Compromises and Complexity

13 12 2008

A featured article on www.newgeography.com talks about the health dangers of living near heavily-traffic corridors: high levels of smog (ground-level ozone), particulate matter and other contaminants combine to create health complications, particularly with regard to respiratory health, and especially for the young. Article here.

It was an interesting read for me, as I was confronted with this precise question when I went for my Ethics Exam for CIP certification in September. The examiner presented the following scenario:

You are working on a corridor plan for a major arterial street (i.e. lots of traffic), and the planning study is recommending increased residential densities on the street to take advantage of good public transit service, commercial amenities, services, and so on. However, the local health authority has come forward in opposition to increased residential densities due to the serious health problems associated with living adjacent to heavy traffic areas. The research is conclusive, and they are vocal in their opposition. How do you proceed?

So, mustering my best response, I talked about reviewing their concerns and revisiting our recommendations, modifying where possible and attempting to balance the health arguments with the planning arguments for City Council to consider. And that was all reasonable, considering it was a theoretical scenario: a lot would depend on the details of the actual situation. But the best way to address such a thorny issue in a real planning situation was honestly very unclear to me.

One of the reasons I like planning work is its complexity. It is fundamentally a big picture undertaking. Planners are expected to take all these multiple considerations into account, coming to conclusions or recommendations that balance all the interests. But, how do you deal with big picture considerations that appear to be fundamentally at odds with one another? How do you reconcile the ideal scenario (perhaps high-density living should be clustered along heavy traffic corridors, but perhaps that heavy traffic should be entirely public transit, or bicycles, or some other less-polluting form of transport) with actual conditions (in which the majority of people drive, most people prefer it that way, and for those who don’t the alternatives are poor). And where do you choose to make compromises along the road from current to ideal state, in the interests of bridging that gap?

I guess I have more questions than answers. Some things just need to be muddled through.

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