Thursday, December 16, 2010

Baltimore - Nina Simone

The Ghost Cities of China

From the Business Insider:

The hottest market in the hottest economy in the world is Chinese real estate. The big question is how vulnerable is this market to a crash.
One red flag is the vast number of vacant homes spread through China, by some estimates up to 64 million vacant homes.
We've tracked down satellite photos of these unnerving places, based on a report from Forensic Asia Limited. They call it a clear sign of a bubble: "There’s city after city full of empty streets and vast government buildings, some in the most inhospitable locations. It is the modern equivalent of building pyramids. With 20 new cities being built every year, we hope to be able to expand our list going forward."

No cars on the street

Empty $19 Billion Development

Empty Desert City

Empty Residential Towers

Ordos Museum...Empty

Photo credits belong to the Business Insider

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Turning Vitamins into Aspirin

Dan Heath and Chip Heath from Fast Company Magazine explain why it's not enough to give people something they need.

"Ray Bard, founder of Bard Press, learned a lot about book publishing from a mistake he made early in his career. He was the agent for an author who'd written a book describing the cycle of pregnancy from a husband's perspective. It was a thoughtful book, certain to help men understand the physical and emotional changes that their wives were experiencing. Bard and the author both knew they had a hit: The book's audience included millions of men.

But when they sent the book proposal around, not a single publisher made an offer. The publishers reasoned that, while men would undoubtedly benefit from the book, they didn't know they needed it. Broadly speaking, men do not crave greater empathy with their wives' bodily changes. To Bard's dismay, the book was never published.
If entrepreneurs want to succeed, as venture capitalists like to say, they'd better be selling aspirin rather than vitamins. Vitamins are nice; they're healthy. But aspirin cures your pain; it's not a nice-to-have, it's a must-have."

Planners are often caught in the same dilemma of how to sell the public something we think they need. Often times in Planning, the public at large does not respond to a community issue unless there is a fire to put out. The public can quickly organize when they feel an eminent threat to their community coming. But how do you sell a community on other imposing threats that they do not see coming without screaming Fire! (as East Coast Planners we scream Walmart's coming and communities come out running).

Often times, good planning principles are viewed as vitamins when they are really aspirins. Good planning principles can reduce a community's transportation costs, help reduce inflated housing prices and develop stronger community connections which improves social services and provides a wider community safety net that reduces the need for government aid. But often times the sellers of this message are not seen as a respected doctor prescribing aspirin but instead were viewed as hippy clerk working at a health food store telling you that these box of magic beans will give you more energy. Blame it on the seller I guess...or blame it on us planners, for not fighting back from that perception. Either way, what's clear is that while planners have a great message, we have a poor marketing campaign for our ideas.

Urban Revival is for the Child'ren Part 2

The show is probably part of the reason I'm in my profession now. I was a geography nerd. As a kid I always wanted to be on this show.

Where these dudes really trying to break it down at the 1:25 mark?

Croatian Naive Art

Naïve art is a classification of art that is often characterized by a childlike simplicity in its subject matter and technique. While many naïve artists appear, from their works, to have little or no formal art training, this is often not true.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Meeting about the Meeting

I'm sure all my planners and bureaucrats can relate.

Tales of a City Planner - Sitting in parking lots in the Dark

aka the meetings no one wants to go

Meetings. We all have them. Most of the time, people are really not enthused to go to them. It could be a nice day outside and you don’t want to go. It can be a rainy day outside and you don’t want to go. It could be a cold or hot day outside and you don’t want to go. But whatever the reasons that you don’t want to go to a meeting are pretty much felt by everyone else involved in that same meeting. A collective cloud of “screw it, I’m not going” starts to form over the meeting place alerting others nearby to drive far, far away from this meeting place.

See as your local community planner, I notice these things when I pull up to an empty deserted meeting place and I see no cars in the parking lot. For I sit there in my car in the parking lot in the dark staring at this growing cloud of dissent and wonder if I should drive fast away like all the others. So I sit there.

And I wait.

And hope that no other cars pull up to justify my not coming in and pulling away. See the polite thing to do would be to go inside and wait to see if others slowly trickle in. But I’ve learned from experience not to do that because there is always some lonely bastard sitting in a room by themselves waiting for anyone to come in. Now future planners, you want to avoid this situation. Nothing is more awkward than two people who really don’t to be there sitting in a big, bright room.

So I continue to wait. In a parking lot. In the dark.

But atlas my wait comes to an end when three or four cars pull up at the last minute (always happens). So I begrudgingly go inside for the start of the meeting. Now as I have stated there were only three of four cars that pulled up. So that means there can only be 4-6 other people at the meeting plus the already waiting lonely bastard inside which means I’ve done drove and went out my way for a five person meeting. Could have really knocked this out by e-mail. Whatever. Let’s knock this meeting out and go on home, right? WRONG.

