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Death and Life of American Planning
April 30, 2011 3:41 PM   Subscribe

The Death and Life of American Planning - Planning professor Thomas J. Campanella discusses the legacy of Jane Jacob's effect on planning in America: First: "Privileging the grassroots over plannerly authority and expertise meant a loss of professional agency." Second: " It diminished the disciplinary identity of planning." Third: "The seeming paucity among American planners today of the speculative courage and vision that once distinguished this profession." Have these culminated in turning American planning into a "trivial profession" whose goals of equity, social justice, and sustainability are self-undermined?
posted by stratastar (40 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite

 
My reading of Jane Jacobs wasn't that she was against planners, but that she thought planners were often misguided and she suggested a different set of principles they should take into account when planning. Not "go away" but "you're doing it wrong."
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 4:13 PM on April 30, 2011 [3 favorites]


How is this Jane Jacobs' fault? Planners "empower[ed] ordinary citizens to guide the planning process," rather than just listening to them. Seems like there are more options than a) build a highway through their neighborhood, and b) let laypeople guide the planning.
posted by entropone at 4:14 PM on April 30, 2011


Yeah, I pretty much agree with this guy about the state of planning, but I don't think he can lay the blame at Jane Jacob's feet. She addressed some serious wrongs, as he himself suggests:

Most of what was embraced post-Jacobs must remain — our expertise on public policy and economics, on law and governance and international development, on planning process and community involvement, on hazard mitigation and environmental impact, on ending poverty and encouraging justice and equality.

But anyway, all the stuff he thinks planners should do is all the stuff today's landscape architects are being taught. Sadly, my landscape architecture program is disappearing in a few years, into a community planning degree. Which might not be so bad if they weren't totally going the way of interviewing non-concerned but available (and of a particular demographic!) citizens and self-interested gadflies in order to reach "consensus". It's supposed to be a creative profession, not purely reactionary.
posted by oneirodynia at 4:19 PM on April 30, 2011


Yeah, I have a problem with this article. He refers to a "Jacobsian turn," which lays the blame at Jacobs' feet. But he acknowledges that the planners, in response to Jacobs' work, reactive and without direction. Jacobs, on the other hand, had a pretty clear vision and direction.

They failed to rise to her challenge. Blame not Jacobs, and don't ask for pity for the poor disrespected planners.
posted by entropone at 4:26 PM on April 30, 2011 [3 favorites]


"They failed to rise to her challenge."

This, exactly. But he calls for a return to physical planning because that's essentially where the power is. But I can't really comprehend how the call for design fits into this.
posted by stratastar at 4:57 PM on April 30, 2011


Planners forfeited their right to authority when they bulldozed half of American cities in order to connect fortress-like skyscrapers to cookie-cutter suburbs.
posted by jefficator at 5:57 PM on April 30, 2011 [8 favorites]


This. Exactly this. What the article says.

I am a landscape architect. I have done town planning, and almost every other project I have worked on has involved the urban planning and planners at some scale of involvement.

Urban planners need to be designers and not simply stewards of the planning code. Certainly the code and it's implementation need caretakers, but the planning should be by conscious design. Drawing blobs on the General Plan and managing the paperwork as private builders implement the plan is not design.

I know a number of planners who understand and agree. And a number of them who look at me as if I have two heads when I say something like this.
posted by Xoebe at 6:03 PM on April 30, 2011


The author seems to acknowledge that grassroots opposition has prevented many bad projects as well as good ones, but his solution is just to re-centralize—what's the point in that? You'll just end up with the problems of centralization that Jacobs was reacting to in the first place if you can't come up with a better solution than that. Certainly the city planners here in Chicago do not inspire any kind of confidence that they have learned anything in the years since, say, the Crosstown Expressway project.
posted by enn at 6:25 PM on April 30, 2011


Xoebe can you speak to this more? I'm a MUP at a program that is decidedly not design focused, and despite the fact that we share a building with LA's and architects, we are really segregated from them.

A point that is not made in the article is that planning and planners are inherently risk-averse, and removed from power. They're a firewall between politicians and the public, and they can be burnt, by really anything.

