Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Movies about Planning: Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

Who'da thunk it? Although this isn't the first time I discovered that a favorite childhood cartoon was actually an allegory or a story with a much deeper meaning.

One of the themes in the film pertains to the dismantling of public transportation systems by private companies who would profit from an automobile transportation system and freeway infrastructure. Near the end of the film, Judge Doom reveals his plot to destroy Toon Town to make way for the new freeway system. This is an indirect historical reference to the dismantling of public transportation trolley lines by National City Lines during the 1930s in what is also known as the Great American streetcar scandal. The name of Doom's company, Cloverleaf Industries, is a reference to a common freeway-ramp configuration—an image of which was prominently displayed in the opening credit sequence of The Wonderful World of Disney.

The assertion that a conspiracy caused the demise of electric urban street railways was the subject of a session at the 1999 Annual Meeting of the Transportation Research Board entitled "Who Framed Roger Rabbit: Conspiracy Theories and Transportation", which concluded that such systems met their demise for a number of other reasons (economic, cultural, societal, technological, legal) having nothing to do with a conspiracy, even though it was true that National City Lines, Inc. (NCL) was a front company—organized by General Motors' Alfred P. Sloan, Jr. in 1922, reorganized in 1936 into a holding company — for the express purpose of acquiring local transit systems throughout the United States. "Once [NCL] purchased a transit company, electric trolley service was immediately discontinued, the tracks quickly pulled up, the wires dismantled ..." and General Motors buses replaced the trolleys.

The message was kind of blatant when you watch the clip.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Point of this blog

Recently the New York Times ran an article about gentrification in DC and how for the first time in 51 years, the District will no longer be majority black. In the article, a local hair salon owner complains about her rising property taxes and how small businesses whose properties may have gain value are now selling their properties because they can not afford the taxes. One of my favorite blogger's Ta-nehisi Coates responded to this article after another blogger had pointed out the hair salon owner would still make a considerable profit even if she had to sell her property.

Coates point out that:
"I actually think it's fairly easy to understand Johnson's beef. She likes her neighborhood as it is. She may well be able to "sell high," but the fact is she doesn't want to sell at all. She probably would love to see her property values rise, but the neighborhood isn't simply, for her, a financial instrument--it's an emotional one.  In that sense, Johnson isn't very different than millions of other humans who invest in neighborhoods."

He continues on to say:
"... the city is trying to make H Street a "desirable place to live," I am compelled to ask "desirable for whom?" I'm not being obtuse here--I understand, in the aggregate, his larger point. But very often people find a kind of value in their living condition that eludes socioeconomic data."

And this is a real sticking point for me. As a planner, I can not tell you how many times I have been to redevelopment meetings in struggling and blighted communities where consultants or planners propose turning around a neighborhood by adding a Starbucks, a wine shop and a deli. These businesses might turn a neighborhood around but...for whom? Either these consultants or planners assume that everyone likes Starbucks, wine and deli sandwiches or they are just out of touch with the culture of that community, which is even more troubling. I'll get into that later. The problem that I see is that too many consultants and planners feel that they have to uplift a struggling community by importing another culture of businesses (usually their own culture) instead of adding onto the cultural capital that is already within a community. Which means if a struggling community doesn't have a coffee shop, a Dunkin Donuts would be more appropriate than Starbucks and a Subway Sub would be more appreciated than a deli.

Coates goes on in his post to state:
"...I don't think we'd much debate the notion that neighborhoods usually hold some emotional value. But we often fail to see that value in African-Americans because, from a socioeconomic perspective, black people represent a class that is too often murdered, too often impoverished, too often uneducated, and too often diseased. Put differently, statistically, black people are a problem. Fix the problem and black people will thank us, right? Maybe."

I think this paragraph could be applied to almost any impoverished neighborhood, regardless of race. But this paragraph sort of lays out the reason I wanted to create this blog in the first place. I wanted a blog that focused on City Planning from a people's perspective. In my opinion, the world of planning theories and practices focuses on the brick and mortars of planning cities. Planning practices get implemented  with almost no respect to the the culture of individual neighborhoods and communities. I remember reading in particular about the success of Transit Oriented Development (TOD) in redeveloping blighted neighborhoods. The main criticism of the successful redevelopment of TOD projects that occurred in several major cities was that it completely displaced the original residents through gentrification. Well in my mind, that is a failure. Any practice that gets counted as a success that does not improve the lives of the  existing residents is a practice that is culturally tone def.

