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.