Empty chairs

Functionally, I doubt talking to an empty chair is any different than simply giving a speech. But it strikes me as an alarming and unwitting metaphor for the state of political communication: One-sided, your reactions to what I say don’t matter, what I say is so important that I should be able to hold forth without treating you like an agent capable of response; your ideas are irrelevant. You are nonhuman.

Self-loathing planners?

I unwittingly caused a kerfuffle among my colleagues in an odd way. It’s sort of one of those he-said, she-said things, but the basic bones of it go something like this:

a) Our leadership has never encouraged us to hire anybody who isn’t a quantitative social scientist. We are a policy school, full of economists. Perhaps too full. The emphasis has been on urban social science in research, not planning.

b) By word of mouth, one of our faculty notes that our Dean expressed annoyance that our big rival, UCLA, was hired to do some urban visualization work around my beloved home.

This story (b) gets told amongst my colleagues in hushed tones as though it is our failure. I started the controversy rolling by pointing out we have never, not once, positioned ourselves to be the people who are going to be doing any urban visualization anywhere, either in our own neighborhood or anybody else’s.

I also pointed out that the people hired to do the visualization weren’t planners. They are architects and computer scientists. USC has departments in both. So who didn’t compete here? Planning faculty is supposed to be all things in all situations?

The whole episode reminds me of what I refer to the as the self-loathing planner phenomenon.

The field’s lack of definition tends to make it difficult even for its practitioners to understand. People don’t understand the field, so when it comes time to assign blame, they can point their fingers at the planners. And planning efforts are usually so multi-party that it’s possible to assign credit everywhere but the planner.

And architects love credit. So they’ll take all they can get. Why? Most architects understand they are marketed professionals.

So who is to blame for urban renewal? Oh, it’s those planners. Who is to blame for car culture? Those planners! Who is to blame for exclusionary zoning? Again, planners! It doesn’t matter that over the years architects and engineers and real estate developers and individual home owners and other urban elites have had their faces in the trough of those things. Clearly, it’s those damn planners to blame!

Why planners put up with this is beyond me. Instead, they take on the blame. Paul Knox and I argued that planners tend to be so hungry for proof of their efficacy that they willingly accept blame for past urban failures because, even if they wielded that power incorrectly, it’s a reassurance that they did, in fact, have power to affect change–at least at one point in time. I find that silly; democratic power and political power are fluid, and just because you play a facilitating role instead of top-down role doesn’t mean you are powerless.

Unless you accept definitions of yourself and your successes and failures from other people.

Some very good writing advice from Margaret Atwood….

Margaret Atwood’s 10 Rules for Writing Fiction 1…:

8 You can never read your own book with the innocent anticipation that comes with that first delicious page of a new book, because you wrote the thing. You’ve been backstage. You’ve seen how the rabbits were smuggled into the hat. Therefore ask a reading friend or two to look at it before you give it to anyone in the publishing business. This friend should not be someone with whom you have a romantic relationship, unless you want to break up.

(Via vintageanchor.tumblr.com)

Aristotle on social justice

Well, of course, Aristotle never used the phrase social justice as he was simply interested in justice and didn’t need to justify the social aspects of the life he meant to prescribe because libertarians hadn’t yet come along to annoy everybody with their focus on individuals.

We’re discussing Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics today in my social justice class, just a selection, on the material on teleology, social harmony, and all those uncomfortable bits about masters and slaves. I wonder what kind of case we’ll decide to parse thinking about things from Aristotle’s perspective?

No, there is no better place in the world..

Had we but world enough, and time. | My favourite place in Venice, the Libreria Acqua…:

My favourite place in Venice, the Libreria Acqua Alta. 

It’s a bookshop right on the canal that floods every year, so the eccentric, stray-cat-adopting owner keeps his books in boats, bathtubs and a disused gondola to protect them.

There’s also a staircase made of books outside that you can climb up and get a gorgeous view of the canal, and a courtyard of seats made of books where you can sit and read. 

Seriously, books, canals, cats and boats. Can a place get any better?

(Via withrainboweyes.tumblr.com)

Justin Fox (and me) on why Niall Ferguson should start doing real research again

I’m sure you’ve all seen the kerfuffle around Niall Ferguson and his puff piece for Newsweek. The outcry included this piece from James Fallows from the Atlantic. Ferguson shot back with a snotty, self-important (and ill-advised) “oh stop nitpicking and villifying poor me, you mean, meanypants liberal blogosphere” piece here, claiming he is the victim of an intellectual witch hunt. Poor wee Niall. It must be very difficult to be him. Public intellectuals are to be worshipped and invited to smart parties, not questioned.

