The World is Globalized, and We Need to Leverage the Possibilities!

Globalization has taken over the world a while ago and whether or not we like it is here to stay. Rather than arguing about if we like it or not everyone should concentrate on how to use this connectivity and ease of sharing information, space and goods for the better of the world. This, of course, sounds as utopian as most of planning theory is, nonetheless, we should try our interconnected international best to use lessons learned on making cities better.

While Ward states that the first theoretical work on planning authored by Ildefons Cerda

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A typical Roman city layout – Barcino

came out in 1867, it would be incorrect to assume that there was no planning happening before that. Maybe there was not as much theorizing about it previously, as mostly, the particular way of organizing human settlements spread with the dominating power – be the Romans, the Incas, or the European colonizers. Yiftachel highlights how in the current literature and practice, the dominating work is always from the Anglo-American / North-Western part of the world, demonstrating that we live in the times of the dominating power being in this part of the world.  This might not be just, or ethical or all inclusive, however, history shows that this is how human society functions.

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Outskirts of Machu Picchu – this depicts a particular way Incas build their towns throughout the empire.

One wants to believe that the humanity is more civilized and knowledgeable in the modern day to recognize the existing hegemony, but then attempt to balance the power and resources in a way to be beneficial to all of us in this highly interconnected world. In fact, in the recent years many studies are being conducted to investigate and prove that creating more equal cities actually makes them more economically stable and environmentally viable. Case studies from around the world show that transformation change in cities creates a lasting legacy for future sustainable development. These changes can be very different from city to city taking into consideration local differences and particularities. For example, in Medellin, Colombia progressive leadership used sustainable transit as a tool to connect the city and promote the economy. Now, people from the poor areas, can reach the epicenter of employment quickly and cheaply, and that made all the difference in stimulating growth of the city, improving social cohesion, and promoting sustainable mobility. This solution may not necessarily be applicable to every city, but it may be applicable to some, and decision makers should be made aware of the good practices and be able to use someone else’s know-how in their city to set the development on the right track.

The World Resources Institute, does just that, besides conducting academic studies, the organization connects mayors, academia and international organizations to share their knowledge and facilitate the transition of research to implementation on the ground.

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Gondolas connecting the highland neighborhoods with the center in Medellin, Colombia.

For example, in Brazil, there are many problems with public space infrastructure, and in particular sidewalks. The WRI Brazil team conducted local studies on needs and specifics of Brazil and besides publishing an academic paper on it, actually created a manual for mayors on how to build, finance and plan safe and functional sidewalks in Brazil’s local context.

It is hard to avoid the notion that the western practices and aesthetics are still being pushed around the world. This may be true, however, it is less imposed than during any previous times of our civilization and at least local specifics and diversity are considered to some degree. Yes, North-West leads these days, but at least the stage is open for the rest of the world to contribute, and the Chinese, for instance, are taking a stab at it with rapidly increasing volumes of academic work on their places and practices. It is true that modern cities are not balanced and are not very inclusive, however they are much more inclusive than in the days of the Romans or the Incas, and Ildefons Cerda with his example for Barcelona might have been the one who started the trend of “cities for all”, at least spatially on paper.

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Are we Going to Shoot ourselves in the Foot? Again? Really?!?

It seems that no matter what you talk about these days it all somehow connects to the devastating results of the presidential elections last week. When reading the articles on urban governance, politics and economics I kept reflecting on how every problem mentioned was caused by exclusion, segregation and inequality – just the values our new president elect stands for. How can it possibly be? Do we not have enough proof that racism, sexism, xenophobia and anything opposite of social cohesion causes devastation of life?!