Is the point that successful plans rely on creating livable, human-scaled spaces cannot be done with General Plans, or with zoning, and instead requires thoughtful design? That relegating planning to codes does away with any greater means.
posted by stratastar at 6:30 PM on April 30, 2011


I think it's sort of funny to pretend that urban planning lost prestige because of Jane Jacobs and not because it, you know, utterly devastated the cities that it was supposed to improve. Planning discredited itself. Jacobs just pointed that out and suggested an alternative.
posted by craichead at 6:47 PM on April 30, 2011 [8 favorites]


I think it's sort of funny to pretend that urban planning lost prestige because of Jane Jacobs

I didn't get that impression from the article. It's not that planning lost prestige because of Jacobs, it's that planners lost their way after her critique. She made a compelling argument which subsequent generations of planners took to heart to such a degree that they undercut the necessary power and vision that their profession required. It was a reactionary pendulum swing in the opposite direction that led to planning becoming a trivial middle man in the process of shaping cities. It isn't a bad argument.

And it is a view similarly expressed by all of the public and private sector planners that I have spoken with over my past two years in college. Salt Lake is hoping to incorporate an urban designer into its planning department. The Utah Transit Authority has recently been given the right to partner with private developers in developing TOD and the people I've spoken to that work there recognize the necessity of having urban designers on staff to help properly shape these developments. But for many municipalities, it is a problem of not having the budget to support such positions. The ones I've spoken with, though, recognize that designers are important to the planning process, and the private sector planners I've spoken with all have expressed a desire to see more cities put designers on staff. It's just a matter of time and a better economy.

It is also recognized by the planning department at the college I'm attending. Their program had very little in the way of a design component but they have made great strides in addressing this deficit just this year, though the effects of this will not actually be reflected in the curriculum for another couple of years. (They still need to recognize that GIS should be a requirement and that more courses need to be developed that use GIS as a design tool.)

So I don't think it's helpful to damn the entire profession for the actions of past generations of planners. The legacy of Jacobs should be that planning needs to be sensitive to the existing assets of a city, but not to the point that it cedes all decision making and design to grassroots activists. City planning is and will continue to be a vital profession whether the current crop of planners live up to that or not. And urban designers need to be an integral part of it, not just some private consultant that flies in, makes a pitch at a public meeting, then leaves town.
posted by effwerd at 7:55 PM on April 30, 2011 [1 favorite]


I study the history of urban planning as a profession and as a set of ideas in real life, and from the people I've talked to, a lot of planners wish they could go back to a time when they felt they did have a lot of power to shape the urban environment (whether they had this power or not is debatable -- historically, they seem to have had the most power when their ideas coincide with those of real-estate and business elites, and the least when they don't), only with the caveat that they Know Better now - they know to keep in mind the desires of residents, historic preservation, environmental issues, etc. But there's often a deep incuriousity about their own discipline -- many planning students I've met seem completely uninterested in both urban history (notice he doesn't call for planners to learn from historians) and in the intellectual history of where ideas about urban planning came from.

Campanella is a smart guy (his book The Concrete Dragon, on the immense scale of recent urbanization in China is pretty great), but he should know better than, as other people have mentioned, to lay this entirely at the feet of Jacobs, an outsider to the planning professions. She was one of many, many critics of post-WWII planning practices, both in the planning profession and without - she gets mentioned because all planning students have to read her book, while they don't often have to immerse themselves in the debates within the field that took place in the 1960s and 1970s. Planners changed because they had to, and because a lot of students and practitioners of planning, influenced by the civil rights movements, environmental movements, Vietnam, and other issues were starting to question the efficacy and morality of the technocratic planning of cities and large-scale plans, imposed from above, that treated all residential, commercial, or industrial areas of a city alike. These sorts of plans also weren't working for city residents anymore, and planners, in order to keep getting voter approval for projects, had to change. Neighborhoods were starting to fight back -- enough so that the Office of Housing and Urban Development technically abandoned urban renewal as a concept in 1968, and began to focus more on neighborhood-scale plans, community development programs, historic preservation, and block grants for various projects.

Note: even though I'm often down on planners, I will eagerly point out that planners are not solely, or even largely responsible for the horrors of urban renewal. In many American cities, the office of city planning and the urban renewal authority were completely separate entities -- city planners would often help the urban renewal people through sharing data and making maps, but urban renewal was often a separate thing. In Denver, the city I'm most familiar with, for example, the Denver Urban Renewal Authority was not really a city agency -- its authorization to act came from the federal government and the state of Colorado, and it did not have to get the approval of the mayor or city council to make plans or negotiate with landowners if it didn't want to -- indeed, in case of a declared emergency (say, a natural disaster or something like that), it could act autonomously to draw up plans for rebuilding damaged areas with no input from the city. It had powers of eminent domain and bonding that far exceeded those of the City and County of Denver itself. The only real say Denver and other cities had was the 1/3 of the total funding for urban-renewal projects that cities were expected to cough up. Of course, a lot of cities, Denver included, were on board with urban-renewal projects -- the federal and state funding that came with them was quite lucrative, and there wasn't a lot of dissent between government and business elites as to the "benefits" urban renewal would confer on cities. But it's not planners that necessarily caused this -- they're in many ways the front lines of a a larger process devoted to making cities more amenable to business in the post-WWII years.
posted by heurtebise at 8:09 PM on April 30, 2011 [6 favorites]


