Farewell Marty Wachs

Marty Wach left us a few week ago, and I hardly need to add my voice to the many, many students and colleagues who were much closer to him than I was. But I am going to.   He is a huge loss, and very unexpected. He has been so active in things here in California for so long, right up to the end, that I think everybody is walking around shocked as well as sad. I didn’t know Marty dreadfully well—we never overlapped anywhere, weirdly enough for all the time I’ve spent in CA—but he was warm and lovely. He was at Berkeley when I was at UCLA, and only returned to UCLA once I left.  I think one reason we seldom interacted was how similar we were—if a committee had Marty appointed to it, they didn’t usually reach out to me, too, and he was very generous with his time with public agencies, so we seldom saw each other. 

Marty genuinely believed in good policy, and you would think that should go without saying in a public affairs scholar, but it doesn’t. He was intellectually rigorous and extremely generous. Even though we didn’t know each other well, he always had time for me, and I suspect that many others can say the same thing.

When I was an arrogant punk grad student, I discounted the old dudes for the most part–and I had some pretty good reasons for doing so (so, so many old white guys telling me “justice is a fuzzy concept, nobody knows what it means, it’s a waste of time, etc”). Marty never did that (nobody at UCLA did that, bless them), and I remember the exact moment that I began to take Marty really, really seriously, not just as an established scholar and kindly man, but as a thinker about topics I cared about.

It was some Metro-sponsored meeting about their rail stuff, and Marty was on panel about futures, and he kept coming back to the past. He pointed out that Metro had made a lot of promises to south LA when they built the Blue Line decades earlier. (It is now the A Line.). At the time, Metro was a relatively newly merged agency seeking to establish its usefulness in managing a rail construction program, and South LA had just had the uprising following the Rodney King verdict. The Blue Line would brings job, opportunities, development….they said. Welp, the region and Metro got its rail line, which is an amenity, certainly, but not much of the other things that planners like to trot out to impoverished people as promises.

Marty said in that meeting, 18 years later:
We need to deliver to south LA what we promised to south LA. We need to make good on that.”

The world slowed down a bit as I realized: everybody in the room thinks he is being quixotic–an academic. But he’s right. The idea that planning should be expected, as a matter of course, to deliver on what it promises even it takes a long time was important to me then, and it still is now. Marty wasn’t a fool; he later in the day said something about how one reason he loved to study technology is because, unlike like structures and institutions, technologies actually change (also insightful.) The idea that the guy would use his position–his basically untouchable position (because by then he was already a giant)–to say the inconvenient thing, instead of the thing that promoted himself, to remind people in the room of the harms done when those people thought the harms and broken promises where safely past–was exactly the point of becoming untouchable as an academic in the first place.

He was so loved–his wife and kids along with legions of devoted students and colleagues. That’s a life well-lived.

Marty has a huge cv of wonderful work, but my favorites are his work on LA sprawl and the streetcars and some work he did on air quality and governance (in part because it get right at the heart of the question about planning delivering on promises):

Wachs, M. (1984) Autos, Transit, and the Sprawl of Los Angeles: The 1920s, Journal of the American Planning Association, 50:3, 297-310, DOI: 10.1080/01944368408976597

Wach, M. and J. Dill. (1999) “Transportation and Air Quality: History, Interpretation, and Insights for Regional Governance in Transportation and Air Quality: History, Interpretation, and Insights for Regional Governance” in Transportation Research Board and National Research Council. 1999. Governance and Opportunity in Metropolitan America. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/6038 . pp. 296-323.

A selection of obituaries from around the web:

UCLA ITS Obituary

UCLA Luskin’ Memorium

Let’s always have kids and pets at the Golden Globes

If the clips I am seeing this morning are any indicator, kids and pets make the Globes way more interesting, just as they have made class more interesting for the past year.

Watching them, I finally figured out why op-eds from people preaching about how to “professionalize” your Zoom get on my nerves so much. Those people are pretending like our work lives matter more than our home lives, like kids and pets and occasional messes are the deviant and artificial part of our lives, compared the work-bots they want us to project, instead of the most worthy and wonderful parts of it.

