Regionalism and Sustainability

by Doug Norman . 0 Comments

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?

Screen Shot 2014-11-26 at 9.24.39 AM


Screen Shot 2014-11-26 at 9.25.12 AM

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

by Doug Norman . 0 Comments

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

by Doug Norman . 0 Comments

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

by Doug Norman . 0 Comments

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.

Howard diagram no. 5

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.

LGBT Issues & Urban Ag (Pt. 2)

by Doug Norman . 0 Comments

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?


Second Day of School

by Doug Norman . 0 Comments

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.

First Day of School

by Doug Norman . 0 Comments

So it’s my first day of school, again. For the last decade or so that has meant updating syllabi, uploading course content to Blackboard, and preparing to greet a new flock of freshmen. After struggling to make adjunct academic life work for longer than I should have–long after I fell out of love with what I once thought was my calling–I find myself on the other side of the dais, a student once more. In contrast to my earlier pursuits in the humanities, the degree in planning I am working towards is oriented to things more than words. I suppose it’s deliberately paradoxical to invoke Foucault at such a moment and to question the opposition of the theoretical and practical. But these are the sorts of thoughts that bubble up this morning as I pass some time before my first class begins. My classes today are Quantitative Methods and Foundations of Planning. I’m not really nervous per se but anxious to get started and be in the thick of things, to know what the programme is and have solid goals and objectives in mind.

Last week most of the entering class met for a four day “boot camp,” to get oriented to the faculty, facilities, and key software. We listened to faculty talk about the profession, this specific program, the host of opportunities and specializations available, research interests, and advice for successfully navigating the program and landing a job. The bulk of the remaining time was devoted to learning ArcGIS, Excel, Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign by putting together a simple poster presentation. It was stimulating and enjoyable experience acquiring some new skill–as well as brushing up on very old ones–and getting to know the diverse students in my cohort. The range of interests and backgrounds provided a nice contrast to the shared progressive values of the group. I look forward to hearing and learning more and will report on my classes later in the day.

Well it turns out that first paragraph was a kind of prescient as the opposition between theory and praxis was central to one of the introductory lectures today. The professor teaching Foundations of Planning soon to be rechristened Planning History and Theory, offered some definitions of and connections between theory, history and planning. He framed his discussion by reacting to the notion that planning is a practical field, and a practical because the jobs are out there and people get things done in them. He stressed the essentiality of theory: practice doesn’t happen without it. They are part of a dynamic, dialogic relationship and ultimately inseparable. He defined theory very broadly as the way we narrativize our experience of the world, in other words one’s worldview. Theory, he said, is derived from history and from examining the evidence of history. I would add that the theories we embrace tends then to color the way we make sense of history; these too are profoundly intertwined.

Said professor made the case for the importance of history and theory to the practice of planning. While it is future-oriented, good planning needs to critically engage with the past and not simply adopt the dominant stories (history) and the sets of assumptions that accompany them (theories). He used the example of liberals dismissing tea partiers as idiots. That attitude won’t work for planning. You have to work to understand the history that created the deep ideological fault lines we deal with today. Planners don’t have the luxury of writing those folks off; understanding where their views are rooted is key to inviting them into a productive coalition. That one example is a huge challenge, one that I gestured towards in my last post which was admittedly not kind to the conservative champions of New Urbanism. I’ll revisit that post with a follow-up with that goal even more firmly in mind. I thought all of his points were great but I wondered if he perhaps had defined theory and history so generally that it was difficult to make a distinction between them, but that’s meant less a criticism than a way to keep thinking about the relationships among theory, history, and planning. The take-away here? The theory and the big visionary ideas are as important–and more so in the long run–than the “practical” skills like making GIS maps. He underscored the point by pointing out that Planning is an Enlightenment profession–in that is seeks to use rational science-based idea for change and reform–but that it also deeply Romantic in it’s concern for aesthetics, human emotion, and radical democracy. Again, a synthesis or dynamic interweaving of two ways of thinking. The general tenor and focus of his opening lecture resonated with a few remarks made by the professor who’s teaching the Quantitative Methods (statistics) course: When we’re working with numbers we’re really working with people and policy. It’s never just numbers. It’s never just rational method or scientific data. Those skills are key but not the raison d’être.


