ACSP reflections #1: Should researchers be allowed to question Smart Growth? #ACSP2012

Since I no longer subscribe to PLANET, the planning educators’ listserv, I missed out on the original kerfuffle surrounding the publication of this article in the Journal of the American Planning Association:

Growing Cities Sustainably
Marcial H. Echenique, Anthony J. Hargreaves, Gordon Mitchell, Anil Namdeo
Journal of the American Planning Association
Vol. 78, Iss. 2, 2012

You can download the paper for free.

Apparently, the takeaway was upsetting:

Urban form policies can have important impacts on local environmental quality, economy, crowding, and social equity, but their influence on energy consumption and land use is very modest; compact development should not automatically be associated with the preferred spatial growth strategy.

Based on the kerfuffle, ACSP organized the following panel on Friday last week in Cincinnati:

Friday, November 2, 6:00pm – 7:30pm – Popcorn provided!

CRANE, Randy [University of california, Los angeles]

EWING, Reid [University of Utah]

FISHMAN, Robert [University of Michigan]

KNAEP, Gerrit [University of maryland at college park]

TALEN, Emily [arizona state University]

This summer, a debate on the Planet list serve over the merits of the
article Growing cities sustainably: Does urban form really matter? (by Echenique, et al.) published in the spring issue of Japa, stirred up some long-festering tensions over the nature of planning scholarship. Is there
such a thing as objectivity in planning research? What are the dangers of applying the “scientific method” in planning? How do ethics, politics and normative values factor into what gets published? what are the pitfalls of publishing simulation models in Japa? should the “take-away for practice” be dropped? on the issue of compact cities, are we spinning our wheels, or are we provocatively challenging conventional wisdom? is the problem of sprawl still an open question? do these debates ever end, or, with Japa’s help, do they keep going indefinitely?
there will be plenty of opportunity for audience participation.

In the interests of full disclosure, I intended to go to this session, but then walked out after it was apparent that the room was going to be desperately crowded and that no, indeed, the authors of the actual manuscript were not going to be represented in any way other than via the editor, Randy Crane. Were they invited? Why didn’t anybody ask them to write a statement if they were not going to be there?

The session started out with the host of the session, Professor Talen, and her critique of the paper immediately, which appeared to boil down to: practitioners have a tough time convincing people to pursue Smart Growth, as a result, JAPA has no business publishing things that do not reflect practitioner’s goals and values. There was, as far as I can tell, no response from the actual authors, and, given the folks on the panel, I knew how that panel was going to roll out, and I was tired. So I left to rest.

The abstract seems to be making an ethical claim based on this notion that planning research should only study things that help practitioners do their job: how do ethics, politics and normative values factor into what gets published? So let’s start there: what might be the ethical basis for saying a paper shouldn’t be published just because you don’t agree with the findings or the interpretation of the findings?

The basis for Talen’s claim appears to be that planning researchers should be using the power of their academic platform (such as it is) to support the general aims of contemporary planning, and that this is particularly true given what she referred to as the “sprawl machine.” I’m dubious that there is a sprawl machine rather than a plain-old growth machine that can provide either TOD or sprawl so long as somebody gets to pour cement and make money, but let’s pretend that there is a “sprawl machine” and it’s different from and more powerful than compact development coalitions, and, thus, one ethical or moral judgment might be that planning research should support the underdog coalition advocating compact development vis-à-vis elite coalitions and legal frameworks pushing us towards sprawl.*

Now, even compact development advocates really are a disempowered minority instead of, as I would argue, a new version of the same-old growth machine (with some improvements), that rationale strikes me as misguided–way more so than any number of simpler normative or subjective claims about compact cities: that they are aesthetically preferable, for example, and that those aesthetic benefits outweigh other considerations.

The problem with Talen’s idea is that it suggest that researchers “owe” it to practitioners to only inquire within the framework that compact development is unambiguously meritorious and sprawl is unambiguously not.

An analogy would be child abuse: nobody who studies child abuse thinks it’s “optional” that a child should never be abused in the abstract. The research and theory center instead on how pervasive the problem is, what constitutes abuse across cultures, what the long-term effects are, intervention efficacy, and the like. That normative basis rests not just on the long-term consequences of abuse (of which there are many), but on a robust body of general normative theory: human rights (among others, which I find to be less interesting). Thus for Talen, compact urban form has some fundamental, essential unassailability as a core value in the way that “individuals should not be violated” is the normative premise for child abuse researchers.

