Wichita downtown plan focused on elite values, incorrect assumptions


One of the themes of those planning the future of downtown Wichita is that the suburban areas of Wichita are bad. The people living there are not cultured and sophisticated, the planners say. Suburbanites live wasteful lifestyles. Planners say they use too much energy, emit too much carbon, and gobble up too much land, all for things they’ve been duped into believing they want.

It’s an elitist diagnosis, and Wichita’s buying it. Well, we’ve already paid for it, but we can stop the harmful planning process before it’s too late.

Consider the attitudes of Goody Clancy, the Boston planning firm the city hired to lead us through the process. At a presentation in January, some speakers from Goody Clancy revealed condescending attitudes towards those who hold values different from this group of planners. One presenter said “Outside of Manhattan and Chicago, the traditional family household generally looks for a single family detached house with yard, where they think their kids might play, and they never do.”

David Dixon, the Goody Clancy principal for this project, revealed his elitist world view when he told how that in the future, Wichitans will be able to “enjoy the kind of social and cultural richness” that is only found at the core. “Have dinner someplace, pass a cool shop, go to a great national music act at the arena, and then go to a bar, and if we’re lucky, stumble home.”

These attitudes reflect those of most of the planning profession — that people can’t be relied on to choose what’s best for them. Instead they believe that only they — like the planners at Goody Clancy — are equipped to make choices for people. It’s an elitism that Wichita ought to reject.

Besides this, many of the assumptions that planners rely on are wrong, like the purported demographic shifts planners rely on. Consider the recent article Urban Legends: Why Suburbs, Not Dense Cities, are the Future by journalist and geographer Joel Kotkin. While Kotkin’s article focuses a lot on mega-cities like Mumbai and Mexico City, there’s a lot to be learned by smaller cities like Wichita.

One of the issues Kotkin addresses is the effort of cities to appeal to the “creative class.” This is a hot issue in Wichita, where it is thought that we can’t attract young urbanites and their energy and upward economic mobility. Therefore, we must invest in arts, culture, and “hipness.” Kotkin responds:

The hipper the city, the mantra goes, the richer and more successful it will be — and a number of declining American industrial hubs have tried to rebrand themselves as “creative class” hot spots accordingly. But this argument, or at least many applications of it, gets things backward. Arts and culture generally do not fuel economic growth by themselves; rather, economic growth tends to create the preconditions for their development. … Sadly, cities desperate to reverse their slides have been quick to buy into the simplistic idea that by merely branding themselves “creative” they can renew their dying economies; think of Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Michigan’s bid to market Detroit as a “cool city.” … Culture, media, and other “creative” industries, important as they are for a city’s continued prosperity, simply do not spark an economy on their own. It turns out to be the comparatively boring, old-fashioned industries, such as trade in goods, manufacturing, energy, and agriculture, that drive the world’s fastest-rising cities.”

The things the Wichita plan is designed to foster: increased density, increased real estate values, decreased use of the automobile, and prescription by cultural elites of what may be built in which locations — these things drive away many people, Kotkin says: “Nor is the much-vaunted ‘urban core’ the only game in town. Innovators of all kinds seek to avoid the high property prices, overcrowding, and often harsh anti-business climates of the city center.”

The sprawl and the alleged unsustainable lifestyle of the suburbs that elites like the Goody Clancy planners clearly disdain — here’s what Kotkin says: “Consider the environment. We tend to associate suburbia with carbon dioxide-producing sprawl and urban areas with sustainability and green living. But though it’s true that urban residents use less gas to get to work than their suburban or rural counterparts, when it comes to overall energy use the picture gets more complicated.” He cites examples in the article.

But the planning process might not be all bad, Kotkin concedes, noting that “To their credit, talented new urbanists have had moderate success in turning smaller cities like Chattanooga and Hamburg into marginally more pleasant places to live.” Chattanooga is one place that Wichita planners and their acolytes have visited recently.


9 responses to “Wichita downtown plan focused on elite values, incorrect assumptions”

  1. Chuck

    Since this post does not agree with Bob Weeks, expect Mr. Weeks to ignore it.

    Subsidies exist in government planning that also benefit the suburbs. However, they are usually deeply embedded and not immediately obvious. New roads and existing roads must be built and maintained; new power systems, schools, city services and sewer systems all have to be build for suburban housing. Suburbs are becoming affected by poverty, too, but they often lack basic social services that urban centers do. http://news.yahoo.com/s/yblog_upshot/20101026/us_yblog_upshot/new-poverty-hotspot-the-suburbs

    The fact is Mr. Weeks has benefited quite a bit from the subsidies that other have paid for him, but he only cries about funds to help the urban core of Wichita. Personally, I think it’s delightful to have a nasty, crime infested urban wasteland in the middle of the city. Don’t change a thing – you’re exactly right Bob! You can complain all you want about targeted tax zones, but I bet YOU still use that nice homeowner’s deduction on your tax return. Bob Weeks – the public television libertarian rides again!

  2. Thomas Witt

    “The people living there are not cultured and sophisticated, the planners say.”

    Really, Bob? Which planners? When did they say it, and to whom? Do you have a link to that statement?

  3. Republican Mom

    I found that January presentation by Goody Clancy rather revealing. I was astounded they actually claimed children never do play in their yards.

    Those buying into the Goody Clancy propaganda will be kicking themselves later.

    All the young early 20-something kids who worked so hard to promote the Goody Clancy plan think that when they have kids, their kids will simply go up to the roof of their condo building to play.

    It was shocking to hear them say this. Right. And you as a parent will have so much free time that you will sit on the roof while the kids play, whenever they want to play.

    The great advantage of a backyard is the kids can go outside whenever they want to play & a parent can monitor them from a window while still getting work done. Kids also learn to police themselves this way; they develop interpersonal skills without remaining dependent on a parent to interfere constantly & provide an answer for everything.

    Todays young adults, perhaps, are so dependent on government for all the answers, that they also believe children should never learn on their own. Dependency starts early & is nurtured. Creative, independent thinking by children must be stamped out!

  4. Anonymous

    Thomas Witt, can’t you freaking read? Bob quotes the planners!

  5. Anonymous Mike


    We have a decently sized backyard, but still live in Wichita. Our backyard is big enough that we were able to play catch, badminton, and other games in the backyard. If you live on the NE side, the park situation is very limited. The closest park to our yard is at 13th and Rock. You can’t really count Chisholm Creek as a playground type park.

    Wichita KS

  6. Lauren

    I’m a young person, debating whether to continue my career in Wichita. Good jobs and low taxes matter more to me than arenas and art shows. Both matter but the cultural attractions are icing on the cake.

  7. Thomas Witt


    Nothing in the quotes that Bob posted says anything about suburbanites not being “cultured and sophisticated.” I’m guessing that Bob read his own bias into what the planners actually *did* say, and led his essay with what is at best a hyperbolic exaggeration, and at worst a dishonest smear. I could be wrong, of course, and would welcome a documented correction from Bob.

  8. Anonymous

    Here’s a suggestion for a new business. Why doesn’t Bob and his buddies over at the Cato Institute start a consulting firm to help cities “plan” community revitalization. Instead of being an eminently unqualified armchair quarterback, Bob can actually deal with the pragmatic realities of the rubber hitting the road.

  9. Anonymous Mike

    Hi other Anon. Um, not to rain on your parade, but us conservatives want to let people come up with their own plan. COW HAS a zoning board. We need to quit buying stuff for downtown and get back to the basics of allowing businesses and people to try and make their own money.

    I think that most businessmen are nice guys and all that, but I’ve never felt the need to buy Bill Warren (for example) a new theater.

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