Unpacking sustainability

I have been muling over Campbell’s triangle of conflicting goals for planning. I find it appealing for its incisiveness, but my research for the final project leads me to argue that it is not as comprehensive and nuanced as it needs to be in order to be useful, especially in terms of environmental goals. In the four years since Campbell’s article was originally published, a surprising amount has changed in our modern context. Cities continue to grow and anthropogenic impact on the environment continues to cause climate change and loss of biodiversity. Urban planning must focus on not merely persistence, but resiliency in the face of events that could overwhelm a city’s support system. I propose that sustainability is not merely an ideal, but the baseline of environmental planning goals and the new ideal is resilient development. Our group will be exploring the concept of resiliency further in our presentation. For now, I wanted to unpack what is meant by environmental planning goals in light of a concept from this week’s readings: livability.

Peter Evans contextualizes sustainability and livability as goals in the political mobilization of communities. He cites how the two come in conflict for poorer communities which often have to use their limited social capital to prioritize issues of immediate livability. The irony is that mobilization of the middle-class often coalesces around pro-sustainability issues so poorer communities could gain support for their communities needs if they align them with larger goals of sustainability.

One approach to sustainability that I think could help resolve the essential conflict between politics of sustainability and livability is the concept of bicultural diversity. Biocultural diversity conceptualizes nature as a construction of human interaction with the environment. This perspective is meant to help sensitize planners and governing bodies to the ways in which communities value and use their land.

Typically sustainability is thought of in terms of ecological services and the monetary value of sustainable design. With an understanding of how people shape the places where they live, work, and recreate, sustainability gains nuance. Evans sites the story of poor communities that inhabited an ecologically sensitive area in Sao Paulo as an example of the conflict between livability and sustainability. A biocultural diversity perspective would address the vulnerability of the natural resources while seeking to understand and work with the relationship of the existing communities to the land. Biocultural diversity could provide the foundation for imaginative solutions to conflicting needs and values. Without such creativity and openness, sustainability is in danger of developing the connotation of being a middle and upper class privilege, when in fact the principles of justices extend to environmental concerns as well.


Best Professional Advice Ever

Ms. Hamer’s talk was enlightening and entertaining. I appreciated her advice from her experience in local government, they reflected a planner’s great committment to place and that is something I want to have wherever I find myself practicing. The points that struck me the most was her advice around finding a job: choose your boss wisely and know the path to how things get implemented. Researching internships and jobs is very overwhelming for me, but these two points have given me an empowering perspective.

Musings on Space

The spiritual thinker and speaker, Ram Dass, shares a story of asking a friend who worked deep in the White House, if there was any person who held space for quiet, reflection, and, I imagine, the slow bridge building across partisan lines. Disconcertedly but not surprisingly, his friend answered no. While doing the readings for this week, I reflected on the meaning of space and how it could be included vastly and strategically in policy and planning deliberations.

Mandipour and Harvey both talk about the relationship between mass (things) and time and space (processes). The definition of space is most useful when its conceived of multidimensionally. For example, to deliberate, stakeholders need neutral physical spaces, spacious moderators, space of attention to speak from their place of experience and expertise, and space within themselves to broaden and adjust their perspectives.

Harvey points out how processes and things make and remake each other continuously and that with a dialectic approach the conflicts urban planning incurs through the shifting relationship between time, space, and mass make cities ideal for practicing truth-seeking and reaching compromises. Planners of different orientations need space to really hear disparate perspectives without having to defend their own. Giving time and space to both sides is a basic part of mediating between children and it is not a token action, listening to another person without plotting your defense makes us more open to alternative views and solutions. There is a time for defense and negotiation in the path toward resolution, but space to let opposing perspectives sink in is important along the way.

I was most attracted to the writings of Harvey, Mandipour, and Davis because they spoke about flexibility, openness, and justice and where it is missing in our social, cultural, and political spheres of thought and policy. Thompson and Porter, were really speaking about the same things, but from an economic perspective that isn’t as close to my heart and passion. My personal orientation is toward advocacy, giving voice, and making space. However with space and time thought, I can listen, analyze, and make informed decisions in light of all perspectives, not just my own.

I see an advocacy outlet for myself in the work of designing physical spaces that provide social and environmental services, like affordable housing and urban greenspaces, but also landscapes that provide politically neutral services: quiet, introspection, neutrality and hopefully communion. Interjecting space through design can our consciousness for the decision making. We know that such things improve individual’s mood and decision making, but we’ve neglected its value in our collective processes of planning and governance. In subtle, pervasive ways or very strategic and deliberate ones, spacious people and neutral spaces should be a part of areas rife with conflict like cities and the planning procession.