But even worse than being tone def to another community's culture is viewing another community's culture as a problem. If you are in charge of reviving a neighborhood and you view a blighted neighborhood only as a problem you are going to fail to see the positive aspects of the neighborhood that can be built upon for revitalization. If you only see the neighborhood as a problem, you will replace instead of rebuild. And without understanding or more importantly caring about a neighborhood's culture, what gets replaced could be very important to the fabric of the existing community.  A blighted community may seek out help from planners and consultants to help turn around their neighborhood because they feel that there neighborhood and it's culture is something worthy to be saved. Not replaced. 

Until all reformers understand that they have to rebuild and not replace, there will always be resentment from the existing residents of gentrified neighborhoods. And I will continue to write about the urban experience. 

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Are Planners Anti-Capitalists?

There are always theoretical debates on the limits of government on the free market. No profession is affected more by these free market debates than city planning. How far the government can alter the market place of the most expensive commodity, property, is always in the backdrop in planning decisions. In fact, city planning started as a reaction to how the free market plan or didn’t plan property and ever since, planning’s role as a check and balance of sorts to the free market has always been questioned.

The divide of those who question planning’s authority on the free market versus those who are pro-regulation, naturally often falls on political ideologies. Those that are in favor of the free market determining how neighborhoods develop are often conservative. They believe that ultimately, the free market i.e. people’s wallets should determine neighborhood viability and investment. Those that are pro-regulation still very much believe in the free market but they also believe certain places, institutions and cultural characteristics should be protected from the boom and bust cycle of the market. Most planners fall into the latter category.

But the reason that most planners are pro-regulation is not solely based on liberal beliefs but it is also based on the history of capitalist free market planning. While the free market can do things government can not do, like organically gentrify dilapidated neighborhoods, design futuristic developments and create lively urban cores, the free market also has a history of being prejudiced, self-segregating and exclusionary.

From a planning perspective there seems to be two dominant patterns of the free market development in cities. There is the development pattern of building what is only absolutely necessary for the function of the marketplace. Examples of this would be early tenement housing, workforce housing located next to factories and waterways dominated by industry, railways and ports. The other development pattern of the free market is based upon on much people are willing to spend to live in neighborhoods to their likes and preferences. Examples of this would be bedroom communities, neighborhoods with covenants and of course redlining.

The latter development pattern has been much more common in American metropolises since the Urban renewal era and even much more troubling. While today, we do not see the illegal practices of redlining and blockbusting from the 1960s, we still see the free market playing into class separation. The free market has always marketed to home buyers that they should live with people who are just like them. And depending on how willing people to spend the market will fiercely defend your right to live only by others who are just like you and will price out or physically divide out all others that are different from you.

Now, many believe that if a person wants to spend their money to separate themselves from others that is their right. And it is their right even if it is the antithesis of city development, which is based upon the sharing of ideals and customs. The free market will always market exclusivity over cohesion and will use the fear of having someone living next to the unknown to play up the exclusivity of a development. And the idea of living next to others like you can make someone almost unknowingly participate in further class separation. If you asked folks, would you rather live in a diverse, cohesive city or would you rather live in a city that is divided by class struggle, most people would choose the former. But if you asked people which would they rather live, a mixed income neighborhood with people from various different backgrounds or in a neighborhood where all the houses are worth over 250K? Which neighborhood would people choose?

These distortions in the market place affect the cohesiveness and equity of city neighborhoods and therefore affect city planning decisions. If the goal is to maintain a well balanced functional city for all (Note: you do not have to sacrifice a neighborhood or a city’s well being for the sake of diversity. You can have both) is it really that unfair if planners ask for a certain percentage of below-market housing units for working families for new developments? Is it unfair for planners to ask for rent control for a city’s last remaining working class neighborhoods? Are planners anti-capitalists if we steer high-impact developments away from low-density neighborhoods?

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

From the "this isn't good" news department: San Diego scraps its City Planning Department

From the Voice of San Diego:

To save $1 million a year, the mayor will fold the Planning Department into the Development Services Department, which, as its name suggests, helps developers get approvals for building permits. The new group will still be called the Development Services Department. Kelly Broughton, the department's director, will remain its leader and assume the effective role of planning director...

...The Planning Department goes to neighborhoods, meets with local groups and relies on residents to articulate a vision and draft rules for the community's growth. Development Services ensures developers follow those rules, but rarely interacts with community groups...

...The departments have often acted as checks on each other. Long-term planners caution against approving developments that don't conform to a community's vision, while development services planners "are about implementation," Anderson said. "They're sometimes skeptical of long-range planning because it can be a little lofty. But it's healthy to have a little of that tension."
Longtime planning advocates say they're concerned that merging the departments may remove those checks and balances.

