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Wicked Problems, Foolish Decisions: Promoting Sustainability Through Urban Governance in a Complex World

Posted by on Tuesday, December 22, 2020 in Articles, Volume 73, Volume 73, Number 6.

Scott D. Campbell & Moira Zellner | 73 Vand. L. Rev. 1643 (2020) |

Why do wicked problems often give birth to bad policy choices? Put another way, why do people—in the face of complex social challenges—make misdiagnoses, ineffective decisions, or no decisions at all? Typical answers point to a plethora of suspects: impatience, myopia, political stalemate, narrow-mindedness, fear and risk aversion, hubris, greed, rational self-interest, ignorance, reliance on emotionally appealing but misleading anecdotal stories, misuse of evidence, and misunderstanding of uncertainty.

Amid these divergent explanations, two classes emerge: one lies in the shortcomings and mistakes of the problem solvers, and the other lies in the nature of the problem itself. One stance is to fault the ostensible problem solvers: people are not always rational, fair, patient, thoughtful, or deliberative, but instead are myopic, selfish, greedy, power hungry, or out for revenge (among other motivations).

. . .

The second stance is to point to the nature of the problem. This is the focus of this Article. In particular, we examine how the dynamics of wicked problems undermine traditional problem-solving efforts. This is not to absolve the problem solvers of responsibility for poor policy choices. It is the responsibility of policymakers to diagnose the distinctive challenges and needs of wicked problems and act accordingly. As urban planning scholars, we focus on entrenched urban problems. This focus is not accidental. Horst Rittel (an architect) and Melvin Webber (a planning theorist and transportation planner) developed the idea of “wicked problems” at the University of California, Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design in the early 1970s—an era when the optimism of solving complex social issues through technical, scientific solutions was colliding hard with the failure of such efforts to conclusively resolve urban poverty, inequality, deindustrialization, racism, white flight, and the violence of the “Urban Crisis.”

In this Article, we build on previous research to demonstrate how complexity thinking can engage urban challenges at three levels: (1) describing “complexity” as a symptom of urban systems; (2) analyzing the dynamics of complex urban systems; and ultimately (3) intervening through appropriate planning strategies that account for complexity. We employ this thinking to engage the politics of sustainability at the same three levels, illustrating this at two geographic scales: the neighborhood (specifically, the challenge of ecogentrification) and the megaregion (and the resulting regional externalities and trade-offs). These scales involve actors, conflicts, and specializations within planning. Yet both represent new, hybrid patterns of urbanization that produce intractable problems of environmental unsustainability and social-spatial inequality—two core planning priorities that too often collide. Both situations also generate novel social policy challenges that conventional planning, thinking, and governance tools are ill-equipped to address. These challenges instead call for interdepartmental or intergovernmental cooperation.

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Scott D. Campbell and Moira Zellner