Oh, the ego.

By far, the best response to this that I have read came from Justin Fox at Harvard Business Review.

Here’s the money quote that is so good I wish I’d written it:

Which is where my thought leader idea comes in. Ferguson is a great financial historian — his history of the Rothschild family is brilliant. In recent years he’s become more of a generalist, and has focused more on current events. That’s not a bad thing — I’m all for experts broadening their reach and sharing their knowledge. But Ferguson has been so good at it, and can express himself so charmingly, and handsomely, and swashbucklingly, that some people are willing to pay him to yammer on about pretty much anything. Tina Brown of Newsweek/The Daily Beast is one of those people, but far more important, as Stephen Marche pointed out on Esquire.com, are the conference organizers who are pay Ferguson $50,000 to $75,000 to entertain and edify a hotel ballroom full of business types about “Chimerica” or “the six killer apps of Western civilization.”

Here’s what chaps my fanny: NITPICKING? NITPICKING? I’M SORRY YOU ARE A TRAINED HISTORIAN WRITING FOR A NEWS MAGAZINE. You can’t check your specifics? YOU? CAN’T CHECK YOUR SPECIFICS?? Writing for a NEWS MAGAZINE. NEWSWEEK staff can’t check your specifics for you? Look, his was an essay on Obama for the election. That piece could have gone out this week; it could have gone out next week. It could have gone out any time before November.


We don’t need trained scholars to contribute to the vapid, sloppy blather in the world; we need them to do their homework and write thoughtful pieces in response to policy. I am SURE he could have done that from a conservative perspective and still been more careful with the specifics–there is much to legitimately critique–but he was just too lazy to do so, and Newsweek was too sloppy to do so. If we wanted this level of journalism, we could….go to personal blogs, not Newsweek. We could ask any schlub why the president should not be re-elected.

My brilliant colleague Richard Green said it best. If a USC proffie had written that original piece of slop, his fellow scholars would used him like a kickball and jumped up one down about how USC isn’t Harvard. Ferguson thinks he gets a free pass because of his lordly position with a Harvard moniker, which means he’s believes he’s entitled to be last experty-expert on whatever he pronounces–and he shouldn’t.

Ferguson, I beg you. Stop this. Go back to writing the beautiful books you used to.

My brilliant colleague Jenny Schuetz being brilliant about foreclosures on Marketplace

Do you listen to Marketplace on NPR? If not, you should. In general, the show is quite good, for a quick into to the issues. This week my colleague Jenny Schuetz is on talking about foreclosures. It’s a worthy listen the whole way through because it’s interesting to learn about the new businesses that have cropped up to help banks deal with their foreclosures, and it’s REALLY interesting to see what some of the non-experts think should happen to the derelict properties.

Here’s the link. Go listen.

Bychance urbanism, Traffic Tranny and respecting organic human interaction

Attention conservation notice: People figure out what they need. Providing them with a cool environment/arena for liberty, choice, and self-expression can enable people to solve problems.

Can you design for spontaneity? Designers say yes, but then, they believe in design or else they wouldn’t be designers. My suspicion, not entirely informed, is that you can design to make interaction difficult, so that design that fosters interaction–rather than making anything happen, per se– is really a matter of removing barriers, putting out some chairs and some shade, and then–very contrary to American’s tendency to try to control everything–letting people do what they want. Some grouchy old misanthropes like me won’t interact. Others, like my jovial husband, will create a social space out of whatever is there. Beauty and interest would be a good idea because they feed the human soul, even if nobody stops driving or saves the planet as a result of a nice place.

My wonderful student Liana Elliot got me thinking about these issues with a story she sent me about New Orleans:

I have been enjoying time off New Orleans this summer and observed something yesterday I thought would amuse you. In class we talk a lot about what makes a community, how neighborhood characters are essential, and innovative solutions to problems are often the best route. This story seems like such a perfect illustration of this I thought it should pass it along.

The Hash House Harriers throw an event every year called the Red Dress Run to raise money for local non-profits. The event itself is more bar crawl than ‘run’ per se, but it has become such a success most people don’t even participate in the actual ‘run’ but just head to the quarter wearing a red dress to get in on the fun.

