Regionalism and Sustainability

In the first chapter of Design for a Vulnerable Planet, Frederick Steiner discuss regionalism in the context of planning education. Regional analysis and understanding is key to planning because it “provides scale for reading natural processes,” for example watersheds and wildlife habitat (9). He cites the New Urbanist criticism of planning as overly technical, what Hoch called the rational protocol, a style of planning in which numbers reign supreme and the planner is mere technical engineer applying a value-neutral formula to a given task. Duany blames planners for sprawl in these terms, but surely they can’t take all the blame. The vast majority of planners vehemently oppose sprawl-friendly policies and designs, and yet it continues unabated. So, it’s not really planners driving it anymore. Anyway, Steiner does accept part of the Duany critique–the notion that planning needs the humanistic disciplines as well–but cautions against an either/or approach, preferring a both/and one. Quantitative analysis coupled with broad understanding of multiple disciplines: generalist anyone?

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Two of Ian McHarg’s for a study of West Austin, focusing on geology and conservation.

Steiner grounds his regionalism in the landscape-architectural theories of Frederick Law Olmsted and Ian McHarg: “that public parks have social benefits and that design should be derived from environmental understanding” (17). We can use these ideas to think broadly about design solutions beyond a new Urbanist cookie cutter approach. An understanding of cities in the context of their regions, then, is also key to place making. Steiner argues that architects and planners need an ecological literacy in order to effectively design with nature and do so in a way that will create a built environment worthy of the sublime natural one.

Some More about Patrick Geddes

Patrick Geddes (1854-1932), Scottish biologist and eccentric polymath, laid the groundwork for what would become regionalist planning. Steeped in the Scottish intellectual tradition, he grasped the importance of both generalist knowledge and detailed study.

‘Breadth of thought and a general direction are not opposed to specialised thought and detailed work. The clear thinker realises that they are complementary and mutually indispensible.’ [quoted by Jacqueline Tyrwhitt in Patrick Geddes in India; page 66.]

Like Ruskin, and in line with the Victorian Hellenism of the day, he strove to develop a grand synthesis the arts and sciences, of idealism and materialism. Stricken with a parasitic infection in his eyes, rendering him blind for several months, he theorized connections between disciplines, especially the natural and social sciences. His interdisciplinary thinking led him to his big innovations in city planning.

As a naturalist, he realized that to understand and better design the built environment, that one first needed knowledge of the larger ecological context in which a city exists. Drawing on the scientific method, he offered up a new vision for architecture and panning based on observation and survey. The Valley Section (below) captures Geddes’ regional scheme, mapping out the classic sociological trio of place, work, and folk.


He aimed for a deeper understanding of the relationship between rural and urban and between various trades, crafts, types of places and their distinct characteristics. As big and sweeping some of his ideas were, he also advocated for very careful, site-specific architectural and planning interventions. He opposed colonial “gridiron” style plans precisely because they were so sweeping in action, beginning with clearing huge swaths of land and plunking down a predetermined city shape completely divorced from the geography unique to that region.

The region was not merely another spatial analytical tool though, it was meant to be the key to radical social and political change. Influenced by the French tradition of anarchist geography a la Reclus and Kropotkin. The former a Communard and the latter the theorist of stateless communism. So here we are at the radical roots of planning again. My next post will try to start tracing these threads through late Victorian era into the twentieth century. Wilde’s “The Soul of Man under Socialism” fits in here too, another interesting synthesis of the literary, political, and social, oh and we cannot forget the religious or spiritual too! There seems to be a powerful yet subtle mysticism that pervades these thinkers’ writing.

Understanding Infrastructure through a Humanities Lens

Speaking of connections between Planning and the Humanities, This recent article shines a spotlight on a UT history professor, Erika Bsumek, and her undergraduate course Building America: Engineering Society and Culture, 1868-1980. The course is in part an effort to put the STEM disciplines back into conversation with the humanities in order to rekindle the kind of broad minded innovation that can only come with interdisciplinary point of view. She points out that earlier engineers were renaissance men and we need more of that type of thinking. We need it to avoid the pitfalls that narrow technology-focused training invariably encounters, case in point the US Highway system. Indeed, as I have been discovering, the forerunners or grandparents of Planning were such thinkers and came from disparate fields. Many of them strove to bring together multiple fields of study into a grand synthesis, for example Patrick Geddes.

