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.

4 minute read

June 26, 2008, 9:19 AM PDT

By Scott Page


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.


Scott Page

Scott Page is an urban designer and planner with degrees from the University of Pennsylvania and Georgia Tech. His experience in neighborhood design, city-wide housing strategies, waterfront planning, downtown revitalization and economic development has resulted in innovative and achievable strategies for a diversity of public, non-profit and private clients. Scott's design process merges creative grass-roots planning with a focus on sustainable development and design.

Rendering of electric scooters, electric cars, light rail train, and apartments in background.

Arizona’s ‘Car-Free’ Community Takes Shape

Culdesac Tempe has been welcoming residents since last year.

February 14, 2024 - The Cool Down

Aerial view of New York City architecture with augmented reality visualization, blue digital holograms over buildings and skyscrapers

4 Ways to Use AI in Urban Planning and City Design

With the ability to predict trends, engage citizens, enhance resource allocation, and guide decision-making, artificial intelligence has the potential to serve as planners’ very own multi-tool.

February 20, 2024 - ArchDaily

"It's The Climate" sign over street in Grants Pass, Oregon.

Oregon Town Seeks Funding for Ambitious Resilience Plan

Like other rural communities, Grants Pass is eager to access federal funding aimed at sustainability initiatives, but faces challenges when it comes to meeting grant requirements.

February 18, 2024 - The Daily Yonder

View from shore of Sepulveda Basin water catchment basin with marsh plants along shore.

LA’s ‘Spongy’ Infrastructure Captured Almost 9 Billion Gallons of Water

The city is turning away from stormwater management practices that shuttle water to the ocean, building infrastructure that collects and directs it underground instead.

February 25 - Wired

Front of an Spanish style bungalow with striped window awnings and a tree and yard landscaped with cacti.

‘Culinary Hubs’ Turn Homes Into Micro-Restaurants

Real estate developers around the country are converting old single-family homes into “culinary hubs,” reports The New York Times.

February 25 - The New York Times

Green rapid transit bus pulled into station in dedicated lane.

Indiana Once Again Considering Ban on Dedicated Transit Lanes

The proposed legislation would impact the construction of planned IndyGo Blue Line, the third phase of the city’s bus rapid transit system.

February 25 - Fox 59

Write for Planetizen

Urban Design for Planners 1: Software Tools

This six-course series explores essential urban design concepts using open source software and equips planners with the tools they need to participate fully in the urban design process.

Planning for Universal Design

Learn the tools for implementing Universal Design in planning regulations.