If you invited ten people to a meeting and only five showed up – you kind of have a halfway determined group. If you invited twenty people to a meeting and only five showed up – you have a small core of dedicated people. But if invited over one hundred people to a meeting and only five showed up, those five people didn’t have anything else to do and they are looking forward to talk all night. Always happens. You bring one hundred people to a meeting, that’s potentially fifty people in the room that have something to do and are snapping their fingers to move this meeting along. But five people? Be prepared to slowly hear about all of the community’s problems.

The perfect length of meeting for me is thirty to forty-five minutes with fifteen minutes of question time. If there are no questions the meeting ends early. Meetings should be just that, all meat. All the other fatty questions can be addressed personally after the meeting or by e-mail. The perfect meeting size is twenty to thirty people. And I have come up with an equation that for every ten people over thirty people there will be five minutes added onto the meeting. You have one hundred people at meeting, you are going to be there for an hour and half.

Here is an image of Philadelphia rap artist Gillie Da Kid who perfectly expresses a planner’s face at a long pointless meeting

Unfortunately there is an inverse of this equation that leads planners to sit in their cars in a parking lot, in the dark. For every five people that don’t show up for a meeting under twenty people, add 10 minutes to the meeting. Sick, right? So that means if you have a five person meeting you will be there for an hour. Yes a whole hour. Talking about what you may ask? I don’t know. I zone out. Most of the time, they are complaining about neighbors and government. I always get a kick out of when they complain about government in front of me since their tax dollars are being wasted by me having to attend this five person meeting of chit chat. And they say government doesn’t care.

Now during the day, I have had some great productive five person meetings. In fact I prefer them during the day. You get all the principles involved and you knock out your agenda and get things done. But on a Wednesday night. At 7 pm. A five person meeting sucks. And everyone knows this. In fact everyone is trying so hard not to be the sixth person that no one comes. Except that one lonely bastard. And four other people. And me.

Waiting. In a parking lot. In the dark. Hoping no one else shows up.

We Are All Workers: The Town behind the Levi's commercial

From Fast Company:

You've probably seen the Levi's commercials. The cinematic spot with color-saturated scenes of a rundown town, and a girl off-camera musing about how "things got broken here" how "frontiers are all around us." Or the shorter, more upbeat ad (same town and people) declaring that "there's work to be done" and "reinvention is our only option" over a jazzy version of "Heigh-Ho." The ads are partly about the joys of work, work wear, and wearing jeans (not necessarily in that order), but it's their eerie location, Braddock, PA, that's the real star.

Why Braddock? For one thing, it's the story. A once-prosperous town that once had 20,000 people in the 1940s is trying to recover from the long industrial decline (and the poverty, the crime, the drugs) that have turned it into a near–ghost town today, with a population of just 3,000.

Levi's involvement with the town extends far beyond just shooting a couple of commercials there. Levi's paid over $1.5 million to turn an abandoned church into a new community center and to expand an urban farm program, and it shot the commercial using real people from town, paying them standard rates for a commercial appearance.

What is a World City?

This week the New York times posted a posthumous article from late author, essayist and professor Tony Judt and his love for New York City. Here are some excerpts from the article:

But just what is a “world city”? Mexico City, at 18 million people, or São Paulo at near that, are unmanageable urban sprawls; they are not “world cities.” Conversely, Paris — whose central districts have never exceeded three million inhabitants — was the capital of the 19th century.

Is it a function of the number of visitors? In that case, Orlando, Fla., would be a great metropolis. Being the capital of a country guarantees nothing: think of Madrid or Washington (the Brasília of its time). It may not even be a matter of wealth: within the foreseeable future Shanghai (14 million people) will surely be among the richest places on earth; Singapore already is. Will they be “world cities”?

Judt continues on to state later:

And yet, New York remains a world city. It is not the great American city — that will always be Chicago. New York sits at the edge: like Istanbul or Mumbai, it has a distinctive appeal that lies precisely in its cantankerous relationship to the metropolitan territory beyond. It looks outward, and is thus attractive to people who would not feel comfortable further inland. It has never been American in the way that Paris is French: New York has always been about something else as well.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Hey future young planner…you’re sooooo screwed

Last week, I was on a panel speaking to college freshman majoring in architecture (you know, because BCPlanning is for the children) about the field of city planning and what planners do. It was a great discussion talking about the ins and outs of planning and most of the students seemed enthused about what planners and design professionals do for a living. Everyone on the panel was positive about the profession but stressed that we are in a recession so future planners are going to have to be very proactive and creative when finding their own path to their careers.

After the panel was over, I was talking to my colleagues on the panel when one of them said, “Should we really be encouraging theses students to go into planning when there is so much apathy internally in the planning and design world?” Did we do a disservice to these kids by not saying, “Look here kids, you’re first years in planning are going to suck…and that’s even if you find a job, you sorry bastards *insert evil Mr. Burns laugh.*” Now obviously our current opinions have shaped by the recession which has cut back our ability to do progressive planning due to a lack of funding and staff.

