Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Point of this blog

Recently the New York Times ran an article about gentrification in DC and how for the first time in 51 years, the District will no longer be majority black. In the article, a local hair salon owner complains about her rising property taxes and how small businesses whose properties may have gain value are now selling their properties because they can not afford the taxes. One of my favorite blogger's Ta-nehisi Coates responded to this article after another blogger had pointed out the hair salon owner would still make a considerable profit even if she had to sell her property.

Coates point out that:
"I actually think it's fairly easy to understand Johnson's beef. She likes her neighborhood as it is. She may well be able to "sell high," but the fact is she doesn't want to sell at all. She probably would love to see her property values rise, but the neighborhood isn't simply, for her, a financial instrument--it's an emotional one.  In that sense, Johnson isn't very different than millions of other humans who invest in neighborhoods."

He continues on to say:
"... the city is trying to make H Street a "desirable place to live," I am compelled to ask "desirable for whom?" I'm not being obtuse here--I understand, in the aggregate, his larger point. But very often people find a kind of value in their living condition that eludes socioeconomic data."

And this is a real sticking point for me. As a planner, I can not tell you how many times I have been to redevelopment meetings in struggling and blighted communities where consultants or planners propose turning around a neighborhood by adding a Starbucks, a wine shop and a deli. These businesses might turn a neighborhood around but...for whom? Either these consultants or planners assume that everyone likes Starbucks, wine and deli sandwiches or they are just out of touch with the culture of that community, which is even more troubling. I'll get into that later. The problem that I see is that too many consultants and planners feel that they have to uplift a struggling community by importing another culture of businesses (usually their own culture) instead of adding onto the cultural capital that is already within a community. Which means if a struggling community doesn't have a coffee shop, a Dunkin Donuts would be more appropriate than Starbucks and a Subway Sub would be more appreciated than a deli.

Coates goes on in his post to state:
"...I don't think we'd much debate the notion that neighborhoods usually hold some emotional value. But we often fail to see that value in African-Americans because, from a socioeconomic perspective, black people represent a class that is too often murdered, too often impoverished, too often uneducated, and too often diseased. Put differently, statistically, black people are a problem. Fix the problem and black people will thank us, right? Maybe."

I think this paragraph could be applied to almost any impoverished neighborhood, regardless of race. But this paragraph sort of lays out the reason I wanted to create this blog in the first place. I wanted a blog that focused on City Planning from a people's perspective. In my opinion, the world of planning theories and practices focuses on the brick and mortars of planning cities. Planning practices get implemented  with almost no respect to the the culture of individual neighborhoods and communities. I remember reading in particular about the success of Transit Oriented Development (TOD) in redeveloping blighted neighborhoods. The main criticism of the successful redevelopment of TOD projects that occurred in several major cities was that it completely displaced the original residents through gentrification. Well in my mind, that is a failure. Any practice that gets counted as a success that does not improve the lives of the  existing residents is a practice that is culturally tone def.

But even worse than being tone def to another community's culture is viewing another community's culture as a problem. If you are in charge of reviving a neighborhood and you view a blighted neighborhood only as a problem you are going to fail to see the positive aspects of the neighborhood that can be built upon for revitalization. If you only see the neighborhood as a problem, you will replace instead of rebuild. And without understanding or more importantly caring about a neighborhood's culture, what gets replaced could be very important to the fabric of the existing community.  A blighted community may seek out help from planners and consultants to help turn around their neighborhood because they feel that there neighborhood and it's culture is something worthy to be saved. Not replaced. 

Until all reformers understand that they have to rebuild and not replace, there will always be resentment from the existing residents of gentrified neighborhoods. And I will continue to write about the urban experience. 

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Are Planners Anti-Capitalists?

There are always theoretical debates on the limits of government on the free market. No profession is affected more by these free market debates than city planning. How far the government can alter the market place of the most expensive commodity, property, is always in the backdrop in planning decisions. In fact, city planning started as a reaction to how the free market plan or didn’t plan property and ever since, planning’s role as a check and balance of sorts to the free market has always been questioned.

The divide of those who question planning’s authority on the free market versus those who are pro-regulation, naturally often falls on political ideologies. Those that are in favor of the free market determining how neighborhoods develop are often conservative. They believe that ultimately, the free market i.e. people’s wallets should determine neighborhood viability and investment. Those that are pro-regulation still very much believe in the free market but they also believe certain places, institutions and cultural characteristics should be protected from the boom and bust cycle of the market. Most planners fall into the latter category.