This year, I tagged along with a friend of mine, who is a veritable social butterfly among Lower Bourbon (a robust gay community). From the balconies of these Bourbon St. institutions, I witnessed a brief series of events which I think illustrates (perhaps demonstrates?) the intersection of community, urban planning and the place-making innovation that makes nice places to live.

Earlier in the day took a picture of the enormous crowd on ‘upper Bourbon’ which looked like a sea of red dresses in a hazy drunken afternoon stupor. Then I noticed in my picture there was a fire engine attempting to make it’s way through the crowd. During the day, none of these streets are closed to traffic, and it can be impossible to even cross Bourbon, let alone navigate an entire fire engine through a herd of people.


Later in the day, I was lucky enough to witness a local character known as Traffic Tranny in action. She mysteriously appeared in the intersection, donning a red dress (of course), bright orange nail polish, and well worn sensible pumps. With nothing more than a coaches whistle, Traffic Tranny began directing and orchestrating the flow of pedestrians, traffic, push carts, etc. The drunks are safe, cars can pass, and traffic actually flows across Bourbon.

No one pays Traffic Tranny. I’m not sure if she was ‘summoned’ to deal with the crowd or if there is a time of day or critical mass needed to engage her services. NOPD are deferent to her authority. She’s extraordinarily effective, everyone respects her hand gestures and screeching whistle. She will patiently pose for a photo, but has been known to bang on a hood or two if a driver challenges her directions (or stand on the roof of their car, I’ve heard). Hours later, the fire engine finally passed by us from wherever it had been parked all day.

I noticed the storyline while flipping through my pictures of the day and it immediately reminded me of class. What a perfect solution to a potentially dangerous intersection! She is the ‘eyes on the street,’ the character, part safety officer and part entertainer, the personality incarnate that makes us all love New Orleans so much.

Photo 4

That night I was at a friend’s birthday party, and ran into my old boss who is now a member of the City Council (not only is the Quarter in her jurisdiction, but she’s also been central to an attempt to clean up the taxicab business, and has been met with vitriolic animosity from the cab companies. So she’s been heavily involved in the foot traffic vs. car traffic debate which has been raging for awhile).

It dawned on my that my little anecdote sort of reinforced why I’m in school, away from home, incurring all this debt and dual degrees – because you can’t prescribe Traffic Tranny. There’s no public policy in the world that would be able to create this scene – it happened completely organically out of necessity (mother of invention).

This is one of those examples where policy can only support or surpress her, and urban planning could never have created this situation through design. From the perspective of a councilwoman (such as my boss), what would I do? Is there a legislative mechanism to support these characters without necessitating a special ‘zone’ with strict definitions and boundaries? How can we let de facto community rules operate without sacrificing public safety or resources?

Shortly after taking office, my boss was also central to a majorly controversial sudden-enforcement of a ban on live street music (outside of established music venues with permits), effectively shutting down beloved corner brass bands. The ordinance was seen as a racial matter (not unjustly), as the brass bands were typically young black men, and bar owners are usually white. Using the law to make a New Orleans cultural tradition illegal to protect business interests seemed insane.

Sure there’s a legitimate argument that can be made for enforcing the law and complying with noise ordinances and use of public space, but this seemed like an inappropriate use of a blanket-law which directly contrasted with the de facto ‘scene’ embraced by everyone but the few business owners and residents in the quarter. In the end, ‘exception’ zones were written into the ordinance so bands could play in popular spots. But they don’t really anymore, not like they used to, because brass bands are usually all young black men, and won’t play for fear of being harassed by police. This seems so contrary to what our entire city stands for – chiefly improvisational celebration, it made me wonder where policy fits into culture. If you can’t legislate Traffic Tranny, how do you support her?

That’s the point, isn’t it? What we do (or what I want to do), is find that delicate balance between regulation and freedom, where there is room and flexibility to let creative solutions be discovered, supporting those which work, and regulating just enough to maintain public safety.

This seemed like such a poignant illustration of what we are chasing after – the ‘American Dream’ of planners and policymakers – communities with soul, identity, creativity and ownership; where citizens mostly govern themselves, leaving cops to attend to less monitored corners or chase actual criminals, not harass the kids who stay out of trouble by learning to play the tuba.