But honestly even before the recession I always told my office interns who were being promoted to planners that they have to be extremely patient and that they are going to have to do a lot of grunt work before they work on anything cool. This sounds like good advice for any young professional going into a job but you really have to emphasize it to young planners because planning schools do a bad selling jobs about the reality of being a low level city planner. Now it’s a tough sell, no one wants to discourage students from exploring and finding new avenues of how to do city planning. However it is unfair to sell students on the idealisms of Jane Jacobs and the theories of New Urbanism if they are going to be stuck reviewing permits at a zoning counter for a year or two. Granted being at the zoning counter will make them learn the tough ins and outs of planning but it’s a pretty damn brutal transition from school to work.

The Zoning Counter was prominently featured as one of the rings of hell in Dante’s Inferno

But back to the question, should we encourage student to go into planning? I’m sure in a few years when the economy is back on the upswing my answer as well as my colleagues would be a solid yes. But in the meantime my answer would be a cautious yes. The planning field is diverse enough where someone can literally make up there own path or start their own business. There are no easy paths right now in planning so if anyone plans to make it right now they are going to have make their own way. Good luck.

Bringing Sexy Back

I was recently on a date and my date and I were making small talk trying to get to know one another, where we are from and what we do for a living. Now usually when I tell people what I do for a living, community planning, I met with two responses:

Response A: That’s really interesting, so you plan out whole communities? That sounds like a really cool job, tell me more!

Response B: Hmm, interesting. So wait, what do you do, you just look at plans all day?

The latter response is a little less enthusiastic than the former. So when I told my date what I did, I’m a community planner, I help communities, work with politicians, lead community plans…my date replied, “huh…that’s interesting.” I chalk that up to Response B. Now I will say that I usually humble about what I do and will talk down my job rather than talk it up. And that could be seen as a lack of confidence in what I do, which would say more about me than the job I do, I guess.

But her response led me to wonder, how can I make suburban community planning sound sexy? And I thought about what I do on a day-to-day level. Should I talk about variances and development plans…no, not sexy enough. Zoning battles and making maps…no, no, no still not sexy. Maybe I’ll gripe about my job, everybody likes talking down about their boss…but I work with communities so talking down about them just makes me seem like an asshole…so scratch that. Alright, I tell people I run community plans and that communities need me…but then that sounds like I have a god complex.

Really there is no way to make being a bureaucrat sound sexy. You can explain other professions quickly in one sentence that sound way cooler or heroic even if they are not. I’m a cop – I fight crime. I’m a firefighter – I fight fires. I’m a teacher – I teach our youth. I’m a planner – I plan communities…but only when there’s a consensus…and political will…and funding and years of effort and hundreds of meetings. Sexy.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Pit Beef in Baltimore

I never knew Pit Beef was a local Baltimore foor staple until I moved away from the area.

Swipe: Humanitarian Design or Neocolonialism?

Here is a great article from Fast Company about Western Designers trying to provide humanitarian design and ideals to other parts of the world.

An excerpt:

Young designers want to do humanitarian design globally. But now that the movement is gathering speed, we should take a moment to ask whether American and European designers are collaborating with the right partners, learning from the best local people, and being as sensitive as they might to the colonial legacies of these countries. Might Indian, Brazilian, and African designers have important design lessons to teach Western designers?

And finally, why are we doing humanitarian design only in Asia and Africa and not on Native American reservations or in rural areas of the U.S., where standards of education, water, and health match the very worst overseas?


So is it imperialism? The answer is yes, whether we like it or not. It is imperialism because there is a not-so-subtle imposition of an ideological stance that "design can save the world," a claim that really isn't all that robust in the first place. If design really wants to change the world, then design must figure out how to give these people real political power. Until then, it's some very expensive Band-Aids. These are not hammer-and-nail problems. They are political-influence problems. Ignore these questions at your peril. They persist, whether your recycled-materials playground is a success or not.

A pretty great article. I think the issue here of trying to provide your own design ideals and beliefs to others not only apply to humanitarian relief efforts but to everyday planning efforts as well. Whenever a planner from outside a community is trying to enforce new standards from a community they are not apart of they are going to face some push back no matter how well they know the neighborhood. The bottom line is you are affecting other people's money and property and will not have to deal with consequences of your actions even if your efforts prove to be a success.

Most importantly the definition of success is what also scares people in communities on the receiving end of new design, aid or planning. A planner's design maybe successful but successful to whom?

