by Robert Boyer, UNC Charlotte
Abstract: Urban planning and improvisational comedy are not obvious companions, and on the surface they seem contradictory: Isn’t urban planning effectively ‘writing a script’ about actions in the built environment? Isn’t improvisation just unscripted theater? In reality, the similarities of urban planning and improv outmatch their differences. When executed successfully, both planning and improv involve the exchange of information about interdependent decisions. This exchange of information helps actors (both urban actors and stage actors) cope with uncertainty about the future.
Improvisational comedians follow one hard-and-fast rule called “Yes, &”. “Yes, &” means that actors accept as true any information given to them by other actors [Yes] and offer new information to move the scene forward [&]. So long as actors continuously accept and validate each other’s information, the scene moves forward coherently. Characters in an improv scene need not necessarily agree, but the actors playing them must agree about the legitimacy of the information they have shared—they must agree about reasons for action, or the scene deteriorates quickly.
Similarly, plans in an urban environment are valuable because of the information they provide to other public and private actors in a region. It helps that property owners understand the intentions of public agencies, and that public agencies understand the intentions of other public agencies. Complex projects, in multi-jurisdiction systems are the subject of countless independent public and private decisions. In such circumstances, everyone benefits from exchanging information—from making and using plans. As such, plans have value beyond the regulations they inspire (e.g. zoning) or the physical infrastructure they guide, and when used by diverse actors over time, they can help achieve coherency and harmony in situations prone to chaos and gridlock.
Robert Boyer—Assistant Professor of Geography at UNC Charlotte and veteran improviser—describes these similarities below.
I have performed improvisational comedy (improv) with college and community groups for over a decade. In my spare time, I’m a professor of urban and regional planning.
I spend much of my working day dwelling on how plans shape the built environment, and how cities, regions, and different organizations make and use plans to avoid gridlock, guide growth, manage limited resources, and address swelling problems like climate destabilization, energy scarcity, and sprawl. On the surface, my hobby and my profession seem contradictory. Isn’t improvisation just making stuff up on the spot? Isn’t the purpose of planning to control outcomes and avoid improvisation? Of course, neither are so simple, and the more I learn about each undertaking, the more I am convinced that successful urban planning follows the same principles as successful improvisation, just over much longer time intervals. Inversely, the failures of urban planning—the inefficiencies and injustices apparent in cities around the world —can be explained by the same oversights and egoism of poorly executed improvisational comedy.
Both improv and urban planning offer tools to cope with the interdependencies of complex multi-actor environments and imperfect foresight about the future. Good improv and good planning achieve coherency—agreement about reasons for action— without a script or centralized master plan. What follows is a brief overview of my thoughts on how planners can use improv as a metaphor for how plans work (or fail to work) in complex urban regions. It is an abridged version of a paper presented at the 2014 conference of the Associated Collegiate Schools of Planning. I draw heavily from my personal experience as an improviser and from the “Illinois School” of planning pioneered by Lewis Hopkins and colleagues at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
How does improv work?
Improvisational comedy is unscripted theater. It comes in countless varieties or ‘forms’. Two very broad varieties of improv are ‘short form’ and ‘long form’. If you’ve seen Whose Line Is It Anyway on television you’ve seen ‘short-form’ improv, which involves a series of disconnected, highly structured games. If you walk into the historic “IO” (formerly Improv Olympic) theater in Chicago, you’re more likely to see ‘long-form’ improv, which involves longer, connected scenes that culminate in a set that can last as long as an hour.
ALL varieties of improv share one hard-and-fast rule. That rule is called “Yes, &” and it means that players on stage accept what other players say/do [yes], and offer new information to their scene partners in return [&]. Improvisers call new information a “gift”. If I’m on stage improvising with you, and I say Bob, I love your new blue suit, I’ve given you a gift (several gifts, actually). I’ve given us both something to talk about. Yes, you have to ‘make something up’ on the spot, but I’ve already done half the making-up for you. You can accept that gift [yes] and return the favor by giving me a gift [&]. You might say Thanks, Jim. I found this blue suit in your closet. I can respond in any number of ways now, so long as I accept your gift and give a new one: Well Bob, my closet is your closet. (Hilarity ensues).
