Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Urban Art Helps Detroit Cope With Hard Times

In a city laid low by hard times, surprising sights are popping up on the streets of Detroit.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Big City Attitudes

The stereotypes that you often hear are that small towns are friendly and that big city are rude, unfriendly places. I don’t know if that stereotype is still true in some places or if it was ever true but here on the east coast it’s almost impossible to gauge the small town from the suburb or ex-urb of the big cities. The east coast at times feels like just one giant metropolitan area especially from D.C. in the south to north of New York City in Hartford. The “small towns” that are in between these cities are often never more than 45 minutes to a city beltway or an hour from a city line and they are probably now filled with people who are now making an hour commute of more from the city.

So with this spatial mismatch of people the idea of a true small town to me is lost…or maybe it’s just lost along the I-95 corridor. As a community planner, I know of whole inner-city communities (usually ethnic-nationality or single industry communities) that literally picked up and moved into an outer ring suburb and then picked up and moved again to a further ex-urb. While those communities may have been long separated from their inner-city roots, they certainly maintained their inner-city characteristics, which are both good and not so pleasant at times. Like most northeastern and Midwest cities, there has been a purging of all types of communities leaving the city for it’s suburbs which now blurs the imaginary line of city and suburb leaving little distinction between the two in some parts.

Now when my family first moved to the Baltimore suburbs in the mid 1980’s, there were definitely some “Leave-it to Beaver” type neighborhoods. The neighborhoods where you would drive by and everyone would just smile and wave at random strangers. While appearance wise, those neighborhoods are still around; the people in them are definitely not around anymore. In fact there are very few of those “Leave it to Beaver” type neighborhoods around anymore, even in the ex-urbs. The stereotypical “big city attitude” is found everywhere throughout the east coast and most prevalent in the Mid Atlantic.

But what’s most ironic about “big city attitude” myth is that the nicest people I have met on a day to day basis, whether it be a neighbor or a random stranger are the people actually living inside the big cities. For all the flack that New York City and Philadelphia get for being rude, inhospitable, uncouth places, I have received the warmest greetings from total strangers in these big cities then I ever have in the suburbs of Baltimore and D.C. While it’s true the people living in bigger cities maybe more direct and aggressive, I bet you will be treated more kindly by strangers in Midtown Manhattan of Center City, Philadelphia then you would in downtown Baltimore or D.C.

What’s your opinion on this? Anyone else have any similar or different experiences?


BlackAtlas Travel Expert Nelson George takes you on a trip through Kingston. View more of Nelson's videos online at

Los Angeles

BlackAtlas Travel Expert Nelson George takes you on a trip through Los Angeles. View more of Nelson's videos online at

Friday, December 11, 2009

All things being equal, I'd rather be in Baltimore

A freind of mine on facebook recently said in his status update that:

"You know I hear people say all the time...'I'm sick of Baltimore and I can't wait till I leave'....well make sure you are leaving for a good reason because I guarantee you that after a while you are going to get sick of wherever you move to if you are not doing anything positive. Every place is like the next place without motivation and a game plan!....move for a reason and not an excuse."

Great point. I have definitely been guilty before about complaining about the lack of night life in Baltimore and wanting to leave for a bigger city. Both of my parents are from Philadelphia and when I was young I would always go up for weeks at a time to stay with relatives during the summer and visit them during holidays in the winter. It was from these visits that I fell in love with Philly and just the general feeling of being in a big city. Even though I lived less than a year of my life in Philly after being born there, I would even tell people growing up proudly and directly, I'm from Philly. The truth was I really a kid from suburban Baltimore who happened to visit Philadelphia often.

So ever since I was a kid, I have always been wishing to be somewhere else than Baltimore. Somewhere bigger. Somewhere more grand. Somewhere more flavorful. I never really appreciated Baltimore for what it was because I was too focused on what other cities had that Baltimore lacked. Throughout my childhood I would go back and forth from Philadelphia by train and by car and I would marvel at how fast the bigger city moved, the skyscrapers, the different cultures, the subways, the trolleys, the elevated trains. All Baltimore had was a bus and subway line that did not run on my side of town.

So when it was time to go way to college, naturally I choose to go to school in Philadelphia to no longer be a visitor but a resident of a big city. I enjoyed my time there, I soaked up everything Philly had to offer. The museums, the night life, the history, the sporting events, the culture, everything. The big city was everything I wanted it to be but also everything I did not expect it to be. The big city was colder. The big city made you rush and become brash because everyone was trying to hustle to get over. At times the city felt too dense, it would take sometimes an hour to get to another side of the city and park. The big city did not have much open grass and trees but had a lot of brick, concrete and steel. The big city was not laid back and relaxed.

After college was over, I got a job opportunity to go back to Baltimore. While I would certainly miss Philly and would love to move back, a part of me was relieved to go back home. Being back home made me relaxed again. Over the next year, I would travel back and forth from Philly to visit old friends when I realized something. I had spent my whole life wishing to be somewhere else only to get there and realize it wasn't what I thought it would be.

Don't get me wrong, I still got a lot of love for Philly and I would still move back there...if the situation was right. I would go back with my eyes wide open and I would not just jump back to the city at the first opportunity. So you would think, I would have learned my lesson about appreciating home but I did not. While back in Baltimore, I would travel south a lot to visit friends and sometimes just wander around in the city of our Nation's capital, D.C. I soon developed an adult wanderlust of D.C. similar to the childhood desires I had to be in Philadelphia.

Unlike Philadelphia, D.C. was not a big city. D.C. had a very similar scale to Baltimore but just exuded an overabundance of sophistication and hipness while still keeping a neighborhood charm from within its local neighborhoods. D.C. had what seemed like an endless amount of beautiful women and lots of young folks with money who spent it on the numerous megaclubs, clubs, lounges, restaurants that were defacto lounges, bars, entertainment venues that seemed to trump Baltimore's nightlife.

D.C. is a small city but I would have endless amounts of fun or course with the nightlife but also going to different museums, checking out it's many hipster-like neighborhoods and going to random cultural events. Everything was pretty much within walking distance of the Metro, which is one of the cleanest and best subway systems I have been on. Once again, all Baltimore had was a bus and a subway line that did not run on my side of town.