Aristotle said that “A city is composed of different kinds of men; similar people cannot bring a city into existence.” If we knew this truth about productive, engaging and inspiring cities and societies then, why don’t we just accept it as one does with a mathematical theorem and live by that rule?! Yet again, we are heading down the path of increased control and organization of society and space: Trumps threats to tighten gay and women’s rights, and build a bigger wall at the southern border. Once again we are being brainwashed for nationalism that squeezes individuality and creativity out of tremendous treasure of diversity to create a common narrative to false-satisfy all. Have we not learned that all this does is separate people and ghetto-fy cities creating places like “Fortress LA” out of a free thinker paradise of a beach town?! It is important to remember that LA did not begin “fortifying” because it was always dangerous, but it became dangerous when we separated the affluent and cut off resources and decision making from the poor leaving them for survival on the streets. Is that a surprise that city streets and any public space gained a negative connotation in this country? I hope it is not, however, judging by the result of the election, I could not be sure anymore, especially because facts are not accepted as evidence by Trump supporters.

Segregation and institutionalized inequalities of any kind cause long lasting traumas in societies that manifest themselves in physical form as well. How many cities around the US are still struggling to revive their city centers even though segregation has been officially abolished over 60 years ago? Porter, and many others talk about approaches to reviving those downtowns through strategic economic measures, but this rhetoric would not have even existed had we not set segregationist policies in the housing market, for example. Had we not separated the blacks and the whites, the rich and the poor, we would have not had destroyed towns all across America that we now have to spend billions to rehabilitate.

If we know that segregation and separatism cause devastating and long lasting consequences, how can we accept a leader who wants to promote just that?! Segregation is not only dangerous in socio-economic terms, but is also plain boring. I am sure that there are many reasons why Mr. Trump lives in New York City, but I bet that one of them is because of how diverse, surprising and engaging that city is, which is precisely because of the tremendous mix of people that are of different colors, socio-economic class, sexual preference, immigration status, education, and overall background.

Finally, the whole concept of cities and living together is about coexisting, sharing and redistribution, and these concepts, once again, seem to contradict Mr. Trump’s values. I just hope that someone in the administration would be a trained urban economist to bring attention to these concepts and build upon what we have been able to achieve in the urban revival movement (and as a democratic society as a whole) so far without having it all burn to ashes once again.

We Keep on Trying

The readings by Young, Thomas, Hayden and Frisch raise some of the most important questions for a planner. If the planning profession is about the attempt to make life better in human settlements, then inclusion of all members of such settlements is at the core. How do we cater to all races, genres, classes, ages and cultures? I do not believe there is an answer to that and the numerous examples highlighted in the readings demonstrate that there is no perfect solution. This notion goes back to the broader questions of – who knows best, who is more important, how to prioritize and how to make the resources stretch so that everyone’s needs are met. These are agonizing questions and push me back to the pluralistic perspective of Davidoff of ‘Planning for Equal Opportunity’, the results of which are also questionable, because true equality, in my view, does not exists.

So what do we do? To me, we should just continue with trial and error, however, learning from mistakes and best practices. Having grown up in the Soviet system with subsidized childcare and working parents, I can attest that those daycare centers were no paradise, however, without that provision, my mother would have not been able to develop her career in education. She is a very ambitious person and would have been a very unhappy person if she were to be a caretaker for her three children exclusively. In contrast, in this country one has to give up/put on long hold their career because of prohibitive costs for childcare and education and the overall “do it yourself model”. Currently, similarly to Sweden and few other countries, Russian parents receive monetary compensation, subsidized basic food and paid leave from work up to one year to care for a newborn. If the government is to care about the wellbeing of its citizens and the career advancement/productivity, isn’t it the way to alleviate the burdens of starting families? Maybe such “socialist” approach is not fully acceptable to this country, but shouldn’t we at least try to make the situation better by attempting solutions that worked in other places?

The history of injustice towards women in the society is just as tragic as the history of any disadvantaged group in humanity (everyone except for white males), but I think it is time to move beyond and consider everyone in society as equal (at least attempt). I believe there is still much to be done, but we are on the right course. It is tremendously exciting to live in the times where more and more push is raised for equal rights of females, the LGBT community, and non-white populations in the work force and at home. While there is still a salary gap between the earnings of males and females, we have gone a long ways to make it smaller, and since the US is the “modern day Rome”, hopefully, this has some echoing effect I the rest of the world.