“Ain’t nothin’ new, but a flu of new Demo-Crips and Re-Blood-licans” -Kendrick Lamar

Speaking to election directly is beyond me at this emotional point, but I did have an experience this past week that is important and related.

“So just think about what words like ‘invasive’ and ‘native’ mean and consider that plants don’t have a sentient, willful desire to invade anything.” I ended my long monologue on objectivity in descriptions of plants and their growing behavior. My classmate responded.

“Except invasives.”

If it wasn’t clear at the beginning of our loosely termed, conversation, it was clear by the end. My classmate felt like she was being attacked, and I felt like I was talking to a wall. There was enough room on the path for us to talk past each other instead of having to negotiate a compromise.

We haven’t bridged that gap. She sees no similarities between instances of eroticizing brown and black bodies and cases of labeling welcomed “alien” plants as exotic. As she sees it these are entirely unrelated and invasive, alien and aggressive are accepted and objective classifications in government, scientific, and conservation circles. I see a person so entrenched in their defense of their world view, that they can’t generate new thoughts. Fischer’s article provides the link that could move us both to more critical and comprehensive places and maybe help us narrow the path and have an actual conversation. That is, if we can stay amicable along the way.

Phenomenology, the study of experience, can feel too heady and difficult to understand or apply. Understandably so, because it is teeming with the meanings humans apply to everything around them when they name, label, quantify, qualify, and intuit things about their surroundings and other people. Fischer offers a cohesive understanding of these meanings and their importance through the lens of phenomenology and discourse in public policy. He doesn’t claim all experience to be autonomous decisions or intuition. Instead, he communicates basic awareness: there are many meanings embedded in social reality and those meanings can change.

The process of forming an understanding of social reality is social constructivism and it occurs at every level of human existence. Many concepts that we employ everyday as fact, are creations of humans and thus as fallible and malleable as we are. Race is a prime example of a social construction. It has no foundation in biological fact, but it has immense meaning in society and for individuals. Gender is another example. As a people, we are learning from experiences of individuals and growing in our collective conception of these constructions. Thankfully so, because the meanings we create that are ultimately decided by dominate social groups, have real effects on the live of individuals and groups.

My classmate and I arrived at our debate with our life experiences and social knowledge clutched to our hearts; starting from a place of self-awareness could orient our conversation in a whole different way. However, it would be unnatural and distracting to premise my side with a story about my background and she the same. What would create the most fertile ground for discussion and compromise would be for us to speak from a place of self-awareness. I think there would be less defensiveness and more empathy if we could perceive each other to be in control of our emotions, aware of our prejudices, and open to the work of reconstruction.

Right now, it can’t even be taken for granted that people see social meaning as assigned instead of inherent. There is a lot of work to be done convincing people of that much, as an introduction to a phenomenological perspective. Additionally, for every group encouraging awareness and open communication, there is a group exploiting or fighting the power of a particular worldview. What social construction teaches us is that experiences and reality are as real as we make them and dismissing anyone’s existence is to tell them how they perceive the world and their life experiences have no bearing in our reality- an approach social construction shows is both false and ineffective.

The tangled web white privilege weaves

In the readings from this week, I appreciated the Young article for its commitment to digging deep into the term culture. Structure has well, structure, but culture is a more plastic term and when it’s not the subject of a theory, it often is treated as a catchall for norms, values, and expression. The comparison to structure, the main topic of Young’s paper, was helpful. Ideally, I agree with Young, planners and others in politicized fields, enter into debates with a notion of how structure and culture intersect and are continuously constructed by the cycles of expectation, action, and effect that connect us all.

Approaching culture and structure as processes as Young explains it, makes salient how not just a lack of privilege but also the presence of privilege, are outcomes in the cycle of expectation, acton, and effect. We are all implicated and no one justly has the luxury of ignoring their social status and its source. I am heartened that Young patiently explains all the nuances of political and nonpolitical social groups as if to a nation of interested students. Unfortunately, it can be to the benefit of dominate and/or majority social groups to ignore the lesson.

As a white, privileged person, I am a member of a class and race that are dominate in this country. In most situations (I am a woman and that affects my status to varying extents), I have the privilege of not having to explain or be very strategic about my identity and political orientation. Members of a minority-race have to define their cultural and racial orientation and class, education, sexuality, sex, and a multitude of other factors complicate that identity. Navigating structural barriers and pushing back against essentialist classifications while trying to pursue individual advancement are part of the daily meditations for minority-race individuals. Thomas, in the following article, makes the important point that the lived experience of being a minority in a highly stratified society engenders specials skills in communicating the truth of disadvantage. I agree with that and think there is very important work to do in dismantling structural barriers and cultural prejudice in order to encourage non-minority planners toward an orientation of appreciating that skill and becoming an ally for its application in the field.