Another aim of this course is to cultivate a new generation of thinkers and doers who value–or don’t take for granted–the twentieth century infrastructure that has furnished our comfortable modern lives. And to get them to understand infrastructure as socially and politically constructed and not merely feats of engineering. The focus on the technical makes for simple answers to complex problems. Congestion? Widen the road! That doesn’t work as Bsumek’s graduate assistant argues. You build more roads, more people drive on them; you’ve induced the demand essentially, the “principle of induced demand.” Bsumek hopes that broadening perspectives through interdisciplinary collaboration will bring about a kind innovation distinct from the ever popular neoliberal model of disruption championed by the likes of Mark “break things” Zuckerberg. She envisions collaborative efforts that reconnect things instead. Its a model that sounds very much like the Marxian idea of mending metabolic rifts, closing broken circuits that waste resources and energy.

This course presents a compelling pedagogical vision and a useful way to think about what my literary training might offer to the field of planning. It’s exciting to see another human discipline turn its attention to planning! There’s more to unpack here about the connections to 19th century anarchism and poststructuralist literary theory, but I’ll save that for a future post.

Literature and Planning: Ruskin, Morris, and Howard

In my application to essay to the Master’s Program in Community and Regional Planning, I wrote a little about the connections between literature and planning:

… it seems almost every important literary genre across the long nineteenth century can be understood as complementary pieces to the forerunners of the planning field…. [a] rich cross pollination among the arts also extended to public policy, commerce, transportation, and environmental concerns. It’s difficult to read Dickens or to see a German naturalist play without returning to the situations that have motivated the development of planning. I started to see that the dynamics I examined through the lens of intellectual and literary history exerted influence on, and were also deeply influenced by, the practical professions arising to meet the constantly changing needs to improve the quality of human settlements…

So my point here was that literature seemed to be telling stories meant to spark reform, and the late nineteenth century facing myriad social ills brought on by urbanization and industrialization was certainly defined by various schools and ideas for reform. Here, I’d like to develop another aspect of this idea by looking at some specific, direct literary influences on the 19th century foundations of urban planning in Great Britain. Ebenezer Howard’s work The Garden Cities of Tomorrow provides a fascinating case in point of how literature, philosophy, and art came to shape this important early reform-minded planning school, one that still inspires planning students and professionals today.

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A diagram, from Ebenezer Howard’s book on the Garden City, showing the relationship between the smaller garden cities and larger central city.

In Peter Hall’s Cities of Tomorrow, two quotations open the chapter “The City in the Garden,” one from William Morris and the other from John Ruskin (87). Both men were Oxford educated writers, artists, and, intellectuals whose thinking sometimes provoked controversy and often inspired young readers. Both were associated with the the Arts and Crafts Movement as well as the Pre-Raphaelite painters such as Dante Rossetti and Edward Burne-Jones, and as such with late Victorian aestheticism in general.


William Downey photograph of John Ruskin (1863)

Ruskin studied Classics, “The Greats,” at Oxford following Benjamin Jowett’s curricular reforms and would be part of the first of several generations to be inculcated with Victorian Hellenism. Jowett’s reforms made the study of Greek arts and letters central the education of young British gentlemen, but that didn’t mean a wholesale retreat from the modern world.


John Everett Millais’ Pre-Raphaelite portrait of John Ruskin (1853-1854)

Victorian Hellenism–as the term itself implies–represented a grand synthesis of Idealism and Materialism. After championing groundbreaking painters from J.M.W. Turner to the Pre-Raphaelites, Ruskin moved to writing about architecture with The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849) which presented the core principles of the Gothic Revival movement; he developed these ideas in The Stones of Venice (1851-1853) placing the Gothic into conversation with Byzantine and Renaissance architecture. Although known more for his lectures and essays than his literary works, Ruskin’s ideas shaped a generation of thinkers committed to reform both aesthetic and social.