Just as with the issue of gender, ethnic and LGBT inclusion in the planning profession and politics is crucial, because there needs to be “representation of everyone in the bureaucracy”, as Thomas states. As a white female who grew up in Russia, I could not even pretend to understand what an African American community in particular area of DC might see as the necessary and appropriate improvement. The same goes for the gay population. If, for example, we are to create the public realm that is for everyone in the community, we need to know what they need and want out of it, and those interests should be lobbied for by professional representatives of the variety of groups that make us that community. Planners and politicians should be representative of the society – a utopian ambition that might not be achievable, but we should at least try!

 

Power and Money is Never an Easy Combination

 

When power and money are at play, everyone becomes interested and everyone attempts to get a larger piece. With anything regarding city planning and development, this is precisely the situation, which, in my option, is the basis for trials and tribulations of the way cities are developed and managed all over the world. In plain English, it is all about politics, and unfortunately, more often than not “money talks” swaying decisions towards the interest of those who have the funds.

The chapter by deFilippis gave a nice overview of the history of local organizations alternative to city government. Most were alternative community arrangements attempting to create a different model of organization of urban/communal life. All of them however, depended on funding and the ones that were more successful managed to survive and turn into what is called now Community Development Corporations. Some are very well known and respected, such and the New York Economic Development Corporation that implements a significant part of all capitol project in the city. While seemingly very powerful, that organization does not necessarily operate as an independent agent on behalf of the local community, rather acts as a contractor or an agent of the municipal government to implement projects. This maybe an explanation to the size and the reach of the organization.

Not all organizations of this type are so aligned with the local government. The Latino Economic Development Organization of Washington DC (LEDC), where I used to work several years ago, is an example of an independent NGO that operates under the “patchwork” financing model. To be able to sustain operations and implement programs the organization constantly writes grants to win projects, but also heavily relies on national intermediaries such as the Fannie Mae foundation, thanks to which LEDC is able to run a microfinance program.

The project that I managed was on improvement of facades of local businesses in light of upcoming large scale redevelopment and opening of the Columbia Height DC USA Mall. The DC government granted DC USA significant TIF funds to develop the area, and NGOs like LEDC and a couple of others received a much smaller percentage to work with the community to prepare it for the change. Having any funds set aside for community work was amazing, but it was nothing in comparison to the large scale mall development that was bound to alter the community drastically. In the end, the development was successful and very much need in the area, however, that came at a cost of losing a large part of its identity with national chains pushing local shops out of business. LEDC’s project successfully helped retain many of the local businesses, but many did not survive taking with them a significant part of the community.

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What if we just ask people to write down what they want to see that would make them smile?

Flyivbjerg’s example of Aalborg’s Projects reminded me of the Columbia Heights renovation because in both cases it is the money side of the negotiation that won. In DC, the city was going to gain much more money from the large chain stores rather than local businesses, and that is why DC USA received much more financial support than the local NGO’s like LEDC. It seems unfair and disruptive to the very essence of unique neighborhoods that we want to have. On the other hand, however, it is completely understandable why large scale developments are preferential. They are faster, cheaper because of scale and replicability and can bring a steady stream of funds in the long run. These kinds of projects are needed, but how do we insure that this cookie cutter solution does not take precedence over more complex and labor intensive solutions that render results much more desirable?

The Good Old American Dream

Anthony Downs brings all of the excellent questions that are and have been at the core of the urban debate in the United States. His attack on the classic “american dream” vision with perfection of detached home ownership, use of private vehicle, idyllic workplaces

that are 20 minutes away, and strong sovereign governance resonate with me very strongly. This unattainable for many dream became a burden for a society with a snowball effect to the rest of the world and to future generations. Apart from being unsustainable, this “american dream”, like many utopian concepts, create a sentiment of being unaccomplished unless you have reached it and you are happy with it. There is pressure on not only having it but also being happy with it resulting in social acceptance of inconvenience that come with it, such as negative environmental impacts, congestion, higher footpint, as well as isolation and breaking down of the social fabric. The story of Frank and April from the film “Revolutionary Road” demonstrates the paradox of how attaining an “american dream” often causes unhappiness and tragedy in their case.

