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The Importance of Psychology in Planning

22 April 2011 One Comment

Why doesn’t the field of urban planning borrow more insight from the field of psychology? You see, most often planning for a city means planning for its body, or its land and built capital. Sometimes planning means planning for its head, or its intellectual capital and economic potential. But rarely does planning entail planning for the city’s heart, or its emotion. This is unfortunate because a city’s psyche—or its collective fears, hopes, doubts, outlooks, etc—probably has just as much to do with failed plans as does the quality of the plan itself.

There is a famous quote that states: “He who fails to plan, plans to fail”. This is true on some level, but it doesn’t get to the gist of failure, particularly in planning. In fact one just has to look at the myriad of urban plans that have not only remained unrealized, but that have created the opposite of their intent. For example, urban renewal was on its face a serious, rationalized effort to get rid of blight and prevent ghettos. Yet what it really did was create ghettos through dislocation and isolation.

Why do our urban plans often create the opposite of their intent? Here is where the discipline can borrow heavily from the field of psychology, because in the latter there is an understanding that: for every conscious intent there remains the potential for a subconscious motivation behind this intent. Or as Carl Jung put it:

“Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.”

Planners and policy makers often cite fate when the effects of certain policies create self-destructing conditions. This is very common for the apologists, policy-makers, and developers of sprawl. In short, the argument goes that sprawl is inevitable as it is what the people want. Otherwise—without demand—it would not occur. Says Witold Rybczynski reviewing the book “Sprawl” for Slate:

“Sprawl is not the anomalous result of American zoning laws, or mortgage interest tax deduction, or cheap gas, or subsidized highway construction, or cultural antipathy toward cities. Nor is it an aberration. Bruegmann [the author] shows that asking whether sprawl is “good” or “bad” is the wrong question. Sprawl is and always has been inherent to urbanization. It is driven less by the regulations of legislators, the actions of developers, and the theories of city planners, than by the decisions of millions of individuals—Adam Smith’s “invisible hand.”

This is true to some extent—sprawl is driven by people’s wants. But what this line of thinking doesn’t taken into account are the potential motivations behind these wants—which of course begs the question of whether society is again following blindly into the path of its own destruction through the illusion of its ideals. Again, psychology here might help to inform us.

Pulitzer-price winning philosopher Ernest Becker wrote:

 “The irony of man’s condition is that the deepest need is to be free of the anxiety of death and annihilation; but it is life itself which awakens it, and so we must shrink from being fully alive.”

It can be argued that the desire for the suburbs partly arises out of this need for security, or as an attempt to “shrink” from the realities of a city: it’s dirt, commotion, noises, and movement—and its vibrancy that is often felt as a general trueness that no one is really in control. Soothingness, as such, has commonly come in the form of space, yards, relative silence, uniformity in design, privacy, and—overall—a better illusion of control.

Of course over the years the illusion only got “better” with sprawl; that is, more space, bigger yards, bigger houses, more silence, more privacy, and a uniformity disallowing any design not provided for by the developer’s menu. Still, the greater the illusion the greater the potential to avoid the realities of the condition. And whether or not the real insecurities being borne by sprawl will be heard amongst the clapping of our comfort remains to be seen. The forewarnings weren’t heeded 50 years ago when we “renewed blight” to make neighborhood suffering. But with sprawl, it is a region at stake.

Which brings us back to the heart. As planners, emotion as a cause and emotion as consequence must start entering into the conversation of how it is we are forming our cities. Otherwise, our intentions at being well-intended will continually bend to that part of the dark that we think we are running away from. To this point, I think Arcade Fire says it best:

‘Cause on the surface the city lights shine–They’re calling at me, come and find your kind–Sometimes I wonder if the World’s so small–That we can never get away from the sprawl–Living in the sprawl–Dead shopping malls rise like mountains beyond mountains–And there’s no end in sight–I need the darkness, someone please cut the lights

–By Richey Piiparinen