Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Un-Sustainable Suburbs

BusinessWeek ran an article last week about the premium costs residents have to pay to live in upscale suburbs and whether the cost is really worth it

From the article:

"But residents are also paying a premium for the cachet that comes with having a certain Zip Code. They want to live with their peers, go to the same country clubs, and send their children to the same schools. For those who aspire for a lifestyle upgrade, there's good news. Home prices in upscale towns are falling even as mortgage rates hover near historic lows. Luxury homes are lingering on the market not just because buyers are losing jobs and wealth, but because jumbo loans are difficult to get.

But even buyers who can afford the discounted homes in upscale communities have to consider the everyday costs, says David P. Brady, a financial planner and owner of Brady Investment Counsel in the Chicago suburb of Geneva, Ill. "It might look like a great value, but once you think about all the costs…you might be a lot better off staying where you are," he says. "

Read the full article here.

Monday, May 18, 2009

My Born Place

Philly is like an old grandmother's living room
Old, dusty, a musty smell with a lot of history to share
Just like at my grandmother's house
The walls could use new paint, the ceiling has water spots
and the room could stand for some new furniture
but we don't come here for that
we come for the warmth, the love, the history and pride
through the years, it's been through it all
it's been through years of prosperity and years of mourn
it's seen young man turned into old men
it's seen children wed
it's seen parents wept
there's no denying it's great since of history
and no, I'm not talking about the collection of pictures
which could fill up a museum
I'm talking the history of paint chips that fell off
the banister year after year
the history of that intercom that blew out and was never fixed
I'm talking about the customs and traditions that's been carried out
which made technology adapt to it's ways

For it is not the things in grandma's house that we love
we love the warmth of our grandma
we love the fact that some of us called the place home
we love the fact that there was no better hot meal
we love the fact that the love was unconditional
these old and rusty out dated things in grandma's living roomw
ell...they need to be replaced
but they hold so much intrinsic value to her
we dare not touch them but just wish to polish them
For replacing them would be altering history
and we do not want something foreign to remind us
of our grandmother's living room
For these things she loves and will not part with these objects easily
So we preserve her outdated items
which beam of time gone by and are full of character
And this is what makes Philly what it is...
an old grandmother's living room
it's not the newest
or shiniest
or the best run
but it's home
and will provide you with more warmth
then a new fad ever could

For its not the creak in the step we want to preserve
it's the notches in wood from years gone by
It's not the water spots in the ceiling that we want to keep
but the design of another era gone by
and its not the chipped paint we which to remain on the railing
rather the memories of the scratches we made as children
For it's not the room that we love which is old, musty and out of date
It's the character, history and pride that make up our love for Philly
and all of it's worn out glory

Ayo - Life is real

Check out these city shots of the world's next Mega-City, Lagos, Nigeria

Friday, May 15, 2009

20/20 Report Hip-Hop Special (1981) - Part 2

Hip Hop is a product of the city. Similarly to the Blues, Hip Hop begun from the spirit of the havenots and the burdened. The economic conditions of people from both genres helped inspire the melodies, songs and messages of their plight, glory and spirit. However, Hip Hop as a genre itself was created from it's own economic conditions. The lack of money for instruments, music training or even music programs in city schools inspired city youth to come up with their own music and their own sound without instruments.

20/20 Report Hip-Hop Special (1981) - Part 1

Like no other music before or after it, Hip Hop intrinsically belongs to the city. Hip Hop was birthed in the city, lives in the city and could not have been started anywhere else but the city.
Other musical genres have their meccas of their musical art, be it Jazz from New Orleans, Country in Nashville, the Blues of Memphis or the Rhythm of Motown...but while these cities that drew in artists from all over the map to help spread their genre's music, HIP HOP was started purely by city residents, for city residents with out any outside influences.

Building Wall Art

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Built To Last

*Sighs* If you follow this blog I think you how I feel about New Urbanism. Again, in Theory New Urbanism sounds great but in practice...ehh. Now there are some great New Urbanist projects across the country and to be fair there are a lot of bad development projects that call themselves "New Urbanist" when they are really not. I suspect they tried but essential principles for New Urabnism got shot down by communities.

The issue I have with most (not all) New Urbanist projects is that they tend to work best when they have to clean the slate of whatever existed prior. Which is fine for a crappy suburban shopping mall but for an inner-city neighborhood it's not so great to wipe out decades of history and culture...even if the neighborhood was blighted. Anyway enough og my rant, check out the video.