While I have never moved to D.C., it is only an hour away and I have come to really know the city through my frequent visits. And while I still love the town for it's endless amounts of beautiful women and nightlife, the amount of money you would have to make to enjoy said women and nightlife is outrageous. The amount of hours you would have to work to afford a lifestyle where you could enjoy the nightlife on a regular basis would run you ragged. And if the cost of living doesn't run you ragged, the horrible traffic and parking in D.C. and its surrounding areas will. One weekend of receipts from partying in D.C. often makes me appreciate the cheapness of my favorite local bars in Baltimore that much more.

Would I still move to D.C.? Maybe. D.C. has a lot of great neighborhoods and places with a lots of scenery and things to do. While I'm sure those places are nice, they are not quite home though. While in comparison to other cities, Baltimore may be small and laid back but I kind of dig that about my hometown. Here, I move around with ease. There's nothing here forcing me to move faster then I want too and there's no need to try to show off to keep up with the Joneses. This city allows you to be exactly who you are and not much more. Could it stand to have a better nightlife, transportation system and an overall hipness to it? Absolutely.

But all things being equal, I'd rather be in Baltimore.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Recession = No Holiday Cookies

Before the recession wiped out many local developers by practically halting almost all new construction, developers, law firms, engineering & landscaping firms, etc…used to send local government offices all types of snacks and treats during the holidays. Nothing major, all the catered snacks and such were very nominal and were meant for everyone in the office to enjoy. We used to receive almost a dozen different trays of cookies, brownies, candy and other holiday snacks. This one law firm in particular used to send us this huge tray of these small gourmet cookies. The incredibly soft cookies came in three different flavors, chocolate, snicker-doodle and my personal favorite chocolate fudge. There had to been at least 150-200 cookies on this tray and within two hours the whole tray of cookies would be devoured.

I write this because normally on a long Friday workday during the holidays, I would snack on all the different type of goodies to get me through the day. This year, there have been no cookies delivered to the office, much to my chagrin. Along with no cookies there have also been almost no new development…well at least in any consistent development. Fortunately I have been involved in several community plans that have provided more then enough work to keep me busy. Unfortunately the same cannot be said for my sometime oppositional counterparts, developers and attorneys. I feel for those guys and gals. Though sometimes was have to work in opposition of each other, after several years of working with them, you really get to know them. Hell, they give me cookies every year.

So this post is dedicated to all the people in the planning and engineering related fields. It’s been a tough year for all planners, architects and engineers alike on both the public and private side. Although significantly more tougher on the private side. I know more then a few planners, architects and engineers that have lost their jobs this year. While I know that development and the way we developed projects before the recession will probably never be the same again, I do hope for a rebound in more sustainable, transit influenced, walkable development and not the return of more strip shopping centers and residential sprawl.

So for all of the struggling planners, architects, landscape engineers, construction managers, engineers, permit runners and local planners, I hope there will be more development for 2010. And I hope that next year the holiday cookies will return.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

One night in Baltimore

The nightlife blogger for the Baltimore Sun newspaper takes Benji Lanyado of UK's Gaurdian Newspaper on a tour of the city's bars and clubs.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Answer is Back in Philly

And so is the population.
Philly grew by 93K people in the last decade.

I knew the city had to be growing, there has been too much new development and new restaurants opening up in the city during a recession for the city not to be growing. And from being in the city in 99 to visiting there recently, there is a different vibe and energy to the city. There are a lot more things to do in Center City now besides just go to South St and Old City. There's positive development in North Philly since...the early 1940s?, South Philly is gentrifying like crazy and University city is becoming more then just a college neighborhood but a destination.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Baltimore - Nina Simone

Ill Song, Im surprised a local rapper hasnt used this beat and hook before.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Architecture without Rules

Paul Barker from the Times Online wrote an article about Architecture without rules that has criticized the effects oc city planning on cities. He writes:

"Urban planning has led to shoddiness, squalor and ugliness in our cities. Let’s throw away the rulebook and allow people to build where they want..."

Shots fired.

You know the funny thing is, whenever we let architects do their own thing on a mass level in cities, they almost always forget about the human scale. Or they come up with an abstract theory for a new human scale or try to completely revolutionize the parameters human scale. Need I remind the writer that Le Corbusier's influence on the International modernist style of architecture and planning that led to some of the most bland and unimaginative buildings ever built that often lacked context with it's surrounding environment. Le Corbusier's vision of "the city and the park" also helped create isolated office and residential towers that enforced the separation of land uses and limited the connectivity of people and urban places.

In the U.S. (the writer is from England) we have let many cities and architects do what they want. And the cities of Los Angeles, Houston, Phoenix, Las Vegas and Atlanta have all perfected Le Corbusier's plan to a tee and all of these five cities lack a central downtown and a sense of place.

Now this is not to knock all architects who which to plan the urban landscape. There have been many architects who have done great jobs in creating buildings to human scale and creating great master planned communities.

But back to the article. Barker's main point is that the conservation of rural land outside of English cities has dramatically risen housing prices in cities. He argues from a conservative standpoint that people should be allowed to build anywhere in the green pastures in suburbia that they like. Again I would like to point to the American cities of Los Angeles, Atlanta and Houston to show him how great that has worked out.

What's your opinion? How do you feel about architecture without planning and development without boundaries?

Cool Hunting's Baltimore: A Word-of-Mouth Guide

This video tours Baltimore, MD, relying on the people who live there to lead us from place to place. Starting with DJ Blaqstarr, visiting the Station North Arts District and with a few other stops along the way, it's a portrait of a city represented by its residents.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

American Casino Trailer

A good chunk of this movie was filmed in my fair city of Baltimore.