A reply to effward above -- I don't think Jacobs' critique itself results in these changes. I think we tend to overestimate the immediate power of her ideas in retrospect. A lot of the things she discusses in Death and Life were already percolating around in city-planning journals and in intellectual debates within the field in the early 1960s -- she was just able to present these ideas in a very lucid, straightforward way, with the passion of an outsider taking on Robert Moses (who was not actually all that well-regarded among professional planners at the time). You can't lay these changes solely at her feet -- many people within the field were realizing that something was wrong with the way planners treated cities, and something was wrong with urban renewal, and it's the cumulative effect of all of these people rethinking American planning that changed the field.
posted by heurtebise at 8:18 PM on April 30, 2011


I don't think Jacobs' critique itself results in these changes.

Yeah, I was more summarizing the article there. It was easier than laying it out like you did, which I'm not really qualified to do yet. I've done a fair amount of historical research into how planning has changed over the years, so I know a bit about what was going on, but the details blur over time, especially when those papers were written in overnight, caffeine-fueled hazes.

But there's often a deep incuriousity about their own discipline -- many planning students I've met seem completely uninterested in both urban history (notice he doesn't call for planners to learn from historians) and in the intellectual history of where ideas about urban planning came from.

So one of those papers I wrote was a 21 pager (back when I didn't realize that papers are a function of getting good grades, not my own edification) on the history of city planning from ancient times to now, which I found both valuable and enjoyable to write; I would definitely be interested in any reading recommendations you might have.
posted by effwerd at 8:44 PM on April 30, 2011 [1 favorite]


I wish planners were actually capable of doing as much damage as folks here are giving us credit for or good they wish we would do. More often than not we are, as a profession, ruled by the whims of council members and mayors and other four year long political breezes.

Campanella is making some great points here. Dismissing them with "well, if you hadn't ruined america by building a mall on grandma's house maybe we'd listen to you" is demonstrating a profound misunderstanding of how both municipal government and the real estate market work.

But that may just be my seeming paucity and diminished disciplinary identity speaking.
posted by gordie at 9:30 PM on April 30, 2011 [4 favorites]


Planner here and elsewhere, to me, refers at times to a whole host of people, and not neccessarily the 'Masters degree in City Planning' holding public employee. It means alternatively - City Council members, members of the chamber of commerce, private developers, commercial builders, neighborhood/resident activists, planning board commisssioners, city budgetters, capital improvement engineers, utility companies, State or Federal highway engineers, Environmental reviewers, Historic Preservation Boards, architects, for-hire consultants in any of the above trades, and even housing and community advocates like Jacobs herself. Oh, and lawyers.

It's a big umbrella, but using the phrase 'planner' alone mis-communicates the real point that lies beneath it that is dropped in the generalization, so that it becomes a sort of straw man for whatever is happening (or isn't). The interests at play in all cities are perpetually at battle, the battle of growth v. not, though the headline in the paper will roll up their description into the catch-all "planners."

But I'm still glad to see Professor Campanella's article. thanks for the post.
"NIMBYism, it turns out, is the snake in the grassroots." I mean, that's just beautiful.

In the end I'm left with a statement by one of my first bosses - Speak truth to power.
Maintain that, and I think the planners (or alternatively - all of us) will be just fine.
posted by ilovemytoaster at 10:06 PM on April 30, 2011 [2 favorites]


One of the more interesting points from the article, to me, is in the comments:
"The essay does not seem to address the fact that planners don't make final decisions. Financiers do."

In the end, our choices must be paid for. And if it is to be built, it is going to be built by the private sector, who will not do so unless their is a profit to be made. Given that, they will replicate what generates the most profit, ad nauseum.

We certainly aren't going to raise taxes to build the future (sarcastic and cynical, sure, but is it not true?). And even if we do, the contract will still go to the private sector.

But banks and financiers must be included in the development conversation and not merely referenced in passing or by the developer's loan application as to why the builder can or cannot do something. (I understand that banks demand lots of free parking just in case they have to repo the property and resell it, even though the surplus parking is seldom used and devours suburban space).

