My New Year’s Resolution: Showing students my heart

The thing about teaching is….errbody thinks they know how to do it. And they do.
Because you are always teaching and learning, all the time. Then, when you try to teach on purpose, it’s harder than hell and everybody gets to criticize you all the time.

This story from HuffPo about Ruby Bridges meeting up with her first grade teacher.

Oprah. You kill me every time.

The backstory: Ruby Bridges, when she was six years old in 1960, was the first black student to walk into a all-white school in New Orleans. No other parents wanted their kids with the little girl, so the teacher, Mrs. Henry, and Miss Bridges spent the year alone. But Mrs Henry remembered it as “a grand time”:

Though it was a frightening, turbulent time, Mrs. Henry only recalls the joy she experienced that year. “It was so wonderful to have a little student like Ruby that it really made it a pleasure,” Mrs. Henry told Oprah in 1996. “We had a grand time together, side-by-side. Just the two of us spent the year together.

This is the kind of teacher one remembers. Ms. Bridges recalled:

While protestors rioted across the city, Mrs. Henry walked into her classroom every day, ready to teach. “She actually taught me the lesson that I say Dr. King taught all of us,” Ruby says. “And even though she was white and she looked exactly like the people outside the school, she showed me her heart.”

It’s not easy to go showing people your heart, but what a legacy,

Happy New Year, friends.

#ReadUrbanAndPlanningWomen2014 #31 Sarah Bradshaw

Last year, in 2013, Environment and Urbanization dedicated an entire issue to gender and urban change here, and all of the manuscripts are worth reading. The one that caught my eye came from Sarah Bradshaw, who is a Senior Lecturer in Development in the Law School at Middlesex University, London.

Bradshaw, S. (2013). Women s decision-making in rural and urban households in nicaragua: The influence of income and ideology. Environment and Urbanization, 0956247813477361.

In this manuscript, Bradshaw does interview work in two communities, one urban and one rural, in Nicaragua, asking both male and female householders about work and contributions. Bradshaw is testing how women in married household make decisions about work, and how those decisions are viewed by their male partners. We have a goodish bit of economic and sociological theory that attempts to explain household work allocation.

It’s rather hard to suss out the chicken-and-egg aspects of women’s labor decisions. Ideology-based theories assert “women’s work” in two ways: since it’s done by women (for everybody else), it’s either a) beyond market price (the apologists), sacred, holy, etc or b) it’s valued at lower wages because the patriarchy values women’s labor less or c) demands that women put household production as the highest priority mean they are less valuable in the commodity workforce, etc. (Larry Summers) and d) they just suck at everything compared to men and thus deserve lower wages (because of c, or because misogyny!) There is also the problem that lower women’s wages mean that it’s logical for households to use women’s time rather than men’s, as the opportunity costs for doing so are lower. And so on, and so forth.

There’s no real sussing causation here but Bradshaw does interview work to see how women and men located in urban and rural settings. She interviews about 80 households in each setting; the urban setting was Managua. She found distinct differences in the way in which urban and rural women and men view women’s work. In rural areas, women did not consider what they did to be ‘work’ unless they were paid; their spouses also did not identify work as “contributing” to the household. Urban women were much more likely to be involved in income-generating activities for the household, and their household work. A quote is particularly telling:

One woman goes further in terms of what this means, noting that for one important upholder of social norms, the Church, a good woman is “…not exactly a slave, but not much less.”

Women in urban settings had more paid work opportunities available to them and thus, had a better position in household bargaining around labor distribution, and their spouses were also more likely to recognize paid work as a “household contribution.”

