Plans like deer tracks

"Make no little plans," was the famous injunction of Daniel Burnham, the late nineteenth century architect and planner. The phrase caught the mood of the America of his time; but today the peoples of advanced technological countries are singing a differrent tune. The possibilities of being wrong are great; the costs of a mistake can be incalculable. A professional man I know ends his course each year by telling his students:

"I have one wish for you in your careers, that you may succeed in not doing more harm the good."

Thus modesty becomes a supreme virtue, and little plans seem better than large ones. From England, the country that taught us "small is beautiful," comes a book by Peter Hall called "Great Planning Disasters." His thesis is that almost every time man intervenes massively in social, economic or ecological affairs, he creates problems greater than those he seeks to solve. Or at best he achieves a futile result. Among such "disasters" Hall puts the Concorde, a beautiful airplane but already obsolescent and doomed to have no progeny; also BART, the San Francisco subway system that will probably never bring returns proportionate to its costs.

The on-and-off-again tunnel under the English channel, the non-existent orbital roadways around London, and the Sydney Opera House (in regard to the latter I would strongly disagree) are lumped together as proof of failure. Each one of us could add favorites to the list. I would include New York's proposed Westway, and recall the dramatic point in San Francisco's downtown where an abruptly discontinued superhighway is silhouetted against the sky. The other day while viewing a model of New York's gigantic new convention center on display at the Museum of Modern Art, a boy of some 12 years sidled up to me and asked what it was.

I explained the structure and its purpose. "It's too big,"m said he categorically; and I wondered whether he might not be prophetic.

Some years ago I was on a commission to plan the future of what was then known as Welfare Island, in the East River in New York. In a preliminary discussion, each person around the table had a different idea. One wanted it to be the site of a new stadium; another, of an atomic power plant. I wanted it to be a park. When it came to the turn of David Lilienthal, father of TVA and pioneer in atomic energy, he waited for a minute and then said quietly: "It is evident we do not have an agreed-upon view of what should be done with his incredibly valuable site. I propose that we safeguarcd it and let the next generation decide." I thought then he was the wisest man at the table. At least he was not going to commit an irreversible error.

Burnham's dictum still comes back to haunt us: we are a great people; should we not be doing great things?But Burnham's own masterpiece, his plan for Chicago , shows the risks of failure. Though he is responsible for the city's beautiful waterfront, an enormous interstate cloverleaf stands where he had envisioned a public square. In San Francisco, if fire and earthquake had not intervened, he would have built roads following the contours of the hills thus depriving the city of the up-and-down streets that give it unique aspects and breath-taking views.

It just may be that for the 1980's the watch-word should be to go slowly, where possible; and always to seek the simpler and least costly technological improvements. The development of commuter buses may be better than new subway lines, and small dams better than big ones. The poet Stephen Vincent Benet wrote of the American pioneers that they were prone to have large plans, but that "their plans were deer-tracks, running out in the dew." They were not, for that reason, prevented from going forward. To be cautious and pragmatic, to prefer the certain small gain to the possibility of noble disaster, may be the best way for our advanced and complex civilization to proceed.

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