And it would do well to teach budding city planners the banker's language and viewpoint; the better to negotiate with them.
posted by ilovemytoaster at 10:18 PM on April 30, 2011


As a fan of Jacobs, I find the article annoying. By his own analysis, "Vibrant ethnic neighborhoods ... were blotted out by Voisinian superblocks or punched through with expressways meant to make downtown accessible to suburbanites. Postwar urban planners thus abetted some of the most egregious acts of urban vandalism in American history. ... Like their architect colleagues, postwar planners had drunk the Corbusian Kool-Aid and were too intoxicated to see the harm they were causing."

In other words, the postwar planners were destroying neighborhoods and doing harm. So Jacobs helped stop some hubristic destruction; I think Campanella is misspelling "Thank you."

Did the profession really learn the lesson? Later on he sarcastically says "Imagine public health officials giving equal weight to the nutritional wisdom of teenagers — they are stakeholders, after all!" So apparently planners think of themselves as adults, and the people who actually live and work in cities as children. It's a little hard to square this with his description of his own predecessors as vandals.

I do agree with him that NIMBY is a problem, but hoping to regain paternalistic authority is not really the best route to address it.
posted by zompist at 10:56 PM on April 30, 2011 [4 favorites]


Interesting. My 7yo daughter is participating in a "wax museum" in her second-grade class. The theme is Famous Americans, and my daughter is representing Jane Jacobs, so we've been reading up a bit.

I'm no expert, but I think that JJ would not have disagreed with this:
Thus I believe that a renewed emphasis on physical planning — the grounded, tangible, place-bound matter of orchestrating human activity on the land — is essential to refocusing, recalibrating and renewing the profession.

...it's just that she believed the planning should primarily take into account the real, varied needs that are involved in "human activity on the land," and that planning should be based on how those needs can be met in an organic way.

IOW, it's not an opposition to planning per se, but opposition to a kind of planning that tries to impose a way of life from the top down instead of basing plans essentially on the way people already live.
posted by torticat at 12:23 AM on May 1, 2011


I agree with gordie and ilovemytoaster. What planners need is not more design skills but more education and a better way to address what really impacts what gets built where: politics and money. Connecting with the grassroots and its leadership -- to the point of developing their own base that could pressure the politicians -- would be a great start. Understanding, really understanding, what makes a project pencil out and get funding (and what breaks a project) would also be good.

I tend to think that planning school focuses too much on what this article talks about, and not enough on what really moves decisions. Before joining their first planning department, planners should spend a year as community organizers and a year trying to get a development project off the ground.
posted by salvia at 1:13 AM on May 1, 2011


It is an interesting article, but as some other comments are hinting: Planning is a practice, and the individual planner can have (almost) any educational background. Planning is necessary, whatever political aims you may hold. For several years, I have been studying Christiania, and one of the interesting aspects of life there is that they have been forced to invent planning. Not exactly as it is taught at Chapel Hill, but not entirely different, either. Political understanding and economics are parts of successful planning, and so are landscape and urban design.
Personally, I strongly believe participation is a good thing, at all local levels of government. Recently there was a MF post on participatory budget procedures, and in a way the people who do this are leading the way; they don't imagine the general public is knowledgable about economics, and see education as part of the process. In the same way, planners and other urbanists who involve citizens should be far more aware of how they need to educate and engage citizens on the possibilities and limitations of physical planning. (And education does not mean paternalistic imposition, in this context. Again Christiania is a good example - no one there would accept any form of paternalism).
posted by mumimor at 4:58 AM on May 1, 2011


Did the profession really learn the lesson? Later on he sarcastically says "Imagine public health officials giving equal weight to the nutritional wisdom of teenagers — they are stakeholders, after all!" So apparently planners think of themselves as adults, and the people who actually live and work in cities as children. It's a little hard to square this with his description of his own predecessors as vandals.
That took my breath away a little bit, as did the guy's anecdote about the sad incident in which the citizens of his town successfully identified a need for rail service and advocated for it. He sees that story as tragic despite the good outcome, because the change was initiated by ordinary citizens and not by planners. He really does seem to yearn for a situation in which planning decisions are imposed upon a passive citizenry by its betters. It's hard for me to understand that, both because I don't think planners are really going to be able to do that in a democracy and because that attitude played a role in the devastation of American cities, which I'd like to think most urban planners would recognize as one of the great catastrophes of 20th century America. But of course, he doesn't recognize that, because he thinks that the problem is some uppity woman amateur who empowered citizens, and not the bad planning decisions that angered her so much in the first place.
posted by craichead at 7:33 AM on May 1, 2011 [2 favorites]


I think it's way too glib to call Moses an 'urban planner' and it he was who was responsible for most of what Jacobs' railed against. I think the point is there is this lazy dialectic everyone uses (Jacobs vs. Moses = 'The People' vs. 'Authority') to justify a limited perspective. Which might be fine if all the players had an equal voice and negotiated fairly. The current political climate, with a strong anti-government/bureaucracy, tends to push the argument too far in the NIMBY direction. And thus you end up with Bloomberg fighting tooth and nail to try and get waste transfer stations built in Manhattan (siting one in his neighborhood first) while every resident of lower Manhattan complains out of one side of their mouth about truck traffic on Canal Street and 'destroying neighborhood fabric' on the other.

