Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

NBC's new show, Parks & Recreation

If anybody ever wondered what county government life is like, I highly encourage you to read my posts about Tales of a Planner and watch this new show, Parks & Recreation. I can't tell you how true to life this show is about a county office. This is like The Wire of county government shows without drug dealers and scarface assassins with shotguns.
Please check out the city of Pawnee's Website from the show.

Friday, March 20, 2009

My Fair City of Baltimore

Historic images of Baltimore throughout the 1900's.

The Baltimore Harbor in the early 1900s. A less then awe-inspiring skyline for the maritime city.

A view of the Harbor looking north in the vicinity of Charles Street. The Washington Monument in Mount Vernon can be seen in the background.

Another image of the Harbor taken much later in the 1900's. If you look close you can see the B&O Building which is now apart of Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

A view of City Hall before the construction of War Memorial Plaza and the War Memorial Building which was finished in 1921.

A view of the infamous East Baltimore Flagstaff Housing Projects. This image is mot likely from the 1960's.

Eko Atlantic - The New Lagos

An interesting video showing how planners and engineers are trying to save the Lagos waterfront from the Ocean while planning a new island of development that will be roughly the size of Manhatten.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

L.A. Street Art

For my 200th Blog Post – Another Tale of a City Planner

The Site Visit

Last night I went into a community planning function in another city just for kicks when someone asked me, what do you do as a community planner. Usually I either give them a really short answer like, review developments, organize community plans, or I give them a long answer on all the minor tasks I do on a day-to-day basis. Being a community planner is really whatever you make out to be, for the most part there are no clear established tasks. A simple e-mail from a resident asking about traffic calming can balloon into a transit corridor study a year later.

However there is one task that all community planners must perform to understand their surroundings and community…the site visit. For every major and minor development or change in a community, I have to go on a site visit. Some of these site visits are informational (as in, I didn’t know this was there), adventurous (I don’t know if I should drive down this dirt path in the woods) or historical (George Washington drank here…really?) but a good number of them are a bit of a waste of time. Nothing is more fulfilling then checking a request to raise a shed to 21 feet from the required 15 feet. The bird’s eye view in MSN has been a lifesaver from pointless site visits.

In all my travels in going to site visits by far the ones that are the most fun have been in the rural side. In looking for developments on small side streets way out in the countryside I have accidentally driven into other counties, other states (PA) and once into someone’s lamppost and drove away like hell. Country roads have the best road crossing signs. Forget about regular cross signs for students or deer, wait to you see a sign for bulls, sheep, tractors and my favorite horse-drawn buggies.

With so many crossings you would think that traffic would be relatively slow for a small, two-lane, winding road bordered by 100-year-old oak trees. But what you get are ex-urbanites, race cars and trucks all riding your bumper at 50 mph while you turning tight corners hoping there is more road ahead of you and not a tree. Driving becomes even more difficult when you are staring at a forest or an anonymous group of farms wondering, is that the development site? Good luck on stopping, or finding a place to pull over or even a u-turn.

The most fun is slowly creeping into people’s neighborhoods or property with no sign identification on your car. Now, most of the time this would be a bit of concern for me, being that as you can tell by my profile picture, I am a large African-American male and I am slowly driving through a rural all-white neighborhood. Who knows what these people think I am doing. Fortunately, all of them take pity because they KNOW that I am lost. Many people will pull over or stop what their doing to sincerely ask, “Sir, can I help you?” or “Where are you trying to head to sir?” God bless them…for not pulling shotguns (which has happened to other planners).

Most of the time, my adventure stops after reaching the site but sometimes it only just begins. While at various sites, I have been chased by dogs, stared down by a mammoth bull standing just 20 feet away, been startled by foxes hoping out of bushes and ended site visit because a pile of crap was too large to be a dog. And whatever animal made that pile, I do not want to see alone in the woods. I’ve started picked up large sticks now when I have to go through woods and fields now.

Not all my own property visits have included the fear of being mauled by a forest animal. Many visits have included me jumping over streams, discovering walking and ATV paths, overlooking valleys, standing next to inlets by the Chesapeake Bay and checking out old historic ruins.

