You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘community’ tag.

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.

Our class discussions about race, cities, and various forms of residential segregation (both systemic and self-perpetuating) got me thinking about my own hometown, Columbus Ohio.  Growing up, we lived in a primarily white neighborhood in the city limits.  Then we moved to an even more white suburb on the west side, where my parents still live today.

I think it’s safe to say that Columbus considers itself a pretty “white” city.  It’s the capital city in a Midwestern state surrounded by suburbs and farms, and has long been primarily white-collar, unlike its neighbors to the north and south (Cleveland, Youngstown, Toledo, and Cincinnati).  Sure:  Ohio State University, with about 60,000 students from all around the world, is a major source of diversity, but one which remains somewhat concentrated around the campus itself.  And sure:  Columbus actually has a three-term black mayor, Michael B. Coleman (1999-present).  But he is Columbus’ first black mayor, only a few decades behind other Ohio cities like Springfield (Robert C. Henry, 1966) and Cleveland (Carl Stokes, 1968).

That said, however, it should also be said that much of the political and social power in the Columbus area (apart from the University and state politics in the Capital) lies in the suburbs, which are pretty uniformly white.  I dug up some demographics from the Census in the American Community Survey and found some interesting results:

Columbus (City)
Total population:  729,369
67.5% White
27.9% Black
4.5% Hispanic (of all races)
4.6% Asian
1.7% Other

Columbus (Metro Area)
Total population:  1,752,870

81.9% White
14.9% Black
2.9% Hispanic (of all races)
3.5% Asian
1.1% Other

(ACS 3-year estimates, 2006-2008)

This seems typical for an American metro area, but that’s the point!   The city population is 28% black, but only 15% in the whole metro area.  Compare the numbers themselves:  there were 203,493 black residents in the City of Columbus counted (out of 730,000), and 261,422 black residents in the entire metro area (out of 1.75 million, more than double).  That says to me that the suburbs must be pretty white.  Here’s the data for Hilliard, a city I would consider to be predominately white but with some pockets of diversity.  The numbers suggest I’m even overestimating the latter point:

Hilliard (City)
Total population:  31,556

91.0% White
3.0% Black
2.7% Hispanic (of all races)
6.2% Asian
0.9% Other

(Interestingly, the percentage of Asian residents is slightly larger than the average for both Columbus proper and the metro area).

All these numbers are to say, there is a discrepancy between perception and reality here.  It got me thinking about my own experience growing up:  I attended a racially-mixed public (arts) elementary school, and was bussed a fair distance to get there; I briefly attended a public middle school in which I was in the minority; but otherwise most of my friends, neighbors, and classmates were white.

Then I started thinking about all the areas of town I didn’t go to, for one reason or another:  Franklinton, immediately west of downtown; the east side, south of the campus area and out by the airport; in fact, much of the east side, period.  I had the perception, particularly in Franklinton and east of campus, that these areas were “bad” or unsafe; these areas are also, I know now, predominately black neighborhoods.

Furthermore, a lot of the “desirable” places to go–the shops along Grandview Avenue, shopping at Easton Town Center mall, the boutiques along the Short North, and pretty much all of the northern suburbs–are very “white” places.  White not only in terms of their typical patrons, but also in that very intangible, subjective set of assumptions you make when you hear the description “white neighborhood” or “black neighborhood.”

I don’t know enough about the history of housing and politics in Columbus to talk more specifically about residential segregation, whether it was a large-scale project like in some cities (Chicago) or more of an informal sorting-out of the real estate market by income and racial groups.  But in evaluating my own experiences and perceptions about Columbus, I feel suddenly aware that race was an unspoken issue in the area, despite the fact that it is clearly an issue nonetheless.

Why does this matter?  Beyond the obvious political implications for the neighborhoods in question and the city as a whole, I think it’s really too bad that Columbus continues its self-identification as white for this reason:  its story is actually more complex, and it has a lot to offer!