Monday, October 4, 2010

Detroit shatters stereotypes of blight

Swiped from VBS.TV:

In August 2009, Vice published a story called "Something, something, something, Detroit: Lazy journalists love pictures of abandoned stuff," about the roving gangs of photojournalists prowling the empty city and feasting on its highly photogenic carcass. Since then, some of the worst offenders have abashedly changed their approach to covering Michigan's largest city. But most outlets are still fixated on the all-you-can-click pageview buffet that is "misery porn" of the decaying Motor City.

Last month, we traveled to Detroit with co-creator and star of the "Jackass" empire Johnny Knoxville to explore what lies gasping beneath the rubble of over-indulged industry, frighteningly embarrassing municipal mismanagement, and decades' worth of social and economic imbalance. What we found is a burgeoning class of creative young folk intent on rebuilding their communities and the city, despite being faced with a world that has already phoned in their city's obituary.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

No Reservations - The Baltimore Edition

Urban Revival is for the Chil'ren!

John Legend & The Roots - Shine

Talib Kweli - Eat to live

Nas - I know I can

R.I.P Old DIrty Bastard

Community vs the Individual

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Cool Maps: Race Cartography

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

A racial integration map of NYC

From Gawker:

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

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

Harmony in Detorit

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

Friday, September 17, 2010

Social Change

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for reading.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Tokyo Time Lapse

Planning in a Recession

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, August 16, 2010

Monday, July 12, 2010

Fighting the Good Fight

Failing does not make us a failure. But not trying to do better, to be better, does make us fools. © Tavis Smiley in The Other Wes Moore

In today’s world it is easy to be cynical and apathetic about how our society is ran and how government functions. There maybe no more of a cynical bunch then city planners who are bureaucrats that seek to better society but are beholden to the whims of politicians and the demands of the public. Our best laid plans are often dissected and watered down to the point where our plans become either ineffective or benefits the few instead of the many. As city planners we take a lot of losses. Major decisions often do not bend in our favor or are seriously compromised. Our last stances in principle are often overturned and our successes in planning are often held in contempt and questioned until they bear fruit.

With so many compromises, defeats and failures it is easy to have apathy about the whole entire job. For me personally, I have struggled to care about the day-to-day grind and the smaller issues about planning after my Father’s passing. Because it becomes easier not to care. It becomes easier to justify that your decision just would have ended up as a failure anyway so why try to fight for this small battle. Why not focus my energy on the larger, more important issues than fighting the powers that be on every small battle. Of course, the error in this thinking is that once you start self-compromising your positions and beliefs you are left no better for it and most importantly the people you represent are left no better for it.

But even with that knowledge, it’s a day-to-day struggle to fight “the good fight.” It’s a cliché but there is so much honor and respect in knowing someone fought the good fight, day in and day out. I never truly understood the meaning of fighting the good fight until I had to think back about my Father’s life and the later part of his career. My Father had various jobs throughout his career. He was a radio and newspaper editor, a broadcaster, a salesman and an insurance agent. In all of those jobs he was successful and received awards for his hard work and talent. But those successes still could not fully cover the bills for his young family. So he created his own business in (the best way I could describe it) money marketing accounts. He wanted to find the best solution to find wealth not only for his family but for others as well.

My Father’s business did not meet the success he had previously found in his other jobs. The business hardly made any sufficient income and his original investors slowly faded away from the business and my father over time. But my Pops ever the eternal optimist, never lost faith in his business or vision despite many setbacks and failures. After every setback, he would regroup and try to find another way or another option until all options were exhausted. He never stopped working or researching ways to try to find a solution to wealth and independence for his family and others. Now did my family and I question his methods? Of course we did, repeatedly but it was his vision and he never stopped trying to find us that big pay day. Even until the end. He fought a good fight. His vision never materialized and his business by all means failed. But he fought and encouraged everyone he knew to try to do better and to be better…and we were the better for it.

Failing does not make us a failure. But not trying to do better, to be better, does make us fools. Learning how to fail and fail better is a tough lesson to learn. Because in this job and in life, there will be way more losses than victories. For any young planner, it’s an abrupt change considering you have to be successful to even get the job. It’s like being a top draft pick from a big time successful university and then have to play for the worst team in the league. In our over-the-top, P.Diddy inspired culture were you have to be successful to matter, the idea of accepting mounting losses or failing better is unthinkable. So we as young planners become frustrated. We wonder why even bother playing the game. My answer is that we play to matter and to make the people, the public we work for, matter. Because to not fight and let our bitterness and apathy consume us for what we consider small and petty issues would create further distrust and disenfranchisement from the public. To not fight creates chaos, which would make all of us fools.

Sometimes we are put into positions in which we fail and we may not have success but we are left to fight the good fight. And my Father just taught me that.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The Point of it All

As I slowly transition back to giving my full effort at work after my Father’s passing, I have found it hard to care about the day-to-day functions of planning. The e-mails, the voicemails and the complaints from the community all seem petty to me now. The variance requests, the development review comments, the posturing by developers and attorneys I could care less about. All of it seems trivial and shallow. All of it seems small in comparison to the larger picture of life. My approvals or denials of variance requests seem inconsequential to me now. So what’s the point of it all? If the daily grind of planning seems so insignificant that what’s the purpose?

