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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.

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[I’ve been meaning to post this for months.]

During our group project for the CRP New York City workshop, we specifically studied the neighborhood around the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn, an old industrial area around a historically-working waterfront, now becoming a mix of warehouse space, unfinished office and craft spaces, a few residential units (in addition to the large housing project on its edge), and an influx of creative activity like artists, performance venues, trendy bars, and randomly a Holiday Inn Express.

Being generally unfamiliar with New York City and very familiar with Chicago, it struck me that the Gowanus area looks and feels (perhaps smells) a lot like the Clybourn/Goose Island industrial corridor two miles northwest of the Loop.  Both have a lot of old, messy industrial uses – some of which still exist, others which have left only brownfields – along a formerly working waterfront, in Clybourn’s case the Chicago River.

The forces of gentrification and redevelopment have been at work longer in Clybourn, however, perhaps in part because the river is not a heavily, notoriously polluted Superfund site.  While Finkl Steel and a few others have held on in the area, by and large the area along North Avenue and Goose Island has flipped to become retail (and a bit of housing), especially home furnishings like Restoration Hardware, Design Within Reach, and Crate & Barrel.  The two most buzzworthy developments were the flagship Whole Foods (May 2009) right along the river on Kingsbury, and the Apple Store and renovated Red Line stop (Winter 2010) at the edge of the industrial development.

Comparing aerial views of the two highlights their similar scale, location near a highway, and situation between two dense residential neighborhoods – Wicker Park and Lincoln Park in Chicago, Carroll Gardens/Boerum Hill and Park Slope in Brooklyn.

Clybourn Corridor and Goose Island, Chicago, 1000 ft

Clybourn Corridor and Goose Island, Chicago, view at 1000 ft

Gowanus Canal and Brooklyn, New York City, 1000 ft

Gowanus Canal and Brooklyn, New York City, 1000 ft

More interesting than their shared history and layout, however, is their possibly shared future – specifically, the degree to which the changes in Clybourn portend how Gowanus will develop as the Superfund cleanup moves forward.  Both already have a large Home Depot, both will soon have a large Whole Foods with several yuppie-friendly gimmicks:  the Chicago store has a lovely riverside patio, a huge food court, and a demonstration kitchen which gets regular use.  The Brooklyn store will have a rooftop garden for ultra-local produce, possibly waterfront access, and likely many WF amenities which are possible when building on such a large lot.  Both also have a kayaking presence, though the Gowanus Dredgers certainly take on more risk than the rental places along the Chicago River!

While neither area had a large residential community per se, both were home to many industrial jobs, probably for over a century in both cases.  And both have those who have some degree of fondness, or at least tolerance, for the messy, smelly, bustling, “wild west” they used to be.  In Chicago’s case, the legacy of shady activity along Weed Street comes to mind; in Gowanus’ case, the area still struggles with some drug activity and prostitution, though probably not the “roving gangs of hookers and drug dealers” claimed to exist by one resident.  The influx of trendy stores and office lofts represents real change, however, and what Clybourn is now, Gowanus likely will be.

What lessons for Gowanus can be drawn from Clybourn?

First, that change is inevitable – even its reputation as one of the most polluted sites in America will, with the help of the federal cleanup, likely not stop development in the long run.  The recession has slowed development city-wide, but New York is an aggressive real estate market, to put it mildly.

Second, that unless told otherwise, developers will probably bring big-box retail as the natural successor to large industrial spaces.  While Clybourn is now cleaner and probably safer, it is not very walkable – big parking lots separate building from street, and North Avenue has narrow sidewalks and fast-moving cars (when they aren’t clogged with traffic).  Given Gowanus’ proximity to dense and growing Brooklyn residential neighborhoods, more work should be done to make it a natural bridge between the two, not a barrier, by keeping some of the large-format stores from building replicas of what we have in the suburbs.

Third, that it is possible to keep some vestiges of the area’s past life, if only symbolic.  Chicago recently finished restoring a small railroad bridge which connects North Avenue with Goose Island, now a pedestrian walking path (but with “Live Rail” signs, which I’m not sure actually mean anything).  The Whole Foods and kayak rental places allow access to the water, but the height of the bank makes it clear that this is not another North Avenue Beach.  The Goose Island brewery, Smith & Hawken, and several other stores occupy old industrial warehouses which have been retrofitted, though many of the retail buildings (and certainly the NoHo residential tower) are new.  Although most of Gowanus’ old industrial buildings might not be worth saving for public health or financial reasons, keeping as much as possible of the old brick and stone buildings can at least maintain the area’s character, which is what has attracted much of the new activity in the first place.

