This is gonna get messy

Power relationships determine how communities are shaped and can vary significantly depending on various contexts. The readings this week were undoubtedly arguing for the contextual consideration of plans prior to implementation. By observing the varying relationships between local communities and how they can either be supported or opposed by industry, governments, and interest groups, I got the message that we as planners should be careful to apply theory where practice may be needed. How perfect for this class!

In Evans’ comparative assessment of communities, the complexities of city planning appeared vast as we looked to the broader world stage. From Vietnam to Mexico City, this piece demonstrated how the effectiveness of change was subject to so many different relationships (or lack there of) with the local community. However, the one consistent trend was the supremacy of the community. Evans found that livability and sustainability initiatives often hinged on the way in which local community members were able to frame the issue. I say “were able to frame the issue” because above all, Evans identified accurately that the multitude of stakeholders directly influencing the framing of the issue extended much farther than just the community actors.

For example, the way communities fight to keep companies in their town despite pollution or living wage concerns is due often to media spun by associations such as Chambers of Commerce who can paint industry at odds with environmental conservation. Why is cleaning up the river the thing that causes jobs to run? Why not help clean up the river and make your business practice more sustainable and safe for the community that serves you?

It doesn’t have to be this way. Evans astutely points out that communities can leverage political capital in favor of sustainability or livability. Mounting political pressure takes numbers and the more effectively local communities can utilize the airwaves, the more effective their message.

Take for example the civil rights movements in the United States. How was a minority group of protestors able to convince an historically racist country that racism was oppressing a class of people? They painted their message across TV screens and radio waves. Reporters couldn’t help but cover the stories of extreme hatred that was not just taking place in the southern United States, but across the country. Efforts by groups such as Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee or the black churches across the south were seminole in making their cause not only heard, but palateable to a primarily white country. Had it not been for the sympathy of the Democratic Party (that had traditionally been the southern, pro Jim-Crow party) led by Lyndon Johnson, the civil rights act would have never been enacted, the local resistance would have been wasted.

Applied to urban planning, local resistance is effective, in so far as the cause is one hospitable to groups who could be in opposition. We see this played out in a lot of our DC communities that are experiencing gentrification.

Take for instance the Shaw/U-Street gentrification story: (10 second version) Historically black community, considered dangerous in the 70’s and 80’s, begins to attract residents in the early 2000’s. The black community was faced with several problems: one, the demographic moving into the community was wealthy, and young, attracting ammenities (i.e. Dog parks, bike lanes, etc) that were taking the public space of which they had previously been the sole proprietor.

As many of the proposed changes to the community were blocked, newcomers sought positions in the seat of power. Local community boards became filled with young, white and gay/lesbian representation and votes became contentious. The goal of each group became; how can we impede what they want to do and preserve our way of life?

In the end, we all know how the story goes. The poor locals loose and the wealthy win. But it didn’t have to be this way… I think if we can be more respectful of opposition in the pursuit of our goals, we can find a way to create bike lanes while preserving street parking for church services. I believe we can keep jobs and a clean river at the same time. However, we should be keen to recognize that this type of reconciliation will not come easily. It will require compromise and leveraging. Maybe urban planning isn’t as clean as I thought it would be, but its realizations like these that help us plan more effectively.

Rich with Reflection-Farrol Hamer’s Insight for a Young Planner

Farrol Hamer provided our class with something that is so rare and unattainable in a book, she provided us with planner wisdom. Wisdom, while informed by knowledge is something much deeper than the facts presented or the techniques applied but a deep seeded understanding of the dynamics and forces of planning in a growing city, planted in a bed of experiences. I so much appreciated this opportunity that I found myself not wanting to ask the wrong question but instead to simply listen. What I learned from her insight includes many lessons that I will definitely take with me.

1. Her experiences are so valuable for city planners in general. She maintains a knowledge that is unattainable in books or essays because that type of essay isn’t a broad theory, its a messy compilation of mixed thoughts and reflections. You could tell as Farrol spoke that she wanted to be more directional but as experiences came to her mind, they were non-linear. But while they were messy, when observed from a few feet back, her experiences were woven together beautifully in a picture that provided an wholistic view of the field and the problems she had to address.

2. The role of assumptions in planning was something that also stood out to me. I thought one of the most interesting points she made was her reflection on planning the reconstituting of the public housing neighborhood near the Braddock Metro Station. Specifically helpful was her reflection on the misplaced assumption that the people of that community would want a more beautiful facade or a more engaging streetscape. Instead, they just wanted to keep their block style building and their community.