Also, I think most planners are a little tired of people quoting Jacobs, since a big chunk of her 'theory' was 'Huh, middle class white people had it pretty good in the fifties.'
posted by 99_ at 8:14 AM on May 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


I think it's way too glib to call Moses an 'urban planner' and it he was who was responsible for most of what Jacobs' railed against.
It wasn't just Moses, though. I could come up with a similar list of urban planning catastrophes in post-war Chicago.
Also, I think most planners are a little tired of people quoting Jacobs, since a big chunk of her 'theory' was 'Huh, middle class white people had it pretty good in the fifties.'
Huh, really? Can you elaborate? The only thing I've read of hers is The Death and Life, and it's been a long time since I read it, but I remember it having insights about what makes urban neighborhoods safe and livable that would, I think, disproportionately affect people of color, at least in the US, where urban-dwellers are disproportionately people of color.
posted by craichead at 8:30 AM on May 1, 2011


This article spends a great deal of time talking about timidity and courage and the size of plans. I think that it needs a dose of reality. The most serious problem that Planning faces, the source of its "triviality", comes from the way the people in the "planner" role relate to the governing body it supports.

Many, many, planners are pushed into the role of support staff tasked with advising a local government on, say, land development. It is akin to a lawyer advising a client on the law. It is "planning as a profession", where "profession" means one who "suppl[ies] disinterested counsel and service to others".

And that, friends, is the problem. You can't be a visionary and disinterested. "Make no small plans" becomes "make no plans", because your job is to sit back and watch the builders make the plans that you will write a report about...one that probably won't be read anyway.

Which goes to a more practical problem...there is no real insulation of planners from the venality and retribution of the politicians who see "planners" as "employees". What serious vision could a head of planning promote when you have wealthy developers buying votes and "amending" plans regularly. What controversial vision could they promote when a head planner is always one vote away from getting fired.

Planning is trivial, this is certain. But it is trivialized by the fear that Americans generally have of bureaucracies (oh no...legitimate, trained experts...let us smear them as condescending and error-prone) and the ever-growing power of moneyed interests relative to small governments in this democracy.
posted by Hypnotic Chick at 8:30 AM on May 1, 2011


City planners did more damage to British cities after the Second World War than the Luftwaffe managed during it.
posted by joannemullen at 8:32 AM on May 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


It wasn't just Moses, though. I could come up with a similar list of urban planning catastrophes in post-war Chicago.
Duck, here come the Tom Wolfe passage on Cabrini Green!

Sorry, that too was glib. Jacobs basically spent her career wondering, darnit, why can't cities all just make all neighborhoods just like the West Village? That post hoc observation is the death of planning. It presumes we can some how manufacture the unique set of economic, social and technological (trust -- if elevators were technically and economically viable in the 19th c., the West Village wouldn't exist) conditions retroactively, all the while stripping out the uncomfortable realities that enables such conditions. Sure, you can do that: it's called SoHo. And everyone really loves SoHo now, right?

Most people only take the superficial gloss of Jacobs, which can be reduced to, basically, Magnolia Bakery, and demand that somehow drive planning. Sure, Cabrini Green failed. But Co-op City was wildly successful, based on what it set out to do. As did Starett City. And Stuy Town. People conflate the physical reality with what planning does very essentially: set up a framework for urban life that is flexible enough to grow in ways both seen and unforeseen - with enough regulation that people and property owners are not harmed to an unsustainable degree, but enough freedom to determine what is valuable to them. Cabrini Green failed primarily because the city (and feds) refused to fund programming that would have alleviated the social and economic conditions that turned a housing experiment into a festering cycle of downward poverty. Take a look a Jacob Riis' images some time, and then look at the idyllic co-ops those buildings have become.

Look at the planning session for the WTC. People waved the Jacobs cudgel of 'walkable streets' with no real sense of what can or cannot be achieved. And so Greenwich Street was remapped -- and will be completely closed off at both ends by security. But it will look great on a map. The grid! Restored!