But the reason that most planners are pro-regulation is not solely based on liberal beliefs but it is also based on the history of capitalist free market planning. While the free market can do things government can not do, like organically gentrify dilapidated neighborhoods, design futuristic developments and create lively urban cores, the free market also has a history of being prejudiced, self-segregating and exclusionary.

From a planning perspective there seems to be two dominant patterns of the free market development in cities. There is the development pattern of building what is only absolutely necessary for the function of the marketplace. Examples of this would be early tenement housing, workforce housing located next to factories and waterways dominated by industry, railways and ports. The other development pattern of the free market is based upon on much people are willing to spend to live in neighborhoods to their likes and preferences. Examples of this would be bedroom communities, neighborhoods with covenants and of course redlining.

The latter development pattern has been much more common in American metropolises since the Urban renewal era and even much more troubling. While today, we do not see the illegal practices of redlining and blockbusting from the 1960s, we still see the free market playing into class separation. The free market has always marketed to home buyers that they should live with people who are just like them. And depending on how willing people to spend the market will fiercely defend your right to live only by others who are just like you and will price out or physically divide out all others that are different from you.

Now, many believe that if a person wants to spend their money to separate themselves from others that is their right. And it is their right even if it is the antithesis of city development, which is based upon the sharing of ideals and customs. The free market will always market exclusivity over cohesion and will use the fear of having someone living next to the unknown to play up the exclusivity of a development. And the idea of living next to others like you can make someone almost unknowingly participate in further class separation. If you asked folks, would you rather live in a diverse, cohesive city or would you rather live in a city that is divided by class struggle, most people would choose the former. But if you asked people which would they rather live, a mixed income neighborhood with people from various different backgrounds or in a neighborhood where all the houses are worth over 250K? Which neighborhood would people choose?

These distortions in the market place affect the cohesiveness and equity of city neighborhoods and therefore affect city planning decisions. If the goal is to maintain a well balanced functional city for all (Note: you do not have to sacrifice a neighborhood or a city’s well being for the sake of diversity. You can have both) is it really that unfair if planners ask for a certain percentage of below-market housing units for working families for new developments? Is it unfair for planners to ask for rent control for a city’s last remaining working class neighborhoods? Are planners anti-capitalists if we steer high-impact developments away from low-density neighborhoods?

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

From the "this isn't good" news department: San Diego scraps its City Planning Department

From the Voice of San Diego:

To save $1 million a year, the mayor will fold the Planning Department into the Development Services Department, which, as its name suggests, helps developers get approvals for building permits. The new group will still be called the Development Services Department. Kelly Broughton, the department's director, will remain its leader and assume the effective role of planning director...

...The Planning Department goes to neighborhoods, meets with local groups and relies on residents to articulate a vision and draft rules for the community's growth. Development Services ensures developers follow those rules, but rarely interacts with community groups...

...The departments have often acted as checks on each other. Long-term planners caution against approving developments that don't conform to a community's vision, while development services planners "are about implementation," Anderson said. "They're sometimes skeptical of long-range planning because it can be a little lofty. But it's healthy to have a little of that tension."
Longtime planning advocates say they're concerned that merging the departments may remove those checks and balances.

Monday, May 2, 2011

The South Side

One interesting pattern in large American cities is that the south sides of cities that are located below a city's central core are almost always blue collar, working class areas.

South Boston. South Philly. South Baltimore. Southeast DC. The South Side of Chicago. Southwest Atlanta. South side of Houston. Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans. South Central Los Angeles.

Not that is not to say there are no nice southern sections of cities are that sections of cities north of their downtowns may not be as working class as southern sections. But in many cases the south sides of cities are not only infamous in their own right but they can also define the working class character of the entire city. South Boston and Southies have been prominently shown in recent big budget films like The Town and The Departed. Philadelphia is inextricably linked to South Philly because of cheesesteaks and Rocky. The South Side of Chicago, Lower Ninth and South Central dominate the working class images of their respective cities on a national scale.