The planner is, of course, going to conclude that Gowanus needs better planning.  But in this case, and based on what has already happened along the Clybourn Corridor in Chicago, it seems to be true.  Change will happen, and the area will likely not remain industrial, except perhaps at its south end toward the Gowanus Bay.  Once the Canal itself becomes a water amenity rather than an environmental liability, it will become a desirable place to be; the large, underused lots are rare in New York and will become prime locations for suburban-style retail, unless more guidelines are put into place ahead of time to create denser, more walkable development which benefits the neighborhood.  Taking the good aspects of Clybourn and learning from the bad, Gowanus can perhaps become the same, only better.

Just got back from a showing of the fully-restored version of Metropolis, accompanied by the Alloy Orchestra (live!), brought to you by the fine people at Cornell Cinema.

Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927)The music matched the movie pretty well – staccato militaristic drum, mechanical rhythm, scraping metal-on-metal, some kitschy chimes.  Both were melodramatic but pull you in nonetheless.  It’s been a while since I’ve heard the original score, but I’d venture to say this captures the spirit of the film if not the minute detail of historical accuracy.

Just a brief thought on the film itself.

There is the highly dominant message Lang wants you to leave with:  “THE MEDIATOR BETWEEN THE HEAD AND HANDS MUST BE THE HEART!”  And there’s much to be said about the religious imagery, the portrayal of gender and sexuality vis à vis a woman-robot, etc.

Being a planner, however, I was of course more interested in what it had to say about the city.  One could read the “Mediator” as a planner, a community advocate, a voice bridging gaps between city and (disenfranchised) population.  That seems too easy and “feel good,” though.

Metropolis:  the City as Body as Machine.  On multiple levels, this metaphor plays out among the three.  The city has a Heart machine, a Brain, and (many) Hands, not to mention circulation (and a pleasure center).  Human bodies become machines, whether working in the underground city, contorting to move clock hands or gyrating on a club stage.  The actors themselves have a very mechanical quality, holding poses, stumbling rigidly, pointing to their head or heart to indicate feeling.  The transfer of life from Maria to the Maria-robot begins with the illuminated heart, then circulation system.  And the machine itself becomes a body in the not-so-subtle reference to Moloch (had to look that one up!), consuming other (apparently Phoenician) bodies so that the city functions.  And in the end, the city could only successfully function as an integrated body of head, heart, and hand.

I would love to hear a discussion about this movie in the context of post-war Germany, the large-scale industrialization of the U.S. and Europe in the 19th-early 20th century, the Art Deco and Futurist movements, Berlin in the 20s, and especially compared against Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936).  Did Chaplin see Metropolis?  Was he spoofing it?  How did the Depression change perception of the City-Machine?  And was Metropolis a particular city?  It looked a lot like New York, and certainly not like Berlin or other European cities at the time!  Did Le Corbusier have a hand (ha) in the design?

… 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!!!

Today was a rainy, cold, up-and-down, good-and-bad day, but most decidedly it was a lesson in patience.

I visited UHC’s Joy Garden for the first time, intending to start work but realizing the rain got in the way.  Talked to Nick, the designer/project lead for the garden, who spoke of it as very much a work in progress.  He highlighted all the work that had already been done, and that the site had clearly come a long way from being a patch of salty dirt, as it had been when they started.  His timeline, however, remained relatively long.  By the end of this summer they would hopefully be finished, replacing the existing plants with others as opportunity arose, re-installing pieces as needed, but the salinity of the soil meant that they couldn’t really start growing food (the end goal) until at least two years from now – likely after UHC turns over the garden completely to the school.  For me, a volunteer only for this summer, that sounded like a long time; but in the grand scheme of things, it was just a few more seasons for what was meant to be a long-lasting garden.  For the students working on the garden, especially, many would likely not see it completed until after they’d graduated.  The most important part was not the finished product, but the learning experience.