People really misunderstand how zoning rules get rewritten. They presume it's a strong central planning organization problem. In reality, it's weak central planning infected by private interests (real estate money). Stronger central planning would give more voice to disparate -- but not individual -- interest. The person who lives next to the proposed site of a shelter for abused women who wants to veto it is no better than the developer who wants to build a tower that will cover a neighborhood park in shadow most of the year.
posted by 99_ at 9:13 AM on May 1, 2011 [3 favorites]


Hypnotic Chick, one of the questions posed in city planning programs is just that - do the students view their role as more of a neutral arbiter OR involved advocate? It's not supposed to be prescribed. The student should be aware of the choice and how it influences their actions. part of their ethical awareness. They can then align themselves in jobs that allow more of one or the other.

In practice, I think individual planners do wrestle with the 'truly make a difference' versus 'just get this application processed.' But yeah, if a staffer or director goes way out on a limb, the political process will either saw it off or snap her back. Being out in front puts a big bulls eye on your back, where it's always easier to criticize than to create something new, collaborative and progressive.
posted by ilovemytoaster at 11:34 AM on May 1, 2011


Sorry, that too was glib.
Yes, it was. And that whole comment, with its smug condescension, its sneering contempt for someone you assume to be inferior to you, is extremely telling about the attitudes of planners towards the people whose lives and neighborhoods they feel entitled to reshape. I don't need a Tom Wolfe essay on Cabrini Green to tell me about urban planning in Chicago, because I've studied it a little bit, I've been involved in debates over it as a resident and citizen, and because my family lived through it. And in fact, I'm a little skeptical of anyone whose ideas about urban planning in Chicago center around Cabrini Green, since Cabrini Green's location makes it the only project that people who don't know much about Chicago can name.
Sure, Cabrini Green failed. But Co-op City was wildly successful, based on what it set out to do.
Well, then. No biggie that pretty much every high-rise housing project inhabited by poor people has been a dismal failure, as long as the middle-class folks in Co-op City are ok.
posted by craichead at 12:11 PM on May 1, 2011


Blaming Jane Jacobs for NIMBYism is like blaming Rachel Carson for the DDT ban: i.e. it's utter garbage.
posted by ocschwar at 12:52 PM on May 1, 2011


"Cabrini Green failed primarily because the city (and feds) refused to fund programming that would have alleviated the social and economic conditions that turned a housing experiment into a festering cycle of downward poverty. Take a look a Jacob Riis' images some time, and then look at the idyllic co-ops those buildings have become."

Cabrini Green's hallways were open air. Nobody, absolutely nobody would face winter there, with subzero winds howling at your apartment door, if they could live elsewhere. A few years ago I was riding a train in Rotterdam and saw a building that was clearly built with the same blueprints. But Rotterdam is not Chicago. Cabrini Green's buildings had to go, though I'll admit a better apartment block, plus more effort to preserve the jobs base in the area, might have made the project more successful..
posted by ocschwar at 1:00 PM on May 1, 2011


high-rise housing project inhabited by poor people has been a dismal failure

Right, isn't that why Hope VI was started? (With much help and implementation by planners?) And yes, Hope VI had problems. But it doesn't make sense to demonize the planning profession for long-abandoned ways of thinking. (If that's what you're doing; I must admit I am a little confused about who is advancing which arguments here.) I know a lot of planners who devote themselves full time to planning affordable housing, community development, etc., so it's not accurate to say that "planners" only care about how the city works for the middle class or that the profession as a whole hasn't figured out that high-rises on mega-blocks didn't turn out to function all that well.

The most damning criticism of Hope VI (how evictions were handled, and the low rate of return) does reflect one fairly pervasive problem in the profession -- privileging urban form over people. That's why I think this article's conclusion is so wrong. Planners need more education on architecture? No. Planners need to think more about people and process -- how to accomplish their goals (which do often include equity and equal opportunity) by working realistically and skillfully with the flows of money, influence, and political power.
posted by salvia at 1:22 PM on May 1, 2011


It's not supposed to be prescribed.

Fair, but I'd suggest that to the extent that the student goes on to work for a government or architect/planning/developer outfit (KLH, PBS&J, UBS), their role will be prescribed, and narrowly. And while I can imagine a proactive planner finding a placement that matches that attribute, I'd also suggest that the the frustration that is evident in the article has to do with the disempowering of government planners. Based on my reading of your post, though, I'd imagine that we probably aren't too far from each other in practice.