#ReadUrbanandPlanningWomen2014 entry #30 Sophie Bond

I have never had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Bond, but I did very much enjoy her manuscript in Planning Theory when it came out a bit ago. She is a lecturer in Geography at the University of Otago, New Zealand. The manuscript I am discussing is:

Bond, S. (2011). Negotiating a ‘democratic ethos’: Moving beyond the agonistic – communicative divide. Planning Theory, 10(2), 161-186. doi:10.1177/147309521038308

This is a very nice article that takes up Habermas and Mouffe, two of my favorite thinkers, who are often portrayed in a theoretical opposition. Habermas’s public reason, in which individuals deliberate and make sense of a shared problem conflicts with Mouffe’s (and others) in their emphasis on agonism, conflict or, as Bond phrases it, antagonism. The idea that rationality emerges from deliberative discourse flattens out (by force or convention) or at least obscures what really has to occur in politics and, by extension, planning: a conflict based on divergent interests that might more fully inform a radical change in how things get done or goals for public life if we pursued those conflicts rather than trying to shut them down or negotiate them away too soon.

Schaap (2006) describes this difference as that between modernism and postmodernism. While others may not define the two theorists’ positions in quite those terms, the differ-ences between them have been largely situated in Habermas’s recourse to a universal communicative rationality and an essential faith in the enlightenment project (Schwandt, 2000), in contrast to Mouffe’s anti-foundational understanding of the social as contin-gently and historically constituted through the operation of discourse (Howarth, 2000; Laclau and Mouffe, 2001; Torfing, 1999).

Bond’s project here is to look at the points where Habermas and Mouffe might have sufficient ground in common to serve as a bridge for understanding both conflict and reason as means to aid planners understand how politics can inform practice. She can’t synthesize, as she notes. The theories are too different. She notes, then, that build between them, she has to base her approach on one and then pull from the other. She chooses Mouffe, which I think is right: that beginning point allows her to avoid falling into Habermas’unworkable ideal procedures while drawing from his idea that public reason occurs, and that it can occur through planning even as groups come into conflict. To wit, both theories share the idea that democracy occurs via public dialogue, whether ideal or agonistic.

From there, Bond develops a ‘democratic ethos’ that captures agonistic pluralism to be more workable in planning theory to understandhow urban governance involves both possibilities for consensus and dissensus. There are points here in the description of the ethos where I become rather lost in the theory in my first read-through, as I am 1) not terribly familiar with Derrida’s concept of undecidability, which appears to be important, and 2) I am not sure exactly in what sense she means signifiers here. Thus I’ve gotten myself lost.

Nonetheless, she leaves us with a set of questions that strike me as quite sensible for practice, given the foundation she set up:

  • What discourses interact and how?
  • What relations of power are revealed by the operation of those discourses?
  • What hegemonic projects are mobilized within the undecidable space and how?
  • What signifiers are elevated to a universal position such that they become empty or floating master signifiers and how are they reinscribed into discourses in this particular space-time?
  • What possibilities are foreclosed in the taking of a decision? What is the effect of this foreclosure?
  • Who is advantaged or disadvantaged? What has been overlooked or considered less important? What alternative trajectories are available and why were they superseded?

#ReadUrbanAndPlanningWomen2014 #28 Diane Davis and Onesimo Flores

I do not believe I have ever had the pleasure of meeting Diane Davis, though I see from her cv that she is a fellow UCLA grad (from Sociology). I first encountered her work when I was surfing around online, and I found her very nice syllabus on Urban Governance.

Onesimo Flores is a lecturer at the GSD at Harvard, Diane Davis is the Charles Dyer Norton Professor of Regional Planning and Urbanism Department of Urban Planning and Design
Graduate School of Design Harvard University

I read:

Diane E. Davis, Onesimo Flores Dewey (2013), Chapter 12 How to Defeat an Urban Megaproject: Lessons from Mexico City’s Airport Controversy, in Gerardo del Cerro Santamaría (ed.) Urban Megaprojects: A Worldwide View (Research in Urban Sociology, Volume 13) Emerald Group Publishing Limited, pp.287 – 315.

This is a case study, obviously of Mexico City, and the unraveling of a major plan to redo the Mexico City airport. The case is interesting, simply because it rather defies the normal unfolding of urban mega-projects. President Fox himself canceled the project after a firestorm of controversy and strong divisions emerged in various elite and institutional coalitions. Nonetheless, the feds claimed that the reason they cancelled the project because the local residents did not want to be forced into selling their land for airport. One possible explanation is, simply, that the President Fox’s administration was exhibiting greater sensitivity to democratic than he did in many other contexts.