Politicians and the media like to talk about the relationship between Wall Street and Main Street, but investigative journalist Leslie Cockburn's debut feature gets to the guts of the matter, visiting defectors from Bear Stearns and Standard and Poor's and other high-level players in the subprime mortgage gamble and, on the flipside, visiting the working-class Americans who were the unwitting chips on the table. Screening at the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival. For more information and tickets, visit

Monday, November 16, 2009

Informal Cities

Swiped from the Africa Unchained blog:

An excerpt from Robert Neuwirth's Lecture 'The Extroverted City of System D' a contribution to the book Open City:

In Lagos, everything is informal. The bus system is informal—the government got out of mass transit business decades ago (though it has recently stepped back into public transport with a bus rapid transit line) and the system that includes more than 75,000 danfos was held together informally by the National Union of Road Transport Workers as one-part mass transit and one-part Ponzi scheme. One of the largest formal supermarkets in Lagos buys most of its product from informal wholesalers. Some major multinationals here distribute their products through informal networks. And informal merchants invest in the formal world.

Authorities in the city acknowledge that as much as 80 percent of the work force—and Lagos has between nine and 17 million inhabitants, depending on where you draw the boundaries and who’s doing the counting—is involved in the informal sector. The federal government also suggests that somewhere around 60 to 70 percent of the country’s economic activity derives in some way from the informal sector—and this means that, in aggregate, merchants like Prince Chidi Onyeyirim and Fatai Agbalaya are more important to Nigeria’s future than Shell, Mobil, and Chevron, the multinational oil giants that pump sweet crude from the Niger River Delta.

As Mega-Cities continue to explode in population around the world (particularly in Africa) they continue to stretch the conceptual frameworks of what cities were meant to be and how they are organized. Most modern cities may appear to chaotic but when examined closely, they are heavily structured and organized systems that control and dictate the flow of traffic, development, water, sewage, air and open space. The lack of those uniform structural systems in dense urban places creates chaos and challenges the belief of whether that urban place is truly a defined city jurisdiction with a definitive boundaries to the city's power of influence and control. The uninformed mega-cities of today have no beginnings and endings to the jurisdiction's scope of power.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Top Five Comic Book Cities

Interesting note on Gotham City:

So there you are…..anyway, usually it serves as a backdrop but in the ‘Destroyer’ story arc in DC’s Legends of the Dark Knight monthly comic, the architecture of Gotham City was a central character. Destroyer focused on a crazed architectural historian obsessed with reviving the work of Gotham town planner Cyrus Pinkey. Before Batman intervenes, most of Gotham’s contemporary glass and concrete skyscrapers which had obscured Pinky’s gothic extravagances, are destroyed by the ‘Mad Bomber’.

However, this story was actually a rather brazen piece of opportunistic ‘masterplanning’ by Batman’s editors who wanted the Gotham in the comic books to resemble the one in depicted in Tim Burton’s film – in order to attract new readers. In Destroyer, Pinky’s towers are a dead ringer for Anton Furst’s designs for the film (see Furst’s sketches in the slideshow above).

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Artwork of Dan Witz

Dan Witz, 1957 born in Chicago, IL, received his BFA from Cooper Union in New York. In the late 70's he moved to New York’s East Village. The artwork of Dan Witz evinces a rigorous conceptual framework. This framework not only opens up a dialogue with graffiti and street art which dominate the urban environment, but also allows for the retention of clear and open lines with the canon of art history.

From the no-wave and DIY movements of New York’s Lower East Side of the 70’s, through the Reaganomics of the 80’s to the flourishing of graffiti art in the new millennium. Whether stickers or paste-up silk-screened posters, conceptual pranks and interventions, or beautiful tromp l’oeil paintings, the medium is inspired as much by the nature and subject of his art as by the mutating urban conditions in which the piece is executed.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Spending Time With New York Street Advertising Takeover

New York City is covered with illegal billboards and advertisements. One random day, civilians decided to take back the public space by covering over 120 illegal billboards with original works of art.

Don Draper would not be pleased.

Planning and the White City

As many city planners and urban historians know, the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago greatly influenced how city officials at the time could envision cities. See the fair included a futuristic expo about cities, which included human scale models of grand institutional buildings set alongside broad tree-lined boulevards and intricately laid out parks that incorporated the best of the city and nature. The expo laid the foundation for creating this nation’s first city Master Plan. The expo would forever change how America looked at its cities, which at the time were crowded, dreary places that lacked open space, clean air and parks for recreational activities. The very progressive and socially liberal expo of the 1893 World’s Fair was dubbed the White City after the color of all the monumental buildings that were constructed. Planners and cityophile geeks are probably familiar with the book and documentary, Magic and the White City, which covered the creation and influence of the 1893 expo.

Over one hundred years later, we have a knew version of the White City which is just as progressive and liberal as the 1893 expo was at it’s time. These meticulously planned cities are also very progressive and liberal and have a heavy emphasis on connecting the urban form with nature. These cities, which pride themselves on creating cities with a human scale, have been dubbed White Cities not because of the color of their buildings but because of the lack of color in their city’s population. recently ran an article called
The White City, lamenting the fact that many of the cities that have been dubbed as progressive or even cool among national planning pundits and observers are almost entirely white. The article states:

Among the media, academia and within planning circles, there’s a generally standing answer to the question of what cities are the best, the most progressive and best role models for small and mid-sized cities. The standard list includes Portland, Seattle, Austin, Minneapolis, and Denver. In particular, Portland is held up as a paradigm, with its urban growth boundary, extensive transit system, excellent cycling culture, and a pro-density policy. These cities are frequently contrasted with those of the Rust Belt and South, which are found wanting, often even by locals, as 'cool' urban places.

But look closely at these exemplars and a curious fact emerges. If you take away the dominant Tier One cities like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles you will find that the “progressive” cities aren’t red or blue, but another color entirely: white.”

The article continues on to question how can cities be labeled as hip and progressive if they lack a diversity of cultures. The author wonders out loud whether there is a correlation between what is labeled a progressive city and a lack of diversity within that city. And if that is so, what does that really say about those who consider themselves liberal? The author does acknowledge that having a homogeneous population allows cities to pass major government planning expenditures like transit with much more considerable ease because there are no competing interests, threatened communities or communities that would receive more benefits then others. While, without a doubt, planning for the diverse needs of multiple incomes, cultures and beliefs definitely makes planning for the whole a lot more difficult, the author does not let “progressive” cities off the hook for not reaching out to their small but present black communities. The article goes on to state:

I believe that cities that start taking their African American and other minority communities seriously, seeing them as a pillar of civic growth, will reap big dividends and distinguish themselves in the marketplace.