To craichead, when your plumber tells you that you that your heating system needs repair, do you describe that as "sneering contempt"? Alternatively, is it reasonable to believe that a person can be educated in the study of cities or is this simply a question of aesthetics and opinions? Finally, does the fact that the field of medicine, in the past, was responsible for heinous acts (ie lobotomies)...does that de-legitimize the whole field today?
posted by Hypnotic Chick at 1:23 PM on May 1, 2011


To craichead, when your plumber tells you that you that your heating system needs repair, do you describe that as "sneering contempt"?
When my plumber implies that my beliefs about my own plumbing come from reading Tom Wolfe essays, while suggesting that he actually doesn't know very much about my plumbing or its problems? I would hire a new plumber.
Finally, does the fact that the field of medicine, in the past, was responsible for heinous acts (ie lobotomies)...does that de-legitimize the whole field today?
I wouldn't say that it de-legitimizes the whole field. I would say that it de-legitimizes doctors who demand that patients be passive subjects of medical intervention and that we sign over our bodies to them, because they know best. It's my body. I have to live in it, and I'll be damned if I'll defer to my betters about what's going to happen to it. Similarly, it's my city. I have to live in it. I'm all for planners who listen to and work with residents, and that means all residents, including those of us who live in parts of town that get neglected and ignored. But I am not going to sit back and let someone dictate to me about this, because planners haven't earned that kind of trust. And I will fight like hell against the kind of planners who see the actual residents of a place, the actual people who will live with the decisions they make, as some sort of annoying impediment to their awesome plans.
posted by craichead at 1:44 PM on May 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


I always thought that Jacob's critique of mid-century planners was that they had too little respect for any sort of master plan.

Washington, DC is an extensively planned city, and the L'Enfant plan continues to serve the city well, 220 years after its original unveiling. The updated McMillian plan, created 100 years later corrected some of the deficiencies of L'Enfant's design, and continued to guide DC to become a monumental capitol throughout the first half of the 20th century. (And it shows. The "planned" areas of DC work far better than the areas that were built with essentially no plan -- most everything east of the Anacostia River, or north of Florida Avenue was constructed ad-hoc.)

It wasn't until the 1950s when things started to go horribly wrong. Essentially, planners stopped following the master plan, and built upward and outward with little regard to any sort of grander vision. L'Enfant's "radial grand avenues" eminating outward from the Capitol were interrupted by superblocks, and the entire Southwest quadrant of the city was demolished, paved over with freeways, and almost every single historic rowhouse was replaced by a brutalist concrete tower.

There was no plan. Corbusier's "towers in the park" vision looked great on paper, but induced crime, and a terrific amount of vehicular traffic that prevented the vision from actually coming to fruition. The plan that they did have was deeply unpopular, and consisted only of covering the city with freeways. The plan literally did not account for aesthetics or human factors. In spite of fierce public opposition, the planners carried on, and built freeway stubs all over the city, all designed to connect to roads that they knew would never be built. To this day, we've still got about half a dozen "freeways to nowhere" that the city is gradually dismantling, one by one. The last ramp stub to the almost-entirely-unbuilt Barney Circle Freeway (now the "RFK access road") was finally removed two days ago, and we're finally starting to correct the fact that the I-395 center-leg tunnel, which was built underground to avoid disrupting the city above could not actually support the weight of a building or road on top of it. Slowly, but surely, the gashes made through the city are beginning to heal.

The planners of the 1950s tossed out the plan that the city had been working off of for litearlly hundreds of years, and adopted their own plan that nobody wanted. Manhattan had almost the exactly same story -- Robert Moses decided to throw out the grid plan for Manhattan, and wanted to build several freeways straight through the heart of the city. Despite the fact that both of these plans were hatched during the height of Car Culture in America, the residents of both cities knew enough to know that these plans would utterly destroy the fabric of both cities, and opposed them both.

Of course, now, the groups who opposed the freeway expansion now oppose every new development in the city (most notably, bike lanes and streetcar wires), despite the fact that these innovations almost certainly reinforce to the urban fabric, rather than tear through it.

Planners are not the problem. Nobody looks at Paris and says that it'd be a better place if it had been unplanned. That would be insane.
posted by schmod at 2:49 PM on May 1, 2011


I don't think this is really a debate about planning, schmod. It's about the role of "the grassroots," which is to say the ordinary people who live in cities, in planning decisions. It's about whether "the grassroots" should defer to "plannerly authority and expertise." It's about whether it's a really bad thing that people who actually live in cities think they ought to have a voice in what happens to their cities, and whether that represents a sad loss of plannerly authority.

Fundamentally, this is about a debate that's been going on since the Progressive Era, about democracy versus expert authority. That's a really complicated discussion, and as everyone is pointing out, it's a really weird and incomplete way to think about urban planning decisions, in which there are more powerful actors than either city planners or ordinary citizens. But it seems really tone-deaf to have that discussion without acknowledging the damage that has been done by supposedly-disinterested experts. It also seems disingenuous to assign that damage to the people who critiqued it, rather than the people who perpetrated it.
posted by craichead at 3:18 PM on May 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


Jacobs basically spent her career wondering, darnit, why can't cities all just make all neighborhoods just like the West Village?

