Wednesday, September 29, 2010

No Reservations - The Baltimore Edition

Urban Revival is for the Chil'ren!

John Legend & The Roots - Shine

Talib Kweli - Eat to live

Nas - I know I can

R.I.P Old DIrty Bastard

Community vs the Individual

As a planner, I always focus on making plans that will impact the greatest amount of people possible. The wants, wishes and maybe even the rights of an individual or a single property owner maybe purposefully overlooked for providing for the needs of a whole community. In community planning, our decisions for a neighborhood or a community affect everyone and almost make it impossible for someone who disagrees to opt out and choose not to be apart of our plans. What maybe difficult for the single goose maybe great for the collective gander. And this philosophy holds true for many forms of local government, ranging from police service, environmental protection, traffic engineering to public works.

Even if you live in a community where you think the collective services are poor, you can opt out that public service. You can’t police your own neighborhood or provide your own water service if you do not like your public services. Even if you and a few of your select neighbors pulled together and provided a better more efficient service for your properties, it would just further destabilize the public service and create a highly inequitable system for those who depend on public services the most. Local governments would never be in favor of explicitly providing superior services to a few and low standard services to the many within the same community. Except when it comes to public schools.

In many major cities, public schools are the greatest barrier to full-scale revival of neighborhoods. While young professionals can revitalize a core or a downtown most cities seek young families to help revitalize struggling neighborhoods. What prevents young families from living in cities is the state of education. For decades families living in cities had to face the state of a struggling city public school system or pay exorbitant amounts for private schools. Families who already had children in the city public school system were dissatisfied and were also seeking an educational alternative.

Charter schools and the revamping of magnet schools became the alternative to many young families. Charter schools started to become popular in a few major cities in the 1990s and today they have become a national phenomenon in major cities. In Washington D.C. more than one-third of non-private school students goes to a public charter school. The performance of charter schools overall had produced mixed results. Some charter schools are clearly better than others. Most reports state that students in charter schools do slightly to moderately better than their peers in public schools.

But this post is not about whether public or charter schools are better its about the individual choice of a parent of a student to pull themselves out of a collective community service. While every student should have access to the best public educational services available, what are the consequences for allowing individual choice? The biggest consequence is that the best students, the students with the most talent, the A & B students are often pulled of public schools and offered or placed into a better performing public charter school or magnet school. Students of dedicated parents who are seeking the education for their children are also more likely to place their kids into charter schools or push their kids academically into magnet schools.

When you have the brightest and best students pulled out of a community school, at beast you are left with the B to C students as the highest level or role models for achievement. When you remove the A and B students out of a community school, you also remove a model in which students can strive to be and compete with. If the best a class has to offer is a C student who maybe just as bright as an A student but doesn’t do all their work on time, then that model student could negatively influence other students who may believe that student is reaching the highest level of achievement.

The same pattern of students emulating each other holds true for parents as well. When the most dedicated parents, the ones who are most likely to be apart of the PTA, are not apart of their community school then the school loses vital leadership and organization. Parental involvement has become a problem in city schools and community schools need not only help but just need for parents to just show up. When you have parental leaders in your community but they are not involved in the community school then the schools ad most importantly the students suffer.

Unfortunately there has been more and more talk politically of providing more and more charter schools and almost outright abandoning city public schools for those who could not afford to go anywhere else. In cities, we treat public education almost like we treat the city bus. Only those who could not afford anything else use public services. And just like transportation, we are no better off collectively shunning public service. But also just like public transportation, our solution to improve service has to benefit everyone and not just for those who have the choice to use it for convenience but also for those who depend on it. If we do not work collectively to make public community schools better holistically then they will continue to be dropout factories.

Fixing public schools will take an immeasurable amount of hard work and time. But just like all other community services, the community has to share with the successes and failures of those services together and not individually. Communities rise and fall together but if we change the outcomes for some people in a community and not for others is that really a community? If two neighbors live in a community and have similar amenities but one has running water and the other does not, do they share the same living conditions? Is that community equitable? If another two neighbors live in that community but one neighbor gets mugged frequently while the other lives at peace, is that equitable? And if one neighbor’s kid is a straight A student at a charter school with all the educational resources available as their disposal while the neighbor’s kid goes to a school without textbooks, is that equitable? These neighbors would live in a community that would produce two totally different outcomes under the same living conditions. And the fear is that these differences would create invisible divisions within communities that would no longer have the previous separations of race, class or culture.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Cool Maps: Race Cartography

Michael Jackson was wrong, apparently it does matter if you are black or white according to these maps:

A racial integration map of NYC

From Gawker:

Photographer Eric Fischer's color-coded maps of racial segregation are captivating, particularly once you find your own neighborhood. A look at his work follows after the jump, courtesy of Fast Company's Cliff Kuang.

Eric Fischer saw those maps, and took it upon himself to create similar ones for the top 40 cities in the United States. Fisher used a straight forward method borrowed from Rankin: Using U.S. Census data from 2000, he created a map where one dot equals 25 people. The dots are then color-coded based on race: White is pink; Black is blue; Hispanic is orange, and Asian is green.