When I first started writing this blog, I said the initial goal of almost any young planner was to change the world, or at least change the world they know. I remember as a kid being in my father’s car driving on the highway to his office just south of downtown Baltimore and looking at the skyline and telling him how I would change the city and the skyline if I was Mayor one day. I loved looking at skylines when I was a kid. Every time I would pass a city’s skyline I would stare at it until it was no longer visible. I collected pictures of different skylines from around the world and would try to replicate them by building lego skyscrapers. To this day, I can recognize pretty much every skyline from a major city across the world. I knew I wanted to be involved in the planning of cities. At that time, I wanted to be an architect.

Me & My Dad

I knew I wanted to be involved in making neighborhoods and communities better. My Father had a large influence in my wanting to try to make people’s lives better. When I was a kid leaving the house and saying goodbye, my Father would say, “Power to the people!” and I would reply, “People to the power! Any surprise I became a community planner? But to be an effective community planner you kind of have to be a people person and that’s not me, that’s my Father’s forte. Pops was a huge extrovert who loved motivating people to work harder and teaching people how to live better. He would have been a great community planner if he weren’t at first a journalist, insurance salesman and a money marketing account manager first.

My Father in Philadelphia in 1975

And perhaps the lack of being a people person is what has made coming back to work to deal with other people’s perceived issues and problems such a drag. It has been tough to care about these problems and to not rubber stamp everything that comes across my desk. While I may never become a people person like my Father, I can certainly implement all the lessons he taught me over the years. And he always taught me to do the right thing and to fight for what was just and righteous. Even if doing the right thing is meticulous and fighting for what’s just is enforcing agency policies for a variance. In the end all the pieces matter in planning and as planners we cannot choose when or when not to care.

For me, it’s still going to take time to care about the daily complaints and e-mails and voicemails as I once did before. But it’s all part of a greater purpose, to help empower people and their communities.

Power to the People always and forever Dad

This post is dedicated to my Father,
Donnell Zeigler

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Live from Bedfrod Stuyvesant

It's the livest one, representing BK to the fullest (c) Notorious B.I.G. Didnt expect Bed-Stuy aka "Do or Die" to have a cupcake store though.

BlackAtlas Expert-at-Large Nelson George takes you on a tour of his hometown, Brooklyn, NY.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Is Government about fixing problems?

Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

This is a great video comparing governments efforts to pass Civil Rights and Medicare and the current passing of the Healthcare bill. While this video is not about city planning it does affect everyone and brings up the question that we as planners face everyday, are we in charge of fixing problems? Obviously I believe that we are but there is a large segment of people who feel that any government planners are obtrusive. That's why I feel the question of whether government is about fixing problems is a great question to ask.

March 22: Rachel Re: Rachel Maddow points out the way that the health reform debate clarifies the difference between conservatives and liberals and asks, "Do you want a government that does something or don't you?" Hell no you can't, or Yes we can?

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

A Baltimore Staple

World Famous Faidley's Seafood stand in Baltimore's Lexington Market. To learn more about the people and places that make Maryland unique visit
Slideshow by Edwin Remsberg

Friday, March 12, 2010

The HIDMO - Gentrification in Seattle's Central District

This is a 10 minute documentary on the gentrification of Seattle's Central District. This video focuses on the recent targetting of the Hidmo Eritrean Cuisine restaurant.

Seattle's Central District

This is a video made for a research project about the Central District of Seattle based on the music video and lyrics for "Home" by Jake One featuri...

This video was made solely for educational purposes with all sources properly cited and given credit.

The streets of Seattle

Jake One - Home feat. Vitamin D, Note, Maneak B and Ish

Saturday, March 6, 2010

A Day in New York City

The Sandpit is a video composed of 35,000 tilt-shift photographs taken in New York City. Director Sam O’Hare said:
"I have always loved time-lapse footage, and films like Koyaanisqatsi especially, which allow you to look at human spaces in different ways, and draw comparisons between patterns at differing scales. I also really liked the tilt-shift look of making large scenes feel small, and wanted to make a film using this technique with New York as its subject. "
Original Music: composed by Human, co-written by Rosi Golan and Alex Wong.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Graffiti Chile: Grin

Grin, a Chilean artist who has been active for more than a decade. Grin combines his passion for graffiti with another urban discipline: architecture. He practices both in enormous murals that play with depth and texture, and sometimes they merge with the structure of the building itself:

Photos by: KELP (

Diego Rivera

Diego Rivera was a Mexican painter and muralist born in Guanajuato City, Guanajuato. Studied painting in Mexico before going to Europe in 1907.While in Europe he took up cubism and had exhibitions in Paris and Madrid in 1913; he then had a show in New York City in 1916. In 1921 he returned to Mexico, where he undertook government-sponsored murals that reflected his communist politics in historical contexts.
His personal life was as dramatic as his artwork. In 1929, he married Kahlo who was roughly 20 years younger. The two had a passionate, but stormy relationship, divorcing once in 1939 only to remarry later. She died in 1954. He then married Emma Hurtado, his art dealer. Rivera died of heart failure on November 24, 1957, in Mexico City, Mexico. Rivera's talent for historical murals and his tributes to earthy folk traditions made him one of the most influential artists in the Americas and one of Mexico's most beloved painters.

