Why Big Plans Fail


“Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized” is Daniel Burnham’s often quoted rallying cry to urbanists.
Our backs stiffen as we read this. It is a call to arms that that we love hearing. Our testosterone levels are heightened. We fidget in anticipation. Coloured markers are poised. We just want to get on to make BIG PLANS!

This sentiment is understandable where the commission was to rebuild Chicago after the Great Fire or if it was design a new capital city… Washington, Canberra, Brasilia, Chandigarh. In earlier times, we can understand the grand plan for restructuring Paris or Rome. We can also understand the power of the imperial plan used in the colonisation of the new world. But all of these presuppose the total power of the church, the crown or the state operating in a top down, command-and-control manner to realise their plans.

This is so far from where we are today. In the UK and in our times where we have do more with less, exactly the opposite is true. Many big plans don’t just stir the blood, they clog the arteries. They just never get realised – unless they are for a three week event that is held in different parts of the world every four years and costs £10bn. But this is not what we mean when we talk of sustainable urbanism.
So what we need to understand is how the big plan now needs to work in established complex environments and especially in an increasingly bottom up world – where the focus is much more on enabling than controlling.
Essentially, there are many things in the planning of cities that need to be conceived of at scale, so there is nothing wrong with having big ideas or big plans. I have used big ideas to drive many of our plans. Big ideas do not means big solutions in the same way that big plans do not mean radical or wholesale change. In our work on the Birmingham Big City Plan our efforts were directed to releasing the potential of a ‘city of a thousand designers’, the ‘city of a thousand trades’ and the place of multiple interventions all set within an enabling vision for the city. We were determined to build the fine-grained fabric of the city, and not build more flagships. Here Big meant Lots!

So what type of big plans fail?


1. Big Plans that Present only a Static View

“Everyone has a {big} plan until they get punched in the mouth” – Mike Tyson

The world is littered with big plans that cannot change unless you go back to first principles. Because we have no interim step to bed down urban structure, it is always possible to start again….and so we do!

All of this points to plans that have the qualities of robustness, responsiveness and resilience. They can adapt to changing circumstances and do it well.


2. Big Plans that require Big Leaps

“Have a bias toward action – let’s see something happen now. You can break that big plan into small steps and take the first step right away.” – Indira Gandhi

Many plans cannot start or are dependent on something else happening before they can start or get on with action. The first step is often a jump. We often hear “we need a flagship project to put this place on the map”. Flagships always sink first but only after a slow painful gurgling death.

This points to the need for a plan for quick wins to build confidence, (perhaps even meanwhile uses or interim strategies). It points to breaking down the plan into bite-sized chunks that can be scaled up or scaled down. It certainly points independent timelines so we can get on with other things if some stall.


3. Big Plans that need Big Players

“The dinosaur’s eloquent lesson is that if some bigness is good, an overabundance of bigness is not necessarily better.” - Eric Johnston

The classic derisk formula favoured by many in the public sector is: Put all you problems in a problem basket and get a big player to sort it. The country is littered with failed schemes where the big player has walked away after a big procurement process. Biggest risk is nothing happens. All the eggs are in one basket

This points to the need for a plan that allows for small changes to make a big difference, widening choice and delivery for many from the individual, the collective to the corporate. Not just the corporate.


4. Big Plans as Big Architecture

“It is the vice of a vulgar mind to be thrilled by bigness, to think that a thousand square miles are a thousand times more wonderful than one square mile, and that a million square miles are almost the same as heaven.” – EM Forster

In our world there is constant pressure to deliver radical change and quickly – Give us something different, a big bang, the city fathers say. Can we show it at MPIM or the Venice Biennale? We call it the ‘wow factor’, but what do you call it when you see it for the second time? When everything is different it all becomes the same.

This problem arises when the plan is defined by the big architectural solution that hols the plan to ransom. So as an antidote to Rem Koolhaas’s S:M:L:XL we need XS:S:M:L.

Urban design is not architecture. It creates the medium in which exciting architecture can flourish, releasing the potential of the unexpected and providing the backdrop for where the everyday meets the extraordinary.
5. Big Plans that demand Big Outcomes

“The pursuit of excellence is less profitable than the pursuit of bigness, but it can be more satisfying”. David Ogilvy

Big plans expect change to happen quickly. If they don’t, they destroy confidence. They suck the oxygen from the room. Some of our biggest sites are in the hands of the biggest players and very little is happening. Many of our Millennium sites are only delivering 25 homes per year, and we can do nothing about it.
We all know that excellent places take a long time to evolve and mature. Lots of small add up to something big!

So…. we still need big visions but they must be capable of releasing the collective power of many small ideas and actions that will add up to make a big difference. I call this making MASSIVE SMALL change.

Daniel Burnham’s quote is not relevant in our world. There is nothing wrong with lots of little plans set within a clear civic vision. They stir our blood in different ways ….BECAUSE THEY HAPPEN!

Posted on August 25, 2013 in Uncategorized

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