This trail has been blazed not by the 'progressive' paragons but by places like Atlanta, Dallas and Houston. Atlanta, long known as one of America's premier African American cities, has boomed to become the capital of the New South. It should come as no surprise that good for African Americans has meant good for whites too.”

To that specific point, social commentator and essayist
Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote on his blog that:

“...leaving aside the blinding whiteness of dubbing Atlanta "un-progressive," leaving aside that most of these "progressive" cities have more black people than their surrounding states, I think the implicit argument that these cities should be "doing more" to assure that their black population meets the national average is odious.

Man listen--Negroes like Atlanta. Negroes like Chicago. Negroes like Houston. Negroes like Raleigh-Durham (another area that doesn't make the cut, for some reason.) Negroes like Oakland. Negroes have the right to like where they live, independent of Massa, for their own particular, native, independent reasons (family? great barbecue? housing stock?) Just like Jewish-Americans have the right to like New York--or not. Just like Japanese-Americans have the right to like Cali--or not.”

I think Ta-Nehisi makes a great point. There are going to be cities that certain cities gravitate too for many reasons. Just because a city lacks diversity does not mean that they should pump up the city’s community of color just for the sake of being more diverse. True diversity will come to a city naturally and most importantly, internally as long as that city is open to everyone and is not discriminatory. Now if we find out that these “progressive” cities are really inhospitable to certain cultures or they try to minimize the size of a different culture (the old planning text adage is that when the minority population increases over 10% of the population, white flight starts to occur). If these cities are truly progressive and they still lack diversity then it may just not be those communities cup of tea.

As a city planner, I do find it interesting that the cities and places with the largest black populations such as Atlanta, Houston, Charlotte and the D.C. suburbs are some of the most sprawling cities and locales in the country. We all know that obesity is a national problem and near epidemic levels in portions of the black community. While having a preeminent large upper and middle class community in these major cities is great sign of progress, are the locations of where of the large black middle class lives really doing more harm than good? And while the author of The White City is asking why are progressively planned cities so white, the question I would like to know is why the locations of the black middle class are planned so horribly?

What is your take on progressive white cities and their lack of diversity? Also what is your opinion on why cities with a large black population have so much sprawl? Do you see any correlations? I would like to hear your thoughts, please leave a comment.

Expo Magic of the White City, 1893 Chicago Worlds Fair

White City, a feature length film about the 1893 Chicago World's Fair released in 2005 and narrated by Gene Wilder.

The White City - Built to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus' discovery of America, a "White City" with structures resembling the great marble columns of Rome resides at its unlikely home - a reclaimed swamp in Chicago. On May 1, 1893, over 300,000 people gather at the site for the World's Columbian Exposition opening. No crowd of this size has ever before assembled in one place in the United States.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Tales of a City Planner


As a community planner I have to go to a wide variety of community meetings in various different communities within my district. I have to go to big communities, small communities, rich communities, not so rich communities, old communities and new communities. All of these different communities all have different perceptions and expectations on what government can do for them. Which means sometimes you have to play the part they want you to play in order for them to listen to you. And sometimes you have to play the character in which you think they will listen to the most.

Now I don’t mean that you are selling people lies and you are being someone that you are not but the community you go to will most likely dictate how you dress. For men this means, suit or no suit, tie or no tie or dress shirt and jeans. How you present yourself can be a critical factor in whether or community is going to take you seriously and work alongside you. It’s all about identifying with the needs of that particular community. You know sometimes you can never identify with the needs of that community but you have to present yourself to look like at least your competent enough to handle that community’s needs which might range from looking like an executive to looking like the common man.

A common assumption is to dress in office attire to every meeting you go to regardless of that community’s demographics. Wrong. If you come off as if you are above the people, they will not only cooperate with you but they will become hostile with you. I was at a meeting with a planning consultant in a working class waterfront community where he tried to identify himself with the residents by complaining about his sailboat located in a wealthy town down river while he wore a tweed jacket and a bowtie. Great way to identify with the constituents, pal. I was at another meeting in a historical African-American community that had faced previous decades of discrimination, where my local government was going to tear down a decrepit older school for a brand new school. Sounds good, right? The only problem was all of the local government speakers where an array of older White men in dark suits. *Slaps Face* D’oh! Needless to say it was a long night.

Unless you are about to sell them a Monorail, do not walk into a working class community meeting like this.

In situations like I described above it is best to come to these meetings in something business casual…unless it’s a final meeting or the media is going to be there. But when I have to go to my economically less advantaged and socially rich communities, I try to come in looking like the common man. Which means, no suit, no tie, top button unbuttoned, sleeves rolled up, you know the look. I try to look humble. Not because it is an act but I don’t want to appear to be above them (because I’m not) and I don’t want to intimidate those who have never worked with government. When you are a big man in a suit like I am, people either think you are really serious or you are about to break someone’s thumbs.

The tireless Champion of the people. The Humbled Clay Davis

While the common man look works for residential community meetings it does not translate well with the business communities and institutional community meetings that I have to attend. When businesses are looking toward government to provide them information or work alongside government to upgrade commercial corridors, they frown upon people with unbuttoned shirts, no ties & jackets…and facial hair. There’s nothing worse when a room full of business men and women stare at you without responding to your inquiries because they do not trust what you are saying. Have you ever had to have a serious conversation with a room full of suits while you are in jeans? You feel kind of out of place. You could be in your office and you could be leading a serious discussion but you still feel that someone is going to tap you on your shoulder and ask, “Sir, where’s your jacket?” There is also nothing funnier when someone under dresses for a serious meeting and they walk in with the “Oh Sh*t!” face. You just stare at them and think to yourself, I don’t know who that guy is but he messed up.

So for all my future planners out there, I hoped were able to gain something from the fine art of meeting attire presentation. I hope you have come to learn that a suit is not always appropriate for a community meeting. For all my other fellow planners and anyone else who has to work with the public, I hope enjoyed this post. I would also like to hear some of your attire horror stories, so please leave a comment. And as always,

Thanks for reading!

