Alexene Farol, one of the extremely gifted students in PPD at USC, has started up her own blog on transportation, “Lex Rail.” The young are so adventurous! She’s already posted about high-speed rail, which I haven’t worked up to.
Alexene is wonderful for a bunch of reasons, and the fact that she might might be becoming one of us—the transport crowd–is doubly thrilling to me for selfish reasons. I taught her in a class that is basically an intro to the city, and you have to accept in teaching that class that you will get students from real estate only marginally interested in the city and students in management who are adamantly (proudly) a-spatial and think urban planning is simply a derivative of their much more lofty aspirations to “manage.” Let’s just put it this way: Alexene opted to read Milton Friedman for the class, and she really read it and worked at it.
With that class, I always want my brightest students–and Alexene is one of the brightest I’ve ever had–to become planners, largely because I worry that my field is clogged with ideologues and solutions advocates and not thinkers. This is a problem she hints at with this post. Planners are well-intended, and some are very gifted thinkers indeed. These are the best of us, these philosopher-kings. Other of us are merely king wannabes, who think that if planners shape cities we will change human behavior and human society like clay in the hands of potter, and they follow various city “recipes” like they can create utopia through sidewalks.
To some degree, they are right: the material life of the city, just like the material environment of your home, is important to how you use and enjoy the space. So sure, let’s put in some sidewalks, that would be lovely, but we probably shouldn’t conclude based on this that we’ve taken millions of car trips off the road or prompted somebody to lose 100 pounds. Providing a place to walk, while not as heroic-sounding as “saving the planet” or “fighting the war against obesity,” is actually probably accomplishment enough. Sidewalks are good.
But social and environmental change is complicated. It requires not just a vision of an artful streetscape and colored pencils but an understanding of science, managing money, social change and sometimes adversarial human interaction, and all of these require leadership. So yah, for bright people in planning, among whom Alexene is one.
If Alexene actually stays focused on transport, though, that’s even better. It’s not like there aren’t bright people in transport. This particular part of planning has not suffered from a wont of analytical capacity–if anything, it has sometimes suffered from the unity of its vision. Having bright, analytical, creative people like Alexene join the field is just wonderful when it happens because she has the whole enchilada: she’s a good and creative thinker, a good writer, a strong sense of social commitment, and leadership charisma. And, as her grappling with Milton Friedman suggests, she’s not afraid to work.