Site visits in the suburbs or in urban areas are nowhere near as fun…except for semi-country neighborhoods that have the most stunningly awful architectural gems you will ever see. Although some urban neighborhoods are pretty cool and they have these things called bars which when traveling with another planner I always end up in after the site visit.

I hope you have learned another critical aspect into what planners do and have to go through when planning the future to your neighborhood. We are not government officials in ivory towers creating master plans for neighborhoods that we have never been to before. Nope, we are in your neighborhood getting chased by your dog or in your local neighborhood tavern or restaurant.

Thanks for reading!

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Quote of the Day

"The City, however, does not tell its past, but contains it like the lines of a hand, written in the corners of the streets, the gratings of the windows, the banisters of the steps, the antennae of the lightning rods, the poles of the flags, every segment marked in turn with scratches, indentations, scrolls."

Italo Calvino,
Invisible Cities

Tales of a City Planner

The Lack of Support

One of the main functions of a city planner is community organizing. This occurs when planning functions such as a new school proposal, new street proposals or a community plan. Most of my community meetings are already set by individual community associations where all I have to do is either present information and or answer questions.

But when organizing a community meeting, I have to organize, arrange, coordinate, present and host the meeting. Which isn’t a problem because after all, I am a planner. When there are active neighborhood associations in the community, getting decent participation for a community plan can be a breeze. These associations help do a lot of the leg work to get a decent turnout to a meeting.

Unfortunately, I have several communities that have either very weak neighborhood associations or none at all. So how do you bring out turnout you may ask? Well, it’s sort of like planning a party that no one wants to go to.

Me: “Excuse me sir, would you come out next Tuesday and participate at a community meeting to make our neighborhood a better place?”

Stranger: “Uh…sure, yeah, yeah, yeah. I’ll…be…there." *nervously looks away and then at the ground *

No one really tells you in college that performing outreach is a major part of community planning. Sure, it’s always easy to put ads in all of the local newspapers but not everyone gets the local paper and then those who do don’t read it. So you do a mass mailing, which should cover everyone…unless they are renters in which the mailing will go to the property owner and not the resident. And contacting apartment complexes for “solicitation”…that’s another post in itself. Only one thing left to do and that is blanket the community with flyers…one house at a time. The general rule of thumb is that for every 40 flyers, one person will come to your meeting.

So after putting ads in newspapers, mass mailings, flyers, word of mouth and calling any major stakeholders you have your first meeting. Success! You have a large turnout and with that turnout you collect everyone’s contact information from e-mail, phone number and mailing address. So now you don’t have to flyer as much and you can cut back on some of the mass mailings because you have a phone and e-mail database, right?


At your next meeting only half the amount of people come out, leaving you scratching your head. The problem, half the people only came to see what the whole community planning process was about. You will most likely never see them again despite copying them to a mass e-mail alerting of them of the next community meeting.

So what did I learn in my experiences in community outreach where there is no community support or neighborhood associations? That e-mail and phone lists can not replace community association support or direct contact with residents and business owners. If you want to build up community support, you have to do it the hard way and actually put your feet in the street and be visible in community.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Jetsons and New Urbanism

The Jetsons in Orbit City

The other day I was reading an article about how Dubai planners wants to employ New Urbanist principles for new developments. I couldn’t help but think that Dubai, a skyscraper wonderland, reminded me of Orbit City, the fictional futuristic utopian city from the cartoon show, The Jetsons. Both cities are made up of super-tall skyscrapers surrounded by “highways” (Orbit City’s highway was in the sky). Neither city had much a street life and residents were forced to take singe-serving transit to get their most basic needs. The cities also featured a high-tech, upper middle class or luxury lifestyle that excluded the working class. While Dubai had transient shantytowns for all their construction workers and the working class, the Jetsons entirely replaced low paying jobs with robots. Although I always wondered if there was some Orbit City housing project just out of view…or did the poor live on the ground while the rich lived in the sky.

Dubai in the clouds

As a city planner, the most striking thing about these two cities in their quest to become futuristic utopias is there lack of advancement in human connection and planning. How ironic is it that the creators of The Jetsons created a technologically advanced society that innovated everything except human interaction with each other and the places they live. When it came to concepts such as building to human scale and livability, Orbit City was based on a 1960’s planning construct of highways and separate land uses. So while the physical tasks of everyday life had become advanced in Orbit city, human development had not.