Then I headed down to the Bridgeport area to visit Bubbly Dynamics, a.k.a. the Chicago Sustainable Manufacturing Center.  John, the owner and main rehabber of the building, showed me around from green roof to basement, highlighting various reused materials, the ultra-efficient heating system, the variety of tenants’ activities, and some of the history of the building (much unknown) and the industrial area as a whole.  We also talked about The Plant, his next project, which will transform much of an old meatpacking building into an urban farm and light manufacturing space.  Assuming all goes well with the closing, he said, “then the next ten years are laid out for me in that building.”  He also mentioned another industrial building, undervalued but with great potential, he was keeping an eye on in the hopes of buying someday.  Again, I was thinking that it all sounded like such a long time!  Having only the summer to lend a hand, I was eager to start doing something – but with a much larger plan and process at work, and with a decade-long time frame, John was (rightly) in no hurry.  Rehabbing the building would be a complex challenge, but there was plenty of time to figure everything out.

Because my car apparently hates Chicago (and has developed some mostly-inexplicable problem every time I come back here), the transmission was misbehaving all afternoon, even after an oil change and trans fluid check.  So I headed back up north to the nearest Subaru dealer.  Traffic along I-94 was terrible from one end to the other:  moving about 15 mph the whole time (and that’s if we weren’t stopped), and non-stop rain.  It took me about 2 hours to go 10 miles, on. the. highway.  But I had nowhere to be in a hurry, and idling along was probably better for the car than having to switch gears constantly on city streets, so I grudgingly rode it out.

The dealer’s service area was closing up for the night, so I’ll have to wait until tomorrow to hear the verdict (and cost).  Luckily, I was able to take the bus, or rather two buses, home.  More waiting, but the rain had stopped.

And finally, when I arrived home, I had received a couple answers (via Email) that I was hoping would show up eventually.

So today’s lesson is:  while time can seem so limited, and life’s small hassles so large when you’re in the midst of them, there is a longer timeline you’re moving along.  A bigger goal to work for.  A larger world to be a part of.  And there is virtue in striving to keep the longer future on your immediate horizon, blocked as it may be by things of the moment.  Or, “good things come to those who wait.”  So, patience!

Work in Progress

Work in Progress

I felt compelled to write about this, because The Daily Beast did not.  They recently featured the results of Richard Florida’s “Top 25 Cities for College Graduates”, finding that Ithaca, New York was #1.  That’s right, Ithaca.

What?

Now, this list was supposed to highlight where recent graduates are likely to be comfortable settling:  finding a job, being around other young (single) people, and other amenities.  So it might surprise you that Ithaca is first, a bunch of other college towns are also high on the list (regardless of whether they’re in a big city or not), places like New York and DC are middling, Los Angeles is pretty low on the list, and Chicago does not make it at all.  Also, much as it pains me to say it … Albany (NY) makes the list, but Portland (OR) doesn’t?  What?

Granted, some choices like Austin or Boston make a lot of sense.  But Ithaca?!  So, let’s look at Florida’s criteria:

“These rankings are based on an index of nine statistical indicators … measures in the rankings include:

  • Presence of twentysomethings (20-24 year olds) in the population
  • Singles—measured as the share of unmarried people
  • Earnings potential—measured as average salary
  • Unemployment rate
  • College educated workforce—the share of the workforce with a bachelor’s degree or higher
  • Rental housing—having an abundant, available stock of rental housing is key. We measured this as the share of all housing made up of rental units.
  • Youth-oriented amenities—like bars, restaurants, cafes, sports facilities and entertainment venues.
  • Creative capital–we use this to capture the creative energy of a place. It’s measured as the share of employed artists, musicians, actors, dancers, writers, designers, and entertainers in the workforce.
  • Openness–A region’s openness to new and different kinds of people reflects a lack of barriers and willingness to let newcomers, including young people, have a go. Our measure is the share of gays and lesbians and foreign-born residents in a community
  • Affordability–The overall rankings do not take housing costs into account. Generally speaking, new college grads are renters and can easily share apartments to reduce costs. It’s also difficult to get a handle on the full living costs borne by young people—some communities have accessible mass transit; in others, new grads must buy a car (and pay for insurance, maintenance, gas, and parking).

“We decided to break out an additional index to account for affordability. This index includes a variable for rent levels—median contract rent. It weights affordability at 25 percent of the overall index value, and lets the other nine indicators account for the remaining 75 percent.”