Young did not single out any particular group as guilty of dismissing claims of recognition and movements for social justice as projects of identity and therefore not solid ground for political participation. I see this playing out in the election quite prominently. It is a tool of Trump supporters to ignore the complexity of identity, culture, and structure. That makes it a lot easier to create prejudice rhetoric about refugees, immigrants, and Muslims on a foundation of structural arguments that are false.

Young reminds us of the phenomenon that with cultural groups in conflict, the grounds for opposition is usually about structure (territory, resources, jobs) at its core not differences in practices and values. In the case of Trump supporters, they twist cultural differences to fabricate a structural argument of the dismantling of life as the dominate economic and racial classes know it. I think Young would say Trump supporters are practicing identity politics, but have tipped the scale into becoming actually political. Young talks about how that can easily happen for social groups exploring cultural meanings, but her examples are ones where people are coming from disadvantaged position. Trump supporters are convinced they are coming from a disadvantaged position and maybe in the case of those with low levels of education they are to a degree, but still not relative to the groups they blame for infringements upon their comfort and social status.

Politics of difference is the work of acknowledging diversity, and its structural and cultural underpinnings, without slapping any social group with prescriptions of how individual members will look, act, or behave. This kind of thought is complicated and requires great reflexivity and intention. Using a visual I was taught in an ethics course, I picture a slinky stretching and compressing over time where the wire is the structure and space between the spirals is culture and the center, which stretches and compresses too, is action and relations. Now, that makes sense to me, but it might not work for everyone

A tale of a largely white neighborhood foundation and a rapper’s black banking project

The first two articles by Siemiatycki and deFilippis opened my eyes to the history and present day forms of community organizing and control. Beyond the label of public and private, there are other important distinctions in the ways that people collect and apply ideology to pursue their goals.

The typology of public-private partnerships was the most interesting part of Siemiatycki’s chapter because it placed not only power but also process on a spectrum. I appreciated the perspective on where and how different projects get accomplished. One thing that anchored the chart of different partnerships in reality for me, was the connection that Design Build is an actual term to describe the work process of a public or private body. We have Design Build class at the WACC and companies, like one owned by a fellow student of mine, can be Design Build Firms. I always just assumed it was a general term for in-house creation and had no idea it carried a somewhat official connotation, which now that I am aware of it, makes so much sense. In the case of the firm my classmate owns, she and her husband do receive jobs from private and public institutions. They do not participate in a bidding process though and they have control over the project from design to implementation. As Siemiatycki outlines, this relationship keeps a lot responsibility in the hands of the public client to over overages and take over once the design is installed. From the perspective of the firm though, they are able to keep a small manageable staff by designing and creating in house, but they still have enough skill and resources to take on a larger project from time to time.

DeFilippis’ comprehensive review of the development of communes, co-ops, neighborhood committees and the like across American history, was very enlightening. He connected a lot of dots for me around the subject of CDCs and the Model Cities Program which we briefly talked about last week. I accept his premise that innovation in governance and community groups is not a recent development and that these experiments often carryon disconnected from each other. It seems reasonable that a local organization is inherently focused on its area of ordinance first and perhaps that partially explanations the distance between the histories of different collectives. However, community control and development is not exempt from power and value statements. I have two current examples that illustrate this fact for me: screen-shot-2016-10-11-at-10-15-17-pmmusic_everywhere-fair-slide-300x169.

This past weekend, I was a colonial arts festival in the town of Waterford, Virginia. Historically, it was an enclave of free slaves, but today it is a village preserved by a wealthy, white population.  This tiny town has created a foundation to actively buy surrounding land so that they can preserve the cultural resources of their historical community. They have an accumulation of power that has even enabled them to fight the flood of commuters using the main road as a cut through to Route 7. Their success is impressive but also revealing of the inequality in wealth accumulation and power across racial lines. The second example of community organizing is the economical revitalization and social justice project headed by the rapper Killer Mike. He put a call for African Americans to take their money from banks that don’t speak on behalf of African Americans and invest in black banks. This challenge moved $800,000 in 5 days back in July. DeFilippis reminded me how Killer Mike’s project is reminiscent of Booker T. Washington’s argument that African Americans would not be able to interact with whites on a level playing field in the economic and political sense, until they succeeded in business. These two small but powerful community development examples demonstrate to me the effectiveness of small private development efforts.