Politics and Planning: The “Conservative” Case for New Urbanism

by Doug Norman . 0 Comments

Matt K. Lewis’s post “New urbanism isn’t just for liberals — conservatives should embrace it too” at The Week provides a recent example of the current ideological crisis in the conservative movement. Especially over the course of the last six years, it’s become increasingly difficult–evidenced by both policies and behavior–to discern what constitutes conservative values apart from sexism, racism, and homophobia. The anti-women, anti-gay, anti-immigrant, anti-poc rhetoric and legislation that won the GOP its powerful base have now come to define conservatism and have alienated many voters from the party. Of course the party leadership sees it merely, and mistakenly, as a matter of style and messaging rather than substance. And so periodically, a self-professed conservative will bemoan the state of self-induced irrelevance by pointing out that an apparently liberal policy or idea is actually good fit with conservative values. Theodore Olson famously has made such a case for gay marriage.

Back to Lewis, for two points and then further into the argument itself. There’s something a little disingenuous about the opening of the article that reminds me of the way some conservatives pout about rockstars and Hollywood celebrities. “Heeeey, why do liberals get all the cool stuff?” Let’s call it the Springsteen-Nugent dialectic for short.

Conservatism has somehow become associated in the popular imagination with sterile suburbia, obnoxiously large McMansions, and gas-guzzling SUVs, while liberalism evokes images of city living in close quarters, with public transportation or bicycle commutes from high-rise lofts to open-floor workspaces.

Just “somehow,” you know. Probably a lame-stream media conspiracy! Somehow? Really? Those things compliment all of the values and policies the conservative movement has fervently embraced. Unfettered, or at least minimally regulated, development for example. Little or no concern for green fuel alternatives for another. Add to that the contempt for the working poor, labor unions, black and brown people,  immigrants, gays and lesbians, the very contempt that motivated white flight. Gated suburban and exurban communities enshrine all those Leave-it-to-Beaver fantasies. Lewis now wants his fellow conservatives to move beyond. It was Ronald Reagan, in fact, who invoked that mythical golden age (of suburban sprawl) as an ideal. The problem is that those are the very values that define the Tea Party core of the movement. It reminds me also of the GOP’s cringe inducing attempt to woo millennials with hipster Scott G. whining about the cost filling up his Audi.

After essentially laying out a classic aestheticist argument for the importance of a beautiful surroundings, one not not far removed from a dumbed-down version Oscar Wilde’s “The Soul of Man Under Socialism.” Then there’s this gem:

Ironically, government regulation (the tax code, zoning, a federally financed highway system, and so on) helps explain America’s post-WWII push for sprawl. What is more interesting, though, is that conservatives so readily embraced this modern fad as being tantamount to the American dream.

Yes, and why is that? Sexist ideas about family and home? Racist fears of living in close quarters to non-white people? Status and prestige, the social trappings of the free market money-is-everything ideology? Interesting. And, from Alanis Morisette school of irony, it was achieved through big gubmint! Okay, fine, but how does Lewis think New Urbanist projects come to fruition if not through those same basic–and yes fundamentally progressive–planning tools? In fact, conservative property rights activists tend to loathe the more restrictive regulations needed to implement Traditional Neighborhood Design. In Southern California it’s the conservative suburbanites who resist robust TOD and infill development on the cutting edge of New Urbanist practices, preferring instead more highways.  Federal, state, regional, and local tax dollars work together in successful New Urbanist projects.

Soooo, yeah. Maybe it’s your ideologically driven policies that are the problem. Less regulation and regressive tax structures aren’t going to cut it; the “free market” won’t spontaneously generate TNDs. To be sure, private developers and capital are absolutely key. Planning is all about political compromise and pragmatic approaches that defy right/left ideological purity. In that sense, conservatives are already or can be a part of the democratic processes. But, the extreme anti-government/anti-tax ideology that defines today’s conservatism refuses to acknowledge the legitimacy of planning altogether. I think a more honest argument here would be a call for pragmatic cooperation and political compromise, in other words a retreat from those hard-line far right policy positions.