One would think that future real life utopias would be more advanced in their planning for human scale and place greater emphasis on how people live versus how we travel and accomplish tasks. Sadly are new utopias are still being planned off the same 1960’s construct of sporadic dense development along highways with no consideration for public transit. For as spectacular and glamorous as Dubai is, the city is not walkable and lacks grand pedestrian streets and boulevards that are full of life, activity and vitality. Just like Orbit City, the best way to view and experience the grandeur of Dubai is from afar.

The proposed Spire Tower in Dubai. The Spire would be almost a mile tall.

The irony for Dubai is that it is located near the cradle of all civilization where the first towns and cities of the world were developed. 3,000 thousand years later, the awe-inspiring futuristic city is now trying to employ some of the same developmental principles of the region’s past ancient cities.

In fiction and in reality, technology cannot advance how we plan and regulate our cities. Technology can help us plan more efficiently and construct buildings faster and quicker then ever before but it can not advance human interaction…in most cases it only diminished interaction. For all the great gadgets that Elroy Jetson had, he had no park to play with his dog. No matter how advanced we become as a society in out communications system, our healthcare system or any other system, technology can not advance a walk to a local grocery store from your house or a stroll in a park in your neighborhood. The Jetsons may have had everything they wanted…except a real community.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Tales of a City Planner

With the decline of the print newspapers, many have bemoaned the loss of good journalism. Some within the blogging community believe that bloggers can take the place of newspapers and present multiple angles of stories. Critics of that ideology believe that all bloggers do is re-post the work of real journalists and then give their opinions.

Ouch. While half of this blog is made up of a collection of art, video clips, vignettes and yes even some original thought, the other half is dedicated to my opinion as a city planner on news that affects the urban environments.

So I've decided to take it one step farther. Many of my opinions on news articles are based on my professional experiences of being city planner, so why not write about that and share them amongst other planners, future planners, architects, engineers, community activists and anyone else interested in the urban environment. Many people have asked what do I do as a community planner, well this post be the first of many about the day to day functions of city planning.

Tales of a City Planner (Part 1)
Beware of those overly nice to you before a meeting

This week I was invited to give a presentation about local area development at a residents' association meeting for a senior living facility. I rarely have contact with senior living facilities but this particular facility was very well-to-do and is located in the town's cental core. The topic of my presentation was on the recent rise of development within the town, most of which was happening less then a block away from the senior living facility.

Before the presentation, the residents' association had invited me to dinner at their facility two hours prior to the presentation. As I ate dinner (which is a rarity, most of the time at night community meetings I leave straight from work and sit in meetings starving...on top of that, this meal was free!) in the very formal dining hall, I chatted with board members about their past lives, their lives at the facility (the place was top notch) and eventually about nearby development. As the board members asked questions about development, I gave them full explanations of the process and seemed to have alleviated at least some of their concerns. If this was an indication of the type of questions I was going to receive at the presentation, this will be an easy meeting I thought.

Fast forward to the presentation. I purposefully dumbed down my powerpoint presentation because I did not want to lose any seniors on the long, arduous, complicated matters of development and redevelopment. No offense to the seniors, but explaining our 400 page zoning code and it's procedures of development can confuse anyone and also put them to sleep as well. So I breeze through my presentation showing the residents all the proposed images of projects still in construction as well as projects still in the developmental phase. I was a little worried because I went through the presentation a little too fast. Most of the time at other community meetings I'm interrupted by questions though the middle of the presentation. So as I finish my presentation and still have over 40 minutes to kill, I turn it over to questions from the audience.

And this is where the fun begins. Sometimes when a group of people have not had a chance to talk to anyone from government about their issues in a while they have a tendency to unload on first available official they see. I was that official. To sum up all the questions and comments raised over the next hour, the seniors were most upset that a.) the town is difficult for them to walk and b.) all the new development will make traffic worse. All very legitimate questions and comments...for the first five times they asked the same variated question.

