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As all things government-spending-related become topics of general debate rather than just policy wonks’ geek-out of choice, the activities of that government move into the spotlight.  And as our cities get more popular and our problems of modern living more complicated, the field of planning (land use, environment, transportation, housing, economy, other) has been lauded as the solution or attacked as part of the problem.

There’s no easy way to characterize and dissect American attitudes toward planning, and certainly no one solution to the “right” kind of planning and at what cost.  Generally speaking, though, people in my generation (finished school, starting their first job or three, married or not, moving to a new place in the city, enjoying “urban” amenities like coffee shops and parks and concert series, walking or biking to work) seem to generally view urban planning as a positive thing, where older generations tend to be more skeptical.

While recognizing this is itself a generalization, I wondered if I could explain it with another generalization:  people my age tend not to be property owners, and those older (who tend to be skeptics) are.  To them, “planning” is not about finding an affordable apartment or having a bike lane or community garden, but about how much their property taxes are, who is telling them whether they’re allowed to put an addition on their house, and whether installing a roundabout in their area will increase traffic along their street.  Not to mention homeowners’ focus on the quality of their schools, since much of the district’s expenses come directly out of their property taxes and since, if they have children, they may have made the decision to live where they do based on the schools.

No wonder they may gripe about planning!  If all they ever see of urban planning is the Board of Zoning Appeals and their water bill and annual or tri-annual tax assessment, and maybe a road improvement which increases traffic congestion or impacts their parking spot at work, no wonder they complain.  They don’t take the bus, so a new route isn’t too exciting; they spend a lot of time working on their house or in their own backyard, so they don’t go to a public park except maybe for the Fourth of July fireworks; and they’re busy living their own lives and aren’t generally called on to articulate the long-term vision for their community.  They care about paying the large bills (mortgage, utilities, taxes, school and children, car payment) they have to worry about.

This isn’t to say that people my age don’t own cars or some form of property, or inherently care more about their community (some would argue they care less, being more transient) or automatically use these public resources.  They do, however, tend to be less burdened with taxes and possessions and are in a place where they’re more open to and able to try new things; have less money, so rely on things like renting an apartment or taking public transportation or spending time in free public spaces; and may use their free time to engage in civic projects like community gardens or social activism or environmental justice work or just spending time enjoying urban amenities.  As cities, and by extension planning as a field, become the next cool thing – even Scientific American got on the bandwagon and just had an issue celebrating cities – those who haven’t yet been burdened with the full costs of modern living seem to overlook the bureaucracy and focus on the bigger, more interesting picture.

So assuming all this speculation has identified a decently solid truth, I further wonder, is this the natural progression of generational attitudes toward planning?  Or will this enthusiasm “stick” as my generation buys property, settles down, has children who need schooling, and who will eventually get stuck with the bills?  There’s already mixed evidence about whether suburban living will continue to appeal to young families, but from my very limited and anecdotal evidence, it does seem that school-age children (and/or the desire for a more traditional household living situation) will drive some people out of city neighborhoods to somewhere more suburban, less complicated bureaucratically and planning-wise.  If young people will inevitably grow out of their love of urban living and support of greater institutional involvement of the life of a city, then we should worry (again) about our cities in the next few decades, if they will again enter a low period.

If the attitude is not simply related to age and level of responsibility, however, maybe we’re really in a larger period of change.  Maybe we still need to focus on convincing the homeowners and soon-to-retire generation (who after all, still have the power as property owners) that some changes with planning are a good thing.  But maybe we also have the larger shift in attitude on our side, in the long run.

And of course there’s one huge group I have not touched on:   the elderly.  Those who may or may not still own their own homes, and who are still paying those bills (though maybe not a mortgage) like their working counterparts.  Many of those people were also young when cities were rapidly growing in the US, however, and may see a city neighborhood in a more positive, perhaps more nostalgic way.  As they age, they become more dependent on others to get around, are less able or willing to drive everywhere, and they may or may not be interested in the housework associated with “aging in place” versus settling in a denser and more active community with other seniors.  As they interact less with planning bureaucracy but face more of the issues that planning addresses, will their attitudes also change for the better?  How do their attitudes now differ from younger generations?