Monday, May 2, 2011

The South Side

One interesting pattern in large American cities is that the south sides of cities that are located below a city's central core are almost always blue collar, working class areas.

South Boston. South Philly. South Baltimore. Southeast DC. The South Side of Chicago. Southwest Atlanta. South side of Houston. Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans. South Central Los Angeles.

Not that is not to say there are no nice southern sections of cities are that sections of cities north of their downtowns may not be as working class as southern sections. But in many cases the south sides of cities are not only infamous in their own right but they can also define the working class character of the entire city. South Boston and Southies have been prominently shown in recent big budget films like The Town and The Departed. Philadelphia is inextricably linked to South Philly because of cheesesteaks and Rocky. The South Side of Chicago, Lower Ninth and South Central dominate the working class images of their respective cities on a national scale.

For  port cities, it's easier to connect the dots on why the southern sections of cities became large working class communities. These cities were often located on rivers and waterways that forced cheap working class labor to live on the cheapest land (as well as unwanted ethnic groups as well. You might have heard America was a little racisty back then), which was often swamps and marshy land that were located just below major ports and factories. South Boston, South Philadelphia, Southeast DC and the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans were literally built on swamp land. The cramped conditions of these cities original working class helped foster the image of their city's working class to this day. Chicago's famous south side which is bordered by lake Michigan was also built on swamp land but did not develop around port factories. Chicago's South Side was developed around the Union Stockyards, the city's meat-packing district and the Pullman railroad company.

But for the other major cities in the South and West the connection to why the south side of their major cities are working class are not as clear. Did cities in the South and West which developed into major cities only within the 20th century just repeat the development of older cities because of precedent? I don't know but I find it very peculiar.

No matter the case, here's my shout out to the American city South Side:

Common ft Kanye West - Southside

Monday, April 18, 2011

As soon as I get on the mic its like the night gets silent © Eminem

Tales of a City Planner – The mid level employee

We have probably all heard the politically incorrect idiom of “too many chiefs and not enough Indians.” Well in government bureaucracies there are a ton of Indians and very few chiefs. Government agencies usually have a glut of mid-level employees. Some of these mid-levelers are very talented, some just happen to be lucky, others have decades of experience and others are still fairly young. But what they all have in common is that they will not chiefs anytime soon. If you are ambitious, it’s like mid-level purgatory.

After being the “new guy” for years, I am now a proud mid-leveler but there are some drawbacks. While I get respect for running and organizing meetings and major planning efforts, I don’t have the power or the bully pulpit to make people make a decision on something. I have to consensus like a mutha’. If I want to get a major planning decision done, I have to get every one to agree on that decision, not half, not the majority but every one. I just can’t totally ignore someone because I think they have a stupid idea. I still have to listen to them and somewhat appease them.

They just have enough power to run their corner but not enough power where they cant listen you and tell you to f*ck off © Lester Freemon from The Wire describing how to talk to mid-level drug dealers.

Case in point, there was a major planning initiative that was being pushed through by several chiefs from my agencies that involved several conflicting parties. Since they were the chiefs they had the bully pulpit to make people listen to them and to steer the ship away from non-productive arguments. Someone makes a stupid comment, chief says we’ll address that later. Someone has a biased viewpoint, chief says lets focus on the mission. Someone disagrees with the overall purpose, chief tells them were moving forward with or without them. The chief gets to make movement and stand against inaction. If the chief makes a comment and is met with silence, that means that you quietly agree and the chief moves forward with that plan.

So what happens when the chief can not make this important planning initiative and sends in a mid-level employee to lead the discussion and move the meeting forward? I’ll tell you what happens, it’s like “I get on the mic its like the night gets silent” © Slim Shady. I got met with the most awkward silence you can have in a crowded room of people. It’s as if they did not appreciate being bullied by the chief and not that the chief’s minion is trying to pull rank, they collectively decided to quietly stare at me while saying nothing. It felt like shouting in a cave because my echo was the only thing that was responding to me. Real quick, if a mid-level planner shouts in a crowded room and no one wants to make a decision, does anyone hear that planner? Fortunately my fellow mid-level planner in the meeting heard the tree fall into the woods but none of the stakeholders heard her either so that was pretty much the end of the meeting.

At the very next meeting, the chief came back and moved the agenda forward with a majority consensus by making the same arguments that my fellow mid-level employee and me had made a week prior.

Eminem - If I get locked up tonight