Part of the reason the seniors kept asking the same questions is because frankly did not like my answers. The answers I gave the crowd were that many of the new developments under construction had employed walkability measures that my office and the community had developed to make a more liveable and active town. The new developments were built closer to the street and have reduced parking counts to encourage new residents to walk to nearby stores and offices. The seniors weren't hearing that. They believed that no one would walk anywhere despite everything a new resident would need is within blocks of their new apartment building. The problem with the seniors thinking is that since they have trouble moving around, they assumed everyone else would as well. My suggestion that new residents would walk from their building to the super market across the street brought guffaws from the crowd.

The question of the night came from a somewhat bitter senior who pointedly asked, "how did you get here tonight, did you walk or drive?"


Now my office is probably 8 blocks away from the senior living facility. I have walked many times from office to the restaurants across the street from the senior living facility on my lunch break dozens of times. That night I was carrying a laptop and folder full of papers and it was cold. So I drove. But if I were to ask what percentage of them walk outside the building at all, I would have been the bad guy (most confessed privately that they get bussed to the market across the street). At times I did feel like the bad guy, after the tenth variation of the same question you get a little testy. Answers to questions went from, "As I had previously mentioned..." to "Like I had told you guys before..." When you get to that point, you know you're meeting with seniors had not gone as planned.

This is when you have to realize, you can not take their comments personal. Not that I was taking offense to their comments but sometimes as an official for government, you have to become the whupping boy for all of government's failings that may or may not have anything to do with you or your office. I realized that after the third or fourth time I offered to make another presenation with local community associations to show how we are addressing their concerns, to only have that offer fall on deaf ears. That's when I realized that they came to the meeting to gripe...and that's ok. Everyone needs to gripe once and awhile as long as it does not become a habit because griping with inaction is not productive.

The meeting finally came to a close. One of the residents' association members came to me and said, for all their complaints, they were all engaged and were discussing issues even after the meeting was over, which never happens according to the association member. And that my friends was the positive of the meeting. One of the biggest hurdles planners' face in dealing with the public, is the public's lack of knowledge or awareness of the planning process. Some communities are better then others in their knowledge of the development process but it is always important to keep everyone connected and informed. How the community interprets the information is another issue. But if you want a healthy planning process the community must have the facts, for better or for worse. If not, the community will have an us vs them mentality which can be difficult to overcome and will always slow down progress.

Whew. This is my first post on the tales of being a community planner. For those in planning, I hope you enjoyed and had a good laugh and for those curious about planning I hope you were able to learn something or see how the planning process works. If anyone has any questions, comments, similar tales or suggestions, I would love to hear them, so please leave a comment.

Thanks for reading!

Why the Poor Stay Poor

The New York Times recently ran a book review about William Julius Wilson's book, More Than Just Race: Being Black and Poor in the Inner City, which is full of quotables perfect for the blog. I could quote the first five paragraphs but I'll let you read the article for yourself.

I will leave behind this quote:

"Meanwhile, economic and demographic changes that had nothing to do with race aggravated the problems of the ghetto. Encouraged by recently built highways and inexpensive real estate, middle-class residents and industry left the inner city to relocate to roomier and less costly digs in the suburbs during the ’60s and ’70s. Those jobs that remained available to urban blacks further dwindled as companies replaced well-paid and unionized American workers with automation and cheaper overseas labor. The new economy produced most of its jobs at the two poles of the wage scale: high-paying jobs for the well educated and acculturated (lawyers, bankers, management consultants) and low-paying jobs for those with little education or skills (fast food, telemarketing, janitorial services)."

Thursday, March 5, 2009

A Remedy for Blight - Land Banking in Baltimore

The Baltimore Sun ran an article today about Mayor Dixon's Land Banking plan. The article states:

"Despite owning more than 9,000 abandoned properties in Baltimore, the city sells about 250 a year to community developers and individuals. At that rate, Baltimore will never rid itself of this behemoth of blight. That lopsided ratio argues strongly for a better system of selling these rundown houses and vacant lots so that they can be returned to the tax rolls. Mayor Sheila Dixon has proposed creation of a land bank that would take control of the city's vast inventory of abandoned houses and streamline a process known to be cumbersome and time-consuming."

