I think many planners, in principle, agree that public involvement and grass-roots approaches to planning are necessary. The emphasis on the sheer numbers of people a plan "includes" is only one recent example of our profession’s emphasis on public involvement. But I think deep down, many colleagues see a distinctive split between involving the public and empowering them to implement. Involving is necessary and important to get any plan endorsed. But once that plan is complete, the public (residents, business owners, local stakeholders) is many times not regarded as an implementation partner except perhaps in roles of advocacy.
Often times I’m struck by the advances we’ve made in mapping, modeling and depicting our cities. What was once the purview of mapmakers, surveyors or architects is now a democratized, engaging process that brings unexpected results. And the more advanced the technology, the more transparent our cities seem to become.
Journalists and bloggers love to argue over city rankings which tend to multiply faster than the tribbles on star trek. Which city is the friendliest? What cities have the nicest parks? What cities are the best places to live for mildly overweight divorcees between the ages of 32 and 34? The data is scrutinized and then how it was interpreted lambasted as ridiculous. And of course rankings are ridiculous. Cities are too complex to boil down to a few numbers.
I had the opportunity to spend a day at the Vacant Properties conference late last month which, if you’re not familiar with the “movement,” you should be. Granted it’s not for everyone. At the opening plenary session, the moderator asked “who is here from a weak market city?” A room full of hands went up with a collective giggle. It felt like an AA meeting for cities. Admitting you have a problem is the first step toward addressing it.
Since making the switch from architecture to planning / urban design, I’ve been fascinated by the continuing dialogue that surrounds what we do to explain… what we do. There is less emphasis on this dialogue in architecture of course as the tacit assumption is that architects build. (I would say not all great architects need to build but this is a debate for a different setting.) What did often emerge in architecture was the common concern that “design” is not valued to the degree that it should. And why not? Architects spend anywhere from 5-6 years in school the majority of which is spent in studio learning how to design. Who wants to then enter the profession feeling like their education mis-led them?
Most people use the Summer months to re-connect with pastimes forgotten during winter months. It is this time of the year that sales soar both at the box office and in bookstores. Most normal people I know take trashy novels with them to the beach or submerge themselves in an entire season of 24 (which thanks to Netflix can be accomplished in a few intense evenings). I tend to lean toward the other extreme (although I have indulged in bad TV from time to time). My wife calls me a design geek because my bedside table is always full of design magazines, books and theory.
I’m not basing this quick observation on any specific historical research or book, so bear with me. Cities grow and shrink; in effect they change rapidly (although sometimes it doesn’t seem rapidly enough and at other times all too rapidly). Where we operate in that continuum I think shapes much of how we see our role as professionals. Planning to address either shrinking cities or growing ones can seem, at times, like totally different professions. A colleague of mine remarked that planning for shrinking cities is definitely a niche market. With so much discussion surrounding growth and how we grow, there is much less dialog that defines the opposite.
I would like to think that the overwhelming response to the question posed in the title would be a resounding, "No!" I never gave the issue much thought before last week because frankly, I didn't really need to. Working in a city like Philadelphia where the overwhelming percentage of proposed projects requires a zoning variance, we've trained ourselves to work within an imperfect system and make the best of what's at hand. (It should be noted that Philadelphia is about to embark upon a process to re-vamp the zoning code, but that is for another post in the future). More importantly, the issues faced by some neighborhoods go a lot deeper than zoning. So why this post?
This post is a few weeks after the fact but the recent APA conference only solidified my resolution to say something. In early April Teddy Cruz gave a lecture here in Philly at the School of Design. For those of you not familiar with his work, he has a unique and thoughtful perspective on the relationships between culture, planning and design.
I'm glad this blog to date has provided fertile ground both to challenge planning as a profession as well as to compliment planning when it happens to do something worthy. In this spirit, I'd like to irritate many of my colleagues out there and definitively say that starchitects are not the problem.
I wish I could play the role of Stephen Colbert and ridiculously declare the end to this debate, but alas, I do not have the television airtime (or wit) to make this point as effectively as I would like. This forum will have to do.