Thursday, October 8, 2009

CASTRUM - 2009

2A+P/A and A. Grasso - CASTRUM - 2009

In a cold, cold land...

The Mayor of the City decided to create a new settlement. He did not want to conceive just a city plan, but to reveal a new emotion, a new political vision. He loved to repeat a sentence "the city is too important to put it into the hands of the architects".

Many meetings and workshops with citizens were organized to decide how to go forward with this new project. The Mayor invited a famous urban planner to the workshop, who showed pictures and drawings of many urban models. People were always happy seeing pictures of public spaces, squares, courtyards, gardens etc... otherwise they were just a bit afraid - fearful of those projects made by the very famous masters, drawn by urban planners as "heroes".

But how to organize such a complex system? What form will the city be? This was the problem: can the desires of the community be shown black on white?

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

10 Tips on How to become a Planning Board Commissioner

a.k.a how to work for the dark side. I kid, I kid. Their graphics are great.

The statue was really built by a thankful developer

Tip #1
Controversial Issues: A Natural Part of Planning

Stereotypes anyone? That's racist! j/k

Tip #2
Show Respect to All

The planner is really thinking that these people are batsh*t crazy

*Uses Jazz Hands* Say it with me people, Monorail!

All my constituents tweet and friend me on Facebook now. Newspapers. Pff...Loser

Yeah, try to hand out an info flyer at a mall. People will treat you like you have the swine flu. Even I will think your a loser for taking the flyer.

Unfortunately the crowd went all "Town Hall" on him and demanded their community back. 'twas sad.

Tip #7

Uh-huh, Uh-Huh...I didn't understand a word you said sir, I'm just nodding and scribbling, nodding and scribbling.

Why Timmy, this makes no sense at all...there's a factory right next to a house. You know factories aren't allowed in this zone. What were you thinking Timmy?

Tip #10
Planning Is Not Just for Adults

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Another Speech?

Last week a 5 part documentary series on Newark, New Jersey called “Brick City” aired on the Sundance Channel. The series was an excellent look at a tough nosed city fighting to rehabilitate itself from decades of violence, blight, poverty, back-handed politics and everything else that troubles inner-city communities. The show is centered on Newark’s highly motivated, energetic and young Mayor, Corey Booker. The Mayor, along with his staff and countless number of residents struggle to find ways to empower residents, steer youth away from gangs and reduce violent crime.

In this never ending struggle of poverty and violent crime another life is lost on a Newark street and the Mayor has to be available for comment to assure residents of their day to day safety and to demand that justice will be sought against the perpetrators. Throughout the series, this scenarios is played out multiple times leaving residents feeling any more safe or confident that justice will be sought (despite a significant reduction in murders from the year before).

Today I read about an honor roll student in Chicago who was beaten to death while walking to school. Just haven seen “Brick City,” I couldn’t help but wonder what would Mayor Booker do if he were in the Chicago’s mayor’s position…make another speech? I’m sure in Mayor Booker’s speech he would talk about how communities need to come together to overcome their ills, that we all must work harder together to protect our future, the youth and that law enforcement will work harder and smarter to try to prevent crime. But I just don’t believe these speeches anymore. This is not meant to mock or chide Corey Booker or the position that he is in as Mayor but I do not believe that if we work harder, smarter or more united that we will bring forth change. There is nothing the Mayor can do without systematic change to how cities and its suburbs are taxed and governed as well as taking a regional outlook on how to concentrate resources and improve access to employment centers, education and health institutions for everyone within a metropolitan area. Without systematic change, another speech…is just bullshit.

One of my favorite shows is “The Wire,” a fictional but very real portrayal of the inner city life and politics of Baltimore, Maryland. Fictional scenes from “The Wire” could have been easily interchanged for the non-fictional documentary of “Brick City.” During one of the final scenes of the third season of “The Wire,” an aspiring councilman who has hopes of becoming mayor makes a very ambitious speech that if the city does not come together united that the city’s neighborhoods will be permanently succumbed to violence. And if the police could just work a little bit harder and smarter, they can win the war on drugs. The dramatic scene and the very ambitious and captivating speech ends with a loud roar and applause from the council chambers to which the creators of the show say in their commentary of the scene…

Just as in fiction as in real life, the problems of the inner-city are not just behavioral but structural. It does not matter how well someone’s good intentions are or how well a structure is dressed up, if the structure is built on a loose foundation such as a hyper-concentration of poverty, poor education, poor access to jobs and healthcare…the structure will collapse almost every time.

Tales of a City Planner

Planner Fatigue

Have you ever met an old grizzly cop or an even fairly young but disillusioned cop who has been mentally and emotionally beaten down by the job that all they fail to see anything positive?

Well at times, I feel that city planning can lead to the same disillusionment. Almost any job that deals with the public, probably tests your faith and patience in the democratic political process…and people in general.

What is the source for this bitterness and cynicism? I believe the source for most planners is that many planning offices are reactionary and not proactive. This is a particular problem for young planners who come out of planning schools feeling like social activists and often become frustrated by the seemingly slow pace of government. Older planners have seen it all…and believe in nothing now. Just joking, but there are more than a few planning veterans who have turned from skeptics into cynics.

To be fair, I do know a fair share of planning vets who are also positive and are strong advocates of new planning theories that can improve the way we plan our environments. Strangely I find these planners never-ending hope to implement new planning theories to be slightly disillusioned as well. Maybe I’m a cynic too.

The problem with cynicism in planning is that you believe no new planning theory will work because everyone is stupid (yes, we think highly of ourselves). No, we do not think everyone is stupid but we do feel that there are a lot of people in the planning process who do not have the best of intentions that often effect plan implementation. In every plan you will have people ranging from other government agencies to the public that are meddling, self-serving, small minded, biased, looking for the quick fix, discriminatory and fearful. Working alongside these different factions can definitely turn you into a cynic.

The problem with being a cynic in planning is that you fail to see the full picture of what can be done. Any new planning theory that is being proposed is automatically torpedoed because we see all the problems of what could go wrong.