A J. M. W. Turner painting of Venice that graced the opening pages of Ruskin’s expanded architectural treatise.



As Ruskin was finishing the latter treatise, William Morris embarked on his study of “the Greats” at Oxford, also steeping himself in medieval art and culture as was the fashion. An admirer of Ruskin, Morris recognized the interconnected nature of art, poetry, architecture, and social harmony. Biographer Susan M. Allen asserts that “He believed that the house and the book as they had been in medieval times were central to human existence” (“William Morris” Dictionary of Literary Biography).

Photo of William Morris

Photograph of William Morris

The house and the book, the built environment and the story, architecture and literature, these would provide another potent dialectic for what was to become planning, a dialectic that echoes Victorian Hellenism’s synthesis of materialism and idealism.


William Morris designed the interiors for Red House designed for Morris by Philip Webb.


An active member of the Socialist League, Morris financed and ran the group’s journal, contributing artwork and writing.


Hall offers us a quotation from The Earthly Paradise, Morris’s epic poem about wanderers in search of paradise swapping Classical medieval tales. The garden, of course, stands as a powerful symbol of paradise across many many different cultures and religions. The garden performs the ideal made material, an image that resonated deeply with Ebenezer Howard.

Planning, Story-telling, and Maps

Good plans tell a story about a shared vision of the future. Understood in this way, planning can make great use of the fields in which I have been trained, namely literature and rhetoric. The fungible literary assets can further be more finely distinguished as storytelling (or narrative), literary theory, and the poetic or what I like to think of as the plastic or sculptural  aspect of language. Rhetoric is the art of persuasion, dialogue, and argument. Plans it would seem need both sets of skills to function successfully as machines that produce a favored futures, that bring us nearer ever to our vision of what could be a more sustainable, just, and livable world.


Today I want to focus on the storytelling aspect with respect to creating a shared vision–a persuasive one at that–and role of maps in telling such stories. In my view the most compelling stories feature well conceived characters above all else. How do we understand the characters in the context of a comprehensive plan? Certainly the groups of citizens, city staff, and consultants involved in the planning process are important, but they don’t seem to occupy center stage (to mix in theatrical metaphor). In fact, what seems to emerge in most plans is a sense of local character through the core values the plan articulates. So storytelling is vital yet we can already see character functions in a wholly different way than it would in a short story or a novel. To focus on select individuals or interacting ensembles might seem counterintuitive to the goal of creating a shared vision focused on the physical city. Plans are meant to accommodate a complex set of concerns about the built and natural environments and the way we interact with them. Perhaps the city itself then is the character. How do we get to know this character who isn’t an individual embodied person as we generally understand characters to be? After all effective characters often reveal themselves through action as much or more than description.


A very simple map I made showing the distribution of PhDs in Austin. Even scant data tell a story.

A map I made showing the distribution of PhDs in Travis County. Even scant data tell a story.

Maybe maps can help us understand how the city as character functions. They are essential visual components of plans, especially land use maps. Here I am thinking specifically about data rich maps and the transect mapping tradition in planning from Patrick Geddes through Ian McHarg and the subsequent development of the indispensable ARC GIS. These maps are composed of layers of data superimposed to reveal the character of the natural and built environment. They reach beyond mere inventory of what’s there–although that’s an important function too–to enscene the way in which many different complex systems operate in concert. Much like we think of getting to know a character as peeling back layers of onion to some perceivable core (although this metaphor conspicuously lands us in a poststructuralist view of the de/constructed performative self about which more later), these layers escort readers deeper into the living systems that comprise a city. I leave these thoughts here for now, but I think they may hold some promise in thinking about crafting better plans. The city as a character revealed through the narrative of a shared vision of the future, one performed through maps. Next we might consider what insight we may gain from looking at maps as performative. Maps don’t just say things; maps do things.