As with any issue or question or field of work which relies on public discourse, planning needs to care about how it is perceived by the general population.  Ultimately, planners are only there to educate and advise the public about decisions it will make about its own community and future.  The underlying perceptions of planning have an effect on each individual project or debate, and the success of our field depends in part on our awareness of and ability to positively influence those perceptions of us and our work.

Drove Mom to the airport this evening (Ted Stevens Airport!) and drove back alone in the rain to the apartment.  Lonely at the moment, but the time had to come, and things will be okay.  It’s always weird when you’re really, finally in a new place and it’s up to you to take the next step.  Been there.

The rain clouds that rolled in this afternoon have at least made it like an actual night here!  Kinda nice to see the orange high-pressure sodium lights of city parking lots and streets again.  Probably won’t be quite as nice when that’s most of what you see in the winter.

Catching up on things with this computer, and doesn’t feel like 12:45 but I should get to bed.  Blogging will recommence for seriously this week – starting with Day 4 of our epic trip, and catching up to now.

So many photos to sort through.  Here is one.

Alaska Highway, Yukon

Alaska Highway, Yukon

And here is another (of Anchorage)

Anchorage and Cook Inlet, 10:30PM, from Flattop Trail

Anchorage and Cook Inlet, 10:30PM, from Flattop Trail

Good night!

Hi everyone.  So, a few updates:

  • I got a job and am moving to Anchorage, Alaska.  Yeah.
  • I just participated in Cornell’s graduation ceremony and am at this point 95% (ish) done with my degree.
  • Summer is officially beginning with a potluck at our house on June 1.
  • And I am, for the time being, ratless (RIP Tiny!)

I’ll be back with something more interesting soon!

Masters of Regional Planning on the move - Cornell Graduation 2011

Masters of Regional Planning on the move - Cornell Graduation 2011

This book is not planning related, but it’s an interesting read for anyone interested in race and ethnicity in American society!  Which, of course, all planners should be!

I was watching a DVD of old episodes of “You Bet Your Life,” the game show hosted by Groucho Marx in the 1950s.  The show featured a series of couples, usually a man and a woman, usually not related in any way and chosen by the audience, sometimes two men or two women.  The couple is given trivia questions in a category of their choosing, worth more according to difficulty (between $10 and 100); answering incorrectly costs half.  In later seasons, the couples also compete to answer a final question, whoever has won the most in their first round.  There was a bonus word, held by a duck on a string hidden from the players, that is “a common word you hear around the house” or similar (things like door, chair, head, etc.)  If a player happened to say the word they would get $100 to split.

In the episodes I’ve seen, there are many really interesting people – all living in southern California at the time.  Librarian, fruit vendor, wrestler, mayor of one of the suburbs (I forget which), military people, a forewoman for a manufacturing plant, etc.  Groucho does his usual mix of sarcasm and sketchy old-man flirting with the women when interviewing the players.  And of course the whole thing is (aggressively) sponsored by DeSoto, I think a branch of Chrysler at the time, with flanking ads and brand-name-dropping throughout the show.  (Here’s an example from 1955 and another from 1957).

One of the player-couples, Carl and Helen Doss, are a minister and wife from southern California.  Groucho talks to them a while about his church, but when he asks about the children, it comes out that they have 12 children – and all of different races:  Japanese, Blackfoot tribe, Indian, etc.  They explain that they can’t have children of their own, and when going through the process of adoption they found that mixed-race children were “classified unadoptable.”  When asked if race is an issue in their family, Helen tells a story that “the two oldest boys always play Cowboy and Indian, but the blond, blue-eyed boy always plays Indian, and the boy from India plays cowboy.”  She also refers to a book she’s written, The Family Nobody Wanted, published by Little Brown in 1954 (which means the episode must be from just after that, possibly early 1955).

