and infrastructure investments).

Sixth step: projecting impact. The planners will have to evaluate what would be the impact of the strategy on housing prices in the city.

In this case, to have an impact on price, the number of new houses built each year will have to be large enough to lower housing price in the entire city. In addition during the implementation of the strategy, planners would have to monitor carefully not only the outcome (the number of new houses built) but also the impact (housing price change).

Projecting impact is very important. In this example, if the strategy increases the supply of housing by, say, 1 percent, the project might appear very successful in terms of the number of houses built or the quality of houses built, but it will have no likely impact on prices, as the additional number of houses would be insufficient to influence prices.

Therefore, the objectives will not be met. This last step, projecting and monitoring impact, is therefore very important.

Most Master Plans are including up to step four, but very few are going through steps five and six, which are really the most important parts of the planning process. Many projects appear successful, but have no impact and therefore, they fail to meet the objectives of the government.

If you look at master plans, and I am not talking necessarily about any particular case, but around the world, you will find that sometimes the master plan consists of steps one and two … objectives and strategy … and stops there.

Sometimes a Master Plan will contain only input and output. That means the plan is limited to a list of projects, for instance, a list of roads which are going to be built and how much they are going to cost.

Very few times do planners really calculate the outcome, and even more rarely do they bother to calculate the impact of the proposed strategy. I think that projecting the impact of a strategy is one of the major improvements that should be done if planners want to be more successful and therefore more useful.

Even when planners follow the six steps, there might still be some weaknesses which could appear in the planning process. Very often it is difficult to formulate objectives which are clear enough.

Sometime the strategy proposed is inconsistent with the objectives. Sometimes the strategies are inconsistent with the city’s spatial structure itself.

Inconsistency between the various planning steps described above is the major problem in urban planning. For instance, it is very common, to have a complete inconsistency between the objectives and the current or proposed land use regulations.

Land use regulations have sometimes been formulated long ago, and there are new objectives, and the land use regulations are really inconsistent with the new objectives.

For instance, let  us say that there is a strategy that consists in investing in heavy rail transit, an underground metro, for instance, but the current land use regulations are severely limiting densities.

There is then an internal inconsistency between the metro, which requires high densities, and the regulations, which are forcing low densities.

Another Mater Plans’ weakness, that is a little more subtle to identify, appears when a strategy is at odds with customers’ demand. For instance, I was talking (here above) about the inability of planners in Europe and the United States to increase the percentage of trips by public transport.

This planning failure is due to an ignorance of consumer demand for individual houses and private transport which is very strong.

Any strategy that ignores this trend in consumer demand is bound to fail. For this reason, it is very important that urban planners monitor and understand markets. 

However, the most common reason for planning failure is an inconsistency between projected costs and current resources. Planners often develop master plans, which are very ambitious and costly, and there are just not enough resources to finance it.

Finally, one major failure of urban planning practice is a lack of regular monitoring of what is happening in a city. Sometimes, master plans are done every ten or fifteen years, and during those ten or fifteen years, nobody knows exactly what is happening.

Municipal financial officers are monitoring costs, certainly. They are probably monitoring output also, but nobody bothers with outcome and impact.

I think that this is the major weakness of urban planning as it is currently practiced around the world but more so in Africa. Planners, for some reasons, are happy to project the future, but they happily ignore the present. Let us summarize what we have been discussing here.

First, there is a need for planners to look across sectors. There is an absolute necessity to avoid looking at a land-use issue in isolation.

Second, monitoring the real estate market is very important in order to design a good land use plan because the real estate market will give you an idea of what is the level of demand and whether your plan goes completely against the trend or is in conformity with demand.

Third, it is important for planners to use cost-benefit analysis, to investigate possible negative side effects of regulation and infrastructure investment, and to look for potential inconsistency between objectives and strategies.

Fourth, planners should constantly monitor urban indicators like densities, number and location of building permits, traffic flow, land price and rents.

Finally, fifth, planners should be sure that the 6 steps of planning described above have been followed. Describing objectives and strategies is just not enough to insure successful implementation.

Foreign models are not directly transferable. There are a lot of planning successes around the world, but there are a lot of failures also, and we should learn from the failures may be even more than from the successes.

It is easier to learn from the failures than the successes. Using a systematic methodology helps, but it is not enough.

And, finally, we have to be rather modest. Urban planning is not an exact science. We are all still learning in all parts of the world. Nobody possesses a complete methodology which is “fail proof,” so we have to learn, we have to face our own failures, acknowledge them and learn from them, and eventually we would be able to demonstrate that urban planning really adds something to a city and makes a city more efficient. 

N.B: Dr. Peter Butera Bazimya is an urban planner with over 20 years of professional experience in operational urban planning. For 15 years he has worked as a principal urban planner for several institutions. .

The interaction between markets, regulations and infrastructure investments in shaping cities is Dr. Bazimya’s main field of interest. His articles on the subject are available at