As a young person trying hard to figure out where I can make a difference in the world, I am very interested in the different permutations of work arrangements that individuals and organizations create. Change is engendered by all different means and groups and I have to make important decisions about what collection of power, with which I want to align myself.

Just a little light vagrancy

This past weekend, I visited Philadelphia for a yoga workshop and a mini reunion with old friends. I grew up in Pennsylvania, visited Philadelphia to see family often, and lived in the city for two years soon after college. However, having not been back there for a year, there were many things that stood out to me. The familiar scenery, feelings, people, and happenings seemed both familiar and strange, like family traditions seem after a couple semesters on your own at college. I found myself looking at the trash in the streets, the many homeless people, the haphazardly parked cars, and feeling very different about it all than back when it was the only city I knew that well.

Philadelphia is a highly stratified city. I’ve always been aware of that. The different neighborhoods broadcast the socioeconomic status of their residents very clearly. I never fit flush into any one of them. I could only afford housing in poorer sections, but I would grocery shop, walk my dog, and work in other neighborhoods, riding my bike through the disorienting and divided landscape. I never felt safe where I lived, but I felt comfortable. I kept to myself and took nearly the whole two years I lived in one apartment to meet my neighbors. I drove my dog to the closest park because he got glass in his paws and ate too much trash if we walked in our neighborhood. As for broken windows, my neighborhood was full of them; I can identify with the rationality Keeling and Wilson cited about why people fail to go to the aid of people seeking help. I never went outside if I heard gunshots or the police had blocked off a street. There were just too many problems and it was suffocating. Like Keeling and Wilson noted there was an absence of ground for me to accept personal responsibility. My resort was to try to get used to my surroundings and find sanctuary when I could.

Trips to the art museum district, Manayunk, Mount Airy, and spots along the Wissahickon were my chances to breathe a little deeper. Even in the nicest areas there was still plenty of trash- that’s a given for Philly, but there was a lot more order. In these other neighborhoods, people were outside more often and engaged in some activity. I have mixed feelings about routing people who are standing or sitting in public space like Kelling and Wilson talk about, but I have to agree that when people are congregating at an outdoor cafe, I don’t feel the same unease I might if they are in an alley or on a corner. My building supervisor had an express fear of groups of youth. One had jumped him and beat him up a few years back. A few kids had chased me on a hill trying to get me off my bike one evening. All of these experiences and stories in Philly were the basis for my impression of cities in general.

I have a lot more cities under my belt to compare to Philly now, and I see urban areas as having their own unique character and ones experience of it is greatly impacted by their placement in its socioeconomic and physical matrix. Where I used to live, the racial divide in Philadelphia and the unequal distribution of amenities across primarily white and black neighborhoods was apparent everyday. On this my last visit, I ended up uncertain of where I would stay and decided to sleep in my car so I could stay on the side of town where I wanted to be a for an event in the early morning. I parked near the woods in Mount Airy. Knowing that anyone sleeping in their car in Germantown, the poorer, primarily black neighborhood where I used to live, might get spotted and moved by a cop on patrol, I was nervous being that person in this upper middle class, white neighborhood. I meant no one any harm, but I think I was conflicted about the appropriateness of the action. Reading Kelling and Wilson, I can say I broke a rule of the neighborhood and I felt conflicted by my act of light vagrancy. Small shows of apathy and disregard build and I think I was conscious of that and uncertain if I was contributing to the same feelings of insecurity I used to have in my old neighborhood. Thankfully, the night passed uneventfully for me, but the next day was pretty surreal as I hung out in the park with other people who had slept in unconventional places the previous night and thought about how unlike the people around me who were checking trashcans for their breakfasts, I was only waiting for a coffee shop to open where I could afford to buy myself a drink and some food. It was lot to take in and process.

Right now I think the commitment to maintaining order in the city is taking precedence over actually addressing the roots of disorder. I saw this in the Kelling and Wilson article as well in how they treated those with mental illness, panhandlers, vandals and other people who threatened order as individuals who needed to be kept in line. Their metaphor to the broken window falls apart for me when I consider that at least in the case of the broken windows that are fixed, the issue is actually resolved instead of shifted out of the public eye.

Philadelphia is one city that is definitely in need of redistributive planning. Having any vision, and particularly a vision that prioritizes social justice would help to find solutions for the lack of affordable accommodating and safe spaces for the poor and food and housing in-secure. Taken together, Downs and Arnstein’s articles are a good foundation for applying the scale and effectiveness of planning tools to the difficult issues of community safety and revitalization. It’s a complicated issue involving built and social structures, and I think planning should take the challenge to envision its solution and tailor it for individual cities.