Sounds pretty good, right?  Except all of those exactly describe COLLEGE TOWNS – more specifically, towns dominated by a large university and who have attracted a significant population to the town in the first place.  Here’s how it measures up with Ithaca:

  • Presence of twentysomethings – Cornell has something like 20,000 students, and the city itself has 60,000 total.  You do the math.
  • Singles – see above; how many full-time Ivy undergrads are married?
  • Earnings potential – average salary?  You’re either earning nothing, an Ivy League professor, or you can afford to live in Ithaca.  Most of the (lower-income) service staff live well outside the city itself, because they can’t afford it.
  • Unemployment rate – again:  COLLEGE TOWN.  If you’re in college, you’re not unemployed because you’re not seeking work.  If you’re in grad school, ditto.  If you’re retired or the spouse of a professor, double ditto.  If you’re working at a coffee shop and on a quest to “find yourself,” don’t even count the number of dittos.
  • College educated workforce – … seriously?  Tompkins County has something like 50% adults 25+ with a bachelors or above.
  • Rental housing – … again, seriously?  Ithaca is 70% rental housing.  There’s no way any normal city could compete with that stat.
  • Youth-oriented amenities – COLLEGE TOWN.  It’s even got a whole freaking neighborhood called Collegetown.
  • Creative capital – this is pretty much code for “College Town or Big City.”  It is a good point; young people like culture and amenities.  But again, you can’t compete with a huge university for cultural offerings (AND the money to pay their honoraria).
  • Openness – “Our measure is the share of gays and lesbians and foreign-born residents in a community.”  Kind of a fair point on the first part, but DUHHHH on the second.  Especially a high-level (high-cost) school like Cornell.  Again, how could a large city really compete with that?
  • Affordability – it’s true that college students (or recent grads) split rent efficiently.  But they’re going to find cheap rent in college towns, and very few rental options in all but big cities.  And if that’s the only measure of affordability… I feel compelled to mention that I know of someone (via Craigslist sublet posting) who has actually paid $1800/mo for a 1 BR in (Collegetown) Ithaca.  ITHACA, FOR GOD’S SAKE.

So as far as I can tell, Florida came up with a brilliant way for identifying college towns, which I’m pretty sure you can do with a short stint on Google Maps.

What would make this index better?

  • Measuring how many other EMPLOYERS are in the area – since the damn list is supposed to be all about employment after school.  A college town is going to be well-employed because everyone already works at the college.  Those out on the job market, while sometimes they find jobs with the school, are more likely looking for work at another company or non-profit.  Look at who ELSE is hiring.  Ithaca, for one, has very little to offer a new grad, unless you want to stay with Cornell; want to work in agriculture; or happen to get a job with one of the various small companies in the area.  It doesn’t have much on a big city, and certainly is not a bountiful cornucopia of job opportunity.
  • Along the same lines, maybe measuring the number of start-up businesses – like the Boulder description implies, or like Silicon Valley shows, that is a more solid indicator of creative, educated talent making a start.
  • Measuring not college-age students, but householders (single or otherwise) from 25-35.  This covers people who actually stuck around after school, and who are not living with parents.  If you could cross-reference with educational attainment, so much the better.
  • If possible, better household ownership stats – are people right out of school buying condos (or townhouses or duplexes), not family-sized houses?  That seems a great indicator to me, knowing several people who have done that very thing.
  • Expand the definition of “creative.”  Florida seems to limit it to artists (visual, performing, etc) but those are very hard to measure and don’t include a broad enough spectrum of “interesting jobs” which I think he’s attempting to get at.  Might I suggest number of self-employed people?  Or number of locally-owned businesses?  Or perhaps a more qualitative rating based on festivals, annual events, concerts, etc?  Or whether or not they have some local equivalent of a Metromix events site?
  • Florida skirts around this, but you almost want to think he would include “Number of Democrats” in the ranking – the “Openness” category seems to want to go there, but doesn’t.  Maybe “Percentage Who Voted For Obama”?  (Note:  this one wouldn’t actually be very good, but who knows, maybe there’s some kind of crazy-high correlation after all.)
  • And finally, you could use a silly little indicator like “number of places to get a latte” or “price of a cup of coffee” or “frequency of recycling pickup” to get at the question of diversity.  You could even include something like Walkscore.  Something that doesn’t skew so heavily toward a college town (or big city) like the gay/lesbian and foreign-born indicators do.

