Creative Thinking in City Planning

by Jason on April 22, 2012

The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man. – George Bernard Shaw

I’ve been reading some articles about the individuality of a city, the special characteristics and charms that make a city so unique, and the new projects and chances cities are willing to take to step out of the norm and pioneer an idea that will no doubt foster imitation. I wonder why planning agencies do not have a Research and Development sector in their department, dedicated to the idea of fostering new ideas. I remember an instance in class, working in a group on how to, fictionally, change the land use make up of San Jose to bring in denser, mixed use and transit oriented neighborhoods. What took me off guard is that even when this group discussion was a sandbox exercise, there was a group member who would consistently mention the limitations or obstacles that certain neighborhoods would bring. This really shocked and frustrated me, yet I completely understood why this individual made their approach.

When you are dealing with cities, you are dealing with the homes and livelihoods of individuals, altering what they feel is natural and normal and forcing behavioral and lifestyle changes. This often brings resistance, and it’s vital to consider those obstacles. However, I keep thinking about how this exercise was a sandbox scenario, and even when asked to completely do anything you want to the city, the propensity to impose limitations seems so strong and natural.

But why?

Nate Berg writes in Atlantic Cities, “Are Americans Afraid of Innovative Urban Design?” He sites the success of the New York High Line and Chicago’s Millennium Park. Not mentioned are San Francisco’s Parklets, which have also gained great popularity. These changes are often brought by community members and advocates, not usually from planning or government agencies, which is a pity. Planners straight out of school come with so many promising ideas, and though it is important to mold those with the realities of the field, the political-ness of planning, it’s important to not fall into routine of maintenance and become an engine that is conservative to change. In a continually modernist and changing economy and society, a city cannot afford to be inflexible and resistant.

What is the point of asking for creativity when limitations are already put in place. It certainly makes the easiest case to solve problems, but I can’t help but feel that this sort of thinking limits a certain type of creativity. You can certainly be creative in problem-solving, but you make limitations and obstacles absolute. There have been many times in history where limitations have shifted and changed for the right creative solution.
I will end this with Jonah Lehrer’s article on “How to be Creative.” It mentions how when adults are told to think like a 7 year old, they are able to come up with more ideas than those who weren’t, precisely because of the willingness to be daring and push the envelope, assuming that the envelope is flexible. And who knows, the limitations we face may be more flexible than we think. Upon examination of Albert Einstein’s brain, scientists have noted aspects of it that have maintained a sense childlikeness. “We tend to assume that experts are the creative geniuses in their own fields. But big breakthroughs often depend on the naive daring of outsiders,” says Lehrer, and I truly do agree with this.

Maybe I am advocating for everyone to think like a 7 year old, to play and mold with problems like puddy instead of a puzzle. It certainly wouldn’t hurt to respect this sort of thinking.

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