The Spontaneous City

The Spontaneous City

The Wiktionary (the dictionary counterpart to Wikipedia) says that the word “spontaneous” derives from the late Latin word “spontaneus”, from Latin “sponte” meaning “of one’s free will, voluntarily”. That meaning still holds, but the word has acquired an additional meaning, acting “without planning”. Planning in contrast is “the act of formulating a course of action” or drawing up “a set of intended actions, though which one expects to achieve a goal”. The words are not strictly antonyms, but they are very far from synonyms. To act spontaneously requires there be no specific forethought, to plan imposes structure and intention upon action.
When I was younger I worked in Silver Spring, Maryland at the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission – Montgomery County Planning Department (MNCPPC-MCPD). While there I worked on a number of plans and policies, most notably the Annual Growth Policy (AGP) which aimed to regulate the pace of development, and by regulating pace differently in different areas, it also affected the sequence of development. The AGP did not intend to affect the ultimate development of an area, that was left for the plan.


There were a number of flaws with the AGP, but one I thought most important was the attempt to pro-actively anticipate the future rather than responding to decisions. The AGP established “staging ceilings” for each area of the county (about 30 or so), the was the maximum number of jobs and housing units permitted in that area, so that public facilities would be adequate. One fundamental difficulty was that the optimal number for one area depended on what actually happened in other areas, which of course was unknown until that development actually occurred. Thus the staging ceilings in one area were conditioned upon ceilings in another area, that may or may not have been exceeded (there were lots of ways ceilings could be exceeded, but if the ceiling were exceeded, the area was placed in moratorium for new development).
This experience, contemporaneous with the fall of Communism, shattered my naive beliefs about planning, and along with reading Hayek’s The Fatal Conceit, it also shattered what I had not thought deeply about in terms of the problems of forecasting. Growing up in the 1980s I had some belief in markets, clearly the economy was doing better in the unregulated Reagan years than in the 1970s. Yet I also understood there were market imperfections, externalities, and public goods that an unregulated market just did not properly account for.
I had grown up in Columbia, Maryland, a highly planned new city from the 1960s, and clearly I was constantly reminded in the promotional literature, it was a better place to live with fewer problems than unplanned sprawling suburbs or the decaying inner city. One of the main critiques of Columbia was its sterility, its lack of life. Things were not out of place there, there were no non-conforming uses.

Could one plan without planning?

The first notion I had while at MNCPPC-MCPD was the idea of just-in-time or dynamic planning. Instead of trying to proactively predict the future, could we just respond to market proposals with a yea or nay (and other feedback). If the proposal met standards, it would go forward, if not, it would be rejected. The standards would not be site specific, but instead be geared toward assessing things public agencies should be concerned about, namely ensuring public facilities remained adequate. I was thinking mainly about replacing the AGP growth management system, rules about zoning and so on were not really in my purview. This was really more like dynamic regulating than dynamic planning.
The difficulty raised with this is that it reduces certainty for private-sector actors, who under the AGP at least knew in advance whether public facilities were adequate. Certainty is not the only value on which a public policy should be judged, I could establish certainty by prohibiting all development, and that would not be good for the private-sector either. Further, developers who have already been approved might like the idea that their competitors cannot go forward because all of the available infrastructure capacity has already been committed.
The second notion came later, while a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley, as a way to replace zoning. The the role of the public is to establish a vision for the future, and the role of public servants is to facilitate and enable that vision. The vision is not generally site-specific but vague. Development would be judged by whether they moved toward the vision or against it. No plan would be written, no zoning enacted, only the vision would be expressed.
This decreases certainty even more. But it challenges developers to achieve consensus with the neighbors of potential projects.
After teaching a transportation-land use course at the University of Minnesota for a few years, I stumbled upon a third notion. This was to challenge the core tenet that planning actually creates better places.

What does one want from a place?