In conclusion:  Seriously, Florida.  Ithaca?  Have you been to Ithaca?  Or more importantly, have you ever looked for a job in Ithaca?  It’s pretty and all, but … seriously.  Ithaca.

I found an article today (via Planetizen) that made me happy.  Ed Glaeser, the Harvard economist, writes that in addition to the traditional economic explanation for cities – agglomeration, in which it is more efficient for manufacturing firms to share resources by being physically near each other – there is an information component to agglomeration as well.  While the manufacturing version of agglomeration becomes less relevant as transportation costs have decreased in recent decades, Glaeser asserts that information- and knowledge-based productivity increases along with density:

via NY Times

Glaeser, "Why Humanity Loves - and Needs - Cities" (NYTimes)

One of the issues I have with the traditional agglomeration argument is that it does not sufficiently describe individuals’ desire to be near other people.  This isn’t quite that argument, but it’s getting closer!

Is this the new economic model for twenty-first century cities?  Or does it over-estimate the influence of the knowledge-based economy on urban form and our settlement patterns?

[Read the article here]

I need to reflect on this later, but Planetizen and Discovering Urbanism have both recently called into question the need for planning, as compared to the organic, decentralized system of Emergence.

After reading Daniel’s post, I was curious to read Steven Johnson’s book Emergence (2002).  And just today, Planetizen relayed a Slate article on the same theme.  Both the book and the Slate piece argue that cities are formed by the aggregate of a million decisions of residents, companies, and other stakeholders – not by comprehensive planning (understood to be the attempt to direct and control growth or development with certain goals in mind).

With the increased recognition of urban planning as important in cities and regions, there seems to be a parallel trend of anti-planning sentiment in favor of emergence.

Whence this criticism?  Whither planning?


Update:  I responded in a comment, but realized that this blog theme does an excellent job of burying comments in tiny text that no one will find.  I’m copying my response to Daniel’s point that the Slate article seems to conflate top-down central planning with all other types of planning, ignoring the participatory and community-building aspects of contemporary planning practice.  See Comments for original post.

The anti-planning (or I should probably say pro-market or pro-emergence) arguments tend to set up the dichotomy between absolute planning and free-market principles, while at the same time talking about “putting some mechanisms into place” regarding land use and economic functions and the like. So… is planning good AND bad, then?

If they’re reacting against Soviet-era planning, it’s certainly not fair to lump anything we do in the U.S. into that category. Even if that much centralized authority is effective in making change, there is no legal framework OR popular desire to engage in that project in America. Their argument against central planning, as you said, is valid, given the value we place on democratic principles and on the basic equality and rights of all people. But to push their argument further, their responsibility is to clarify what *type* of planning they’re talking about, and not to accidentally (or deliberately) conflate those ideas.

It seems to be, in part, a case of people getting really excited about 1) nature and/or 2) the Internet, and trying to relate those metaphors to the rest of modern life. The problem with using either is that everything humans do has become artificial, so it’s hard to sort out “natural” behavior; and of course, that the underlying structure of the Internet allows the apparent front-end chaos to thrive.

I think it’s also a case with some – but not all – proponents of incrementalism or free market or emergent systems, of setting up “planning” as a straw man to knock down, then espouse their principles. The confusion between city planning and central/master planning, as we generally understand those terms, may be a deliberate political move. I’m opening myself up to further criticism by making that generalization, so I stress that it’s not always ideological manipulation! But for some, it decidedly is. Whenever you move from observation of a system, to declarations about how it or other systems SHOULD behave, you’re out of the realm of science, and into philosophical or policy questions.

This post will actually be considerably less topical (read:  about Haiti) than its title implies.  It concerns two types of planning:  planning “before,” actions taken in preparation for or the prevention of a crisis; and planning “after,” the coordinated action we take to clean up the mess and build better than before.

The introduction to Nolon and Salkin’s Land Use in a Nutshell set me thinking about this:

The great fire of 1666 in London led to the adoption of municipal building construction laws that required brick exteriors, wider streets, and open space along the Thames River for access to water for firefighting. . . .  These early land use rules were . . . formalized by the Act for the Rebuilding of London adopted by Parliament in 1667.  The Act gave the municipality the power to regulate the construction of buildings:  their size, height, and placement on the lot, and the materials used (2).