It's hard to believe that anyone could consider The Economy of Cities and Cities and the Wealh of Nations to be about the West Village. And even in Death and Life, she notes "I use a preponderance of examples from New York because that is where I live, But most of the basic ideas in this book come from things I first noticed or was told in other cities"-- Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, Baltimore, Pittsburgh.

Cabrini Green failed primarily because the city (and feds) refused to fund programming that would have alleviated the social and economic conditions that turned a housing experiment into a festering cycle of downward poverty.

That too suggests that some folks still see the skycraper in a barren block as the epitome of planning.

Anyone who cares about cities should get from Death and Life that a good neighborhood is a delicate thing, easy to destroy and hard to create from scratch. By simple but careful observation Jacobs notes a wide number of things that help make a good neighborhood. Pretty much all of them were violated by Cabrini Green: a single-use area, with no jobs, with no mixture of different building types, with nasty corridors and stairways that were unsafe for normal community life. These are architectural problems that would not have been solved by putting money into programs.

Jacobs's notion working neighborhood is not exacty retro. I live in one myself-- downtown Oak Park, Illinois-- an area with high-rises, townhouses, apartment buildings, and single-building homes, all within walking distance to shops, bookstores, groceries, restaurants, and public transportation. (Not that Oak Park hasn't had some wacky planning ideas of its own, but that's a story for another time.)
posted by zompist at 3:19 PM on May 1, 2011


They presume it's a strong central planning organization problem. In reality, it's weak central planning infected by private interests (real estate money). Stronger central planning would give more voice to disparate -- but not individual -- interest. The person who lives next to the proposed site of a shelter for abused women who wants to veto it is no better than the developer who wants to build a tower that will cover a neighborhood park in shadow most of the year.

LOL. a strong planning agency becomes a plum prize for political/power factions to battle over. the whole "strong/weak" planning issue is a red herring. the problem is that local government in the US isn't too far removed from what we can watch going on in China, when it comes down to it: a citizens democracy it is not. go watch 'The Wire' or read mike davis's "City of Glass" and ask yourself what role planning has in the catastrophic political failures of the post-war U.S.

planning questions would be very different if we actually had functioning urban democracy in the US.
posted by ennui.bz at 4:38 PM on May 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


Jacobs basically spent her career wondering, darnit, why can't cities all just make all neighborhoods just like the West Village?

Bzzt. Read her again.

In response to the question, "What should a city be like?," Jane Jacobs said this:
It should be like itself. Every city has differences, from its history, from its site, and so on. These are important. One of the most dismal things is when you go to a city and it's like 12 others you've seen. That's not interesting, and it's not really truthful.
[cite]

She did not prescribe a style. She dreamed of zoning laws that could legislate variety, and mixtures, and organic surprising growth. She wrote a whole book about how the economics of city work; she did not suggest that you could magically re-make one neighbourhood happen over and over without any regard to the many forces that make a neighbourhood happen. That's why she eventually said that she had realised she was studying the ecology of cities: because they are organic ever-changing things and they require a balance of built form, economy, and ethics.
posted by heatherann at 7:15 PM on May 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


Jacobs basically spent her career wondering, darnit, why can't cities all just make all neighborhoods just like the West Village?

Bzzt. Read her again.



2nd'd:

"Jacobs argued that the very concept of "ideology" is fundamentally flawed and detrimental to both individuals and societies, no matter what side of the political spectrum an ideology comes from. By relying on ideals, she claimed people become unable to think and evaluate problems and solutions by themselves, but simply fall back on their beliefs for "pre-fabricated answers" to any problem they encounter."

planning questions would be very different if we actually had functioning urban democracy in the US.

I favorite'd this not because urban doesn't exist, but because it's highly corrupted in the VAST majority of cities and towns. Having spent the last 3 years immersed in a dense polity jungle on the outskirts of Boston, I can tell you that when it 'works', it's beautifully interesting. Like sausage, but democratic sausage.

Unfortunately, most of the rest of the country doesn't get to have this cafeteria fight, it's just bullies and bullied.

[the last comment isn't to suggest that the vivid democratic process I've experienced has to do with Boston or New England, but that's where I've seen it, whereas, having traveled in 43 of the other US states, I've certainly seen it lacking elsewhere.]
posted by Reasonably Everything Happens at 7:18 PM on May 2, 2011


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