The opposite of “Yes, &” is denial. Denial occurs when a player contradicts information from prior dialogue or action. If I were to initiate by saying Bob, I love your new blue suit, and you responded I’m not Bob, and this suit is not blue, you have contradicted my gift and effectively robbed my character of all credibility. You have also failed to offer any additional information. My still un-named character is now an irrational person with nothing to talk about. Our improv scene has quickly become your stand-up comedy act, and unless you have a half-hour of jokes prepared, we’re headed nowhere fast.
Improv troupes can consist of many players (at least two, and ten is probably too much), but not everyone plays on stage at once. At any given moment, most players in the troupe are waiting off-stage to participate in later scenes. These players can say “yes” by using information revealed in early scenes. In other words, a gift is everyone’s gift to use for the entire set. If I call you Bob in scene one, Herman (who is not in scene one) can play a character that knows Bob in scene two and “callback” to information gifted in scene one. Herman can call attention to Bob’s new blue suit and complain about how Bob tends to steal clothes from closets even though Herman was not in the scene where this information was first revealed. Gifts give and give, and as the scene moves forward players accumulate more information to draw from. The best improvisers will call back to many of the gifts granted in a set, and avoid denying them.
In summary, gifts work across scenes, and amongst all players, whether or not the characters they played were in the particular scene in which the gift was first granted. The most important gifts get used over and over and become permanent fixtures in the scene. A good improvisational comedy scene—one that, yes, makes you laugh but also contains coherent characters with relationships, objectives, and believable environments—is the product of multiple interdependent decisions that have drawn from prior information without denying information that has come before it.
How does urban planning work?
Plans are information about interdependent decisions. Plans are different than regulations (e.g. zoning ordinances) insofar as they affect outcomes through information, not through legal enforcement1,2. Everyone makes and uses plans to cope with uncertainty about the future, especially in situations that involve multiple decision-makers. I can decide, for example, to take the bus to work, but achieving my objective requires that people other than myself make related decisions at the same time, namely the bus driver. Fortunately for me, the transit agency has drafted a simple plan (an agenda) that both the bus driver and I can use to intersect in space and time.
Plans are especially useful for decisions that are interdependent, indivisible (consequences cannot be broken up into small incremental steps), irreversible (consequences cannot be un-done cheaply), and subject to imperfect foresight about the future1. Urban infrastructure projects are a great example. The ongoing light rail system extension in Charlotte, North Carolina involves decisions by multiple public, semi-public, and private decision-makers, at multiple scales, over decades of time [interdependence]. Its successful installation requires that the city access sufficient funding from federal, state, and local sources, move existing infrastructure (roads, medians, pipes, wires), re-route traffic temporarily, install new infrastructure, and inform neighbors about progress. For the installation to proceed in a cost-effective and equitable manner, land use patterns need to change, which involves coinciding rounds of re-zoning, design, infrastructure installation, and changes in travel behavior. While the light rail construction takes place in linear increments, they are very large 9-mile increments, costing the city hundreds of millions of dollars [indivisible]. Once the light rail is installed it cannot be removed, at least not without great expense [irreversible]. Finally, the success of the light rail is subject to forces about which city officials are not perfectly sure [imperfect foresight]: Will existing funding sources hold up? How will transit technology change in the coming years? Will population and employment continue to increase in the areas near the light rail stops? How will the light rail affect parking, traffic patterns, crime? Will dynamics in fuel prices undercut or overwhelm demand for the system?