This was a good reminder that no matter how many assumptions planners have to rely on (demographics, changing economies, etc.) they ultimately need to consider the people that are living there and need to measure how deep opposition is to a change. Not that opposition to a plan should stymie the effort but that planners need to have their finger on the actual pulse of their neighborhoods and use discernment from that basis. Opposition is ok but a misrepresentation of a community is always bad.

3. I also appreciated Hamer’s point on the political considerations that should underlie plan development. She reflected that while a plan should never be subject solely to political considerations, planners should always attempt to draw up a plan that won’t be difficult for political bodies to approve. This means measuring the community sentiment, working them into the long range projections for the city, and then designing the space in a way that can be framed as a win for the people currently living there. Hamer said it best by saying, “there’s no use in framing a plan for the people who don’t live there yet.” That plan will never get approved…

At the end of the day, I can’t say enough good things about Farrol’s insight. I benefited deeply from this type of dialogue with a veteran planner who has been through the gauntlet of local government. While I am still unsure of where I will work post-grad school, the richness of the wisdom Farrol Hamer shared with us serves as a true example of how rewarding a career in local government can be.

Trust the Process

Harvey argues that cities are processes, derived from the ecological process of humans co-locating. He rejects the notion that cities are a specific thing, defined as objects in and of themselves. But rather he adopts a different stance on the role of processes in forming space and time. Traditional thought tries to make fulfilled cities and communities things that we must strive toward and achieve but Harvey contends that this construct is not helpful as cities in reality are the aggregate of multiple processes that are interacting throughout time and within space.

He takes issue with the traditional definition of space/time because he thinks it promotes a specific objective that once achieved is an end. A revolution, a city, a community, an electoral victory (even your’s Donald Trump). But what he notices, drawing from the conception of the socialist revolution, is that these things are better constructed as processes that are ever changing and never settling.

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He concludes that the extent to which cities will be able to provide for citizens will depend on how deeply they embrace the city as an ecological process. When understood as such, cities become a natural process of construction and cohabitation that society is ever refining. If cities fail to adopt this conception, they run the risk of continuing the creation of communities that inherently stratify and separate from the definable “other.” This conception is dangerous because of its tendency to marginalize and belittle groups.

Yes David Harvey…just yes.

I loved Harvey’s idea that a city is an ever evolving process of refinement that takes shared values and attempts to continually be more universal. Perhaps society’s continual frustration with inadequate solutions is not ultimately because the ideals were bad ideals, but rather that the end “victory” (whether that be the revolution, the legislation or community organizing) was an insufficient to serve as an end. The civil rights act never ended racism and no community meeting (at least that I’ve been to) has ever made housing officially affordable. In fact racism reared its ugly head in the assasination of Martin Luther King Jr. and developers opposed to affordable housing are only emboldened after a loss to advocate harder and spend more money next time.

I could poke a hole in this theory however by pointing out that battle lines are often most effective in activating human reaction. The truth of democracy is that citizen action is most easily drawn when citizens believe that something is being taken from them. Republicans and the NRA have used this tactic to promote gun manufacturing by painting political portraits depicting how Democrats will take citizens’ guns away. How would society protect against campaigns like this? Could a greater good unite a city to adhere to this seemingly counter cultural proposal?

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I would like to think that at some point we can all be on the same side. Especially when it comes to issues of city development where the battles over territorial lines are much more personal than state or federal battles; I think we are doomed without this hope. Until we stop seeing people unlike us as the “others,” we cannot overcome the challenges of social, economic and cultural equality that I think lie at the heart of all unrest.

I therefore think Michael Porter is full of it when he says, “the way for government to move forward is not by looking behind.” Mr. Porter, the real burden on inner city communities may be partially economic but the reason so many in poverty have lost hope is not because their jobs have left, but because their fathers have left. Because the war on drugs has damaged relations in millions of families across the country. The social safety net may be failing many, but society must first head the words of David Harvey and take up arms against our propensity to isolate and segregate.

Until the wealthy care about the poor, poverty will just be pushed around, not resolved. The disadvantaged will not be tall enough to climb onto the ladders of new economies. Children in poverty turn to gangs and drugs because for so long they have been the only source of safety and income worth relying on. Until we truly look backward and find ways to make our economies work for the hurt, left out and abandoned, they will continue to perpetuate the problems we seek to address.