LGBT Issues & Urban Ag (Pt. 3)

Towards a genealogy of queer farming and urban agriculture

LGBT history over the past 40 years has largely been an effort at bringing to light the roles and contributions of queer people to various movements, projects, innovations, and disciplines that were often ignored if not intentionally erased. For example, our understanding of the Civil Rights movement is certainly broadened and complicated by knowing more about Bayard Rustin who had a central role in the organizing the 1963 march on Washington. Who might provide such perspective in the context of food systems and local agriculture? A figure at the margins of planning sharing some of the field’s roots in nineteenth century anarchism, Edward Carpenter (1844-1929) was a utopian thinker and poet who founded the Sheffield Socialist League which counted the renowned garden-city planner Raymond Unwin among its members.


Edward Carpenter and his lover George Merril. Source:

Much like his friend Patrick Geddes, Carpenter was a prolific polymath who studied and wrote in or about most of the existing disciplines in the Victorian era. He advocated a peaceful “revolution in human life” envisioning “nongovernmental societies” with communal ownership of land and capital, sexual freedom and equality, and back-to-the-land “plain living” (Rowbotham 6). In 1882, Carpenter bought 7 acres of land about 8 miles outside of Sheffield in order to cultivate a simple life of market-gardening with his partner George Merrill. He hoped to provide a model for cooperative market gardening that would avoid the wasteful excesses and pollution of industrial enterprise (Rowbotham 77).


Carpenter & Merril’s market garden at Millthorpe. Source:

He also wrote against the grain of emerging sexological discourse drawing on medieval communalism and Hellenic paganism to establish “a connection between new sexual relations, the emancipation of women, and the creation of a free society” (Rowbotham 209). As he continued to publish and travel to speaking engagements, the reputation of his utopian farm grew; Millthorpe served as an inspiration for several generations of activists, academics, artists, reformers and intellectuals who visited there as a rite of passage. I wonder if increased awareness of historical figures like Carpenter have potential to impact urban agricultural practices, local food production, or food security. If we look at the exclusion of queer people from society at large in terms of Marx’s metabolic rifts–which can be ecological, social, and individual–perhaps acknowledging lgbt peoples’ roles in the food system could provide a way to mend individual and social rifts in the context of food ecologies. I think this might have potential similar to the way Joan Roughgarden’s theorizing about multiple animal genders and sexual behaviors has provided theoretical tools for understanding transgender expression and same-sex desire as integral parts of evolution rather than mistakes or dead ends.


LGBT Issues & Urban Ag (Pt. 2)

Queer Visibility in the Food Production System

Jonah Mossberg’s documentary Out Here: A Documentary Film about the Hearts and Hard Work of Queer Farmers in the U.S. aims to “inspire a flagrant national discussion about gender and sexuality as they are related to our food system.” It has been screened at various food and social justice events and will be a part of the November 2014 Growing Power conference in Milwaukie. One of the Urban farms profiled is Mill Creek Farm in West Philadelphia. In addition to growing food for local distribution, they serve as an educational center offering tours, workshops, youth internships, and job training programs. They work in cooperation with an adjacent community garden “to facilitate intergenerational exchange between young people and elders.”

The website is not marked as queer in any discernible way. This is understandable given their focus on the community at large and youth food security, but it raises the question of where and how queer visibility is important or relevant to local food systems. Johanna Rosen who runs Mill Creek Farm explained to Vanessa Barrington of Grist that “I don’t make my work about me or being gay… But I feel like urban farmers are queering the food system. Just by bringing fresh food to this neighborhood we’re mixing it up.” In Rosen’s formulation, there is something already inherently queer about urban agriculture in a philosophical/political sense in that it offers an alternate system of production based on cooperative coalitions rather than market forces.

This raises some hard to answer questions: Is there value in making sexuality a part of the food systems dialogue? Is it an unnecessary distraction or an opportunity for coalition building? Maybe these questions need better framing…

To connect this issue to the previous post we might ask: Is there a way that greater LGBT visibility in the local food production movement might address LGBT food insecurity? How might the greater vulnerability of bisexual-identified people be related to the issue of visibility?