Under such conditions, it makes sense for the manifold independent decision-makers involved to understand the intentions of other actors. Indeed, the ongoing light rail extension has stimulated and been stimulated by dozens of plans over several decades. In the neighborhood surrounding the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, a non-profit municipal service district called University City Partners (UCP) has invested in multiple plans in response to major changes and opportunities that accompany the light rail extension. Open up the University City Area Plan (2007) and you will find that its prescriptions about infrastructure and land use surrounding future light rail stops draw heavily on information from other plans and are justified by decades-old visions for the district and for the city as a whole. It ‘fits’ into a system of plans the same way a piece of new research ‘fits’ into a scholarly conversation, or a ‘gift’ says ‘Yes, &’ to a legacy of information dispatched in the past.
These manifold plans are worth creating because even the most analytically savvy plan or planner cannot predict how conditions will change over time. Any ‘script’ for light rail installation composed twenty years before the act would be worth no more than its weight in paper because there is no way it could accurately account for all independent decisions and landscape change that would take place in the intervening years. Yet individuals and organizations can account for new information by composing new plans, and paying attention to new plans that other individuals and organizations make.
Plans are “gifts”.
Below, I’ve listed plans related to transit and land use in the neighborhood surrounding UNC Charlotte since the 1990s. It is important to note that as of the time of the writing, the light rail extension is still not built and—with some luck—may be open for service in 2017.
|Plans Related to Land Use and Transportation in Northeast Charlotte, NC, 1992-present|
|Regional Source Book||1992||Carolinas Urban Coalition, Committee of 100|
|Transitional Analysis for Fixed Guideway Transit||1993||City of Charlotte|
|Center, Corridors, and Wedges Growth Framework||1994, 2010||City of Charlotte/Mecklenburg County|
|UNC Charlotte Master Plan||1995||UNC Charlotte|
|Northeast District Plan||1996||City of Charlotte/Mecklenburg County|
|2025 Integrated Transit/Land Use Plan||1998||City of Charlotte/Mecklenburg County|
|General Development Policies||2001||City of Charlotte|
|Urban Boulevard Study||2005||University City Partners|
|City of Charlotte “Weave” Study||2005||City of Charlotte|
|2030 Transit Corridor System Plan||2006||Metropolitan Transit Commission|
|Urban Street Design Guidelines||2007||City of Charlotte/Mecklenburg County|
|University City Area Plan||2007||University City Partners|
|Transportation Action Plan||2006, 2011||City of Charlotte/Mecklenburg County|
|Blue Line Extension Transit Station Area Plan||2013||City of Charlotte/Mecklenburg County|
|University City Area Plan Update||2015 (?)||City of Charlotte/UCP|
Plans work the same way as “gifts” in an improv scene, in the sense that they draw from older information (older plans) and offer new information about an organization’s intentions. Other individuals and organizations make use of this new information whether or not they are cited or even implicated in the plan—whether or not they are playing in that “scene”. New plans say “Yes, &” when the use the information and prescriptions in prior plans and offer new prescriptions, which are used in subsequent rounds of planning.
The 2007 University City Area Plan says “Yes, &” to decades of prior plans by using some prescriptions and updating others. For example, the 2007 plan is an update of an older Northeast District Area Plan (1996), the prescriptions of which have been challenged by changing social and technological landscapes (specifically, opportunities to build a light rail system, which was not a realistic option for the Northeast Corridor in the 1990s). The 2007 plan uses the 2030 Transit Corridor System Plan (2006) as a guide to the specific locations of future transit stations; uses elements of the city’s 2001 General Development Policies as a guide for density and land use surrounding future transit stations; and draws from the city’s Urban Street Design Guidelines (2007) to make decisions about street cross sections in the thoroughfares that surround future transit stations. The plan says “Yes, &” by using these pre-existing policies to make relatively detailed, site-specific design recommendations. The plan uses many pre-existing plans as constraints on new decisions in the same way an improviser uses prior dialogue (prior “gifts”) as constraints on new dialogue.
