An Argument for Retrofitting Existing Cities vs. Building Greenfield Cities

By Anonymous

As we look at best practices for investing in sustainable, competitive cities, most of the examples we have reviewed in class have either been driven by government or at least had significant government involvement. As I reviewed the prescriptive steps in planning that were proposed, it struck me that in order for these steps to result in the successful development of a sustainable, competitive city, it would require a high degree of intellectual honesty on the part of the protagonist, particularly as it relates to learning from history and past practice, measuring outcomes and learning and adapting. The question this brought me to is, if the protagonist is the government, is this a reasonable expectation? And if not, where does that leave us?

Governments are not good at tracking complex information, which is required to critically evaluate history and past practice and to measure outcomes in such a way that the protagonist is able to learn and adapt. Most capable governments are good at collecting and disseminating data, but not very good at evaluating themselves critically or at looking outside themselves for best practices. A government may start a program with good intentions, but the reality of governance and politics often gets in the way. In my experience, many government agencies are understaffed and have limited resources. This makes the day-to-day tracking of progress against stated goals in a way that enables objective analysis difficult. To make matters worse, the nature of the political cycle where there is an election every few years and a newly elected official brings in new people and new priorities means that institutional knowledge is lost repeatedly. Finally, the number one priority of any politician is to get reelected. This means that politicians are constantly managing public perception and this leads to a tendency to focus on positives and ignore the negatives.

So what does this tell us? That the only conditions under which a sustainable city can be built is under a benevolent dictatorship? I do not believe that is the case. My hypothesis is that consistency and institutional knowledge are crucial for the successful application of the prescriptive planning steps that we have discussed in class, so we have to look for situations where this holds true. I believe this leads us to the fact that existing cities are where successful sustainability efforts and progress are going to happen. Most city mayors, at least in the U.S., can be reelected without limit. While this does not mitigate the fact that politicians are constantly managing public perception, it can potentially allow a city government to take a longer term perspective and retain institutional knowledge over time. For me, this represents one argument for the expansion or rehabilitation of existing cities rather than building new greenfield cities, because these cities already have a “reason for being” and they have a government with the capability to think and act for the longer term.