Urban Design After The Age of Depression

<p> Hey, have you heard we’re all screwed? </p> <p> Last week Penn hosted the “Reimagining Cities: Urban Design After the Age of Oil” conference. If you were there, or if you read the <a href="http://americancity.org/afteroil/">liveblog</a> of the event, you saw speaker after speaker tell of the doom and gloom facing the planet. <em>Climate change</em>! <em>Carbon emissions</em>! <em>Decaying infrastructure</em>! <em>Nine billion people</em>! In the words of the classical philosopher Shawn Carter, we got 99 problems, but a bitch ain’t one. </p> <p> Frankly, it’s all a little depressing. </p>

Read Time: 3 minutes

November 14, 2008, 7:44 AM PST

By Jeffrey Barg

Hey, have you heard we're all screwed?

Last week Penn hosted the "Reimagining Cities: Urban Design After the Age of Oil" conference. If you were there, or if you read the liveblog of the event, you saw speaker after speaker tell of the doom and gloom facing the planet. Climate change! Carbon emissions! Decaying infrastructure! Nine billion people! In the words of the classical philosopher Shawn Carter, we got 99 problems, but a bitch ain't one.

Frankly, it's all a little depressing.

As the conference illustrated in graphic detail, the challenges are real and immediate. Couple that with a global economic crisis that we haven't yet even begun to see the real hurt from, and I can't think of a better time to be in planning school, where they teach us not to run away from these problems, but to confront them head on.

"What do you think it's like to be in planning school when there's not an economic collapse going on?" a friend asked me yesterday. The many facets of the financial downturn come up in nearly every lecture, from the trouble we'll have securing funding for urban development to the challenge of finding internships next summer. The environmental strain on cities is greater than ever, cities' environmental drain on the planet is greater than ever, and the financial resources to fix these problems are disappearing before our eyes.

In one sobering, fascinating lecture this week, our urban economics class was treated to a visit from Steve Agostini, Philadelphia's budget director under new wundermayor Michael Nutter. The session was off the record so he could get into the serious nitty gritty, but suffice to say he had a pretty lousy week. (Closing libraries won't make you any friends.)

But perhaps most notable about all this depressing news is the lack of actual depression that accompanies it. (I'm talking emotional depression here, not economic depression. I make no claims about that one yet.) Sure, there are tough choices to be made, but interest in the field of city planning has never been higher. If passions and tempers run high, it's because people care and are invested.

We might not have all the answers yet-the one criticism I heard from other conference-goers was regarding a relative lack of tangible solutions presented-but good, workable ideas are on the table. Practitioners and citizens alike are excited about the possibilities, even if they're nervous about the conditions on the ground.

It's a stark contrast to the journalism field, where I made my bones before going to planning school. There's doom and gloom at newspapers too, but absent any of planning's optimism. Instead, newsrooms are left cavernous and hollow, emptied by layoffs and buyouts. At best, the remaining inhabitants are treading water. Or getting out and going to grad school.

It's possible that planners' and urban designers' sunny disposition will wear off if the economic crisis is as serious and sustained as our professors say it will be. But I hope not. I don't know if I can afford grad school in another field after this one.

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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