One thing I want is vibe or vibrant communities. I also want the ability to do what I want when I want. This I will call “spontaneous action”. Spontaneous action requires at least two elements.
The first is the presence of things I want to do. This presence is both spatial and temporal. The thing must be where I want it to be, and it must be open or available when I want to use it.
The second is the ability to reach those things when I want to. I need to have a means of transporting myself conveniently from where I am to where I want to be when I want to go there. There must be both destinations and networks that satisfy action.
There are many locations that have networks, and people who have vehicles, that allow them to move about easily. In any small town or rural community, someone who has a car can easily move about, but there is nowhere to go. These areas have high mobility.
Some places have lots of activity. Cities in general have high density. However because of crowding it may be difficult to move around very much, these places may be congested, limiting the speed and comfort of travel.
In the best places, there are lots of places to go and things to do, and the network is constructed with appropriate differentiation so that are fast links connecting dense places. The net is that even if one can reach things faster than in a small town, because the slow speed is compensated for by the short distance and the relatively high speed links, these areas have high accessibility.
Different people want different things. If we all wanted the same things, life would be pretty boring. Still accessibility is something that many people do want.
Places with higher accessibility allow more spontaneous action than places with lower accessibility. Land prices are higher in places with high accessibility both because of the scarcity of such places and their value.
There is a premium to be paid for “spontaneous action”, an option value that people hold, even if they never go to a show, or a game, or the museum, or the particular specialist shop (the bookstore specializing in gambling books I found in London e.g.), the accessibility gives them the option of engaging in that activity.
(As used here, spontaneous action is limited to what others are willing to allow or accommodate. There are many things for technical or economic reasons I cannot acquire and many activities I cannot engage in because they do not exist).
The opposite of spontaneous action is scheduled action. If I cannot engage in things when I want, I must plan in advance when to do them. This may be because of other people’s constraints, or limitations to the transportation system, or hours of business of the thing I seek. The advantage of a large city is the increased flexibility, the high frequency of transit services, and the increased likelihood of finding a 24-hour store specializing in what you seek (London notwithstanding)

Spontaneous development

Land use planning emerged for a reason, it was a response to the negative features of unplanned, uncontrolled development. Some people did things, like build quarries, that really upset their neighbors. The “nuisance” lawsuit was thought to be insufficient, and quite reactive, would it be possible to proactively avoid this problem? Zoning was one response. Zoning would implement plans, and provide “visions” for individual parcels. It provided certainty at the cost of flexibility. It also capped density in many places, perhaps below where the market density would have been. (It is very difficult to do counter-factual analyses of something like this, and the extent to which zoned density exceeds actual density we can say that the market requirements were lower than the zoning, but when the actual density equals the zoned density, the market desires were probably greater than that permitted, but by how much is impossible to say with certainty).
Zoning is not a requirement of today’s cities, Houston, Texas is often pitched as A city without zoning , though there are contractual covenants and other private equivalents of zoning in many areas of the city. Moreover, the city has numerous other regulations affecting land use.
Spontaneous development would still need to respect property rights and rule of law, though the law would be more limited than found in many places today.

Does planning lead to more or less spontaneous action?

Can we plan and regulate cities to achieve more spontaneous action than an unplanned city?
Presently, that question must remain a question, the question of “can we plan” is very different than “do we plan”.
We can think of a graph with two-axes.
On the x-axis we have degree of spontaneous action, with the zero point marking a totalitarian city under siege with a curfew imposed, and the right point complete freedom to consume whatever the market can produce.
On the y-axis we have degree of spontaneous development, with the zero point marking a pre-planned communist state and the topmost point complete freedom to develop. The question is, what is the shape of the curve? Does spontaneous development enhance or constrain spontaneous action? Is there any relation?
Degree of Spontaneous Development
0——————————— Degree of Spontaneous Action
0 high

Spontaneity in a can

One of the features of modern planning is the attempt to provide vibe and spontaneity in the urban environment. The festival marketplace is a classic example. If only we can create an exciting, but controlled atmosphere, then we will have achieved the best of spontaneously arisen places without their defects. The market for these festival marketplaces has been mixed though. For every success like Baltimore’s Harborplace, there is a failure like Minneapolis’s St. Anthony Main. The very regulation that aims to limit the negative effects minimizes the spontaneity to the point of failure.
Unlike SPAM, vibrant spontaneity does not come in a can, it is not some formulaic easily reproducible phenomenon.