Still, there are some puzzles. Davis and Flores Dewey note that other political elites had strong objections, particularly to the site selected. Mexico City Mayor Manuel Lopez Obrador hoped to keep the existing airport up and going. Politicians in the neighboring states resented what they saw as federal favoritism towards Mexico City vis-a-vis growing demands in their regions,right along with optimistic technical reports that backed up the statement from the adjoining states’ leaders.

Elite opposition notwitstanding, it would be a mistake to underplay the potency of citizen opposition. Environmental justice arguments took hold as residents of and near the site objected to property takings and forced relocation as a human rights violations. Their cause found its way into the international press, as well. They organized a sizable march in Mexico City to protest that small amounts of compensation offered ($7.20 pesos per square meter) via courts. In addition, overlapping jurisdictions were controlled by different, and often sparring, political parties, and along with the citizen opposition, provided evidence that democratic political sources of diverse opinions had influence over the traditionally centralized federal authority.

#ReadUrbanandPlanningWomen2014 entry #27 Marguerite Abouet on Yop City

I am sucker for booklists, obviously and this one here on 10 great novels every urbanist should read from Anna Clark on Next City. Aya in Yop City was one of her suggestions:

Abouet has said that she began to write the Aya graphic novels — this one is the first in an informal series — because she was frustrated with the limited portrayal of cities in Africa. Pictured as places of war and famine, she saw literature’s failure to capture the humor and daily rhythms that she remembered from her own childhood in Côte d’Ivoire. In Aya, she brings us to Yop City in 1978, a sunny working-class city in West Africa that brims with youthful energy, infatuation and promise. The story follows our 19-year-old heroine and her friends as they learn what it means to become an adult in this city. Aya is a light-hearted and charming story — hardly a dense portrait of urban life. But that makes it perhaps all the more revealing.

So I picked it up thinking I might use it in my 245 class, and it’s every bit as charming as Clark suggest. Aya, our protagonist, is a nice girl with big dreams, and she has two friends, Bintou and Adjouna. All boy crazy, with difficult parents, they come up together a working-class section of Yopougon-Koute in the Ivory Coast during the late 1970s.

You have to pay attention; the urban aspects of the story are fleeting; the maquis, the housing, the 1,000-star hotel, however, provide a rich and engrossing environment for the story of young men and women trying to find their way. Highly recommended.


Raphael Bostic @RaphaelBostic, Nicole Ezparza @nicolephd and I discuss Kafka’s The Castle for the Bedrosian Center @BedrosianCenter

So the Bedrosian Book Club did something a little off the beaten path this time out: we discussed Franz Kafka’s novel, The Castle. I started us off a little badly: I get nervous when recorded, but the discussion is worth listening to if you have an interest in bureaucracy, power, culture, and a bunch of things that come up during our discussion. You can find it here.

To call philosophy down from the heavens…Scott Samuelson’s nice essay in CHE

Scott Samuelson contributed a nice essay to CHE today, but I think it’s behind a paywall. Like lots of CHE personal essays, this one has a little more personal stuff than is perhaps interesting, but Samuelson seems to be a young writer, and much about the essay is good-hearted and rings utterly true:

I never fully understood Kant until a student of mine, a mother who had to authorize a risky surgery for her son that led to his death, asked me in tears if Kant was right that the consequences of an action play no role in its moral worth. I never fully understood Stoicism until a student of mine who’d been sexually abused as a child explained to me how she’d deduced the same principles as Epictetus to transcend her suffering and find happiness. John Locke always seemed a little boring to me until a Sudanese refugee asked me tremblingly if we could study his arguments for religious freedom.

Ideas have consequence, ideas fuel the soul, and all of us need them. I am looking forward to Samuelson’s book, which is out from UChicago this year, called the Deepest Human Life: An Introduction for Philosophy for Everyone.