Given the unusual nature of their family for the time period (and really, 12 kids is a lot no matter who the kids are!) I decided to track down the book via the library, apparently reprinted by the Northeastern University Press in 2001.  It arrived this week by BorrowDirect!  I’ve only gotten through the introduction to the new edition, but it hints at the (former) popularity of this book.  For many years it was available through Scholastic-style book catalogs for children, and though hard to find cheaply on Amazon (in 1999 at least) the readers’ reviews were pretty uniformly positive about how sweet and interesting a story it is.  The editor’s analysis focuses more on the issues of adoption than the ethnic composition of the family, noting that the narrative challenges the still-dominant narrative that only a biologically-related child is a “full” child of a parent.  Doss writes of her family that they were meant to be this way and that they were fully hers and her husband’s, despite not being born to her, which the editor notes is not unique to the Doss family but certainly not the assume behind those who shy away from the option of adoption.  As she was a minister’s wife, it should also be interesting to see what Christian elements influence the narrative, beyond the usual tropes of past decades’ language.

I’ll be starting the book itself soon, but even before I get into it, I wanted to share this interesting little find.  In light of the recently published 2010 Census data, which has found that “minority” populations are growing in the U.S. and that there has been a significant increase in multi-racial children, taking a look at the country 60 years ago should be thought-provoking.

Helen Doss, The Family Nobody Wanted.  Mary Battenfeld, ed.  (Boston:  Northeastern University Press, 2001 [1954].

I’m sidestepping planning for the moment to make some brief comments about Girl Talk’s album All Day.  (If you haven’t heard and are feeling up to the challenge, download here for free.)

Driving back from Ohio, I decided to use one of the (seven) hours to listen to the album.  I had tried before, but was pretty much overwhelmed by the first three minutes of the first track.  The second time, however, I made it through, and I’m listening to it again now in fact.

Here’s my take on the album, or more specifically its style of hyper-mashup:  it’s not so much music, a series of songs, as it is a 71-minute manipulation of the brain to experience music.

What I mean by this is, that it’s not original music in the traditional sense of composition and performance, it’s a collage, like other mashups.  What stood out to me in this work, however, was that unlike other mashups (which generally combine two songs, or take brief samples from a couple songs and other places) the entire thing is just a series of brief references mixed to sound like a comprehensible song.  This creation of “meta art” seems to be a more and more common form of work on the Internet, with mashup videos of all the times Don Draper says “what?” in Mad Men (sorry, it’s not up anymore) or the massive infographics of every kind of beer or the Batmobile.  The skill lies not in inventing something out of nothing, but clever manipulation of found materials, so to speak, by wading through a massive pile of already-known objects of pop culture.

For it to make sense, then, we (the reader, listener, viewer) must already know most, if not all, of its constituent parts – otherwise it’s just noise.  This is particularly true of All Day; if you don’t know most of the songs, it’s almost unlistenable because it just jumps from one short clip to another, chaotic with multiple layers of different genres, sometimes three or four songs at a time.  We enjoy it only because we’ve really heard it all before.

What’s going on, it seems, is that we may like listening to it because of its technical quality, the way seemingly incongruous songs fit together, etc., but we’re really enjoying it because it’s triggering a constant sense of nostalgia in our brains, hearing those songs we recognize instantly and probably know by heart.  Each small sample is enough to make us hear the rest of the song in our heads, making the experience of listening not one that engages with the song actually playing, but one in which we actively play all the songs over ourselves in memory.  The album is basically a rapid series of memory-triggers, and makes no sense unless we already have those memories (songs) stored away for easy reference.

That isn’t to say it’s not a fun experience, even if you don’t know all the songs (I certainly don’t).  It’s just a notably different experience that says something about where culture is going.  Now that it’s technically possible, it’s also artistically acceptable to build something out of a mass of existing data – not simply through influences or lyric references or homages, as has been done for centuries, but by actually constructing a new work solely with the pieces of others, on a scale which would have been imprecise and extremely time-consuming using non-digital methods.