I have read “the death of the office due to coronavirus” pieces, and I have no idea, but for all the pain and suffering the virus has wrought (over 2 million people globally dead now), I have been grateful for the chance to share my pets and places with students, and for the insight on the possibilities for capitalism and professional life that doesn’t act like it’s the end of the world if a kid interrupts a meeting to announce his sister as a loaded diaper. We have, if we have beening living right, extended each other a lot of grace for these things. Remember when having to bring your child to work because of a problem at daycare was embarrassing or a disaster—so unprofessional. Now it’s part of it–still embarrassing, still distracting, still tiring–but it’s real, it’s happened to us all—and it’s all fine.

Is there any chance we keep extending this grace to each other even as we go back with vaccines and the like? Working women need childcare; it’s dumb to romanticize it otherwise, like we can all just have kids around all the time. But I hope we take this time to critically examine the rank stupidity–and harm–of the capitalist office where emotions, “bringing your home problems to work” and other natural things aren’t treated like weaknesses or sins.

We are whole people who deserve to live our lives in all dimensions at all times.

Abolish DPS: Envisioning a #PoliceFreeUSC student zine

One of my wonderful students, Jody Liu, is a part of an on-campus movement to get rid USC’s security as it exists today. I support student-led efforts for either reform or abolition, as our security needs to change. Students should lead in re-envisioning security because it’s their campus and honestly I feel like the old folks (this includes me) on campus have run out of ideas. Here is the intro from one of the zine’s makers:


We’ve spent the past couple of months putting together the zine “Abolish DPS: Envisioning a #PoliceFreeUSC”, which elucidates the connections between the University of Southern California (USC) and the prison industrial complex. In particular, we highlight violent incidents that have been inflicted on the surrounding South Central communities. We then outline our vision for prison abolition at USC.

In full disclosure, my own interactions as a person with a disability with on-campus security has fallen into two categories: a) great interactions with mostly women who get that they are part of a community and b) miserable, escalated confrontations with dudes who get off thinking they are commandos by shouting at me to move faster (I can’t) or to not be where I am (you can freaking ask instead of shout, dickhead). I’d like to see campus security protect the livelihoods of the people who have made the effort to be a part of the place and find other work for the dudes who use the job to recreate the power trips they took in high school sticking the small kid’s heads in toilets.

Professor Clayton Nall (@ClaytonNall) on liberal self-interest in housing politics

UCSB’s Dr. Clayton Nall came to USC’s Price School to give a talk for the Bedrosian Center, and in it he presents some of his really good experimental work, partnered with William Marble, on home ownership and political ideology, helping us understand why people in ostensibly progressive enclaves like Berkeley can be so unwiling to allow inclusion via new housing.

I have THOTS, but let’s get you to Clayton’s excellent material first. Here is the highlight reel/trailer:

And here’s the full talk if you want to hop right on in:

Here’s my blather:

I meant to post about this really nice presentation from USCB’s Clayton Nall ages ago, but I forgot, and then Clayton piped up on Twitter over the weekend and I remembered. I was kvetching about Ezra Klein’s piece over the NYT last week about supposedly liberal California not delivering on progressive housing goals.

The most you can say about the Ezra Klein piece is that is he is not wrong about California failing to on progressive social promises, particularly housing. Lefties who exist to scold each other eat that stuff up, and thus I had this column all over my various timelines. The problem is the premise: California is not a particularly progressive place, it never has been–except as an imaginary construction for those who want it to stand for whatever abstract point they want to make about politics. CA’s early colonial politics were vicious (including indigenous enslavement); CA’s spatial politics regarding early Chinese immigrants were also vicious; CA has a long and disgraceful affection for sterilizing women from marginalized group that extended into the 2010s. That’s to name just a few obvious human rights abuses of many here. California in part brought us modern US conservatism–through John Birch, Howard, Jarvis, and Ronald Reagen. Californians routinely pass bone-headedly reactionary referenda from Prop 13 to Prop 8 to Prop 209 to last year’s damn mess, but particularly Prop 22. There are more registered Republicans in California than residents of many other states. The proper headline of any piece on CA should really be “place not particuarly liberal, except in the culture war imaginations of conservatives who hate gays and Hollywood, not really delivering on liberal ideals.”

There are some issues where Calfornia really does fall into that category; we (probably) won’t be the state drafting “If a woman has an abortion, she should be flogged to death on television on a new reality tv show” laws. And gun control. And I am grateful for those things.

California is better understood, like most of the US outside of New England, as a place where the governing ethics center primarily on exploiting land for wealth for white people. Yes, the US is a constitutional republic, and you can analyze its institutions that way, but development politics make a lot more sense if you set aside Federalist papers propaganda and just think about things from the perspective of settler colonialism, replicated again and again and again using various policies, practices, and regimes.