Market in Tenochtitilan

Pan American Unity

Pan American Unity

Totanac Civilization

The World

Detroit Inudstry Mural North

Detroit Inudstry Mural South

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Sights from the Philly El

Below is a list of the completed Murals, their titles, and the direction which they are best viewed while traveling on the Market-Frankford Elevated line.

Friday, February 12, 2010



This week the New York Times ran a peice callsed Slumburbua about our country's struggling ex-urbs. The articles cites that in the western half of the country that:

"...median home prices have fallen from $500,000 to $150,000 — among the most precipitous drops in the nation — and still the houses sit empty, spooky and see-through, waiting on demography and psychology to catch up.

In strip malls where tenants seem to last no longer than the life cycle of a gold fish, the bottom-feeders have moved in. 'Coming soon: Cigarette City,' reads one sign here in Lathrop, near a 'Cash Advance' outlet."

Here in Baltimore the second part of this quote definitely rings true. Many of the inner and outer ring ex-urb communities have been "over-stored." in the suburban commercial corridors there have been too many strip malls, shopping centers and stand alone big box stores. Because of the recession when a strip mall or shopping center loses it's anchor, there is nothing to replace that store and the shopping center becomes an eyesore. What had been somewhat nice shopping centers now become home of junk retail and carry-out stores that you would typically associate with inner-city communities.

It's almost as if the area did not learn it's lesson from the large suburban mall failure from 10-15 years ago. When large area malls failed, the thought was the mall concept was dead and that consumers still wanted endless chocies of stores. Local area malls were then chopped up into walkable "Avenues" or "power centers" that featured four to five different big box stores with twenty or more so smaller stores and restaurants. So instead of redeveloping a commercial property that had died into a mixed use community, developers just extended the life of the commercial center from a 100+ store mall into a 30+ store commerical power center.

Now even these power centers and "avenues" or showing signs of distress not because they may have been a bad design concept but because they are too many stores. Redeveloping a dead mall while still using the same footprint for new stores does not change the character of the development if an anchor fails or goes out of business.

The New York Times article goes on to state that:

"...look at the cities with stable and recovering home markets. On this coast, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle and San Diego come to mind. All of these cities have fairly strict development codes, trying to hem in their excess sprawl. Developers, many of them, hate these restrictions. They said the coastal cities would eventually price the middle class out, and start to empty.

It hasn’t happened. Just the opposite. The developers’ favorite role models, the laissez faire free-for-alls — Las Vegas, the Phoenix metro area, South Florida, this valley — are the most troubled, the suburban slums."

When the market comes back, which it will, there should be no more new shopping centers in the Baltimore metropolitan area. Local jurisdictions first must push new development into the dozens of vacant shopping centers that are dotted all around the metro area.

What do you think?

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Winter Cities

Planning and Design for the Winter City! Patrick Coleman, Winter Cities Institute
Cities in northeren places have unique climate characteristics dominated by the winter season.
The presentation will provide community planning and design ides for responding to winter in the areas of site and building design, transportation, pedestrian circulation, snow management, and aesthetics.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Your Not so Friendly Neighborhood Garden Apartment

Growing up on the east coast in the 1980’s and 1990’s there were always clear distinctions of good neighborhoods from not so great neighborhoods or as we call them in planning, “neighborhoods in transition.” There were always tell-tale signs to let you know when you had crossed that invisible boundary of a transitional neighborhood. You would notice that properties were not as consistently maintained, houses looked slightly worn, debris on the street and people just hanging around.

There are situations there are neighborhoods with the same architectural styles and materials that appear to be of similar conditions from afar but when you get up close you can tell there is a socio-economic divide between the two neighborhoods. So from my young purview, the more socio-economic problems a neighborhood had, the worse the neighborhood looked.

While that theory for the most part held true for the world I knew, I was always shocked that my theory of attractive neighborhoods equaled good neighborhoods did not hold true in other parts of the country…especially in California. During the 1990’s, California artists had inserted themselves into hip hop culture in a major way. There were countless videos, movies and documentaries showing the ‘hoods of Southern California. What was shocking was that while some of the SoCal ‘hoods had shown obvious signs of distress, other ‘hoods had manicured lawns, palm trees and either well maintained single family homes or garden apartments.