For  port cities, it's easier to connect the dots on why the southern sections of cities became large working class communities. These cities were often located on rivers and waterways that forced cheap working class labor to live on the cheapest land (as well as unwanted ethnic groups as well. You might have heard America was a little racisty back then), which was often swamps and marshy land that were located just below major ports and factories. South Boston, South Philadelphia, Southeast DC and the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans were literally built on swamp land. The cramped conditions of these cities original working class helped foster the image of their city's working class to this day. Chicago's famous south side which is bordered by lake Michigan was also built on swamp land but did not develop around port factories. Chicago's South Side was developed around the Union Stockyards, the city's meat-packing district and the Pullman railroad company.

But for the other major cities in the South and West the connection to why the south side of their major cities are working class are not as clear. Did cities in the South and West which developed into major cities only within the 20th century just repeat the development of older cities because of precedent? I don't know but I find it very peculiar.

No matter the case, here's my shout out to the American city South Side:

Common ft Kanye West - Southside

Monday, April 18, 2011

As soon as I get on the mic its like the night gets silent © Eminem

Tales of a City Planner – The mid level employee

We have probably all heard the politically incorrect idiom of “too many chiefs and not enough Indians.” Well in government bureaucracies there are a ton of Indians and very few chiefs. Government agencies usually have a glut of mid-level employees. Some of these mid-levelers are very talented, some just happen to be lucky, others have decades of experience and others are still fairly young. But what they all have in common is that they will not chiefs anytime soon. If you are ambitious, it’s like mid-level purgatory.

After being the “new guy” for years, I am now a proud mid-leveler but there are some drawbacks. While I get respect for running and organizing meetings and major planning efforts, I don’t have the power or the bully pulpit to make people make a decision on something. I have to consensus like a mutha’. If I want to get a major planning decision done, I have to get every one to agree on that decision, not half, not the majority but every one. I just can’t totally ignore someone because I think they have a stupid idea. I still have to listen to them and somewhat appease them.

They just have enough power to run their corner but not enough power where they cant listen you and tell you to f*ck off © Lester Freemon from The Wire describing how to talk to mid-level drug dealers.

Case in point, there was a major planning initiative that was being pushed through by several chiefs from my agencies that involved several conflicting parties. Since they were the chiefs they had the bully pulpit to make people listen to them and to steer the ship away from non-productive arguments. Someone makes a stupid comment, chief says we’ll address that later. Someone has a biased viewpoint, chief says lets focus on the mission. Someone disagrees with the overall purpose, chief tells them were moving forward with or without them. The chief gets to make movement and stand against inaction. If the chief makes a comment and is met with silence, that means that you quietly agree and the chief moves forward with that plan.

So what happens when the chief can not make this important planning initiative and sends in a mid-level employee to lead the discussion and move the meeting forward? I’ll tell you what happens, it’s like “I get on the mic its like the night gets silent” © Slim Shady. I got met with the most awkward silence you can have in a crowded room of people. It’s as if they did not appreciate being bullied by the chief and not that the chief’s minion is trying to pull rank, they collectively decided to quietly stare at me while saying nothing. It felt like shouting in a cave because my echo was the only thing that was responding to me. Real quick, if a mid-level planner shouts in a crowded room and no one wants to make a decision, does anyone hear that planner? Fortunately my fellow mid-level planner in the meeting heard the tree fall into the woods but none of the stakeholders heard her either so that was pretty much the end of the meeting.

At the very next meeting, the chief came back and moved the agenda forward with a majority consensus by making the same arguments that my fellow mid-level employee and me had made a week prior.

Eminem - If I get locked up tonight

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Urban Planning 101 - Walkability

Urban Planning 101 - Walkability from Robert Voigt on Vimeo.

A Planner's reality: Segregation in America recently posted a great slideshow of the most segregated cities in America. The post had a map of the racial breakdown of each city as well as an explanation of the history of segregation in each city. Check out the slideshow in this link.

What's interesting is that even in some of the most segregated cities, there is a new trend of young affluent white suburbanites moving into back into the core of cities and working class and middle class city black populations moving into inner-rung suburbs. While this new trend is causing some existing places to become more diverse as one population slides into a new neighborhood as the group is leaving, what's fascinating is that the new trend is still reinforcing the old trend of segregation. The shifts in population among races are not quite coexisting with each other as they are displacing one another.