When you look at things that way, you have a ready explanation for why Democrats and Republicans don’t really differ all that much on their behavior regarding class politics and land development. You can scold and shame and harangue progressives about their lack of virtue if you want to, but as long as individual and family welfare is as tied to individual property ownership as it is in the US, you are going to have a struggle on your hands with home owners being way too risk averse to allow change. (This even includes things likely to put money in their wallets, including amenities like a rail station. )

Wonderful reads, 2020: Lowe (@kateontransport) and Grengs on Detroit’s Public-Private Streetcar in JPER

I reaaaaaaalllly wanted to write on this topic but I never got around to it and I am really really glad that Kate Lowe and Joe Grengs did because I think it’s an important topic: it’s clear that the primary beneficiaries of streetcar projects are the landowners that surround them. Streetcars are not easy sells in terms of mobility; they are circulators. How many car trips they actually “take off the road” is a dubious conjecture, but they are fun to ride, contribute to defining districts, and circulators are really useful in the places that have them. (Those alone strike me as good enough reasons to do them even if they do not do much to fight climate change or any of the great big goals we planners tend to attach to things.)

The Detroit example shows philanthropy directed at just such a project, and I think Lowe and Grengs are more fair and less critical than I am about treating the Detroit streetcar as mobility rather than as a simple land amenity. By most indicators, this is businesses and elites doing fairly standard philanthropy: it doesn’t alter power relations, and it’s ultimately done for their own private interests. Again, I have no real problem with that except to the degree that there has been the temptation to act like these arrangements are the future of transport finance, and as Lowe and Grengs show, it’ll take a lot of changes to this model to make it workable outside the context of this one project.

Here is the citation and the link. It’s behind a paywall, but if you ask me or the author, I suspect we can find you a copy of it:

Lowe K, Grengs J. Private Donations for Public Transit: The Equity Implications of Detroit’s Public–Private Streetcar. Journal of Planning Education and Research. 2020;40(3):289-303. doi:10.1177/0739456X18761237

Transportation agencies are increasingly seeking private sector funding, but resulting deals have implications beyond specific projects. We analyze the broader regional and equity impacts of private funding by examining Detroit’s donation-funded streetcar. Despite potential negative consequences for transit-dependent populations, the longer-term political will forged through streetcar planning has a contingent possibility to enhance regional transit. In addition to donations, the streetcar relies on public sector funds, but we found limited public influence to ensure collective transportation benefits. A federal-level actor did mandate that a regional transit agency form, but more systematic public action is needed.

Can we retire the whole “public agencies aren’t real estate developers” myth soon?

Ok, I am violating my sabbatical commitment to read books and look at roses, but this piece from Dr. Jenny Schuetz at Brookings crossed my desk, and I want to talk about one part of it. First, in the interest of full disclosure, I think the world of Dr. Schuetz; I think she’s right about a lot of things and is a wonderful policy analyst. And I also understand the pressures of putting together blog post after blog post.

This one, I just disagree with. I’ve lived in cities where public housing was fine, but I don’t actually have a sense of what role public housing should play within the larger portfolio of American housing strategies. I haven’t thought about it systematically. I’m sure she’s right in that it’s not “the solution” but even upzoning, which would be a boon, doen’t strike me as “the solution” because housing, like most important things in life, is not a single-solution policy domain. I’ve never heard anybody say public housing is “the solution.” It’s a tool among many other tools. How that tool should be deployed, I don’t know, but I won’t dismiss it out of hand because I’ll take any tool I can get.

But one argument from the Brooking piece slapped me in the eyeball and we need to talk about it, and that’s this:

PUBLIC AGENCIES AREN’T DESIGNED TO BE REAL ESTATE DEVELOPERS

Proposals for “the government” to build public housing are often vague about which agency or department they mean. While funding for public housing originates at the federal level, the properties are operated by more than 3,300 local housing authorities across the country. And most of them don’t have recent experience with new construction—a long, complicated, risky business under the best of circumstances. Public agencies operate under more rigid rules and processes than private sector companies as well; for instance, procurement and labor requirements that make construction substantially more difficult and more expensive.