Baltimore is trying to proposed a land banking plan similar to the plans in Cleavland and St. Louis that were successful in revitalizing the outer fringes of those cities. Unfortunately for Baltimore, the outer fringes of the for the most part are stable, the bulk of the blight is located deep within the inner-city. As we know there are a whole host of factors that could have triggered blight in the inner-city versus the fringe.

My concern for the plan is from the struggles of a land banking program in Philadelphia, a city which shares more similarities with Baltimore then the previous aforementioned cities. Philadelphia's, Neighborhood Revitalization Initiative created by former Mayor Street, acquired large amount of vacant rowhouses and properties only to get quagmired by the demolition process by absentee landlords and individual property owners refusing to sell. While thousands of new housing units were built many neighborhoods were scarred even further by blocks that were partially cleared with only one or two rowhouse units remaining on the block. This created a scattered tooth effect which just accelerated blight even further. The article alludes to ownership problems when it states:

"The debate on this bill is just beginning, but the glut of vacant properties in this city - an estimated 30,000 - is too great not to approve the proposal, with some protections. Abandoned, rundown buildings have compromised the safety and health of too many city neighborhoods for too long. Most aren't owned by the city, though they are the city's problem. But 25 percent of vacant houses are city-owned, and a streamlined process to sell them would help generate more economic development opportunities and, ultimately, improve the quality of life throughout Baltimore."

Despite the predicted dilemmas that will come with the proposed Land Banking plan, one thing is clear, the problem will not solve itself and the city has to act. In this respect, the land banking plan is similar to the Federal banking bailout and stimulus plans. The failure to act now will only continue the decline of property values of the inner-city; however buying all these vacant properties is an expensive proposition for tax payers who will be left to finance these vacant properties if the city can not sell them.

A Historic Baltimore Relic - Old Town Mall

Despite many proposals within the last 40 years to save this mall and it's historical crossroads Old Town Mall continues to crumble. The community which was founded in the 1660’s and intersected the historic travel routes and commercial corridors of Greenmount/York Road and Gay Street/Harford Road was a vital commercial and industrial hub through the mid 20th century. In the 1960's under the guise of Urban Renewal, Old Town became the first mall next to public housing projects. In the 1970's, an interstate was constructed leaving the mall in shadows and in the 1990's, the public housing projects were razed leaving the mall with no residents. The history of inner city Baltimore can certainly be told through the history of Old Town Mall.

All pictures courtesy of the Baltimore Examiner

The historic neighborhood borders the city’s downtown and has long been a highly dense community that once was one of the city’s hubs for industry and commerce due to it’s close proximity to downtown. There are still several existing structures in the community that date back to the 19th and early 20th century that reflect the community’s once industrial character as evident with historic Shot Tower. The Old Town Mall stands on the site of the Old Town neighborhood which almost predates the city itself. The site of the Old Town Mall formed as a food market in 1813 which sparked the neighborhood’s growth and became a pedestrian mall under Hope XI in 1968. At that time, Old Town mall was the only mall in America to be located in an impoverished neighborhood as the site was almost completely surrounded by housing projects.

Almost like no other neighborhood in the city, the current condition of the Old Town community is a reflection of deep scars of failed urban policy locally and nationally which this community took the brunt of those failures. From two notorious housing projects which were eventually tore down in the mid 1990’s to the continued construction of I-83 in the 1970’s which further isolated the neighborhood from downtown, the community to many people was a blighted eyesore. An eyesore that stood in stark contrast to downtown Baltimore’s reemergence and new skyscrapers which were just blocks away from the crime ridden neighborhood.
This community has undergone significant changes within the last ten years from the State’s new Juvenile Justice Complex to the major redevelopment of the Lafayette Court and Flagstaff housing projects into low scale townhouse styled apartments. Unfortunately, there are still very visible vestiges of the community’s past struggle. The community is still home to public housing or public assisted housing and Old Town Mall is at the intersection of a very heavily traveled intersection is more blighted than ever and is a virtual ghost town surrounded by blighted buildings, empty parking lots and dirt lots.