Sure, I find myself taking issue with whether Harvey’s ideal is an achievable end…but I think Harvey would say, “well duh.” The point is that there is no end; there is only the pursuit of greater understanding otherwise we fall into the trap of settling for a thing that ultimately will not satisfy our desire for equity.

Look a little deeper

The fight for public space is not going to be resolved easily, but it must be analyzed and defined carefully. The piece by Margaret Kohn analyzes the developing of a judicial standard by the Supreme Court on the issue of whether malls are public spaces or private property. In that journey the supreme court has landed upon a principle that is somewhat troublesome in the light of recent developments in the privatization of public space. Through the privatization of public assets, local and state authorities have opened previously public spaces to the dictates of private rules. This I believe is an important development in the context of the judicial precedent analyzed by Kohn.

Kohn argues that spaces should be distinguished as public or private depending on how they market their space to the public. This of course would open more area to the dictates of public space that prohibit the restriction of free speech and allow the citizen to act freely within that space. Rules which are not traditionally applicable to private buildings and private property in general.

Mixed use developments have created malls and shopping complexes that resemble mini-cities, which have brought with them a shifting definition of the private space. While malls are owned by private entities, their functions have become much more public as places of recreation and banter. The issue then becomes not whether citizens can protest on the street but whether they have free access to areas that are functionally public but technically private.

But I argue that there may be a further challenge presented by the inverse of this issue. Previously public spaces that have been sold or leased to private developers may just as likely fall into this grey area. The emergence of the public private partnership as a funding and operational option for public infrastructure and buildings is undeniably growing in states and localities. This presents perhaps an unprecedented conflict that the courts may have to also work out.

The definition of a public space outlined in Marsh v. Alabma hinged on the issue of whether state intervention (the power to arrest) could be used to stifle free speech on private ground. The court found that in so far as that property is used and marketed for the public, public rights should apply and the property should be treated as public. While this ideology supports the argument presented by Kohn, I don’t think she fully appreciates the contradiction that can be created by this definition when roads and public buildings are owned by private companies.

Scott Campbell points out a key conflict that informs this debate and others in city government; that is the conflict between proponents of private property and equity. His arguement is predicated on a triangular structure of worldviews that is comprised of advocates for social justice (equity), economic strength, and ecological sustainability. Each of these worldviews promote their vision for progress and in the process, form points of conflict with each other.

This arguement is being lost by advocates for equity in the state legislatures across the country as evidenced by the previously stated surge of public-private-partnerships. While it is no surprise that Republicans have embraced the privatization of public assets, it has been striking how many Democrats have supported these measures despite their traditional tendency to align in the camp of equity advocates.

The arguement here is that equity advocates such as Kohn are striving for a definition of the public space based on the function of the space. However, these same advocates are caving to the public pressure of funding public space improvements through private capital. And when a majority of our roads, public courthouses, and gathering spaces are “optimized” through public-private-partnerships, I worry that the contracts worked out by the new operators of these facilities will be given the keys to both our facilities and to our rights.

Whether this prediction is true remains to be seen and will likely be waged in the contracts of public-private-partnership agreements. Nevertheless, I hope our leaders have the foresight to see this potential conflict and consider its repercussions.

What about us?

As I tuned into the Republican National Convention this year, I wasn’t sure what I was going to get. The candidacy of Donald Trump and his rise through the ranks of the Republican Party has been truly unprecedented. Having stumped political pundits for months, I tuned into this historic television event with low expectations. I expected frustration, disappointment and as an aspiring urban planner, I anticipated a renewed dismissal of federal politics as a cart and pony show.

And while most of the convention’s speeches did just that, I heard something discussed in the context of the convention that stuck with me. The same political punditry that had for months predicted Trump’s demise, had arrived upon a political truth that placed Trump’s meteoric rise into the context of identity politics. Pundits had realized that Trump represented a white, rural population that felt underrepresented in modern politics. And as funny as that statement sounds, Trump’s political climb is a manifestation of the ideas articulated in this week’s readings and should provide a key lesson for planners concerned with building coalitions and more representative cities.

This was best described by Iris Marion Young in this week’s reading. Her main conclusion was that group-based differneces and inequalities could be overcome when properly identified and addressed collectively. Much of her discourse used minority based differences as examples of structural deficiencies that lead to identity based outcries for equality and justice. But what I think we have seen rise in this year’s election is in some ways the inverse of that. We have seen a race based campaign, but a campaign that advocates as the voice of the majority race.

