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C200: Asking The Right Questions

2011 March 25
by Tim Pittman

< Robert Moses' plan for a 10-lane freeway through lower Manhattan >

Cities can offer sustainable, livable, vibrant environments and be powerful centers of innovation. But what environments we create and what innovations we pursue are framed by the questions we’re asking. Looking back at unsuccessful examples of city planning, it occurs to me that what I’m seeing may be the right answers to the wrong questions.

Personally, I see cities as a tool for fostering human capabilities to live and flourish (I owe my inspiration to Nobel prize winner Amartya Sen). My question is: how can cities provide the framework for people to live well and participate meaningfully in society?

This is ambitious, but purposefully so. A good question should help expose what we don’t know and offer a new lens to look at the tools we have at hand. Transportation, public space, social housing, urban density, economic growth—these are all tools that can deliver great cities. But too often they are treated as ends in themselves and the bigger question is forgotten.

We all know the best of intentions can still lead to bad results. Visionary highway planners have destroyed city fabrics around the world when asking how to move car traffic most efficiently instead of how to provide the highest quality environment. Affordable housing is built without considering broader measures like livability, transport, and access to basic services. The questions were wrong, not the answers.

The right questions consider broader goals and build in time for reflection, mechanisms for feedback, and capacity for change. Take a recent example in downtown Silver Spring, Maryland: an unused plot was temporarily covered in Astroturf and became a surprisingly vibrant public space used for everything from picnics to pick up football. Two years later it was torn up and replaced with a previously planned plaza, veteran’s memorial, seasonal ice rink and pavilion—a questionable improvement with a large cost.

Rarely will we get something right the first time. With the right question, the right timing, and a little modesty we can incorporate feedback, adaptation, and flexibility into our solutions. Great cities have these mechanisms built in; we just have to make sure we don’t design them out. Asking questions is how we’re going to do it, and cities are where we need to start.


Tim Pittman is a masters candidate in the Cities Programme at the London School of Economics.