It feeds into some larger questions I have about the Internet and where we’re headed:  Are we really stretching our minds to take in and process more information?  Will we eventually find single-stream information too boring?  What are we giving up in return?  Are we losing the ability to think deeply about one thing because we are pushed to constantly think about so many things?  What are the consequences of our speeding up and layering and augmenting of reality, the real-life equivalent of constant footnotes and marginalia and cross-references?

And, of course, there is a Girl Talk infographic explaining the whole thing.  Actually, there’s one from Fast Company, Wired, and a real-time sampling list from Travis McLeskey.  Not to mention all the people who have populated the album’s Wikipedia page.  Meta squared, if you will.

For a similarly interesting pop song mashup, check this out (via Urlesque).

“City” is a noun.

A noun is a person, place, thing, or idea.

Which is a city?

Is it all of the above?

Consider the following, moving from the intimate to the abstract and back again.

The city is a person. Those who love cities most, or a particular city, will speak fondly (or bitterly) of their relationship with it.  A familiar friend, an exciting object of desire, a partner in crime.  Or a constant pest, a worst enemy, a bully or a flirt.  Being in a new city therefore means becoming acquainted, learning who, not what, that city really is.  A desire to see the city in its brighest colors, from its best side, to mutually impress.

Of Chicago, Carl Sandburg wrote:  “Stormy, husky, brawling, / City of the Big Shoulders: / Come and show me another city with lifted head singing / so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.”  Chicago seems now to be that aging worker with an inferiority complex, “Second City,” second-best to its neighbor(s) to the East.

Of New York, the New York Times’ Christopher Solomon, on leaving the city, confessed “You are that red-haired girl who welcomed me here and then did not want me. And like her, I still love you, and even now I miss you.”  LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy sang “New York, I love you, but you’re bringing me down.”  New York is famous for its ego and vitality, and is loved fiercely.

Does a city have a gender?  What gender does your city have?  If you can answer that question, maybe your city is a person.

The city is a place. Leaving the realm of relationships, a city becomes a place.  A dot on a map, a place to call home, an environment in which to interact, a backdrop for life.  Landmarks, wayfinding, and distances become the important descriptors by which the city is understood:  origin, journey, destination.

Transit maps are especially good at placing a city:  where am I?  Where am I going?  What path do I take?  Bill Bryson wrote of the whimsical quality of the London Underground, including places like “Finster Bush” and “Swiss Cottage” which brought you to who knows what fairy-tale land.  The city becomes not one place but many, a network of discrete destinations that may be measured as much in time as in geography.

When you leave your own city, it becomes even more “place-ified” to you.  Answer the question:  “Where are you from?”  “I’m from here.”  Or “I’m from another place.”

The city is a thing. Zoom out once more from emotional groundedness – the city becomes a thing, an entity, a unit of analysis.  Social science research is especially good at this, poking and prodding at the city organism to study its systems, properties and functions from all angles.  Census data and infrastructure diagrams render it inert for a moment in time, under glass for further study.

Those frustrated by politics may also reify the city, forgetting its council is a collection of people and instead referring to The City as its own autonomous entity.  The City tows your car, raises your taxes, leaves you bus-less in the middle of the night.  It becomes an it, a faceless opponent, an Other.

Ask yourself:  it’s Christmas morning, the municipal offices are closed, and every single city official and employee is not coming in.  Is there still something in City Hall?

The city is an idea.  With this, we arrive at both the edge and the center:  what is more abstract than an idea?  Or more private?

Perhaps the city exists most of all in our own minds, our desperate attempt to make sense of its chaos and complexity.  Thought of a city we know can trigger nostalgia, love, fear, sadness, a particular good or bad memory.  T.S. Eliot wrote, of course, “And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.”  We create the city in our own minds, or perhaps even a new one every time.

Even more abstract is the very idea of “city” itself.  How else would we know exactly what Petula Clark’s song “Downtown” means, and that Downtown could make us feel better?  The word City, with no geographical referent, conjures a concept web of diversity, density, crowding, anonymity, loneliness, activity, happiness, culture, violence, enterprise, wealth, poverty, history and future.