  • Columbus is the capital of a large and influential Midwest state;
  • Columbus has the largest single-campus university in America, and attracts smart and interesting people from all over the world to do what I can only assume is helpful research and study;
  • Columbus hosts an annual International Festival, in which for a small price you can sample international foods, music, and purchase small wares;
  • Columbus also hosts an annual Asian Festival, a Greek Festival, a Jazz Festival, an Arts Festival, and a bunch of other interesting events year-round;
  • Columbus is home to a significant Japanese population, due in part to a nearby Honda plant; a growing Somali refugee population; a growing Hispanic population; a sizable (but clearly not visible) African American population; an active gay/lesbian population; it’s the historic home of a Native American population (though I’m not sure what those numbers are now); and of course a variety of ethnic and cultural groups which we generally lump together as “white.”
  • At the risk of sounding superficial, Columbus also has a great variety of ethnic restaurants, given that it’s in the middle of some cornfields:  Blue Nile (Ethiopian), Udipi Cafe (South Indian), a bunch of North Indian places, Central Asian Market and surrounding Japanese restaurants; Thai Orchid (Thai); Greek; Italian; Chinese; Mexican; and a host of things I’m forgetting.

Based on conversations I’ve had with those from elsewhere in the country, Columbus is either seen as a lukewarm place, or it’s not on the radar at all.  And that’s really too bad.  Columbus needs to improve its image, and part of that should be more closely evaluating its own self-image in regard to its diverse population.  It’s not that Columbus needs to become a more diverse (and international) city; it’s that it already is, but doesn’t think of itself that way.  I don’t want to gloss over the social problems of segregation by saying it’s enough to do an image makeover, because I think those problems are made worse by their invisibility.  But perhaps even before we (the collective residents of that area) can be in a place to address and improve those problems, we–city AND suburbs–need to think about where we live a little differently.

1,752,870
81.9%
14.9%
2.9%
3.5%
1.1%

I’m leaving the city.

Coming back from downtown tonight, I had a lot to think about (most of which I’m not going to post here).  At first I resented all the Lollapalooza goers who had taken over “my” city streets for the weekend – milling around on Michigan Avenue, clustering with cigarettes outside hotels, shuffling along El stations, littering and loitering.  I was going to a friend’s place for the day anyway, so I didn’t have time for sight-seeing, but just on principle:  couldn’t I spend some last moments in Chicago with the peaceful, generally empty streets at night?

This, however, is not the point.  Cities, and particularly Chicago, and particularly its public streets and parks, are for everyone.  Just because I am for the moment a city resident, and one who probably walks more than the average resident, my claim to the city as someone who “understands” it isn’t the right attitude to have.  Perhaps I’ve appreciated more of the city’s moods than some of those just in for the Lolla weekend, but for this weekend it really is their city as well as mine.  It’s easy for locals to grumble about the traffic and bother of special events (I’ve certainly been guilty of this myself), but it is these events, along with the everyday activity, that make the city what it is.  It’s okay to avoid the crowds on a summer weekend – but you nevertheless have to appreciate their right to crowd around, and the significance of those crowds for where you live.

And for someone like me, already saying the last parting words to their city, the crowds are a reminder that life goes on.  The city continues to move.  It is the product of its people, but does not rely on any one person to keep it going (okay, exception in Chicago, Mayor Daley).  Maybe I don’t want to remember Michigan Ave with the concert-going throngs; but maybe that’s the best way to remember it.  Vibrant, busy, an exciting place to be.  How many people have been excited about this event all summer, getting to come to a big city like Chicago?  It’s easy to get used to living here, but sometimes it’s easy to forget that it really is a special place.

I also couldn’t help but think about my own mental map of the city – an emotional geography overlaying the grid – and how much I’ll carry with me.  The city and I have grown pretty close.  A lot has happened here in three years.  If and when I come back to visit some of the places on my map, those visits will necessarily be ones of physical place but also temporal place – remembering when I was there and how I felt about it.  Some places I’ll be happy to visit.  Standing under the Bean at Millennium Park or walking over the river at North Avenue.  Other places I’m not so sure.  Will it still hurt to walk along Armitage?  Can I go back to the Museum of Contemporary Art or look at one of the bridges anytime soon?  Probably not.  But they’ll be there waiting, either way.

I’ve always been a strongly place-oriented person, even if I didn’t realize it until pretty recently.  Planning is therefore a good field for me.  History is more about time, which I have much more mixed feelings about, and anyway I think cultural history is more about a particular place (and its people, of course) than it is about the unfolding of time in a chain of causation.  Being place-oriented, however, means it hurts like hell to uproot.  I know very well that it’s a good time for me to go, not least to clear my head in less memory-saturated air.  But it’s not an easy thing.

I’m leaving the city.

But I’m taking a lot of places with me.

Leaving Chicago