Since this classic vision has proved detrimental not only to American cities, but the society at large and in many cases individuals, it is high time that the new vision is developed and implemented. The ideas that Downs presents for reshaping the vision that would influence urban places are not that revolutionary and are being implemented in many places. Only after reading the article I looked up the date and realized that it was written more than 20 years ago, and it was quite exciting to realized that his suggestions have been taken seriously and are being implemented in large metropolitan areas. It appears that the society in the US has finally accepted the notion that suburban way of life is highly unsustainable, therefore, it is no  longer a “political suicide” to challenge this way of living. A lot of hype had to be created in the media throughout the years to make density, mixed use and urban living “cool”, but it is still unclear if this is changing the frame of mind of residents of smaller towns in the middle of the country.

While it is very easy for me to accept Down’s criticism, as I am European from a large city, but I also completely agree with him stating that European based models are often unacceptable to the US majority due to a distinct set of values in this country. Whether or not planners think that the people have to change their views, in a democratic society people have the right to stick with their values and beliefs. This of course makes it very difficult to change anything. Thankfully, ample environmental, social and urban studies have produced enough evidence about the negative effects of the old way of living that a new paradigm on cities has emerged influencing people’s opinions. However, I must agree with Down again on the fact that the change should happen gradually and without killing the “american
dream” all together, as it will be unacceptable to the people of this country. I see this in the example of many of my friends who are very aware of the unsustainable ways of suburban living, but most still move out to a detached family home to which one has to drive. This, however in many cases occurs because of inefficient school system where quality education is only attainable in the suburbs, and this of course as the result of years of trying to build that “american dream” in the US.

If the urban change is taken seriously and the new way of governance is created where careful local planning has to comply with a state progressive comprehensive plan that will shape future of communities, then the concepts discussed in other articles will need to be approached with a new lens. It seems that local “order enforcement”, citizen participation and management of shrinking cities/areas can be also shaped within the framework of the state plan. Even though my perspective is often post-modernist and pluralist, I believe shaping the new global vision or comprehensive plans can be hindered by open participation of the public that might only be concerned with their personal interests aligned with the “american dream”that benefit individuals but hurts the masses. I do not suggest that the approach should be strictly top-down, but I feel like frameworks must be established by professionals of the related fields based on science, observation, evidence and some openness to listen to the masses.

Who knows what the best plan is?

It would not be anything new to say that planning is a very broad and undefined field with even less clear defined role of planners as professionals. Having read about the various normative planning theories and approaches, my impression is that we are wandering in the dark as a society in regards to our attempts to organize the way we live, not just in its physical form, but socially, economically and politically. Looking at history, it is evident that the humanity goes through waves of trial and error in attempts to find the optimal way to live as a social group with diverse interests and needs. Planning, as a field, is very much linked to the search for organization, and since the search is in constant evolvement, a question arises as to why we attempt to define and “fix” the role of planning and planners.  It seems that planning is on a quest to answer many of these questions regarding human organization that change with time, then shouldn’t the role and goals of planning also be flexible following the changes?

The concepts that resonated with me the most from the reading come from Paul Davidoff’s article on Advocacy and Pluralism in Planning. Ultimately, planning tries to answer the same political questions of “who gets what, when , where why and how” but the challenge is that it is more applied than at the political level, and the focus is on performing coordination of many functions and between many disciplines. This, to me, is the primary role of a planner, and that is something that is difficult to define or fit within certain parameters. However, even if planning manages to connect and channel work of many agencies and disciplines, it is still only within the government structure.