The community’s decay and blight was not hidden or intertwined through a mass of interior city blocks but where on full display on the cris-crossing of several major arterial streets. The community quickly became a collection of unwanted land uses from acres of surface parking lots, the constant activity of the central post office, an expressway, a Juvenile Justice center, a homeless shelter and of course a concentration of public housing. Whatever that was unwanted somehow settled into that neighborhood at some point in time. This can be seen by the tent camps of homeless people who live in the community under the I-83 Expressway. Perhaps the neighborhood’s greatest weakness was not that it was decaying and impoverished but that it did not decay quietly. The neighborhood decayed before everyone to see who came downtown…and did so violently.

But perhaps the neighborhood’s greatest weakness can soon become it’s greatest strength. There is no reason that a neighborhood adjacent a downtown, a regional expressway, two subway stops and that is located on major arterial roads some of which are just blocks from region’s largest employer can not turn itself around.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Miru Kim: Making art of New York's urban ruins

At the 2008 EG Conference, artist Miru Kim talks about her work. Kim explores industrial ruins underneath New York and then photographs herself in them, nude -- to bring these massive, dangerous, hidden spaces into sharp focus.

Her artwork also reminds me of a Blackstar song called "Respiration," which treated the city as a living being.

São Paulo, Brazil Graffiti - Streets of Art

Ex-Urbs - The new American ghetto?

The Las Vegas Sun reported on the economic downtown that has crippled Las Vegas, which was one of America's fastest growing cities. The fuel needed to continue the city's sprawling march through the desert has all but ceased as the city's main industries, construction, tourism and real estate have dried up. With no new buyers in sight, many of the sprawling McMansions built far away from the core now sit empty and deserted. The article quotes:

"All those half-empty neighborhoods on the edge of town become exurban ghettoes. These neighborhoods share the worst aspects of suburban life, specifically long commutes, big gasoline bills and the absence of urban amenities, while not offering some of the traditional benefits of suburbs such as big yards — the houses in many of the neighborhoods are packed closer together.

These structures, which were built cheaply and quickly, will become inexpensive rental housing, a process that seems to have already begun."

This would not be the first time a recently constructed ex-urb has quickly fallen on hard times. The Charlotte area, where banking is the top industry was also one of America's fastest growing cities in the 2000's. When the banking industry first began signs of falter in 2006, the effects on the Charlotte suburbs were immediate. Entire ex-urban housing developments, most likely owned by investors, were abandoned. Vacant houses were stripped down of copper wire and other materials by thieves and other vacants were being used by squatters. Costly infrastructure and utilities were wasted to these unpopulated housing developments. To add insult to injury, crime became another problem for ex-urbs adding onto wasted infrastructure and services costs.

Will this become the fate of Las Vegas? Some Vegas planners are already planning for a post-sprawl city. The article quotes:

"In fact, planning for a future that is more dense, more vertical, more urban and connected by mass transit could solve several problems at once.

...Las Vegas could draw skilled professionals it needs with a more varied development pattern that includes urbanism. If you want to attract really sharp engineers and scientists and creative people, having a city will make it much easier to do that."

Does this mean the city of fantasy will actually have to grow up to become a real city? More importantly though, does our fantasy of the American dream also have to grow up and face the reality that the dream is no longer sustainable?

What are your thoughts?

Urbanizing Africa

A recent report in The Standard showed that African cities are now growing faster then their economies which is causing about whether current infrastructure in these cities can handle a booming population. The article reports:

"The State of African Cities 2008’, the African continent, which is the least urbanised region in the world with 39 per cent of its population living in the cities, is also reported to be the fastest urbanising region.

...Equally alarming is that not only is the African continent transforming into an urban majority, but urban life has become intertwined with a host of developmental challenges."

The urbanization of Africa could bring about a radical shift in the economies, culture and politic of many African nations. Unfortunately, just like many other parts of the world, new residents are now entering cities to enjoy urban living but rather out of survival. Like other parts of the world, farmers and agricultural societies can no longer support themselves on the yield of the land due to a host of economic and environmental factors. Many are moving to cities as the last resort, only to end up in an overcrowded slum or shanteytown.

Some experts predict that there are over 2 Billion people in the world living in slums today. Hopefully the urbanization of Africa won't add to that number and planners along with governments will learn from other countries problems. The report continues to state:

"To address traffic congestion, pollution and rising traffic fatalities, the report suggests that cities should consider options that reduce the reliance on private cars."

Maybe this is step in the right direction. Your thoughts?