For those of us who love cities, they always elude definition because they are all of these things.

… Possibly the most pretentious post title yet!

So it’s officially Week 7 that I’ve gone without a car . . . that is, it’s still in the shop with transmission problems.  (The lesson to be drawn from the past two summers’ worth of car problems is, do not buy a Subaru without a good warranty and a steady income!)  As a result, I’ve spent a lot of time on public transit going one place or another, and have taken advantage of the lovely service of the public library.

Earlier in the summer I was avoiding “work” reading (planning-related books), in favor of easy fiction and those random books that had been on my list for a while.  As I reluctantly realize summer is ending, however, I’ve started turning back to the city books.  Rationale:  there’s a long list of planning-related things I should read.  I won’t want to read them during the school year, because that’s all I’ll be doing anyway; light fiction and some “escapist” stuff (easy to pick up and put down and pass out in the middle of a chapter at the end of the day) will be a better idea.  Therefore, better do it now!

One book I picked up (per a friend’s suggestion) is Nan Ellin’s Postmodern Urbanism (Princeton Architectural Press, 1999 rev. ed.).  It’s pretty theoretical and there’s a fair amount of academic name-dropping — even some stuff from the old cultural history reading list!  Hobsbawm! — but it makes some interesting claims about the goals of (post)modern design, what it’s actually doing, and why it’s ultimately still part of the Modern Project.  That is, it might look different than modernist buildings, and it might attempt to return to pre-industrial city form, but it still takes a rational and technocratic approach to achieving its aims.  And it inescapably operates within a market-oriented, consumer-based structure which essentially dictates the outcome of design and planning exercises, however inclusive.  [Insert lots of David Harvey block quotes here.]

Here are a few things to think about.  I still am.

“Recent urban design inarguably advances the modern project because it refuses to relinquish the vast possibilities offered by the new technologies because it is embedded in larger market forces.  Despite its prevalent romantic imagery, its mode of production, distribution, and consumption remain highly rational as do the lifestyles of the people who use it (with a few scattered exceptions).  In architecture, an abandonment of the products and promises of the modern project would constitute an undeniable regression because its evolution has gone hand in hand with that of new technologies.  And a challenge to the modern project on the part of planners would violate the very bases upon which planning rests since the profession emerged during the modern period and is predicated on modernist notions of rationality and progress.  It is not surprising, then, that the architecture and planning professions have largely avoided reflecting too deeply on the continued validity of the modern project.

“Pressed to ascertain whether this recent swing of the pendulum in urban design theory and practice has actually posed a challenge to the modern project or whether it has affirmed it, we must concede that as long as architects and planners seek technical and creative solutions to social problems in pursuit of progress, they continue to pursue the modern project.  While contemporary urban design may break from the modern project formally and rhetorically, it actually continues it technologically, politically, and economically, perhaps with the exception of a growing sensitivity toward social diversity and toward the environment.  Symbolically, contemporary urban design both continues and breaks from the modern project for it suggests to the general public a re-valorization of history, urbanity, the vernacular, and the community, while in fact only cosmetic changes are effected.  In sum, while contemporary urban design may constitute a symbolic break from modernism, in actuality, it continues the project, as is revealed by architects’ and planners’ goals, their means for implementing these goals, their products, and their means of assessing the relative success of these products.

Rather than avoid the drawbacks of modern urbanism, then, architecture and planning since the 1960s are guilty of much the same, albeit unwittingly.  This is largely because the political economy of advanced global capitalism and the continued prominence of positivistic thinking (despite challenges posed to it) impose constraints that limit its actual divergence.  A reality which many architects and planners have preferred to ignore or minimize is that rather than following function, form has increasingly been following finance.  The prime mover, particularly in the more liberal economies, is less the architects and planners than the larger economic system in which they work and which functions according to the profit motive.  Like the initial claims of modern design to be populist, those of postmodern urbanism have also been subverted, perhaps even more so.  But designers are reluctant to acknowledge their ever-growing reliance upon the marketplace for it detracts from their potential for creative expression and for implementing change, not to mention their ability to preserve the legitimacy of their professions.” (212-213)

