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For Planners: The Best of Times, The Worst of Times

Planetizen is honored to welcome Sam Hall Kaplan to Interchange, our daily blog featuring opinions and commentary from esteemed professionals such as himself. Many of you will need no introduction to Sam or his work. For those of you that do, a quick summary.

Sam Hall Kaplan | April 4, 2012, 9am PDT
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Planetizen is honored to welcome Sam Hall Kaplan to Interchange, our daily blog featuring opinions and commentary from esteemed professionals such as himself. Many of you will need no introduction to Sam or his work. For those of you that do, a quick summary.

Sam has a wealth of experience as a planning practitioner, educator, and author. He  directed innovative planning and development programs in his native New York City, New Haven (CT) and Los Angeles, and was a creativity consultant to Disney Imagineering, among others; has taught at institutions such as the Art Center College of Design, Yale, and Princeton; was an urban affairs reporter for the New York Times, and design critic for the Los Angeles Times; and garnered an Emmy as a reporter/producer for Fox Television News in Southern California. Most recently Sam was a program strategist for the Los Angeles, Metropolitan Transportation Authority and at present conducts a cityscaping studio at UCLA.

We enthusiastically welcome Sam to the pages of Planetizen with the certainty that our readers will benefit from his unique insight.

The annual National Planning Conference seems like a propitious time as any to launch a blog on planning and other place-making efforts, especially based as I am in Los Angeles where this year's gathering is being held.

For planners in that particularly fractured and challenged city, and to be sure municipal constructs and political conceits elsewhere, it is "the best of times, the worst of times," to borrow an adage from Charles Dickens in his introduction to A Tale of Two Cities, a novel he fashioned for the so-called penny awfuls of 19th century England, predecessor of sorts to today's e-readers.

At least that is my perspective conjured from 50 years plus of jumping from rock to rock in the profession's roiling river, as a practitioner, journalist and academic. There were flirtations with Wall Street, but they were ultimately spurned despite knowing that is where the money is and therefore where in the present floundering pro forma, bottom line, market economy, the real city-shaping development decisions are made.  So the one percenters like to think while we take exception.

I confess to be among the 99 percent, where they also roost as I do among the bureaucrats, urban designers, architects, economists, political scientists, teachers, lawyers, elected officials and every shade of self anointed consultant who when convenient paste on the appellation of planner.  As the popular truism declares, call me anything, but don't call me late for lunch, especially the free buffets and open bars at those high-speed rail hoedowns hosted by the always-avaricious A & E firms.

But is the era of the free lunch over? This when every trip out of the office is being scrutinized by hypocritical superiors addicted to their own perks, while those lucky enough to be in a rare solvent program or project sway at a knot they have tied at the end of a budget-frayed rope. Forget the safety nets.  And where are the others who have lost their jobs in what had been considered just a few years ago sinecures? Is this really the best of times for the planning profession?

Actually yes, if you consider as I do that the planning and design consciousness of more people and most communities everywhere are discernibly on the rise, spurred on by the increasing awareness that the shaping of spaces can aid the mental and physical health of people and where they live. More and more people are walking, biking and taking public transit, and generally enjoying public places.  It may not be on a national agenda overwhelmed by war, the economy and rogue Republicans, but social and physical planning is happening,

Helping greatly is the web, promoting and linking planning efforts everywhere. No longer are we dependent on the arbitrary capricious and elitist values of select writers and editors that ignored social architecture in favor of iconic indulgences by self aggrandizing star architects. The democratic accesses of the web, and in particular sites such as Planetizen (12 years old this May) and Archnewsnow  (now celebrating its 10th anniversary), have in effect freed us from the tyranny of the old guard.

But the rise of web unfortunately comes at a time of lowering public expectations and public resources, and also not incidentally the increased usurping of planners by a host of politically adept ciphers clogging the bureaucratic arteries. Be they redevelopment rejects or corporate castoffs, what limited views of the city they have are usually less than grand. Too often lost in the morass are the users.

Conflicted? Confused? This is certainly the scene wherever planners gather these days, around the proverbial water cooler or as expected at the national conference.  At least at the latter for a few days the rank and file can wallow away from their communities, and carping council members, as well as the demanding developers, cloying citizenry and neophyte interns. And let us not forget the obsequious consultant and self-promoting academics that have wheedled appearances on a panel to woo potential clients or put another notch in their tenure belt.

But there also should be engagement, enlightenment and enthusiasm, for if only for a few days where attendees will be challenged to re-imagine Los Angeles, and maybe also their own communities; that the flame to light the way to a more livable city and sustainable environment will burn a little brighter; and that the profession will take on new vigor. 

And for me, it would be a long sought triumph of hope over experience.

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