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.
We all saw it on the Internet—the fellow at a public meeting being hauled away from the microphone before getting wrestled to the floor and tasered during a Q&A with John Kerry. Fortunately, silencing argumentative speakers with a taser is not a common occurrence at most public meetings. While I might confess that there have been meetings where, in retrospect, one might have secretly wished one was armed with a stun gun, facilitators generally try to avoid confrontation. Yet there’s no denying that sometimes people show up at public meetings looking for a fight, begging for outrage, and hoping to irritate and inflame.
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?
The message from last weekend's two-day symposium at Columbia University, the Queens Museum and the Museum of the City of New York on Robert Moses: many aspects of the master builder's place in history haven't been told, despite Robert Caro's 1,162-page Pulizter Prize-winning biography; and that New York may need to rethink the paradigm for big plans and community engagement as the unique metropolis makes new investments in transit, roadways and large redevelopment projects from Ground Zero to Hudson Yards.
Thousands of New Orleanians have participated in planning their post-Katrina future – likely more than in any single American city-planning effort, ever. Unfortunately, the New Orleans experience definitively demonstrates the limits of orthodox community-focused planning, the kind that has been neighborhood-based and consensus-driven.