Other examples of dramatic renewal and growth came to my mind:  Chicago, following the 1871 fire; San Francisco, following the 1906 earthquake; the many destroyed villages of northern France and Belgium, reconstructed after the First World War; the bombed cities of Japan and Germany after the Second World War; (a plan f0r) the town of Greensburg, Kansas, after being levelled by a tornado in 2007.

This is not to say that renewal will inevitably follow a crisis, but in each case listed, the devastating losses caused by natural or man-made disasters became an opportunity to reinvent the form of the city.  London, already one of the most important cities in Europe by the 17th century, was rebuilt to become the economic and political center for much of the world, its grand new architecture the manifestation of its wealth and power.   Chicago, its urban core cleared of its old wooden buildings and boarded walkways, had valuable land available to build its new downtown of skyscrapers, paved streets, and rail lines.  Albert, a small city in France, was completely levelled by 1918 and rebuilt by the late 1920s, not a replica of its original form, but with modern infrastructure, wider streets, and a reorientation of the city’s main axes to better locate its new industrial sites in appropriate areas.  Tokyo, with most of its wooden structures burned away in Allied firebombing by 1945, had by the end of the twentieth century become perhaps the most modern city in the world.

The idea that “an ounce of prevention equals a pound of cure” is central to urban planning:  we can make choices today with tomorrow in mind, guiding our next steps, procedures in hand for when something goes wrong.  But even with all our precedent cases, forecast models, and good intentions, can we ever really do anything but react to the events we can’t control?

I’m not suggesting we should despair because we can’t prevent the unpredictable.  Much of our knowledge of good city design is thanks to the lessons we’ve wisely learned from past mistakes, or at least from close observation of what went wrong.  My question is whether we can do anything more forward-looking than error correction, and I’m not sure that the answer is “yes.”

There always exist a handful of brilliantly insightful people who can foresee possibilities far into our future, and many more who can make reasonable guesses about where we might be headed.   However, the complicated tangle of culture, politics, and logistical constraints we call modern life often makes it inordinately difficult to take more than a single step forward.  The one redeeming value of catastrophes seems to be their ability to force us into drastic action.  In their most extreme form, disasters can “wipe the slate clean” and challenge us to make new choices:  in the example of city form, to use physical loss as an opportunity to build new and better.  We can return to the status quo ante, but it is no longer a given that we should do so.

So how should we move forward?  I think we need to spend more time looking thoughtfully backward:  more careful assessment of successes and failures in disaster recovery, particularly where planners (or private developers) chose to rethink and redesign their city.  Evaluate what worked and which actors and circumstances allowed those changes to take place.  Identify which examples have the best analogues to current cities, and where those successful strategies might be employed in the wake of future crises.

To go a step further:  what if cities wrote into their comprehensive plans a “disaster renewal” section, in which they would identify locations which are most vulnerable, locations (or networks) which are most in need of change, and steps to take in order to foster successful redevelopment following a crisis?  No doubt this suggestion would be met by many, most notably city councils, as a morbid hypothetical exercise.  Consider, however:

  • More and more of our global population is living in cities.
  • In the United States, our infrastructure is aging; in many other parts of the world, city infrastructure is inadequate or non-existent.
  • Cities tend to locate on flat land near water.
  • The incidence of major weather-related disasters has been increasing in recent years, and there is little reason to believe this trend will reverse.
  • Even where disaster recovery plans have been written, they are notoriously difficult to execute.
  • Even where short-term disaster relief and recovery are administered, the monumental task of long-term recovery suffers from lack of organization, collaboration, and vision.

We can’t stop disasters in our cities, much as we try to mitigate, but time and again we’ve found opportunity in our losses well outside the scope of everyday planning processes.  If we can only really organize ourselves to make big changes in the wake of crisis, shouldn’t we be better students of our own past disasters?

In going through my New York photos, I found a couple other shots worth posting.

The first is from across the tracks at Williamsburg’s Marcy Avenue station.  An old man and a hipster waiting for the train.

Williamsburg, Marcy Avenue Station

The second is a view from the High Line, of new condos going up along the (river? harbor? whatever it’s called there?).

Sunset, from the High Line

Gotten a lot of photo mileage out of those three days … will post photos of other things soon, I promise!