A Vote for the City

<p> The answer is: “Because people today would rather not work and instead just sit at home collecting welfare checks.” </p> <p> And the question? If you guessed, “What should you <em>not</em> say in a room full of city planning students?”, congratulations! You win. We would have also accepted, “FDR began a ton of new federal programs during the New Deal. As long as we have a $700 billion financial bailout, what programs would you enact or not enact as part of a New Deal today?” Thanks for playing. We have some lovely parting gifts for you. </p>

Read Time: 3 minutes

October 16, 2008, 9:21 AM PDT

By Jeffrey Barg


The answer is: "Because people today would rather not work and instead just sit at home collecting welfare checks."

And the question? If you guessed, "What should you not say in a room full of city planning students?", congratulations! You win. We would have also accepted, "FDR began a ton of new federal programs during the New Deal. As long as we have a $700 billion financial bailout, what programs would you enact or not enact as part of a New Deal today?" Thanks for playing. We have some lovely parting gifts for you.

After my classmate let loose with the above impolitic remark, the gasp was audible enough that John McCain probably heard it and subsequently let go of any hope he might've had of winning Pennsylvania. And yet a room full of city planners isn't necessarily the best representation of the general electorate. (As we say in quantitative methods class, not a random sample. We're firing our statistician.)

Do city planners tend to be liberal or conservative? The first week of school, I learned one of my classmates was a libertarian, and I was completely dumbfounded. How does someone who believes in as small government as possible and free-market economies end up wanting to be a city planner? Wouldn't the idea of planning a city be antithetical?

Most of the future city planners I go to school with tend to be diehard Dems, although it's a little hard to judge if that's a factor of their chosen profession or of their chosen school, in a city that's registered about 6-to-1 blue. I doubt there are any official numbers of planners' political affiliations, but if city planners tend to live in cities (not a big stretch), and cities tend to vote Democratic, well, you do the math.

Or even better, let someone else do the math for you.

The more statistics I learn in school, the more I want to stick a fork in my eye the more I'm fascinated by sites like fivethirtyeight.com, which aggregates local and national polling data across the country. Using all sorts of statistical techniques that I don't really understand, they figure out an average of the myriad polls that come out every day, weighting them all differently depending on past reliability, sample size and sampling technique. It's the best national pulse I've found, and it's not really susceptible to shrieking schoolgirl headlines whenever someone moves up or down in one poll. Since learning about the site a few weeks ago, I now read it probably a half-dozen times a day. (I can't wait for the election to be over so I can start doing schoolwork again.)

But even if the concepts are only tangentially related to city planning tools we're learning in class, the implications are obvious. A recent election discussion with surrogates from the McCain and Obama campaigns here in Philadelphia highlighted real, serious differences between the candidates' plans for cities.

And if the passionate responses that followed my classmate's questionable welfare remark are any indication, planners are smart, engaged and passionate. They care a hell of a lot about politics.

So how many more decades of growing urbanization will it take before politicians start seriously caring about cities? Answer that, and you'll get a lot more than just a parting gift.


Jeffrey Barg

Jeffrey Barg is an urban planner at the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, and received his master's in city planning from the University of Pennsylvania School of Design.

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