Davidoff rightfully questions the idea of plural plans, or competition for comprehensive plans prepared by the planning commissions and other agents such a local groups and organizations. Why is it that comprehensive plan are created only by the planning commissions and there isn’t an open competition between plans prepared by others? It seems odd that this is the case because for any other development plans (neighborhoods, buildings or even public space) there are competitions between developers or architectural and design firms.

Such competition did exist in the days when architects and engineers developed comprehensive plans for cities, like for example in Barcelona which took its current form based on plans by an engineer Ildefons Cerda, who won a competition against an architect Antonio Rovira y Trias.

Of course, this was in the days when planning was concerned primarily only with the urban form and aimed at improving sanitation conditions in city living. Also, it was not citizens who decided on the plan, but rather the government who chose what fitted their political and economic goals best. I am not suggesting that we should return to prescriptive plan competitions designed by individuals, but we could build on that idea. Why not have multiple teams develop comprehensive plans taking into consideration aesthetics, the social fabric, economics and environment and then compete openly in front of all stakeholders of the area in question? Then the test for which plan is the best would be the actual agreement on one, similarly to a political process when a particular policy is decided upon.

Once a plan is chosen and approved, it would then be in the hands of planners who would focus on coordinating “practical implementation and management of the dynamic of social, economic and environmental change” in an urban area, within the parameters of the plan.

What is this All About?

In their essay “Towards Greater Heights for Planning”, Dowell & Banerjee state that the role of planners is to “design solution, forge agreements about urban futures and inspire collective visions for a good and just society.” While this might sound too broad and idealistic, this is the guiding definition of the field that speaks to me closest than any other I have found in the readings. Even though it is certainly clear that the field is very broad and often with undefined boundaries, I believe, it is also an advantage, as it gives planners flexibility to be interdisciplinary connectors and chameleons that assume different roles depending on the needs.

I also very much agree that planners should play an active roles as animators of “collective visions” and not the prescribers of solutions. Sparking that vision does not come out of vacuum and some ideas developed by planners might become part of those visions, however, I still feel that it is still much more democratic than deciding for the rest of the society on their “common good”. By filling this role of a connector, a planner is then positioned between capital, labor and state – a concept that seems accurate in describing a planners place in the modern day. One of the articles critiques this by saying that a planner is more like a deal-maker than a regulator, but I think that deal making is one of the most important parts of the job and regulation is more the prerogative of a state. The skill of a planner is to facilitate deals that result in equilibrium between the public, private and state, and are supported by unison of collaborating professions, disciplines, agencies and institutions.

This concept resonated in the reading by Tim Love, who suggests that planning and design process should be much more intricate with a lot of collaboration between “building types, parcel configurations […] and […] between architects and real-estate finance analysts…”. The example of the SOHO development is a great illustration of a creative application of planning that resulted in a vibrant and unique revival of the community and neighborhood. This is one of those cases when an overlap between private interests and public realm result in some of the best forms of urbanism, as noted in Love’s article.

Finally, I also agree that the vagueness of the description of the planning profession should extent to the master plan framework. According to Love this can allow for a higher variety of the urban form and reduce possibility of architectural monotony in large developments. Love suggests that such framework “hardwires all the planning intentions within the infrastructure plan itself and then allows free rein for each individual development/design team.” This approach may not be ideal and would bear its risks like allowing for loopholes without having prescriptive specifications, however, I believe that creativity and spontaneity is lost with higher degree of regulation. Therefore, there should be enough flexibility within the guiding principles established in the master plan.

All of this of course is assumed that the system is not corrupt and a planner can effectively play a role of a middle man between the interested parties. A local example of the development of MacMillan Park comes to mind when talking about public interest. The plan for development of the historical water purification station was far from transparent, the opinion of the residents of the neighborhood was not taken into consideration, and the project was awarded to the developer that was chosen by the city administration without and open competition for the redesign of the area. Such situations probably occur with frequency, and the question then arises as to how a planner should navigate such politically charged and often corrupt environments while trying to facilitate the optimal deal for the overall society.