First Day of School

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

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!

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

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.

More on What Planners Do

Although the modern planning profession is rooted in progressive reform, the more activist contingent exited the growing profession in the early twentieth century as the focus on social issues gave way to design and growth, because business and philanthropy powered most planning efforts, not government. This situation began to change after WWI. The 1920s saw a widespread adoption of zoning laws and planning commissions; with their non-electoral appointments and practical expertise, planners were regarded as politically independent and their work essentially scientific.

The Great Depression and New Deal programs introduced a different configuration by connecting planning efforts directly to the federal government: “Planning activity became an extension of the executive authority–a staff activity that focused on policy and institutional design, rather than a line activity organized to implement established goals.” These large-scale projects were conceived, directed, and implemented all within the government.

Even with challenges from states and property owners, this model of planning drove the development of cities into the post-WWII era. And it was in this era that local planning started to grow again. The federal agencies were providing the funds but the locals were making the decisions. The results: massive suburban sprawl between the 1950s and 1970s, white flight, and inner-city decay. Professional planners’ call for federal oversight spurred government support in the form of the Housing Act and federal planning grants. The planning profession grew by leaps and bounds, especially with local government. Eventually COGs would enter the picture to provide a regulatory conduit for federal planning dollars. These regional councils and the rational planning model flourished under the progressive aegis of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations.

The rational planning model claimed to link professional expertise and bureaucratic authority in the service of a democratically determined public interest. In the context of rapid growth and strong federal support for government planning, the rational model became the premiere rationale for professional planning practice. (Hoch 35)

The massive conservative backlash and economic downturn of the 1970s spelled the end publicly funded planning and the rational planning model’s hey day. Shrinking job opportunities and shifting professional ethos meant that planning would survive through accommodation and diversification. The result, as Hoch points out, was that planning activities continued “but usually without a commitment to comprehensiveness and the public good” (42). Lacking political and cultural capital, planners sought to professionalize by institutionalizing the rational model into a protocol.

Planning Education Resources

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.

What Planners Do

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 Architects Network and Greening Urban Spaces

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,

Image from Stefano Boeri Architetti,

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.

This Blog

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.