And this displacement is causing a lot of ugly fights between new and existing populations throughout urban America. In Philadelphia and Washington D.C., historically black neighborhoods are trying to protect their community's identity from white and now black gentrifiers and in suburban Detroit, elite black suburbs or worried about the waves of working class blacks from inner-city Detroit moving into their communities.

These new tensions are now issues that planners now have to listen to and address. These tensions are no longer just a sensitive issue for the inner-city but now affect suburban planners as well. In my jurisdiction, my office worked on an historic black community (historic in culture but not in the building preservation sense) that began as a segregated community and had faced decades of discrimination. Their struggles in overcoming these obstacles helped cement the community's identity and it was very important that we preserve and honor that community's history. But from a strictly planning sense, none of their history of segregation was going to greatly affect how we planned and designed their future housing developments and open spaces. We could not ignore their history but we could not plan around their history either without a historical landmark or building. There was a disconnect between the community and the planners. To the community, their history was the number one concern. For the planners, designing safe spaces was our number one concern.

This disconnect between preserving the people's history in a community over the preservation of buildings is one of city planning's biggest challenges and up to now one of it's biggest failures. As a whole, city planners do not know how to at least help a community on the wrong side of gentrification. As city planners we almost always side with the gentrifiers because our number one goal is to create better designed spaces and buildings. The influx of gentrification helps remove and redevelop empty debris filled lots, rehabilitates vacant buildings and brings commercial vitality back into neighborhoods. Who wouldn't want that?

Newcomers into gentrified inner-city neighborhoods are often dismayed when they find out that it is the existing long term residents who do not want the positive changes of gentrification. The standard answer for newcomers to existing long-term residents is that they should be thanking them for improving their neighborhoods. The issue for long-term residents is not that they want to live in sub-standard conditions but they are seeking a permanent stake in their community in which they felt they established. Whether that neighborhood is an affluent community or a poor community, long term residents feel that it is their neighborhood in large part because of the history of segregation. A lot of older black inner-city neighborhoods were purposefully segregated and became the only neighborhoods blacks could live in within a metropolitan region.

Despite their struggles these older black communities formed identities that were important not only to the psyche of blacks that lived in that community but to urban black America as a whole...for that time. Over time, these communities have often lost their identities as segregation slowly ended and middle class blacks moved out, leaving some of the working class blacks who couldn't afford to leave feel abandoned. But even with all that said there is still some high reverence for some of these communities no matter how poverty stricken or crime riddled they have become. While saying you are from Harlem or the Southside of Chicago or the 9th Ward of New Orleans may be looked down upon by some, for some in urban black America it is still a source of pride.

And this source of pride, which is wrapped around decades of segregation, self-empowerment, decline and then decades of poverty is what gentrification threatens to end. These communities have seen the life cycles of the black community within those cities and while they may be dying, those that still live in those communities do not want to see it end. So how do we as planners preserve that sense of pride? We all know that cities and neighborhoods go through changes, death and rebirth. Do we interfere with the natural life cycle of neighborhoods? Or is it important to maintain the cultural identity of a place like Harlem from becoming just another nice gentrified neighborhood?

What are your thoughts? Thanks for reading!

Monday, February 28, 2011

Because you can’t plan everything

The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry © John Steinbeck

A few works ago, I was working with several planners in trying to draft a new zoning process for a particular area. This new zoning process detailed everything from building heights, pavements widths, awning size, the minimum distance between building entrances and other very small but important design features. We proposed general ranges of design requirements so that this new zoning process did not become too stringent. But one of the planners wanted the building and lot requirements to become more and more precise without any flexibility for the new design standards for proposed buildings.

Now, I understand that no matter how great a zoning process we come up with there are always going to be changes through variances, special councils, legislation or because the higher ups just felt like doing something different. So when this zoning process was becoming more and more rigid and inflexible on every single building detail, I blurted out, “we can’t plan everything.”

My co-worker retorted back:
“Sure we can, that’s what the zoning code is there for.”

Oh, if only our current zoning code were a sporting stat. I would have gladly shown my co-worker that on any given day, we are 6-16 from the field in protecting the standards of our mighty zoning code. We planners, are the Pittsburgh Pirates of the zoning code. We are understaffed and the organization barely funds team equipment and half of us don’t know how we up ended up here. But we play hard against our developer opponents who are the New York Yankees, whose players more than triple our salaries. We play the Yankees really tough but they always manage to pull out ahead of us in the end.