“Superficially, then, we have come full circle.  This time, however, the pre-industrial-looking landscapes (some of which are more convincing than others) are the product of hyper-rational efforts.  As such, postmodern urbanism might be perceived as dishonest or pretentious for trying to be something it is not.  In addition, its complicity with the political economy in which it is embedded often renders its intents unrealizable, or in the interests of capital rather than the larger good.  As a result, many contextual intentions are stymied and, even when realized, are judged unsuccessful by users and designers alike.  When successful, though, these efforts can result in environments that harmonize with the physical and social contexts and which people appreciate for their non-intrusive quality and formal interest.

“Although the lessons of modern urbanism have yet to be fully assimilated and postmodern urban design theory is inherently flawed, it nonetheless offers certain correctives to its predecessor and has generated some built environments that are widely recognized as superior to those which issued from the tenets of modern urbanism.  Most important is the renewed attention to fulfilling non-functional needs and tastes, as manifest in building on a human scale; reintroducing ornament, color, and whimsy; developing a mix of uses in one project; valuing public spaces of many kinds; and valuing experimentation with new typologies, morphologies, and modes of architectural production including various kinds of user participation, computer-aided design, and serial production techniques.  Some of this experimentation has undeniably enhanced the lives of its users as well as the shape of the landscape.

“The reconceptualizations of the city and of culture over the last few decades are inscribed within the larger challenge to the modern canon in contemporary Western society.  This broadbased challenge is reflected in legitimacy crises in our basic assumptions, ways of knowing, and practice, and it is expressed in the millennial meditations described above.  While all indications suggest a threshold, what lies on the other side remains unclear.  At its worst, the extreme relativism and disengagement that may result from a distrust of master narratives and expertise can eliminate any possibility for communication, ethics, and democratic practice.  With regards to cultural forms of expression, it can detract from any emancipatory and educational possibilities.  The result can be an ultra-subjective alienating sense that there is no longer a “real,” and a corresponding obsession with artifice which allows for easy manipulation by the deft imagery of advertising and other forms of persuasion.  In some respects, then, the efforts among urban designers to remedy the imagery merely play into the hands of this process, ultimately intensifying rather than combating the prevailing sense of insecurity.” (291-292)

I’m looking at you, New Urbanists!!!

I was driving south toward Indiana this morning, and on a whim decided to detour on I-55 to visit those giant silos on South Damen Avenue.  The ones with the big “STATE AUCTION” sign on them, and all the graffiti.  This summer, I had a very enjoyable afternoon seeing them for the first time (even slipped under the fence, shhhh), and thought I would see how they looked in the snow.  Was not disappointed.

[Editor’s note:  I should really start a photoblog, and save CityForward for mostly text-based posts.  This fixed-width layout is killing me, as it conveniently snips off the right margin of all my landscape-oriented photos.  Straw poll:  Flickr, or a legit photoblog format?]

"State Property, No Trespassing" Sign

Silo through the fence, with AUCTION sign

Fence and Silos

Silo, Graffiti Detail

No Dumping Sign

Graffiti, "RIP AFRO 42"

Graffiti, "RIP EVOL"

Graffiti, Rabbit

Wreath in front of silos

Silos and building through the fence

Building skeleton

Graffiti on brick building

Brick building, with Sears Tower in the distance

Side building, river, and geese

Side building, river, and bench

Side building, river, and silos

Highway ramp toward home

One of my favorite parts about the show is how they can spoof pop culture and/or get interesting celebrities to come and good around on their show, all in the name of children’s education.  A cursory glance at Youtube shows they’ve still got it.

Mad Men spoof – complete with sanitized version of beginning credits (i.e. he slips on a banana peel, doesn’t jump out of a building).

Michelle Obama growing a garden – she sounds a lot like Susan, reminds me of the show as I remember it!

Feist sings 1,2,3,4 on the street – slight changes to the lyrics and it fits right in.