To be fair, Lewis’s piece is a short post and perhaps one shouldn’t expect a fully coherent argument in that form. He does cite this 2008 Free Congress Foundation report delivered at the CNU conference here in Austin, “Conservatives and the New Urbanism: Do We Have Some Things in Common?” So I thought I’d take a look at that to engage this idea further in my next post.  I’ll try to do it in an open-minded spirit of optimism. It would be great for all of us if conservatives did embrace the core ideas of New Urbanism. Maybe it will be a shared vision of our future that can ultimately bridge the partisan gap and start more meaningful dialogue about where we’re headed and how we want to live, together.


Some good street ideas!

by Doug Norman . 0 Comments

It turns out that one-way streets in urban neighborhoods may move a high volume of cars but ruins just about everything else, including auto safety. Reconverting one-ways to two-ways makes neighborhoods better and safer places to live.  Under the supervision of John Gilderbloom, planning students at the University of Louisville conducted a study of one reconverted area in the city’s downtown. The results were clear and quickly apparent: Wrecks, robberies, and other crime fell dramatically while property value, walkability, bike-ability, business investment, tax revenue, and safety all soared. Hey Austin! Yeah you with all those one-ways downtown, you can read more about it at Planetizen.

Sticky streets?!  Yes, but not from ooey-gooey tar. Advanced Urbanist Consultant Brent Toderian discusses the evolution of Vancouver’s transportation planning from viewing streets as primarily traffic movers to seeing them as “people-places.” It’s also on Planetizen.

Things like patios, food carts or trucks combined with attractive seating, street performers, or just really lively store windows that draw a crowd, all contribute to making a street more “sticky.” … A street is sticky if as you move along it, you’re constantly enticed to slow down, stop and linger to enjoy the public life around you.

He shares his insights including three basic principles: people love watching other people, blank or product-lined walls repel people, not every street can be sticky so choose them carefully. (He also references a book by his mentor Jan Gehl, co-written with Birgitte Svarre, called How to Study Public Life; just added that to my reading list!) There a few areas of downtown Austin where attempts have been made to do just this. I can think of some patio cafés, for example, along 2nd St. But I’ve got to admit I’ve always thought what a miserable place to eat lunch, a few feet from traffic. I suppose I should give it a try rather than dismissing it out of hand. It is a two-way street and it does bear the name of one of our many local saints, Willie Nelson St.


The Rational Protocol

by Doug Norman . 0 Comments

Theory in an applied profession? Planning theory arose in academia during the post-WWII planning boom. As planning departments grew, social science methods replaced design-centered curriculum. The scientific method and knowledge trumped both design aesthetics and progressive moral imperatives. With increasing specialization, designers weren’t prepared for the legal, economic, and logistical complexities of planning work.

The professional protocol, in drawing on the presuppositions of the rational planning model, either banishes the the politics of uncertainty entirely or  translates these political relationships into methodological presuppositions and procedures… Practitioners adopt the rational model as a rhetorical device to legitimize their professional persona as an expert. (Hoch 51)

Hoch argues that, while this may make sense for bureaucratic planners, it’s debilitating for planners not vested with bureaucratic authority. The rational protocol constructs the planner as an apolitical  expert doing good science and makes their relationship to power an precarious one.  For example, “Man with a Mission” Tom’s commitment to the protocol and the objectivity of professional expertise blinded him to the political compromises he needed to keep his job. “Dangling Practitioner” Martin rejected courting a local power player–which he viewed as damaging to his professional integrity–in promoting a rational cooperative development plan between his organization and the city and was “left dangling between the powers of craft and the powers of coercion” (Hoch 69). Craft, coercion, and consent define the power relationships within which planners practice and they treat them as discreet or unrelated at their own peril. Successful planners embrace the interconnected complexity of these powers.