But planners’ normative stake in urban form comes most often via empirical claims about the secondary effects of different urban forms: it saves the planet, makes people thin, etc. They tend to treat these outcomes as the moral basis for the normative paradigm, rather than going to the work that would establish a reasoned argument about the normative principles of urban form, which then may or may not produce particular outcomes. And as long as those empirical claims about outcomes persist, researchers are going to do things like test those claims, and, at times, not find in favor. Social science often results in mixed findings.

One of the reasons that I decided to take up normative theory in planning is that we are decidedly bad at it. We wrap our normative ideas up in outcome-based, empirical claims, and then we get mad when somebody suggests we don’t deliver the outcomes we claim, and if those outcomes are somehow tarnished, you are left with little rationale for preferred actions since you didn’t develop a more robust normative basis for your position.** Thus are we wrong to test the claims of compact development, even though much of the normative basis for advocacy hinges on those desired outcomes? Or are we wrong to make empirical claims for outcomes at all, if we are unprepared to have them examined?

In other words, for many in planning, compact development is the desired outcome. That’s what they want cities to be: compactness is the object of planning. For many others, compact development is merely a means to get other, desired outcomes: less driving, more walking, fewer emissions, more fuel savings, less energy consumption, and thus, compact cities are a lever, not simply an outcome. And for still others, compact cities can be an outcome and a lever at the same time.
For those in the first camp to get angry and charge skeptics with unethical behavior is way common.

Based on this, can we construct compactness as a set of moral claims? Sure–certainly people have. But it’s hard to do without falling into the outcome-oriented language for how we believe compact cities function. And that puts us back to where we started: how we do we assure ourselves that compactness is unambiguously good if we don’t examine it closely?

Myself, I have to say I’m disappointed in the entire episode. Planners are polite and I suspect the online “controversy” was more passive aggressive rather than downright uncivil. Phronesis is a powerful concept, but it is often wrong, too: two generations ago, many planners thought single-use zoning was the shizzle. And they weren’t just blind, stupid modernists. They lived in a world with newly industrializing cities with unregulated industry belching toxins onto residential neighborhoods too damn close–a problem that regulations and changing industrial geeographies alleviated for American urban residents now clamoring for live-work spaces because work involves computers or arty things rather than petrochemicals for many of us.

We have to be able to ask questions around us and live an unsettled life about the answers, knowing that both moral and empirical claims are going to be contested. They always are, and thus, we shall have to take decisions looking at the future through a glass, darkly. And, certainly, among the questioning, it’s entirely reasonable to raise the question that Talen did, which is: should we even be spending our time contesting the notion of compact cities? You just probably have to be prepared for the rest of us say “yes” until you do formulate that moral argument that convinces us.

*Are elite coalitions always wrong?
**This here is known as the problem with the pretty large swathes of macroecon theory.

4 thoughts on “ACSP reflections #1: Should researchers be allowed to question Smart Growth? #ACSP2012

  1. As always, I mostly agree with you, Lisa. The behavior of some on the listserv was downright shameful. I always thought that universities were a place for debate and discussion of a diversity of ideas. How naive I was.

    I’ve also noticed that the “debate” is really no longer a debate, as people talk past each other. Some groups demand proof even more exacting than beyond a reasonable doubt for findings that conflict with their ideology. If the finding conforms to their ideology, it doesn’t even have to be a finding. It can just be a bald assertion.

    I disgree with your “are elite coalitions always wrong” comment though. What is often portrayed as the “underdog” (environmental groups, etc.) is more often than not a politically powerful group comprised of a large number of wealthy, even elite people, along with academics (which I call pseudo-elite). The like to portray themselves as underdogs but in todays’ world, where NIMBYs often have a veto over any proposed development, they are anything but.

    The growth machine theory is an incredibly naive leap of faith that is accepted at face value by those whose ideologies align with the theory. In the real world, I see little or no evidence of a growth machine.

    • Hi Jess.

      Actually, I asked the question: are elite coalitions always wrong? There are a lot of riffs you could make on that question. Yes, they are always wrong in terms of process (perhaps) versus “No, even a stopped clock is right twice a day” or any number of answers.



      • I understand, but I think you were referring to those that oppose compact development. I’m sure some “elite” groups oppose compact development (the wealthy when it is proposed in their neighborhood), but there are some not so elite groups (affordable housing advocates, for example) who favor compact development. Overall, I love your take on it.

  2. I wish you had stayed so you could tell me what just happened.

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