Oh, and BTW, a subscription to the Chron is a nice gift for your local pointy-head academic. Not affiliated, just an idea.

Spare me the ethics defenses of Harvard Proffie/Hanger-on Ben Edelman

Blech blech blech. Harvard has a lot of adjuncts, particularly in their professional schools, and plenty of people sign up for this because they get to put “Harvard professor” in their titles. It is the nomenclature of self-promotion, and when it works well, it works well for everybody involved. The university gets to say it hires people with their fingers on the pulse of the consulting world; the consultant gets to add an prestigious uni cred to their own self-promotion. Edelman seems to be one of these loosely affiliated faculty.

The internets erupted last week over Edelman’s going after a Chinese restaurant that was, in fact, charging higher prices than their website, and they overcharged Edelman by $4. He confronted them on it, and apparently they didn’t grovel or reimburse fast enough because he went on with further threats. The internet erupted in judgment. But according to his fellow Harvard blah-blah vendor in the New Republic, Nathan Robinson, this puts Edelman in the right, doing business ethics housecleaning, instead of a bully:

Fraudulent business practices are widespread in America and often have little remedy. People are frequently scammed but are unaware or too busy to do anything about it. Even those who seek a remedy often fail to find one, and businesses have an incentive to keep ripping other customers off because it’s easy to pay off the few, like Edelman, who complain.

Sichuan Garden owner Ran Duan’s initial reply to Edelman stated that the restaurant’s website was out of date and the menu prices had gone up—and made no offer to reimburse Edelman for the difference. That only changed once Edelman become more serious. As he points out, the restaurant had known for months it was showing people the wrong prices, but hadn’t updated the website. Perhaps this was an honest mistake, but changing the site takes all of five minutes. The restaurant had no incentive to do so, however, given that few consumers would notice the price difference. By not taking the simple steps necessary to follow the law, Sichuan Garden was essentially stealing people’s money every day, for months.

Perhaps if you yell about this loudly enough, you’ll convince some people, but 1) No, it does NOT take 5 minutes to update a website with prices. It takes longer than that. Not everybody has an army of people at hand to deal with the web crap (says the owner of a nonprofit who, unlike Harvard proffies and overpaid business consultants, has to do all that web shite herself, and yeah, sometimes months go by before I get to it,) and

2) bayotch, please. If Edelman and his chorus of business buddies cared about fraud, they wouldn’t be going after locally owned small businesses. Yeah, the Sichuan Garden is technically in the wrong here, but here’s the deal: if you use your platform and status as a Harvard -effing Proffie to go after the Sihuan Gardens instead of the Bank of Americas, the Bernie Madoffs, the payday loan industry, the people who go after collections that are 8 years-old, and their buddies on Wall Street, you are HELL TO THE YEAH part of the Establishment and you kind of suck. Even if, from a strict Kantian perspective, you are right and they are wrong. I’ll give you the $4 to shut up.

And you know what? Plenty of us are sick of Harvard-associated people using their platform to dance on the head of a pin about issues that don’t matter. The Freakonomicsification of EVERYTHING…if it’s cutesey and unexpected and marginal, well, it’ll make news and it won’t make any members of our fellow power elite unhappy or challenge any systems…but it’s awesome because we did it! And we’re Harvard! We just correlated the number of poodles with crime rates! Admire us because we are SUCH ICONOCLASTS. NOBUDS THINKS LIKE US RIGHTCHERE.

Now, there are *great* scholars at Harvard doing incredible work–incredible work–of real significance. I don’t know why they put up with this nonsense, but I suppose it’s like all of us who just want to do good work and help in the world: there’s no time to deal with every self-promotional blah-blah vendor who can find a media outlet.

So yeah, Edelman may technically be in the right, but don’t expect any slow claps.