There are numerous interesting examples one could look at.
There are various types of places which involve different types of planning by non-governmental agents:
Event City – Fairs, Festivals, Shows, Conventions, Sports
Enveloped City – Skyways, Subways, and Shopping Malls
Planned City – Columbia
In addition one could compare cities/places that have various degrees of land use control and various degrees of spontaneous action. New York has a high degree of spontaneous action, and probably once had a high degree of spontaneous development (though this was on a pre-specified grid network). Many developing cities still have spontaneous development to the consternation of city officials, though the alternative might be no development at all.
We also need measurements of spontaneous action. Travel and activity surveys tend to ask what was done, but not about what wasn’t done, or how long the activity was planned for. A new type of data gathering instrument is required to fully assess the question. Do people in large cities spend more or less time planning their actions? How far in advance do they plan? (there is some research on this to be sure, but nothing I am aware of allows inter-metropolitan comparisons. We can look at the number of trips made, but that is only a partial indicator, because many trips have substitutes, we need to determine the quality of those trips as well.

Levinson, David (1997) The Limits to Growth Management. Environment and Planning B: Planning and Design 24: 689-707
Levinson, David (2003) The Next America Revisited Journal of Planning Education and Research Summer 2003, Volume 22, Number 4, pp. 329-345.
Hayek, Friedrich (1988) The Fatal Conceit: The Errors of Socialism. The University of Chicago

3 thoughts on “The Spontaneous City

  1. I ascribe some of the planning profession’s approach to a view of human behavior that differs from that of the economics profession (my training). This theme is developed in Chapter 2 of my book, Don’t Call It Sprawl. ( I briefly explore some public policy implications in the final chapter of the book, and emphasize the importance of flexibility (related to your spontaneity) throughout. I will be developing these thoughts further in delivering a couple of talks in the coming academic year, and if anyone buys this book perhaps I can persuade Cambridge to publish the sequel. For what it’s worth, I cite your Columbia paper as well as some of your rational locator and related work in the book. According to my friend Marlon Boarnet, that showed good taste in reading the literature.


  2. Thanks for the concept of the metric axes. As someone studying serendipities in cities, I find it remarkably useful. I sat down to play a game with it and I have a few conjectures on the shape of the curve to share:
    (i) linear proportionality, S.A. proportionate to S.D.
    e.g. This is actually the toughest to figure out but I think a sandcastle building, or practising spontaneous art best describe this primitive relationship: the more S.A. there is, the more S.D there is and vice versa–as if one creates the infrastructure and fuel for the other, vice versa again. This is the relationship of the infinitely optimism; or of losing oneself in powerful improvisation.
    (ii) inverse linear proportionality between S.A and S.D.
    e.g. There are, I believe, two possible relationships and they are distinct. (a) as S.A increases, S.D. decreases, vice versa: we see this when S.A. contributes to the creation of institutions and infrastructures that increasingly curtail further development along this sector. I dare to conjecture that a rapidly developing nation state–when successfully implemented, like perhaps Singapore–from a colonial nation or a fishing village belongs to that, at least for a start. I don’t suppose S.A. increases infinitely.
    (b) as S.A. decreases, S.D. increases, vice versa
    e.g. This I suppose can be a case of existential complexity: as I become less free in paralysis, there are seemingly more opportunities to develop spontaneously; or when more people exit action to take up inaction thereby freeing up entrances for potential new actions. The other way where S.A. increases as S.D. decreases, is where complexity rises faster than the ability to comprehend it, thereby relying back on everything that is preplanned since any planning, or new design, would be anticipated to fail in complexity.
    (iii) bell curve:
    e.g. This one seems easier–one can imagine a “totalitarian regime” dissolving, where S.D. starts low as S.A. and progresses to a tipping point at the apex, which is also some optimum best trade-off, and once that is surpasses, begins tumbing down again. America today would be an ideal conjectured case.
    (iv) Inverse bellcurve
    e.g. Same with tipping point, but it heads up from there. This one perhaps take some imagination. But I can imagine folks emerging from a nuclear winter with tribal laws in place where it is free to develop again, but with very little spontaneous action possible because every opportunity or means to do so has been destroyed. Or less imaginatively, one can say that people normatively settle for a ‘satisfice’ situation here; where they consistently rely on some pre-planned development plans while conceding a relatively high level of spontaneous action but some crisis prompts them to dismantle what they have relied upon and then the upward climb begins once more.
    (iii) and (iv) concede a tipping point, which also implicitly concedes a feedback cycle of some sort.
    These are primitive curves conjectures and I suppose that in real life, and in differing contexts, the curves could really be all shape and gradient. But at least the idea here is exploratory–mapping out the possible sceanarios is more fun than tracing out the exact curve from data!


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