Planners have to compromise in order to move their vision forward. And the compromises may not always relate to money or influence. We make compromises and changes in our plans from everything historical landmarks, ornately designed buildings and cultural institutions that define neighborhoods, all of which may alter the grand scheme of our plans. And that’s ok. That’s what makes cities real.

I’ve been to many urban communities that were full of high-rises that were meticulously planned for blocks with storefronts on the first level, garage parking tucked away and perfect spacing between ornate streetlights and street trees. And you know what, those places didn’t feel real. Were the communities densely populated and efficiently ran? Yes. But did they feel like a real community or a city? No. I’ve also been to gentrified city neighborhoods were 80% of the neighborhood was perfectly redesigned but the other 20% stuck out like a sore thumb. But you know what, that 20% felt like the most important buildings in the neighborhood because those places were the old burger shop, the historic theater, the church, and old apartment building that’s now an architectural relic. They became the placemakers of how people remembered that specific twenty years ago and how they will remember the neighborhood twenty years from now.

You can’t plan everything. You have to allow freedom of expression through design and reinterpretation of design. The great Frank Lloyd Wright was such an eccentric about his designs that he also designed the furniture of the house he designed along with the clothes he thought people should wear while in their own home. He would come back to these houses and if you moved the furniture to your own liking, he would move the furniture back. So what’s the limit supposed to be? As a planner I see requests from individual owners to modify their houses all the time. If the modifications are acceptable should I allow the changes or should I fight for the protection of the zoning code and yell out, “We Must Protect This House!”

So if our best plans get laid to waste, does this mean we should make up stuff to defend on the fly? *coughs* it feels like it sometimes *cough* *cough* Well the answer to that is like the answer a city planning professor once told me when asked about his greatest accomplishment as a planner. He said, “I stopped a lot of bad plans from happening.”

So while the best laid plans can go awry, we can still prevent a lot of bad plans from happening. Thanks for reading!

Planner Speak

Talking to a Planner from Robert Voigt on Vimeo.

Monday, January 10, 2011


The Baltimore Plan

From the Baltimore City Paper:

Called “The Baltimore Plan,” this 20-minute Encyclopaedia Britannica film from 1953 describes an urban renewal plan of the same name, initiated in 1945. Once a blighted area was identified, a cadre of city agencies (housing, sanitation, police, etc.) would conduct inspections and rigorously enforce code violations, forcing the owners to either vacate or fix up their properties. A housing court, the first in the country, was set up as the final arbiter for stubborn cases. Another outcome of the plan was the Fight Blight fund, which issued long-term, low-interest loans to homeowners wishing to make repairs on their houses.

In the film’s stagy retelling, an intrepid young social worker braves the “urban jungle” of Baltimore in order to alert citizens and public officials to the city’s poor housing conditions. She comes across horrors such as flat rats and vacant houses but forges on. Her report caught the attention of The Baltimore Sun, which published stories in her wake. City agencies and private citizens eventually pull together—hammering, laying concrete, and building walls to jaunty Leave It to Beaver-esque music—to rebuild and renew 27 blocks in East Baltimore that served as a pilot project. At the end of the film, children frolic in clean, rat-free playgrounds, and women water verdant gardens.

The Housing Court is one enduring legacy of the plan, but the city’s crumbling housing stock—and the flat rats—are obviously still with us. Some now take a cynical view of the Baltimore Plan, or at least of some of its proponents: “[S]lum dwellers saw only minor improvements,” historian Nicholas Dagen Bloom writes, “[but] those involved with the plan caught professional fire and gained national prominence.” The plan promoted the idea of improving neighborhoods without expanding the social welfare system, he says, and thus appealed to certain interested parties. The National Association of Real Estate Boards, the National Association of Home Builders, and the Mortgage Bankers’ Association all latched onto it in an attempt to reduce efforts to build more public housing.

Despite its Pollyanna, paternalistic tone—or, perhaps, because of it—the film is a fascinating cultural artifact. The scenes, while clearly staged, provide glimpses of a bygone Baltimore. (Note the gas lamps and the arabber at the beginning.) But some footage—like an alley strewn with debris that serves as a neighborhood playground—is not as unfamiliar as it should be. “Plans have only a pencil and paper reality,” the social worker says at one point. Sadly, that much and more remains true.