For the life of me at that time, I could not understand how a well-maintained neighborhood could have the same problems as a poverty stricken neighborhood. As I got older and traveled more, I noticed that there were similar occurrences in southern cities with garden style apartments that functioned as the ‘hood. What I came to understand later is that the lack of opportunity combined with an expensive housing market can create social distress to neighborhoods with attractive housing.

For example a nice garden style apartment, which may have housed single headed households, couples and young families may now house an entire family and a few extended relatives. So on the outside everything may appear to be well but on the inside, everyone maybe struggling just to get by. What is becoming more common in the Baltimore area, are apartment communities that surround high-income retail rich suburbs with large suburban malls becoming transitional communities with significant signs of distress. In these instances, it is not uncommon for multiple families to pull together and move to these expensive suburban apartments to get away from possibly crime-ridden apartments in the city.

But for the most part, Baltimore never had a problem with families having to cram into expensive housing and apartments to make ends meet. Up until ten years ago, the housing in Baltimore was fairly cheap, especially in comparison to area cities like Washington D.C., Annapolis and Philadelphia. A person or a family did not have to make that much to live in a decent neighborhood. But to quote the Notorious B.I.G., “things done changed.” The housing boom had nearly doubled the value and pricing of many Baltimore area communities. Apartment communities that had once charged $500 monthly rent in the early 2000’s were charging almost $800 or more in rent before the recession. While the recession has brought some of those housing prices down, the jobs that were needed to pay those rents have been receding as well.
Which means, Baltimore is no longer affordable. In fact there are many area communities that can now compete with D.C.’s inflated housing market…unfortunately though they lack D.C. social amenities. So the housing boom and the recession has now created an expensive housing market with a lack of opportunity…just like in the ‘hoods of Southern California in the 1990’s. Which also means that my once youthful theory that an attractive neighborhood cannot have the same problems as the ‘hood is no longer true in Baltimore or maybe anywhere for that matter. Across the Baltimore metropolitan region I know of dozens of attractive looking apartment communities that you would not want to live there for too long…and they all have manicured lawns.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Havana Bombings - a documentary short

Graffiti artists and members of their communities discuss graffiti culture in Havana, which takes very different forms in Cuba than it does in the United States.


In the inner-city housing project of Toronto's Regent Park, Kendell and Mikey, like their surroundings are in the process of transformation; the environment and social pressure tempting them to make poor choices, their mothers and mentors rooting for them to succeed.

Turning his camera on the often ignored inner city, Academy-award nominated director Hubert Davis sensitively depicts the disconnection of urban poverty and race from the mainstream.


Tuesday, January 19, 2010

'Wavin' Flag' by K'naan (Official World Cup Theme Song)

Please text 'Yéle' to 501501 to donate $5 to Yéle Haiti. Your money will help with relief efforts. They need our help.

(Tweeted by) Wyclef Jean, the text message went out to nearly 1.4 million followers and kicked off what has quickly become the largest text-based fundraising campaign for disaster relief in history.

"This is the first time there has been a major disaster when this type of service has been widely available," says Yéle Haiti executive director Hugh Locke, whose nonprofit will use the funds to send nutrition bars, candles, hand-cranked flashlights and blankets to Haiti on two FedEx planes this Friday. "People want a sense of participating in the response. There is an emotional need to do something," he adds.

For the Haiti crisis, Yéle's technology partners Mobile Giving and Give on the Go have waived their typical waiting period of two weeks to deposit the donations. Firms like Mobile Accord — which manages the Red Cross system, among others — pay out donations on a quarterly basis, after customers have paid their cell-phone carriers (they) forwarded the money, 100% of which goes toward relief efforts.

The Heart of Downtown Port Au Prince, Haiti

Before the January 2010 Earthquake

HAITI 1942

Architecture for Humanity

Please support Architecture for Humanity in their efforts to help rebuild Haiti.

Here is part of their long term plan:

For those of us who are part of the reconstruction effort, we need to think about immediate needs for shelter while planning for the next three to five years of rebuilding.
When we are rebuilding, do not let the media set the time line and expectations for reconstruction. I remember vividly well known news personalities standing on the rubble of homes in the lower ninth proclaiming that 'this time next year we will see families back home.' Some well meaning NGOs, who usually have little building experience, are even worse -- 'we'll have 25,000 Haitians back home if you donate today.' In reality, here is what it really looks like:

- Pre-Planning Assessments and Damage Analysis (underway, will run for a year)
- Establish Community Resource Center and Reconstruction Studio (Week 6 to Month 3)
- Sorting Out Land Tenure and Building Ownership (Month 6 to Year 5)
- Transitional Shelters, Health Clinics and Community Structures (Month 6 to Year 2)
- Schools, Hospitals and Civic Structures (Month 9 to Year 3)
- Permanent Housing (Year 1 to Year 5)

As for a long term plan, our team is growing day by day and thanks to hundreds of individual donations we now have the resources to start enacting a long term reconstruction initiative. The details are being fleshed out, but as here is our plan (so far):

1. Set up Community Resource Centers to bring architecture and building services to folks on the ground. See below for more details.