In the seven years since the publication of the 2007 University City Area Plan, new information has challenged several critical assumptions of earlier plans. This new information probably could not have been foreseen. Firstly, funding shortages from the state and federal government have reduced the total length of the light rail extension and resulted in the elimination of one transit stop. Whereas the university area planned (in 2007) for four transit stops, now it will host only three. Secondly, city planners have learned from their experience building and implementing the first 9.3-mile increment of light rail transit (the city had zero experience with such a system before), and they are wise to apply what they’ve learned to subsequent stations. This new information is reflected in the 2013 Blue Line Extension Transit Station Area Plan, and in the forthcoming update to the University City Area Plan (due early 2015).
Plans for the light rail extension have also inspired plans for the UNC Charlotte campus. In 2007, the university’s Campus Circulation Master Plan discussed the light rail stop with tepid uncertainty: “There is currently a refined locally preferred alternative proposed that would bring the northeast line onto campus with a station located at Cameron Boulevard across from Squires Hall.” In the intervening years, as plans for the specific locations of light rails stops have grown more certain, the University has updated its master plan and signaled its intentions to build an attractive linear quadrangle and concentrate professional schools conveniently close to the on-campus light rail stop. This has also intersected with school district plans for a new elementary school adjacent to the light rail stop. The new master plan also addresses uncertainties about how the timing of light rail construction will influence parking capacity and circulation. The University, in short, was a peripheral player in the planning of the light rail extension—it was not “in the scene” as specific plans for the extension were drafted— but it has said “Yes, &” to these plans and integrated this information into its own master plans. Presumably transit planners will say “Yes, &” to the campus master plan in later rounds of station planning.
“Denial” in a system of plans.
If good planning is a sort of “Yes, &” exchange of information across organizations and actors over time, then poor planning and the inefficiencies and inequities in the built environment stem, in part, from “denial” of information across plans, organizations, and actors over time. If a plan contradicts itself internally it is denial in the same way an improviser denies his or her own character choices. Similarly, if political instability or corruption results in a city deviating from its explicit plans—confusing developers and perhaps resulting in a lawsuit—it is denial in the same way an improviser contradicts himself from one scene to the next. If a plan ignores critical information in prior plans it is denial in the same way an improviser ignores gifts from other players in prior scenes. If a plan fails to acknowledge the legitimacy of plans crafted by marginalized neighborhoods or organizations with limited power in a region3—it is denial in the same way quiet improvisers tend to be ignored by novice players. And unitary attempts to ‘save the city’ without paying attention to the many and diffuse intentions for change can be thought of as a hasty one-line joke that might evoke laughs in the moment, but ultimately undercuts the improv set.
Conclusion and future work
Urban planning is not typically a hierarchical endeavor. Many plans made by many actors cohere about reasons for action without necessarily following a centralized script4. They exist in a loosely structured ecosystem and work well when they present useful information to one another. This allows actors to make decisions that are interdependent, indivisible, irreversible with imperfect foresight about the future. I intend to explore how far this metaphor extends and what planners can learn from the rules of improvisation. How, for example, can the improv metaphor help highlight issues of inequity and injustice in urban planning—when plans are ignored or overlooked? Can it help municipal officials make plans more strategically and cost-effectively?
- Hopkins, L. D. Urban Development: The Logic Of Making Plans. (Island Press, 2001).
- Knaap, G. J., Ding, C. & Hopkins, L. D. Do Plans Matter? The Effects of Light Rail Plans on Land Values in Station Areas. J. Plan. Educ. Res. 21, 32–39 (2001).
- Goldstein, B. E., Wessells, A. T., Lejano, R. & Butler, W. Narrating Resilience: Transforming Urban Systems Through Collaborative Storytelling. Urban Stud. 0042098013505653 (2013). doi:10.1177/0042098013505653
- Donaghy, K. P. & Hopkins, L. D. Coherentist Theories of Planning Are Possible and Useful. Plan. Theory 5, 173–202 (2006).
Photo by bnilsen, used under a Creative Commons 2.0 license