Planning, The Magazine of the American Planning Association, features a regular “media” review column alongside book reviews and reader letters. The May issue included the Designing Better Places website created by Virginia Faust, Senior Planner with North Carolina’s Community & Rural Development Western Division. The site houses a series of short videos that introduce basic planning concepts to the public and stakeholders.
The first video explains Jay Appleton’s Prospect and Refuge Theory using contrasting pictures of quaint pedestrian-oriented streets with small shops, cafés, trees, bike lanes, alcoves, benches, etc. with big box and strip mall parking lots and windowless office buildings towering over treeless sidewalks. The narrator asks the viewers to think about why they would feel comfortable in in the former areas as opposed to the latter. The former provides better prospect and a feeling of refuge and in doing so articulates a unique character and sense of specific place rather than the could-be-anywhere anti-pedestrian quality of big box, strip mall, chain store America. The former are places you can walk to and want to spend time in, the latter you can only reach by car and you want to get right back in your car and get hell away from.
The pictures in this video also reminded me of Robert Freedman’s recent Planetizen article “Mid-rise: Density at Human Scale” in which he praises Manhattan neighborhoods like Greenwich Village that have preserved old school walk up apartment buildings, neighborhoods where “the heights of the buildings are in harmony with the width of the street.” He studied mid-rise neighborhoods across the globe as part of his work on Toronto’s efforts to create more “European-style” urban streets, and discovered a 1:1 ration of street width to building height. He advocates using a mix of setbacks and step-backs (setbacks on upper floors) in addition to inviting materials to create the signature “outdoor room” feel of cosy mid-rise streets. This is the kind of neighborhood I would love to live in and what the new urbanist efforts here in Austin have not quite achieved, mostly due to existing car-centric transportation infrastructure.
On The American Planning Association’s list of introductory planning texts is Charles Hoch’s 1994 What Planners Do: Power, Politics, and Persuasion. The first chapter tackles the problem professional authority. Planners are trained in specialized theoretical knowledge while the challenges they face are practical ones. Add to that the tension between the public good and individual freedom, the planner is in a tricky spot especially when it comes to conflicts between broad consensus and focused expertise. After presenting two planners–one who favors design expertise and one who favors community input–he notes that American planners “rarely take sides… but rather they search for ways to straddle the dilemma between professional freedom and social justice” (7).
Hoch then sets out to explore the roots of this paradox by offering a definition of professional planning. Professional planners deal with problems that capital neglects if not exacerbates. The lack of institutional authority, political power, and progressive ethos puts the profession at odds with our intensely (if inconsistently) individualistic capitalist society. He rejects the inherently hierarchical strategic (relying on military metaphors) and functional (relying developmental metaphors) concepts of planning. Hoch embraces “democratic plans that sanction individual purposes based on public deliberation that involves those who will bear the consequences” (11). The conceptual metaphors matter because they guide how planners approach their work.
What can individuals do to change things in the face of such concentrated economic and political power? What sorts of institutions could we use to render the future less uncertain without sacrificing our limited autonomy? These are the questions planners try to answer…
Given the trenchant free-market worship and neoconservative/neoliberal drift of the times, planners take on their “moral journey” of their much needed work for a “largely unsympathetic clientele” (12-13). This resonates with my experience as an academic professional in higher education. Part of Hoch’s mission then is to provide a more concrete articulation of the value planners bring to the table, namely a set of tools to solve the public problems that are the byproduct of the private sector growth and development.
I’ll discuss the following chapter, “The Quest for Institutional Authority,” in my next post with the aim of moving away from summary and toward my own reflections and questions.
Landscape architecture is one of the disciplines involved in planning. Sometimes they’re housed in the same schools if not academic departments and degree programs.
I ran across this landscape architecture site on Facebook, and several of the news items caught my eye. I love green design and urban agriculture, so I enjoyed reading about a new project from Vancouver BC’s Green over Grey living walls design firm. Many of these gorgeous living walls grace corporate headquarter campuses, but it would be so great to see them thrive in public spaces and buildings like the Bellevue Regional Library Parking Garage in the Seattle area.
Image from Stefano Boeri Architetti, http://www.stefanoboeriarchitetti.net
The other post that caught my eye was about Milan’s Bosco Verticale, residential towers featuring 900 trees and thousands of shrubs and flowers. Aside from the vast aesthetic improvement, the plants also help keep the air clean in a sustainable way. These projects improve the quality of life for city dwellers. Living and working around plants apparently also makes people happier as well as healthier.
I received my PhD in Comparative Literature in December, 2005 and have since worked as an adjunct at a small private liberal arts college… until last week. The few years following the defense were a blur of teaching new courses, sending out applications, continuing to conference and work on articles, and trying in vain to make myself full-time attractive to said college. I made it to finalist for one position, took over courses for colleagues in emergency situations, and got a one-year full-time visiting prof gig along the way.
It seems like, each time I’d had enough of the thankless world of adjunct penury, some shimmering mirage of opportunity kept me heading down academia road. Then about a year ago, as I made plans to get several publications out and shine my old act to give it another go, I noticed more and more of my contract, even tenured, colleagues bemoaning the current assault of neoliberal corporate accountability jerks. The college where I taught (and I must say that past tense feels rather wonderful), was hiring more highly paid head-hunted administration types with “disruption” fetishes. The marketing department exploded. Glossy magazines and jargony VPs multiplied like tribbles. Meanwhile fewer and fewer full-time salary lines were approved. Road kill everywhere.
This sustained attack is of course happening throughout academia and the humanities are bearing its brunt of academic de-professionalization. That full-time job I once coveted looked less and less like a career I wanted to pursue. Add to that increasingly hostile, entitled, and ill-prepared students who think of themselves as customers to be waited on. I decided I had to get out.
What to do, what to do…. I’d been contemplating a break for years but could never really land on something that I thought I might love, or least not hate, to do. I’d seen some of my colleagues get into freelance writing but it just seemed too depressingly similar to the situation I was already in. I wanted to make a bigger break, take on a more meaningful challenge. And then one day it suddenly occurred to me just like that proverbial light switch click.
What was it that I been reading more of lately? What was it that my fiancée and I spent even more time talking about than my annoying students and condescending colleagues? What conversations and ideas really animated me? Well those articles and conversations centered around his job more than mine. I had developed, almost unconsciously, a genuine interest in planning. After further reading around and bouncing ideas of trusted friends, I decided back to school to pursue an MS in Community and Regional Planning at UT Austin’s School of Architecture.
This blog will tell the story of my journey from English Professor to Planner. But, as much as it will serve as a way to record my professional path, it will also be a place to engage with and think critically about the material I’m reading and learning both in school and extracurricularly. It’ll be part my story and part general-interest planning. I hope to offer a unique perspective on this transition and my new career.