Architecture School - Ep 1 Part 1

This is a really good show that shows architectural students trying to bridge architecutral design with community wants and needs. After watching a few episodes of seeing these architects deal with the community you can really see the importance of needing a community planner.

Even though architects build spaces for people they may not be the best people to deal with the sensitivies of peoples needs. The built environment can often trump the dynamics of the social environment in their minds which can often lead to conflict and disapproval.

But this is a great show, that shows the challenges of building in the urban environment.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Tales of a City Planner


You know as professionals when people ask what we do or when we explain to the others what we do we tend to only focus on the challenges and frustrations of our job. Recently one of the younger planners at my job asked me for advice on whether or not he should continue to study planning when they apply for grad school next year. He was given advice from others about going into other related fields and was bemoaning the typical (but often justified) gripe that planning was not progressive enough. As I was joining in with the young planner about the slowness of government, I stopped…and thought to myself that despite all the challenges that city planners face, we do have our fair share of successes.

So this post will not be dedicated to a funny tale, a planning rant or a hypothetical question but to the successes I have had as a planner. There are a lot of times as a planner that you fight for the merits of a plan or a community and get overruled by political will, community opposition or by pressure from a key stakeholder. But despite the losses we may have occurred we can often prove through our consistency of comments a new framework of ideas and procedures that can be flushed out into a new policy. While I have certainly been apart of many lost battles and had to concede at times for the sake of moving forward, I know have been apart of positive policy change within my office that has put my office in a better position to affect change then it did in the past.

While as an office we can not change the approval of bad developments in the past we can continue to strive to make better developments in the future. While the progress can be slower then we would like at least we know progress is being made. Often times as young planners we slow progress as no progress because we lack the vision some times to see or better yet to know how far the policies we are apart of have shifted.

The irony is that for as fast as we as young planners would like to move to change policies, we can not move faster then the understanding of the communities we represent. Even if we have the best intentions, if we plan ideas faster then what the community can comprehend we would ultimately be a bunch of planners telling a community what we are going to do without their input. This is what we do not want to do because ultimately our success should be defined on whether we achieved a community’s goals responsibly (without disenfranchisement) and not solely based the success of an individual development plan.

And from community interaction is where I believe I have my greatest success. My father once told me that the goal of communication is not to be understood but to not be misunderstood. To be a good community planner you have to be the liaison to a lot of different understandings which may all be competing against each other, totally baseless or all true at the same time. As a community planner I have to explain the ins and outs of zoning to communities so that they can properly interpret zoning and not gleam their own account of zoning. I also must make sure I understand all of their concerns and issues when I bring them before other government agencies when making policy decisions.

Now not everyone in the community will like me. Just the fact that I work for government will perhaps always make them suspicious of me. However almost everyone in the communities I represent respects the information that I give them because I make sure that the information I give them is precise, accurate and without any misunderstanding. Due to that fact I have been fortunate that I have not had any hotheads in the community go off on the job I’m doing. Do people still yell and get angry at me? Sure. But most of the time is based on past failures of government long before my time.

So for any young planner out there reading this or any frustrated planner or any other professional for that matter, I’d say it’s healthy to vent out your frustrations about your job but do not become jaded. Once you become jaded you often stop seeking to achieve any type of success or positive change and become content to the same policies which may be doing harm. I write these posts to educate discuss and learn from any of you guys who post comments and not as a journal of daily gripes.

I mentioned way back in first “tale of a planner” series that a past professor told my class that his greatest success as a planner was preventing bad plans from happening. Well that may ultimately be true for a lot of planners because it is hard to discern personal accomplishment within a neighborhood but by far our greatest success is helping people. And I believe in that department, I have done my job well.

Thanks for reading!

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Scarface "My Block"

One man's tale of life on his block. Great Video.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The World's Next Mega City: Lagos, Nigeria

Lagos, Nigeria is experiencing unprecedented growth which is triggering a whole host of problems for the city and the region. Some of the problems are normal for a rapidly expanding city but unlike other mega cities, Lagos is almost devoid of any master-planned infrastructure. For a city of 12-18 million which continues to grow (estimates indicate if will be the 3rd largest city in the world by 2020), resources such as clean water, garbage disposal and running electricity continue to frustrate residents.

Not to paint a picture of Lagos as a an overcrowded slum or shantytown but it is a city of contrasts. The city is also a city of massive wealth that is currenly constructing multiple billion dollar developments to suite the needs of it's rising middle class and wealthy residents. At the same time many wonder whether these new developments will still be plagued with the old problems of running electricity and proper drainage.