Here’s the deal, planning is a very intuitive profession. Planners figure out how to make things work in sometimes very unconventional ways. Since this is not a technical profession there endless amount of ways to solve and attack a problem. In fact, planning forces you to be creative because communities are never exact carbon copies of one another. We have to be creative in finding the best end result for each individual community. The end result maybe similar to another community but never the same. So the minute we become cynics we limit our creativity we fail to find the best solutions for communities.

So how do we help young planners or just planners in general avoid becoming cynics? My guess is through a bottle of Jack Daniels. I’m sure you have better solutions…all comments on this matter are welcome.

Thanks for reading!

Sunday, September 6, 2009


We got invited along to do some video mapping projections at a secret festival in the North East of England. The theme and logo of the party was the heart. We spent a couple of weeks in the studio creating the show which opened the party.

Obscura Mint Plaza Building Projection - 7 HD projectors over a 6,000 pixel plate

Saturday, September 5, 2009


BRICK CITY, is a five-part documentary series that captures the daily drama of a community striving to become a better, safer, stronger place to live. Against great odds, Newarks citizens and its Mayor, Cory A. Booker, fight to raise the city out of nearly a half century of violence, poverty and corruption.

Monday, August 31, 2009

The Battle of Brooklyn Trailer

When Cities, Sports, Politics, and Money Collide part 2

Will Africa soon become an Urban Continent?

According to the Economist, maybe so...

"…Africa is still something of a demographic outlier compared with the rest of the developing world. Long berated (or loved) as the sleepiest continent, it has now become the fastest-growing and fastest-urbanising one. Its population has grown from 110m in 1850 to 1 billion today. Its fertility rate is still high: the average woman born today can expect to have five children in her child-bearing years, compared with just 1.7 in East Asia. Barring catastrophe, Africa’s population will reach 2 billion by 2050. To get a sense of this kind of increase, consider that in 1950 there were two Europeans for every African; by 2050, on present trends, there will be two Africans for every European (see chart 1).

One African in two is a child. The numbers are such that traditional ways of caring for children in extended families and communities are breaking down…

Africa’s rate of urbanisation is the fastest the world has ever seen, says Anna Tibaijuka, the head of Habitat, the UN agency responsible for urban development. In 1950 only Alexandria and Cairo exceeded 1m people. When the city rush is done, Africa may have 80 cities with more than 1m people, plus a cluster of megacities headed by Kinshasa, Lagos and Cairo—none of which show signs of mass starvation. Intermediary towns of 50,000-100,000 people will soak up most of those coming from the countryside. Urbanisation is part of the solution to Africa’s demographic problems, not a manifestation of them."

The biggest question I have is whether African cities will adopt city planning methods to strategically plan and control growth and not let new development grow haphazardly as seen in other developing nations. There are several urban locales in South and Southeast Asia that have dense populations of 1 million people or more but they hard to define as cities. They appear to be more of a collection of dense high rise developments or communities that all function independently of each other. The same can be said of many current African cities today. Hopefully small African cities now that are expected to explode in population can implement plans now before they become overrun with major developments.

Another question I have for anyone to answer is how will Africa becoming a more urban continent change your perception of the continent?

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Eminem - Beautiful

After seeing the past video of Detroit on the move, this video shows the same buildings which were being built in the 1960's now in decay.

DETROIT: City on the Move (Part 1)

This public domain film narrated by then-mayor Jerome P. Cavanaugh was made in 1965 to promote Detroit. The city faced many urban problems and its population was in decline. These difficulties were amplified by the 1967 riots, which are seen by many as one of the most significant events which led the city into a forty year decline. Since the mid 50s, the population has dropped by half and the infrastructure has been destroyed or has decayed due to abuse and neglect.


I have never been to Detroit but I always have a fondness for cities like it because they will never be what they once were. I primarily grew up in Baltimore and spent a lot of time in Philadelphia so I understand what it feels like to see a city past it's glory years. No matter how much time as planners we spend to make our overall city environments better, we know that the factories that helped build our towns and cities and the factory workers who lived in them, are not coming back. The barren industrial landscapes are not only eyesores but they continue to decay into decrepit architectural skeletons.
While others mock Detroit's struggles or just write it off as a forgotten city, I have great sympathy for a city which helped create our modern way of life. A large part of who we are and how we define ourselves was built off of Detroit Labor and for that I don't feel it is right that we turn our back to the city now that it is struggling. I understand that we are a free market capitalist society and that industries come and go and it is up to cities to plan better for it's peaks and valleys. I am also certain that the city and state governments as well as the major car companies did not have a proper plan in place for the city's future and in those respects, the city was destined to fail. But ask yourself, on a historical level, where would we be as a country, without Detroit?
Detroit was a great American industrial jewel that we are allowing to crumble like the ruins in Rome. The only catch is that Detroit has not been deserted. Among these industrial ruins is the nation's 11th largest city where over 900,000 people reside. Our nation's forgotten major city is still larger then the cosmopolitan cities of San Fransisco, Boston, Seattle and Washington D.C. While we can never bring Detroit back to what it was 50 years ago, we can still transform the city from a once great industrial city into a great historical city and not watch city turn into a ruin from a far.

"Despite the ugliness that is inherent in these photos: the ugliness of poverty, the tragedy of loss, and waste, this building still lets us glimpse something beautiful. In Detroit this beauty is uniquely sustained. In other cities, buildings like this would be turned into luxury loft condominiums. They would be knocked down so that something new could be built in their place, their contents dragged off to a landfill and forgotten. Here we get to see what the world will look like when we're gone. We see that the world will indeed go on, and there is a certain beauty to nature's indifference."

Text copyright and pictures 2008, James D. Griffioen

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Rebound of New Orleans - New Growth or Dillution of the Past?

Four years after Hurricane Katrina, the city of New Orleans is growing again and has grown to 3/4th's of their pre-storm population. While the city is still missing a significant chunk of their former residents, most of the new population of residents are not native residents returning home but newcomers which are starting to change the culture of New Orleans. The article quotes:

The city is now home to a tide of newcomers unprecedented in recent history, including Hispanic day laborers, idealistic young teachers, and urban planners all drawn by the unique opportunity to help a devastated city rebuild, almost from scratch.

