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A Journalistic View of Cities

I was reading the New York Times Magazine special architecture issue a few weeks ago when something jumped out at me. On the intro page to the issue of the “Mega-Megalopolis” one of the by-line says “How does an architect plan for a city with no history? Or a city that just keeps growing?” Interesting questions particularly given the fact that to charge architects with the task of planning our cities is affording too much power to a profession that simply doesn’t have it.

Scott Page | June 26, 2008, 9am PDT
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I was reading the New York Times Magazine special architecture issue a few weeks ago when something jumped out at me. On the intro page to the issue of the "Mega-Megalopolis" one of the by-line says "How does an architect plan for a city with no history? Or a city that just keeps growing?" Interesting questions particularly given the fact that to charge architects with the task of planning our cities is affording too much power to a profession that simply doesn't have it.

Nor do planners for that matter. I've made it no secret in this blog that cities are the product of thousands of decisions made by individuals, organizations, leaders, businesses among others. We have the opportunity to guide some of those decisions and make more informed choices but the days of Hausmann and Napoleon who transformed Paris in the span of a few decades are coming to a close. Yes, yes, I know that China and a handful of other places are building cities ridiculously fast today and I also know that starchitects are generally charged with the task of creating large master plans to guide this government-sponsored development. I think we also know how unique a situation that is. Architects are flocking to build in China and Dubai precisely because of this unique opportunity. Where else can you feel like Robert Moses or Albert Speer, able to shape a city in a single bound?

But what struck me most about the architecture issue is that the public's perspective on cities today is written primarily by architecture critics. Almost every major newspaper has an architecture critic whose responsibility it is to educate the public about design and stir debate about the built environment. Many of these critics are excellent journalists and thoughtful about their criticisms (and praise) of new buildings but are their columns the right forum for discussing the city of tomorrow? Frankly, what other choice do we have?

In Philadelphia (my hometown) and many other cities, planning has taken center stage after years of media dormancy. Residents are asking for more planning and fewer arbitrary decisions. They come to meetings armed with ideas and information about how to make our cities more livable. To capture this interest, the task of discussing planning has fallen to the only newspaper staff that seems to have any facility for it – the architecture critic. Some are better than others in thoughtfully discussing planning issues but in the end, they are writing about planning from the perspective of architecture. The result is that the city is often represented as a game-board for building. The task of discussing the other issues that face our cities from education to crime to greening are left to a panoply of other journalists.

I want the architecture critics to remain and write about architecture. I even embrace the good ones to continue discussing urban issues from that perspective. But what would it take to add a planning critic? That journalist would be responsible for criticizing recent plans but also highlighting the underappreciated things that happen in our neighborhoods which are all too often overshadowed by the body-bag style of reporting.

What's ironic about this is that the current identity of our profession was largely shaped by a journalist – Jane Jacobs. The Death Life of Great American Cities was read by planners and residents alike. She managed to capture not just issues about development but how cities function socially and economically.

Planetizen recognized that there was a dearth of media focused on planning early on and created this site to gather what was out there. New journals have emerged and The New York Times and other papers have written excellent articles about our cities. We also can't forget the blogoshpere which is growing in terms of planning-related stories. It seems the media gap is narrowing but more remains to be done and it needs to be done in a way that caters to non-professionals.

I remember one time on a trip to England I was taking a nap while the Teletubbies was on (highly recommended background noise for napping) but awoke when I heard a public-service announcement that went something like this – "Do you know what urban regeneration is? Do you know how it helps your neighborhood?" That's fantastic. I would love to see more attention paid to getting the youth aware of our cities and how they evolve. It seems there's a lot we can learn from other countries.

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