To give you and idea about how fast this city has grown, the city of Lagos only had 300,000 residents in 1950. In 2020, it is predicted to have over 23 million people within the city. Imagine Toledo, Ohio blossoming into New York City in a span of fifty years.

But the reason that I am posting about Lagos is because I am interested in how developers and government plan developments for a mega-city. Recently Slate Magazine ran a 5 article piece about Lagos about Growth with or without planning. In the article, I found these quotes about planning very interesting,

"Most places do planning before development," said Moses Ogun of the Nigerian Institute of Town Planners. "Here they do development and building before they've done the planning. I call it disjointed incrementalism."

The architects of the 1998 city master plan promised to develop 28 new districts in Lagos and ease congestion, but they didn't follow through, according to Ogun. Only 15 percent of the 1985 master plan was implemented.

I wonder if any idea of a master plan has to be thrown out the window without complete tear downs of certain parts of the city to install new infrastructure and better streets (sort of like what Paris and London did in the 17th centuries to clear out slums and create grand avenues). At this point the horse has been let out of the barn but some type of planning has to be put in place just for human health and environmental conditions alone. Any thoughts...how would you solve this conundrum?

Monday, May 4, 2009

Kentlands Celebrates 20 Year Anniversary

The Maryland Gazette reports:

Time flies when you're having fun, says Bridget Ryder, executive director of the Kentlands Community Foundation. The Kentlands neighborhood celebrates its 20th anniversary this year as the nation's first New Urbanist community.

"It really has worked for those of us that live and work here," Ryder said last week. "It's not perfect but it is a special place," she said, describing the Kentlands as a "small town within a big town."

New Urbanism, an urban design movement that started in the early 1980s, promotes "walkable" communities where everything one could need is within a stone's throw of home. Residents and city officials took a risk on the concept 20 years ago, Ryder said. Now it's time to celebrate.

*Shrugs* The Kentlands is still just another suburb to me. A walkable suburb but still a very high priced suburb that you have to drive to get there. I've mentioned this in previous posts that I'm not to crazy about the Kentlands. I would be more impressed if the Kentlands were a successful infill development.

Anybody else have opinions on this?

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Tales of a City Planner

The Mundaneness of Government

Someone asked me recently, government life can’t be what they show on the new tv series, Parks & Recreation, can it? Well, at times it can be. There are plenty of meetings that I have to attend that I think at worst are pointless or at best non-productive. But I’m sure everyone who has a job feels the same way about some of their meetings. The thing is that if you have a series of unproductive meetings that are generally going nowhere, they usually end, right? Ha ha ha, not in government they don’t. As long as there is a semi organized group of residents willing to meet on a dedicated night, someone from government will be there.

This is where government life can become silly. Because government is representational we are almost required to be there for almost any and all community groups even if they have nothing to talk about. We also have to show up to meetings despite knowing the following:
- There is no agenda and nothing is happening in the neighborhood
- In-fighting within the group and listening to people argue
- Listening to rants and plans for personal vendettas against neighbors
- Listening to racism and class-ism disguised as NIMBY-ism
- Having meetings on the hood of your car because a public building is locked

Now again not all of my meetings are like this. In fact I tend to find that all of meetings with smaller groups are almost always productive and a time well spent for both me and the participants. However almost every pointless meeting I had to go to I knew before going in but I still had to go anyway. Rarely do I go to a pointless meeting and walk out of it feeling good that I went.

Now, I have worked in government for most of my professional career but I have worked in a private office before as a planner and an intern and because of that I can’t help but to wonder how much money per hour of tax payer money is being wasted by government workers going to public meetings. In the private sector, meetings like these would be cut off or they would make groups consolidate to eliminate per hour costs of planners going to multiple meetings. I do want to point out that there are plenty of private sector planners that go to multiple pointless meetings. The big difference is that they often charge their clients for these meetings (if they are not scouting for more work). Public sector planners on the other hand just receive “comp” time and no extra pay.

So for all you future planners out there, I hope you are studying Parks & Recreation for your future career because there will be a lot of bad meetings ahead in your future. And as young planner you get to go two types of meetings. The meetings where the office wants you to learn what goes on and the meetings that no one else wanted to go to…and there are a lot of those. Don’t become to discouraged though, it’s all apart of helping communities which you signed up to do and changing the world…through one bad meeting at a time.

Oh and one last word of advice to any young planner. Always eat something before going to a late night meeting…a power bar, fruit or something. There’s nothing worse then being bored and hungry.