Young goes on to argue that political institutions need to identify structural defienencies that contribute to underrepresentation or disenfranchisment such as unequal housing, employment discrimination and educational deficiencies to name a few. And while I agree that this is important for any city that wants its citizens to feel empowered, I think we need to be careful to bring all parties into the discussion and fully appreciate the diversity within each of our identity groups.

White opinion is inherently intertwined in our conception of the common good, we need to compensate for this, not actively encourage more of it! I can already hear the rebuttal. But to be clear, I do not believe this is exactly what is to be concluded from my arguement. My point instead is that disillusionment knows no race. And that both members of the majority and minority can be “left out.”

Because racial identity is not enough to fully characterize Trump supporters, or any political faction for that matter, we learn from experience that Young’s definition of identity as relational is quite accurate. The problem with our identities is that they do not fully characterize the relational aspects within genders, races or classes. They do not account for the blue collar, unemployed white male that is upset that his job was sent overseas. As a result, these classes are marginalized and boil over into extreme political movements (insert Donald Trump).

Our politics need to do more to bring us together and provide, as Young says, a place for people to become committed to trying to work out the conflicts “generated by their collective action through means of peaceful and rule-bound decision making.” We should better find ways to bind citizens together as a “single polity” and encourage discourse regardless of whether you are the minority, majority, marginalized or privileged. Cities should be a safe space for open, effective and respectful discourse. When discussion becomes fragmented, ineffective and divisive, one side wins over the other as opposed to a society becoming more just or fair through the art of compromise. Let’s not provide a void for demagogues to fill, but instead give voice to the disempowered and establish rules that we can all agree to and work within.

The Partnership Explained

I enjoyed all of the readings this week and think I may have identified my political ideology in the Direct Democracy community movement. But I will forgo writing about these to dive into a defense of the public-private-partnership (P3). A DEFENSE!? Yes a defense. And you’ll see why momentarily.

The design-build-operate-finance project delivery method was discussed by Matti Siemiatycki in Implications of the Public-Private-Partnership. The root of this delivery method is the design-build model, which in its most simplistic explanation is a consolidation of a project’s contracts to save the owner of the project headaches, liability, time and cost. Design-build has not only boomed in Canada, who as a nation is by and large viewed as the world leader in P3s, but also in the United States. So much so that a group of companies working in the design-build sector formed an association they called the Design-Build Institute of America (DBIA), or who I more fondly like to call, my employer. [Disclaimer- the views expressed in this piece are mine alone and do not reflect the views of DBIA…had to say it because it will turn up in our alerts tomorrow morning]

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In my time at DBIA, I have noticed that P3s are truly revolutionary in the scope of authority that the state or city gives up in order to pay for these massive projects. Under the model, the owner (often times a government or special district) identifies a need, puts out a request for proposals or qualifications and asks developers to bid on how they would design and build it. As the piece by Siemiatycki accurately identifies, “such an approach also can be seen as an attempt by cash-strapped governments to take advantage of private-sector access to capital to finance projects, deliver innovation, and manage risk without the public sector’s relinquishing control of strategic objectives as occurred under outright privatization and deregulation.”

Siemiatycki goes on to discuss the Richmond/Airport Vancouver (RAV) Rapid Transit Line which was fraught with corruption and inadequate checks to warrant a defense from just about anyone. Not only did the project come in over budget, but the developers made promises they couldn’t keep and much of these inadequacies were written into the contract agreed to by the provincial government. The risk of construction or the design failing was shouldered by the developer, but the risk of it not attracting riders was shouldered by the public.

I think it important to state at this point, that the piece is a case study, and it highlights one example of how the private sector can run amuck without considering what a public-private-partnership would be like if properly executed. When public office holders fail to protect its people, P3s fail. When the risk is considered and appropriately allocated, the P3 can serve as a dynamic example of how public and private interests can work together for a mutual good.

Take for example an exemplary water/wastewater facility that was urgently needed by drought ridden southern Californians. The Claude “Bud” Lewis Carlsbad Desalination plant began commercial operation in December of 2015 and is the largest seawater desalination plant in the nation. The plant was constructed and financed by Poseidon Water, and the water that flows from the plant will be purchased back from the company by the San Diego Water Authority.