Sarah Goodyear opts for “You Kids, Get Off My Lawn” Urbanism in NextCity

I’m glad that NextCity actually has women write about the city, but this entry from Sarah Goodyear strikes me as ill-conceived: Against the Cutesifcation of Urban Design. She’s arguing against swings and pong games, based on the following points:

More broadly, the focus on expensive and often impractical “playful” solutions that can’t be scaled up diverts designers’ and planners’ attention from the real challenges at hand. City-dwellers don’t need garbage cans with sound effects, they need more garbage cans, and more frequent trash pickup. Regular bus commuters don’t need swings, they need shelter from the elements and reliable information about bus arrival time. Pedestrians don’t need to play games at the crosswalk, they need shorter crossing distances, longer walk signals, and better separation from cars.

She’s making a lot of assumptions here. First, that the cute solutions are expensive and can’t be scaled up. I’m not sure that assumption is warranted, and it’s presented without evidence. Hello, Kitty is cute and it’s delivered on scale.

But oh, boy! The latent modernism and its language of efficiency is rather front-and-center here. We need efficiency, not delight, damn you kids with your widdgety-bibbity toy urbanism! We’re serious grownups here!

Ok, but one on her list of problems (the last) has an extensive, existing body of urban design work (so it’s a matter of implementation, not necessarily design) and the first two problems have little to do urban design, not really. It’s possible that that the German city that installed the pong game at traffic lights doesn’t have enough trash cans….oh, no, wait, it’s not possible. If there is one thing German cities have, it’s way the heck enough trash cans.

But the point is that cities that do not have enough trash cans are cities who are not necessarily bad at urban design; they are probably suffering from either bad city management or a low tax base or both, and they may have bad design, too, but the root problem is not design. Ditto with the bus problems. Urban designers are in charge of keeping the buses on a timetable? Since when? Does Goodyear really think that the dollars a few swings at bus stops cost will move the dial on transit service or understanding service?

And actually, I think it’s wrong to get all sniffy about swings at bus stops. I could care less about them, but if they make the time pass faster for some kid waiting for the bus with his mom or dad, why not? I do wonder about how safe it is have something swinging on the sidewalk, I’m assuming people thought of that and the swing has limited range.

The cutesification of urban design may make for fun tourist attractions, but it infantilizes the very people who use a city most: residents and commuters. The parent walking a child home from day care on a rainy night, worrying if the cars will stop for them. The older person who needs a bit more time to cross the street. The construction worker waiting for a bus in the blazing sun.

Oh, I can just hear Fanfare for the Common Man playing in the background as she wrote this. I’m not sure NextCity writers get to appoint themselves the voice of the proletariat, for one. But for another, the parent walking the kid home might really like some things to serve as landmarks and diversions for his/her kid in an otherwise boring commute. Infantilization assumes that everybody in the city is an adult. Some urban residents are actually infants.

For another, the design solutions to the last two problems are important, but the reason we don’t have them is not because urban design suddenly got cute. It’s because cities don’t spend money on design (or anything else), cute or otherwise, in neighborhoods where people rely on buses. And while it’s good to point that out, Goodyear’s apparent inference tha this is, somehow, an urban design problem instead of a fiscal equalization problem or a justice problem strikes me as pretty tone-deaf in the usual urban design way: I care about design, and thus everything is design. Design and designers go where the money is (just like everybody else) and the reason why construction workers sit in the blazing sun is not that urban designers are too busy making swings. It’s that urban politics keeps the money for both the cute and majestic in particular spaces, and those spaces are not occupied by working-class urbanites.

Finally, tourists are important to cities. I get that it is a fine New York/East Coast tradition to kvetch about tourists, but for crying out loud. Their use of the city does not preclude residents’ use of the city. Tourist dollars are important to supplement local tax bases for all the things that Goodyear says urbanites really want and need. You want more money for transit? Encourage those tourists, and encourage them to eat at restaurants as much as humanly possible. Let them grow fat during their vacations, as that is sales tax revenue for the rest of us, while their little kids strain their home tax bases and not ours. It’s as close to taxing foreigners living abroad as you can get.