....Before Katrina, New Orleans famously had the highest percentage of "native-born" residents of any major American city. In the 2000 census, for instance, 77 percent of New Orleanians were considered natives, defined as those born anywhere in Louisiana.

Viewed optimistically, the statistic is a measure of New Orleanians' attachment to their hometown. But it's also a symptom of a moribund economy that attracts few migrants.

...The percentage of single, childless adults -- a group more associated with transplants -- has risen significantly, surveys indicate. At the same time, the percentage of families living in extreme poverty, the group most likely to be native-born, has dropped. The percentage of white residents has risen, while the percentage of African-Americans has slipped.

Will the newcomers ultimately embrace New Orleans long rich cultural heritage or identity? Or will they add on to the heritage and tradition or ultimately change it? It's probably too early to tell for now? With an influx of newcomers, what will it really mean now to miss New Orleans?

What are your thoughts? To read the entire article, click here.

Urban schools use marketing to woo residents back

Interesting article from Richmond Channel 8 News. As anyone knows, no city can bring back it's middle class without significantly improving it's public inner-city schools. The article quotes:

The $50,000 campaign by a school system still trying to rebound from a long history of racial segregation and white flight is an example of efforts under way in several cities to retain students. School districts are highlighting improvements to halt declining head counts so they can retain their funding, especially in light of drastic state budget cuts.

"People are still stuck with perceptions of yesteryear, and are not really aware of what we have to offer today," Richmond Superintendent Yvonne Brandon said. "It's not perfect, but be a part of the solution and become invested now."

Unfortunately for some cities, the need for more students seems to be a numbers game to keep funding for an already under funded system.

Detroit's fiscally troubled system has lost more than 45 percent of its students over the last decade, leading to scores of school closures. The district this month launched a $500,000 "I'm In" campaign to keep students in the district, enlisting the help of ex-NBA player Derrick Coleman and comedian Bill Cosby and donations from private companies - including pro-bono work from advertising and public-relations agencies, spokesman Steven Wasko said.

The school system gets about $7,560 in state funds for each enrolled student. Its enrollment target is 83,777, and "any student above that translates into more funding," Wasko said.

What are your thoughts? To read the full article, click here.

Abandoned Subway Stations from Around the World

Grand Old City Station - New York, New York

Croix-a-Rouge - Paris France

Botanic Gardens - Glasglow, England

Belmont Tunnel - Los Angeles, California

Abandoned subway system of Rochester, New York

Sonicsgate Movie Trailer

Sonicsgate is a feature-length documentary film exposing the truth behind the SuperSonics' tragic exodus after 41 years in the Emerald City.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Heart & Soul of Cities

Yesterday I watched a documentary called “The Nine Lives of Marion Barry” and it was a pretty fair portrayal of one of the most controversial political figures within the last fifty years. Marion Barry (who had a Master’s in chemistry…who knew?!?) was a civil rights leader who came to Washington D.C. in the 1960’s were he came a political activist who later became a city council member and ultimately the mayor. In his third term as the mayor of the Capital, Barry (as I’m sure many of you are aware) had one of the most epic political downfalls ever in this country as he was caught using crack cocaine on videotape in a joint police & F.B.I. sting operation.

A man who had worked so hard for the real citizens of D.C. had disgraced himself and his city became a national laughing stock as he had to serve six months in a Federal prison for drug possession. In 1994, the city had seemed to become the national laughing stock as they re-elected Barry for a fourth term. Marion Barry and his re-election triggered national debates about black political leadership, the crack epidemic, the polarization of black and white communities and the effectiveness of past civil rights leaders. One man, born in abject poverty who picked in cotton in Tennessee as a child, who worked his way through college and stopped short in getting his PhD in chemistry to join the civil rights movement, managed to stir up a whole heap of controversy as he became the political face of our nation’s capital.

But this post isn’t just about Marion Barry. This post is about the people who make up the heart and soul of cities. Those folks that would elect and re-elect people like Marion Barry who had listened and fought for them. These folks represent the guts of cities. They range from the menial job workers, to teachers and professors, to the hustlers and the unemployed, to proud families who had lived in the city for decades. These folks represented the everyday life of Washington D.C. that had little to do national politics, congress or the White House. Without a doubt, Washington D.C. is a one industry town. The Federal government as well as the massive amount private contracting jobs that it produces, makes up the lion’s share of jobs in the city and metropolitan area. There is a perception sometimes that D.C. is a hollow city that is just made up of Federal workers and contractors. However as someone who grew up an hour north of the city in Baltimore, I knew there were two different D.C.’s. There was the Capital and then there was Black D.C.

This dichotomy is prevalent in many cities where the public face is within stark contrast to the everyday lives of the citizens who make the city run. There are the skyscrapers of Manhattan and there are the flats, rowhouses and project high rises of Harlem, Brooklyn and the Bronx. There are the beautiful beaches and art deco line streets of South Beach in Miami and there are the barrios of Little Haiti and Overtown. In my fair city of Baltimore, there is the world-renowned Inner Harbor and there is East and West Baltimore as depicted on the HBO television series, “The Wire.” In fact one of my favorite scenes from The Wire was the series ending final montage were one of the main characters stares at the skyscrapers surrounding the harbor while the show runs through images of the everyday life of normal city residents. It was as if someone was admiring the beauty of a castle and its walls from afar while those in its kingdom toiled in a meaningless servitude from within the walls. If Baltimore was a castle then Washington D.C. was an Emerald City both literally and figuratively.

In one of the later renditions of the Wizard of OZ, Emerald City is described as a city with splendid palaces and gardens but beset with crime and poverty. In these renditions the city wasn’t green but the citizens wore green glasses as a way to stop seeing what was going on around them. If this isn’t apropos to how the Federal government treated the residents of the city then I don’t what is. This is what makes Marion Barry’s rise to power so fascinating. In a city full of allusion, grandeur and power, the man chosen to lead the city came from those who were thought of as powerless. For as powerful as the Federal Government is in a global context, it still does not represent the city, the people do. And the needs of the everyday people of the city had been ignored. For every powerful lobbyist that lived in the city there was a bus driver and a hairdresser. For every congressman there was a teacher and a sanitation worker. For every staff aid, there was a high school drop out and some one underemployed. While cities fight to attain the former examples previously mentioned, Barry fought for the needs of the latter who were the heart and soul of Washington D.C.

