Money for Nothing? Not Anymore. (Chicks, Though? Still Free.)

Jeffrey Barg's picture

Almost a month into planning school, I can see the profession's all about improvisation. How do you think on your feet when a client doesn't like your design? What other cities can you turn to when a sudden mandate comes down to look for policy innovation?

Or let's say you're a planning professor. The financial markets have started a tailspin, eating themselves alive and swallowing MBAs whole. How's your lesson plan gonna change?

Two reasons it's great to be a first-year planning student right now (other than, you know, the world's rapid haphazard urbanization): 1) With the economy tanking, I can't think of a better time not to be tooth-and-nailing it in the job market. And more important, 2) in an academic setting we can see what a game-changer the new economic rules are for planning. As one professor calls it, "a front-row seat to history."

So plans were jettisoned. Discussions organized. Syllabi torn up like devalued currency. (Okay, so we haven't hit hyperinflation. Yet.)

Urban economics class? Now it's understand-how-the-hell-this-happened class. Intro to property development? Make that be-thankful-you're-in-school-because-if-you're-a-developer-you're-not-getting-any-loans-any-time-soon class. At least in graphics class, we can still learn Google SketchUp unencumbered. Might as well build buildings in SketchUp, ‘cause they're not gonna get built in real life.

This financial business is complicated stuff. Most people don't really understand what's going on, and even fewer have the time or ability to sit and really think through what went wrong and how we're going to deal with it. But even though my planning program, like most, is just two years, it's school, which means we can stop and take the time to discuss how the economy was screwed and what implications it has for planning.

So what does it all mean for planners? With the bailout package in limbo and so much day-to-day market variability, it's kind of tough to know at this point. But the biggest thing our professors have made clear: Money, both public and private, is going to be a lot harder to come by in the coming years.

In the short term, at least, money's going to come with a lot more strings attached, and it's only going to go to borrowers with established credit history. (Just out of planning school? Sorry, but that diploma's about as valuable as those ripped-up syllabi.) With so much less liquid capital to go around, major projects might be put on hold for a few years.

Municipal bond market? Shot to hell. Looks like already cities are pulling back on major development because they just don't have the cash.

But in the long term, this could actually be good for planning. The lack of oversight in the last 15 years is what got us into this mess, so any money that goes into projects or development-public or private-is not going to be spent lightly.

A prospective homebuyer with no income and shaky credit might've found an easy mortgage five years ago, but not this week. With any luck, planning and development will be carefully vetted before any money is thrown at it, which will hopefully-hopefully-lead to smarter, better, more innovative ideas. And the profession will be stronger because of it.

Or is this just pie-in-the-sky dreaming? What do I know? I'm just a naive planning student.

Jeffrey Barg is an urban planner at the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society. He can be reached at [email protected]



Planning in tough times

One would think that when times are tough there would be more emphasis on good planning, but sadly this does not seem to be the case. At least not in recent history. When money is tight, it seems that the first thing to get cut is the planning budget: planners just produce useless reports, whereas doing something (anything!) creates jobs. I certainly do not agree with this opinion, but it seems to be rather pervasive.

I think that it will do all of us some good to slow down a bit and to put some perspective on things. Once upon a time we created built environments with the expectation that things would last indefinitely. There were of course changes to places, but we did not 'plan' for something to be disposable (or paid for) in a short period of time.

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