I get that we are now in the era of real estate specializations at universities where real estate is a very specialized thing that only certain people with certain qualifications supposedly do, but this argument is wrong the minute you step outside of housing. It MAY be that local governments do not develop much *housing*, but if there is one thing governments in the United States do as a matter of routine, it’s develop land and buildings. From bus garages to courthouses to libraries to police stations to animal shelters, etc., subnational governments maintain large real estate portfolios. The idea they are somehow incapable or less capable of managing a construction project simply ignores all the real estate that governments DO build and maintain. Governments can build bridges and dams that stand up for a century and a space program AND all the transit for the T part of TOD, but nope, an apartment complex next to the T is somehow just not something that governments can do.

The US is not called a settler-colonial state for nothing.

But let’s get to housing. Every single college student living in a dorm at a state university, from Fresno State to Applachia State to all those students at snooty UCs….all of them are living in housing constructed and maintained by public agencies. Jails, even though we all hate them, are routinely built and maintained by governments (as well as private entities, sure), but they house quite a few people. There is at any given time in the Indian Ocean at least one Nimitz class aircraft carrier that houses 8,000 people *on a boat*, which is a tiny fraction of what the US military does to house its members.

Now, all of these things are, I guess, outside the realm of “housing” but that doesn’t mean we should assume that governments are just bad at developing housing or that they don’t do it. Governments develop buildings in concert with private companies all the time, and quite often, entirely competently.

My WordPress is acting wonky so I shall stop as I’ve made my point. We could argue that private sector entities would be ever so much better at doing all the development that governments do in all sectors, not just housing, that’s fine, but let’s not act like American governments can’t develop real estate. They do it all the time.

Wonderful reads 2020: Tore Sager on planners and rejecting authoritarian populism in PT

Ok, I am going to have to admit to being a little bit of a Tore Sager fangirl because I pretty much love everything they write and everything they write about and the way they write about it and am really jealous that I didn’t write all the things they did. Like every single time they publish a thing, I’m sad I didn’t write it because it’s so good and important. So now that the introductory breathless fangirling is out of the way, let’s get to the breathless fangirling about the actual content.

Planning has a problem with democracy; not that planners themselves are anti-democratic or pro-democratic themselves, it’s just that planning as a field relies on its legitimacy to no small degree via the notion that we can help foster a deliberative, democratic decision-making about place futures. The problem we have is that democracies can do terrible things, and that plenty of democratic preferences are really shitty. Lots people in neighborhoods want to keep people out, and that is a democratic preference, and it’s generally not a good a good one. (sometimes it’s warranted, other times it is just an impulse to maintain privilege.)

Sager speaks directly to our times with a discussion of what planners should be doing to refute the Schmittian authoritarian populism that has swept across multiple nations, including my own, with things like Trumpism. Trumpism is avowedly anti-urban, and we owe its adherents no deference just because they hold their preferences with passion or because they have coalesced into a political force.

This is in some ways not a happy or hopeful paper, but it is a VERY useful paper for understanding the profession in our current political context.

It’s not paywalled, so you can go read it noooooow:

1. Sager T. Populists and planners: ‘We are the people. Who are you?’*. Planning Theory. 2020;19(1):80-103. doi:10.1177/1473095219864692

The purpose of this article is to offer planning scholars a basis for criticizing authoritarian populism and not limiting ideological critique to neoliberalism. Authoritarian populism is anti-elitist, anti-pluralist and excluding in that the authentic people includes only part of the population. Authoritarian populists imagine a homogeneous people whose will determines policy. The article deals with confrontations and contact points between communicative planning theory and populist currents. It distils several core themes from five authoritative collections of works on planning theory and examines their relations with populist ideas. Authoritarian populism is an incomplete ideology that can fuse with various other ideologies. Amalgamations of populism and neoliberalism pose new challenges to participatory planning. Authoritarian populism criticizes planning institutions for blocking the immediate realization of the will of the people and being sympathetic to social diversity and cultural influence threatening heartland values. Neoliberalism is opposed to the welfare policies, equity goals, growth restrictions and other public interventions associated with spatial planning. Joint pressure from the two ideologies may alter the planning of liberal democracies in an autocratic direction.

How do people cope with crushing rents? USC’s Sean Angst, Soledad DeGregorio, Gary Painter and Jovanna Rosen discuss their findings

Rent burden describes much of a person’s or family’s income goes towards paying the rent. We have maps that show rent burden, we have data; we assume we know what we are talking about when we say the “rent burden is too high.”