The Nine Lives of Marion Barry Documentary

A trailer to a documentary about the former mayor of Washington D.C.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

President Obama on Urban Policy

The White House Office of Urban Affairs and the Domestic Policy Council host a roundtable about the future of America's urban and metropolitan areas. In his remarks, the President addresses some of the challenges facing these communities, and highlights innovative solutions.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Nike IAM1 Amsterdam Journey

Nike Sportswear presents a new video showcasing their IAM1 Campaign with blogger/entrepreneur extraordinaire Nalden, directed by Sartoria. The tour travels through some of Amsterdams hot spots, including MiNiBar, Momkai, La Melodia (the Betty who made the Soundtrack) and HOTEL who designed the Amsterdam map.

Friday, July 17, 2009

More than just Place-making

One of the running themes of this blog is showing how people experience and interact with the city. In between opinion pieces of the challenges of city planning are multiple posts showing urban art from all over the world. While posts about planning theory implementation and urban art may seem like an odd mix they both aim to affect how people interact with their environment. Like new planning theories, urban art intends to not only create a sense of place but also define how people experience their own neighborhood.

The perspective of this blog is on how people live in cities and not on city planning theories and ideals. In my opinion, too much of city planning focuses on implementing proposed liveable and defined spaces and not on the outcomes of the people they have affected. City planning theories and ideals focus almost solely on defining neighborhood spaces and not enough on building the community’s social capital. When planning neighborhoods, planning theorists often fail at addressing where will the working poor live, how can we improve city schools, and how can we produce more non-retail jobs?

Now all of the above questions deal with issues that go way beyond city planning’s scope but they are all central issues on how and where people live. To ignore these questions on how people truly live and experience their city is to whitewash cities into one identical ball of putty that can be shaped into whatever planner ideals that we envision. This type of thinking ignores regional and local identities, cultural differences, socio-economic patterns and is very…suburban. In fact, most city planning ideals are most successful in suburban locales where suburban lifestyles almost trump any possible conflicts on identity, culture and socio-economic patterns.

City neighborhoods do not share the luxury of middle class stability as their identity-less suburban neighbors. Great city master planning will not significantly improve schools, increase the number of non-retail jobs or greatly impact soci-economic patterns. This is why city planning has to be more then just about place making. This is also why I am so critical about the implementation of theories such as Transit oriented design, form based codes and New Urbanism.

While these theories produce great senses of places when implemented correctly, they often have a negative effect on the existing community. On top of that these places often become insular developments with poor social connections with its neighboring communities. So while millions of dollars are raised, financed, taxed and levied for a new planning infused development of improved spaces and buildings, did the social quality of the people who live in the community improve as well? These are questions that planners should always ask of themselves and questions this blog will always pose about new and old planning concepts.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Tales of a City Planner

Tales of a City Planner
Red Tape

One of the biggest complaints in government is red tape. In fact there is probably some local politician who is saying right now that they are going to “cut the red tape in government and stop waste!” Only to see a free for all in backhand deals, lack of accountability and transparency and possible scandal. Which then leads to another local politician saying they are going to “clean up government,” that inevitably leads to more red tape.

As a planner we are not policy makers. We cannot arbitrarily ignore rules and processes that we think are stupid and arduous. The fun part is that each process is often independent of the other multiple processes and that’s only if it’s determined if you even have to go through any processes at all. There are so many different interpretations of different processes that we ourselves do not which process one development will go through or even how many. Sometimes it feels like your playing Plinko. Developers drop the Plinko chip and think the chip is headed for “straight to permit” and WHAM, they have to go before the Development Review Board, Design Panel and an additional public hearing.
Cue the horns.

Sometimes it feels like you are being a small time hustler explaining all these different processes to the public. Typical convo:

Ok, ok, ok…if you do this, you have to go through this process. If you do that, you have to through this, that annnnnd this. You don’t want do that. But if you do this, you should be straight…but don’t quote me.”

And that conversation is based on…a.) The government employee knows what their talking about and b.) Some other more experienced planner comes us and says, well if you do this, that annnnnd the other thing, you don’t have to go through any of this per this new law. You follow me?

Still not following me? Let me give you a recent real life example of this. I was recently at a meeting in which a private entity would donate half of their property to the government for redevelopment. Since the property’s land use had been grandfathered due to pre-existing use before it’s zoning changed, the property would need a special exception as well…and since they are giving a portion of their property away, a variance for other setbacks and regulations. On top of that there is a historical landmark on the property, which triggers the review of the Historic commission of the development plan. Finally there were major environmental problems with the site and a question on flip the bill for the environmental upgrades.

So this one development triggers an acquisition, a subdivision (along with design review), special exception, variance, historic review and stringent environmental review. So what development is so important that if triggers six, that’s right six different governmental processes? This must be some type of huge tax revenue inducing, multi-use complex that will trigger hundreds of jobs…this has to be it, right? Because who would go over this much scrutiny for a… *drumroll please*… park. That’s right a park. Not an office, not a high-rise but a park. “
We’re talking about park.”

Building a park should never be this hard. This is not an episode of Parks & Recreation. But thanks to red tape we must treat this park as if we were reviewing the site plan of a new mall. But despite the hassle and the meeting of at least six different agencies to discuss a park, I’m sure government would look a lit worse if we just arbitrarily started accepting valuable pieces of lands from private entities with no condition. I’m sure that would be fine but I’m sure that you can see how that could become a slippery slope of private influence on government.

There really is no moral to this tale except to show that red tape is fun for no one. In fact red tape can kill developments that we as planners try to push for. Is red tape necessary…I don’t know. But I can’t think of a better way of to regulate development…like a park. Anybody out there have any ideas?

And once again, thanks for reading!