2. Translate and distribute of our Rebuilding 101 Manual.The manual was originally developed after Hurricane Katrina and widely used in the rebuilding process.

3. Adapt, translate and distribute a Earthquake Resistant Housing Manual for local NGOs and community groups.

4. Provide Architectural and Construction professionals to develop and build community facilities inc. schools and medical centers

5. Train and Educate Incoming Volunteers in building safely and to emphasize the need for sustainable materials and construction techniques.

6. Complete the Youth Sports Facility and Disaster Recovery Center just north of Port au Prince that was developed in 2009.

7. Design, develop and implement community and civic structures for various clients and local community partners. This includes the reconstruction and building schools given the particular loss in structures.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Disaster Planning

As many of you know, the nation of Haiti is facing a horrendous natural disaster of historic proportions. The current crisis of finding survivors, creating infirmaries, finding food, water and housing the displaced will be ongoing crisis for the next couple of weeks.

While I most certainly send my sincerest hopes and prayers that Haiti can overcome their most immediate crisis as quickly as possible, I wonder about what will be the fate of Port Au Prince, one year from now, five years from now and ten years from now. There are a lot places around the globe that have been impacted by natural disasters and have chosen not to rebuild because of the staggering costs of repairs. More recently, the location of development that are prone for natural disasters has come into question, leaving many government officials and the public wondering if the development should be rebuilt at all.

Haiti does not have that option. Even though the infrastructure to their capital has been destroyed they do not have the option of abandonment. Port Au Prince was not only the capital but also the hub of government services for the entire nation. Port Au Prince was also Haiti’s largest city that made it the commercial, industrial and social hub of the nation as well. The city has to be rebuilt…but how?

The city will need planners to come up with an immediate disaster plan along with a new Master Plan for rebuilding and growth for the future. Part of the reason why this disaster is so catastrophic is that there was no Master Plan in the city to begin with and growth occurred anywhere and everywhere haphazardly. Now whether a city with a weak central government can enforce that Master Plan is another story. However there are more than a few cities in developing plan that have been able to control growth and development through a Master Plan. And right now, Port Au Prince does not have a choice, in order to save the future of the city and perhaps the nation, a Master Plan is needed to sort out the chaos and shock of a complete government breakdown and destruction.

The immediate concerns are that the city needs everything right now. But when the immediate crisis is over, be it months or years from now there will have to be a plan on what, when and how the city will be rebuilt. There is no functional starting point to build off of right now in Port Au Prince. Do you rebuild housing first to shelter a city where all the residents have been displaced. Or do you focus on rebuilding stores since there is nowhere for people to buy food, clothing or cleaning supplies. Or do you rebuild the hospitals first? And in what order do you rebuild government buildings, schools and job sectors? All of these questions must be in accordance of a disaster plan and a future Master Plan.

The city cannot be rebuilt all at once. There are certain segments of the city that planners and residents are going to have to choose to rebuild first. The city will have to be rebuilt at a segment at a time, block-by-block, neighborhood-by-neighborhood at a time in accordance to a plan. If the city rebuilds in a piecemeal fashion then there will be properties in the city that will be left as unstable rubble for years and decades by property owners who cannot afford to rebuild or have gone missing.

There will also be some hard questions that planners and residents of the city will have to face in rebuilding the city. There is going to be questions of whether a city on a major fault line should be rebuilt. Because of that question, the city cannot rebuild in the same pattern and function as it did before the earthquake. While many who rebuild may not be able to have expensive earthquake retrofitted buildings like in Los Angeles and Tokyo, new building standards can be set in place to reinforce concrete construction with steel. If this cannot be done for all construction it should at least occur in major government institutions, hospitals and schools.

Other questions the city will have to face is whether construction should be allowed on the hill tops closest to the fault line. Housing construction on the hill and mountaintops would not only be a potential hazard it has also contributed to deforestation, which has also contributed to massive flooding. The placement of the city’s transportation infrastructure may have to relocate. While the airport only received moderate damage, the blockages to this vital transportation hub has made it almost impossible to deliver resources to the rest of the city. These ports in the future will need to be isolated and not located in the heart of the city. Lastly, what will the city do with the tons of crushed concrete slabs? What took generations to build by piecemeal will not have to be cleared in a massive fashion.

All of these questions are all apart of major disaster planning and city master planning that has to be addressed soon. Without a plan on how to redevelop the city’s current plight and its future reconstruction, the city will not be able to recover by piecemeal construction.