LGBT Issues & Urban Ag (Pt. 1)

In my Urban Ag class, which as predicted was one of my two faves last semester, each student was asked to present on an article, book chapter, film, or other resource related to the course topic. They were all fascinating and informative and I may follow up on some of them here. But for now, I’ll share mine. It was prompted by the instructor discussing food access and justice issues in relation to race, class, gender, and sexuality. She outlined how those markers make a difference in terms of how people interact with food systems, but when she got to sexuality she was stumped about what issues might pertain. So I thought, that sounds like a research question tailor made for Doug: My dissertation work centered around queer bodies and performance. This presentation was a nice chance to bridge from my past career to my new one! Not all of these topics relate directly to urban agriculture, but they all have to do with food systems issues and as such are part of the equation.

Food Insecurity
In the Williams Institute report on LGBT food insecurity (February 2014), Gary Gates points out that information is difficult to come by because the USDA does not include sexual orientation or gender identity information that would allow for a direct measure. His report is based on analysis of three national population-based surveys that include data on food insecurity and SNAP participation. Key findings:

  • More than 1 in 4 LGBT adults (29%), approximately 2.4 million people, experienced a time in the last year when they did not have enough money to feed themselves or their family.
  • More than one 1 in 5 LGB adults aged 18-44 (21%), approximately 1.1 million people, participated in the SNAP program through receipt of food stamps in the past year.
  • An estimated 28% of bisexual women and bisexuals aged 18-24 report SNAP participation. More than a third (34%) of bisexuals with a high school education or less, one in five White bisexuals (21%), nearly half of African-American bisexuals (47%) and 39% of multiracial bisexuals report participating in SNAP.
  • Only one of the surveys asked about gender identity, so there is very little data on food insecurity in the trans community.

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I thought the findings about bisexual-identified folks were especially interesting. I wonder if that has more to do with class factors; i.e., do more working class people tend to identify as bi rather than gay? Maybe a combination of that and marginalization from the mainstream gay and lesbian communities. The lack of data for the trans community is troubling and points to an area of much needed research, especially given what we do know about poverty and homelessness among young trans people.

Note: Although I gave a quick 10-minute summary presentation of this in my Urban Agriculture class, the text seemed too much for one blog post. So I’ve split it into three posts.

Zoning Law and Substantive Due Process

So this post will focus on some key concepts for Land Use law, or maybe just one: Substantive Due Process. This is derived from the Due Process Clause of 14th Amendment. Section One reads:

No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

This is the clause on the basis of which early zoning laws were challenged. City X is depriving this individual of the full use and enjoyment of his property without the due process of law. In Euclid–the case that established the constitutionality of zoning laws–the court found that the city was not acting unreasonably nor capriciously and had a legitimate end in mind, that being preserving the  low density residential quality of the small suburban village. They showed deference to the city’s authority to determine its own character and form in the face of an encroaching industrial city of Cleveland. Over the course of the 20th century, this deference becomes central to zoning case law. The city has, in other words, a very low burden of proof in terms of showing their legitimate interest (whether it’s economic, public health, safety, aesthetic, etc.).  As long as reasonable people can argue about whether the law is reasonable and not capricious, then the court applies deferential review or a very low level of scrutiny. The city does not have to present evidence; it just has to be logically reasonable and plausible. If reasonable minds can disagree, then the city will prevail.

Second Day of School

Today I attended the other two courses I’m enrolled in this semester, Planning Law and Urban Agriculture Systems. In the latter we got more preview of content, the various definitions of and rubrics for understanding urban agriculture, with a lot of examples of urban farms, community gardens, planning approaches, stakeholder issues, mapping food ecologies, and so on. All of it sounds fascinating and speaks to my deep interests in food cultivation and preparation. The class will work on a report project later in the semester, researching feasible urban agriculture opportunities in the Colony Park are of Austin. So we get to apply some of what we learn throughout the semester. The Law course I look forward to very much as the professor is so engaging and dynamic.  After some substantial introductions, she talked about how to read and think about case law. Then she talked about the intersections of planning and the law using a real scenario from her time serving on the planning commission here in town, as well as a fictitious one, to get us to think about the kinds of questions planners ask (or sometimes fail to ask) and legal issues they often consider. I’m looking forward to both classes, a very interesting mix of nuts and bolts how things get done knowledge (aka the toolbox) and larger ideas and concepts guiding the way planners interact with developers, lawyers, communities, and other interested parties.