And ditto with her last line about the sinister corporate-ness of the cutesy design which means we should all be worried by the corporate takeover of urban space, but well, that horse is waaaaay out of the barn and has wandered down pretty far down the road. With tax bases where they are, and demands for service at the level Goodyear wants, tourist and corporate dollars are the urban reality, cutesy or otherwise.

If Goodyear wants to flat out say it: cities spend money on design when they should be spending the money on services, then that’s a fair point. But her argument seems to be that designers aren’t solving urban problems, and it strikes me that many of the problems she’s listed aren’t designers’ problems to solve, except insofar that designers are part of the democratic/deliberative world of urban problems in general.

The Economist on Suburbs and how the back-to-the-city hype is a bit wrong

One of my wonderful students, Jeff Khau, sent around this long essay on Planet of Suburbs from the Economist, and while I have a love/hate relationship with the Economist and its ‘commenting’ rather than reporting on urbanism, this piece is really worth reading if you have any interest in urbanism and metropolitan regions. It’s a nice discussion of what we numbers-oriented types have maintained for some time: that while central cities and downtowns are growing (and that’s a good thing), it probably doesn’t warrant the triumphant tone it gets from various and sundry urbanists.

Even there however, we should cautious with our conclusions. Looking at relative growth percentages, particularly when you are dealing with a) differently sized population bases and b) different geographic areas. Sure, it’s possible that suburb X grew by 49 percent and downtown only grew by 3 percent, but if (a) is big in downtown and small in the suburb, the suburb could be adding much fewer people. As it happens, there are suburbs with quite a few people in them, so in some instances, the growth in absolute terms of a lower percentage may exceed the higher percentage. That’s a pretty straightforward problem in measuring urban growth.

And there are a fair numbers of both populous and urban suburbs out there, and many of those are flourishing, right along with traditional suburb-y suburbs that sit there behind gates. The numbers are the numbers to some degree.

One nice highlight is on Shlomo Angel’s terrific work on sprawl:

Just how powerful and widespread this centrifugal trend will be is suggested by the work of Shlomo Angel, a geographer at New York University. By using satellite images, old maps and population data, Mr Angel has run a ruler over some 3,600 metropolitan areas. He finds that, with few exceptions, they are less dense in wealthier countries (see map). Paris is less than one-third as densely populated as Cairo and barely one-seventh as dense as Mumbai. Even rich cities that seem packed are sparsely populated compared with poorer ones. Tokyo is only one-fifth as densely populated as Dhaka, for example.

As a link, Angel has two very nice books: Planet of Cities and The Atlas of Urban Expansion, both of which deal with these themes.

And I love to see this problem discussed even though it is terrifying:

Years of vote-winning giveaways to police officers and firemen, combined with unrealistic predictions of stockmarket returns, have left some cities with giant holes in their pension funds. Chicago’s unfunded liabilities work out to $18,596 per inhabitant, according to Morningstar Municipal Credit Research; New York’s amount to $9,842. To fill these holes, cities must either prune services or raise taxes. Both answers were likely to drive residents to nearby suburbs, making the problem worse. No number of trams, coffee shops or urban hipsters will save cities that slip into this whirlpool.


Oh boy.

And this last bit:

Elsewhere in America, too, suburbs are being given a dab of urbanity. Mountain View in Silicon Valley—home of Google—is trying to create a modest downtown. The highly successful Research Triangle Park in North Carolina is to build a small urban core, with cafés and small offices intended to entice startups. In southern California, the developer Rick Caruso builds open-air shopping centres that emulate old-world city centres, only with musical fountains.

This sort of thing might strike urbanites as laughably ersatz. But they might consider how their own neighbourhoods have changed. The inhabitants of Greenwich Village in New York or Islington in London live in places much less densely populated than a few decades ago, and containing fewer poor people. Old cities, like suburbs, are increasingly oriented around shopping centres. Leeds city centre has been transformed by a new mall; so has Stratford, in London’s East End. Croydon’s officials hope that a Westfield shopping centre in their borough will do the same.