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Purchased back by the public authority? How is that a good deal for the tax payer? You may ask… Well the tricky thing about so many P3s is that these projects are large and complex and are needed in an extremely short schedule. Carlsbad was no exception. From contract signing to the beginning of operations, this plant (which now delivers 50 million gallons per day) was delivered in three years. And while critics of the project may have accurately been skeptical of the increased cost of the plant, what skeptics often times forget is that in the P3 model, the private company is often agreeing to take care of the facility and any operational costs over the term of the contract (30-years in the instance of Carlsbad). Carlsbad was recently awarded the highest honor by the San Diego Tax Payers Association, the Grand Golden Watchdog.

I have not the room in this post to outline all of the successful P3s that have incorporated community input, but I will say that we as planners need to cut the developer some slack. I will be the first one to criticize the forces of development and their ability to trample communities. But I will also speak up for the importance of expertise and risk assumption in getting urgent infrastructure projects built in a timeframe that is less than ideal. I look at the role of design-build and P3s after Hurricane Katrina (read my blog post on it here) and I can’t see how the community would have fully recovered without them. Communities can purchase the cheapest bridge, but you’re going to get the cheapest bridge. You tell me in 10 years which one was more expensive.

Don’t Give Up an Inch

The possibility of great urban planning pails in comparison to the potential that cities can achieve behind a wave of inspired and educated populism. The readings this week did a great job of highlighting both the potential of urban populism and threat of apathy by a city’s citizenry. Combined and considered together, I think I came to a new appreciation of the planner as a facilitator of public imagination.

To begin, I found the analysis by Arnstein and the construct of the ladder of citizen participation as helpful for understanding the balance of power in city development. As I have discussed in past blogs and classes, the most frustrating thing to witness at a local government or planning meeting is when the legal representation of a real estate developer shows up and preaches to the public about what their developments will do for their community. Arnstein places this type of “participation” on the bottom rungs of her ladder; likely on “informing” rung where citizens are educated of the developments but relatively unable to influence or impede plans they have reservations about.

The ideal level of participation, and the top rung of Arnstein’s ladder, is complete citizen control. In order to avoid deceptive branding and respect the practicalities of actual development, “complete citizen control” is described as the establishment of citizen groups with power over funding and accountability involved with local development. And it is this type of involvement and care that all of the readings this week harkened to as the primary weight that can tilt the balance of social justice in favor of the “have-nots.”

Whether it was Wilson and Kelling’s foundational analysis of community policing or Hollander and Nemeth’s establishment of social justice as the foundation of equitable smart decline, the key was a citizenry that cares and is empowered to do so.

I loved the simplicity of the truth outlined in the theory of the broken window because it showed how when communities give up an inch, it costs them a mile. The theory propagated by Wilson and Kelling was limited to policing but I think the theory applies across broader applications in public administration.

The broken window theory was that when the police cease to care about one broken window, the opportunity to break other windows becomes attractive to vagrants and vandals. What if we applied this theory to local development? Planners are the protector of a community’s built environment like police are the keepers of acceptable community interactions. And instead of vagrants seizing on the opportunity to break windows and vandalize, unchecked real estate development corporations with contrasting priorities from the community serve as the degrading force.

And just as one broken window doesn’t in and of itself cause systemic fear of a city, one development doesn’t disenfranchise the citizens. But when unchecked development occurs it lays the framework and precedent for more of it to occur. For example, when the rent of a newly constructed mixed-use development is out of the reach of the community within which it was built, the community should have reason to fear. They should fear not only because the building went up without their influence, but also because whoever was in charge of protecting their interest has shirked that responsibility for the interests of another.

Gentrification can bring plenty of good things to a community, but I’m afraid what it ultimately brings, bears it’s full implication long after the community has forfeit its standards and power over the process. Cities in decline, much like what Hollander and Nemeth discuss, are exposed to both threats of continued job loss, but also to threats of misplaced development. The life-cycle theory of cities perpetuates the notion that cities are in need of saviors and that as they reach a certain age, skilled techniques should be imposed to rejuvenate them.

But in my opinion the problem isn’t always with the built environment. We can restructure cities all we want, and the result is always going to be a new population, with more money to kick out the old. Who is to say whether this cycle will do anything but perpetuate itself in another 20 years?

I believe what is ultimately the test of a sustainable development is how well it preserves the existing social framework of a city and brings life back to the jobs and education that its existing residents need. It won’t be easy and it may be more difficult to find the economic investment, but when an educated community serves as the filter through which all plans must travel, the outcome can be restorative for both the built environment and for the people.