Harmony in Detorit

These maps are pretty interesting and show how much progress some cities have made toward integration and how far some cities still have to go. What's interesting is that in some of the more liberal cities like New York City and Washington D.C. there are still hard division lines when it comes to race. In southern cities, where people tend to think there would be more segregation but in southern towns and cities black neighborhoods and white neighborhoods have almost always been in close proximity to one another...even if they were completely seperate. But these neighborhoods would share the same main streets and downtowns as opposed to cities in the Northeast where black neighborhoods have their own seperate main streets, commercial corridors and malls.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Social Change

Following up from a post from yesterday about Planning in a Recession, led me to think more about being apart of a greater social change. As planners, we have the potential to have a moderate impact on the communities we serve through regulating land management. When development dries up, our impact on the community lessens which conversely limits our activity and our creativity to solve new challenges. Now we can always go back and figure out old existing problems that never got resolved but in an election cycle no one wants to tip the apple cart and take on something in that may or may not be able to be solved.

The limits of local government planning led me to think about establishing my own private planning practice where I could be as creative as I wanted to be in exploring new planning techniques and measures across the country and even the world. I could target specific communities and build up local Business Improvement Districts (BIDs), start Community Development Corporations (CDCs) and form a consensus with all local PTA’s and community advisory groups to affect the most social change to any given community. That would be a dream job for any planner…that would require a lot of funding, time, money, dedicated community leaders, dough, active citizens, moolah, political will, greenbacks, a great campaign, dead presidents…and a lot of education to everyone involved.

The one unexpected feature about planning that I did not expect was that planners spend a lot of time educating the public. When I first started planning I thought this job was all about having great campaigns that we would have to pitch to the public to implement our planning theories. Which is partly true, you can have a great planning theory but if you fail to present it correctly, the idea and theory will go nowhere. But even before we get to planning theories and research methods, the public expects us as experts to impart our knowledge of zoning, land use and sustainability to them. In my opinion, the amount of social change occurs when you have a community that is fully educated about the process and instruments of change. Education has the greatest impact on social change.

And wanting to be a facilitator in social change has sparked the idea of being a teacher. When I first started this journey in wanting to change my environment, I wanted to be an architect. I dedicated myself to that, I worked various internships, went away to school to be an architect. But then I came to a self-realization. All of my proposed design models I was creating would not greatly impact the people I saw outside my design studio window, in North Philadelphia, if my models were built. So I changed my career path to city planning which seemed to encompass everything about cities and creating holistic solutions. This recession in planning has now led me to another self-realization. The greatest impact I can have on a neighborhood in bringing real social change is through education.

Now I don’t know if this means being a full time teacher. I think there other creative outlets I could tap into. I would still very much like to be apart of city planning but for me there has to be a better way of impacting communities than writing tedious community plans and reviewing variances. I don’t know what that way is as of yet or how long the journey to fulfill this new path might take but I’ll be sure to talk about it in this blog. If there are any educators out there, I would love to hear your thoughts.

Thanks for reading.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Tokyo Time Lapse

Planning in a Recession

In the world of government city planning there has always been a boom and a bust cycle to our work. It’s usually seasonal. There’s usually a lull in activity during the summer and in the fall, work generally picks up again. During the holidays, some developers try to submit the most complicated development plans in hopes something slips by due to holiday vacations. And in the spring, we are usually busy as developers try to get their plans approved so they can begin construction in the summer and fall. Now in between these seasonal times, there maybe some legislation that creates a flurry of new development.

But during a recession, every season feels like the summer. Typical development works slowly trickles in. Developers are no longer calling everyday to set up a meeting to meet with you. The public is no longer calling to find out more information about a project in their neighborhood. There are very few walk-ins for people who want to expand their property or business. Exiting mega projects going through the development process slow down to a crawl or just go away and may never come back.

Everything becomes mind crushingly slow. The lack of work leads to a lack of excitement, which leads to a lack of creative thinking or any thinking at all. Work becomes a dreary fog of inactivity. Now don’t get me wrong, there are always things we can do for the community without the development process. We can and have created community plans to help shape current and future land management of neighborhoods. We still meet community groups on the regular to address any and all their needs. But to be honest, even the community’s depressed, more so than us actually.

And it’s not hard to blame the community for being a little down and not want to meet to help make their community better when they are struggling to keep their own homes afloat. Two years ago, community members would call frequently for planners to address their concerns. Now were calling them and they tell us, we’ll get back to you. Who knows, maybe they’re right to put us on hold. In the short term, there’s no money local government can really throw behind communities because of well…the recession. I guess the community gets tired of us saying, “well when things get better…” Which is true, people really should plan for the future when things are down to be prepared when things pick back up but we end up being a wet blanket. It is pretty awesome to generate all this excitement for a community meeting and getting everyone pumped for projects that will happen in…2020…maybe. God bless the folks that continue to stay and don’t walk out of the meetings right then and there.

Usually in the past when things were slow on a job, mid-level planners like myself would start to have a wondering eye. Being on the East Coast gives you almost a dozen municipalities large or small to look at for employment. But in a recession there are a dozen municipalities large and small that are not hiring. And when you look out at the financial states of other places that have furloughs, layoffs and work stoppages, you thank your lucky stars you are still employed. But in the mean time, the recession has sort of trapped us in place, in time and pay scale.

I don’t know what the future holds for us planners, developers, architects, landscape architects and those involved in development. I know things can not and should not return to the level of irresponsible growth and speculation of just three years ago. But I hope things do pick up to take everyone out us this fog.