But we really don’t. That’s why this research is so important: instead of burden being an abstraction, the survey conducted at the Center for Social Innovation delves into how rent burden dampens peoples’s ability to flourish in health and employment as well. Rent burden is a long-term barrier to community development and empowerment. These effects were in place even before the coronavirus, so that calls for extending an enforcing eviction bans are even more important now.

You can watch the researchers here in a highlights video if you are short on time.

Here is the link to the full talk.

Wonderful reads 2020: Dories and Harjo on indigenous feminist conceptions/practices of security in JPER

OMG YAYYYYYYYYYYYY this is a wonderful paper in so many regards. I have struggled in my undergraduate class, and in my own writing about perceptions of security, that planning has a deeply impoverished view of security: rejecting surveillance cameras (sure, no problem but then what? acting like bad things don’t happen is not an option) and then often glossing security as being unimportant, or just responding “Oh, the way to be safe is eyes on the street”, echoing Jane Jacobs, which again, is fine, but white shopkeepers and white eyes on the street are calling the cops on Black people and that doesn’t seem to be keeping people particularly safe, now does it?

This paper is both a wonderful theoretical contribution that recasts security as embedded in community and in “generative refusal” and it also is a fine case study on art and organizing to undo the erasure of settler colonial violence in urban locales.

Read it, just read it.

Here is the citation and the link. It’s behind a paywall, but I suspect we can find you a copy of it:

Dorries H, Harjo L. Beyond Safety: Refusing Colonial Violence Through Indigenous Feminist Planning. Journal of Planning Education and Research. 2020;40(2):210-219. doi:10.1177/0739456X19894382

Settler colonial violence targets Indigenous women in specific ways. While urban planning has attended to issues of women’s safety, the physical dimensions of safety tend to be emphasized over the social and political causes of women’s vulnerability to violence. In this paper, we trace the relationship between settler colonialism and violence against Indigenous women. Drawing on examples from community activism and organizing, we consider how Indigenous feminism might be applied to planning and point toward approaches to planning that do not replicate settler colonial violence.

Wonderful reads 2020: Amoako and Frimpong Boamah on becoming vulnerable to flooding in PT&P

Ok, I know diddly squat about Ghana other than I enjoyed my visit, and I also know diddly squat about flooding, but I LOVE how these authors use assemblage as both a theoretical approach and *almost* a method in constructing the comparative case studies of Agbogbloshie and Old Fadama, two informal settlements.

Assemblage theory is an ontological approach developed by Giles Deleuze Félix Guattari in their book A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. I do not feel qualified to really present the approach, but it seems to me that Amoaka and Frimpong Boamah do a great job of taking it down from the clouds, as it were, and really unlocking the potential of the approach to help us understand how and why vulnerability to flooding happens. It releases the research from the demands of a paradigm: you don’t have to have supply or demand variables. You just examine the variables, knowing they are mutually constituted and influencing, and explore how they are assembling in the context.

My PhD students read the paper with me. There are a couple places in the cases where I think the narrative gets a muddled, but that happens to all of us and it doesn’t negate the fact that this is a very nice exemplar of really using theory to deepen empirical work.

Here is the citation and the link. It’s behind a paywall, but , I suspect we can find you a copy of it if you request it:

Clifford Amoako & Emmanuel Frimpong Boamah (2020) Becoming Vulnerable to Flooding: An Urban Assemblage View of Flooding in an African City, Planning Theory & Practice, 21:3, 371-391, DOI: 10.1080/14649357.2020.1776377

Assemblage thinking has emerged over the last two decades as an important theoretical framework to interrogate emerging complex socio-material phenomenon in cities. This paper deploys the assemblage lens to unpack the vulnerability of informal communities to flood hazards in an African city. Focusing on Agbogbloshie and Old Fadama, the largest informal settlements in Accra, Ghana, this paper employs multiple methods including archival analysis, institutional surveys, focus group discussions, and mini-workshops to study the processes of exposure and vulnerability to flood hazards in these two communities. We find that being vulnerable to flood hazards in these informal settlements emerges from historically contingent, co-constitutive processes and actants: the city officials’ modernist imaginaries and socio-cultural identities of residents in informal settlements; the social material conditions experienced by residents in these settlements; and the translocal learning networks of government and non-government actors that simultaneously (re)produce oppressive urban planning policies and grassroots resistance to these policies. The paper concludes with a call to urban planners and allied built environment practitioners to understand flood vulnerability as both a process and product of these complex interactions.