Love and representation in planning

This post is all over the place. I promise you no resolution.

This morning I am thinking about Luce Irigaray. I have a wonderful PhD student in communications, Nick Busalacchi, who is working in epistemologies of place, and we had a nice if somewhat incoherent talk about Irigaray yesterday. I had the pleasure of discussing her ideas earlier in the day with Aubrey Hicks and David Sloane. My high school French teacher hated my guts–and I always have questions about the ethics of teachers displaying their contempt for students the way she did me–but having another language gave me the doorway to learning many other languages over time, and to be able to read thinkers like Irigaray in their original language–slowly. But then, perhaps that’s how they were meant to be read.

Nick and I started skylarking about where Heidegger ends and Nick’s thoughts begin, and we didn’t get that far because Nick is still working, but the conversation has stayed with me. Heidegger and Lefebvre both push against the reductive representations of space in the professions, but in the profession, representations are a necessity. Planning requires representations of place. You can’t talk or deliberate about a future of anything unless you have some handle on the thing as a thing–its borders, features, etc. Nonetheless, as Lefebvre pointed out, those representations are very very far from the place itself–what is missing concerns the humanity that enlivens the space and makes it real.

I myself have been thinking very much about the YIMBY tendency I see online to assume that everybody who doesn’t support their idea of the city are NIMBYs only interested in property values. The problem is that property values are mixed in with everything else about places and people, and people love places for many reasons besides their property values. I have a nice house in the Crenshaw area of Los Angeles. If Metro decides to go north with it, I will have a TOD right next to me, and that will actually probably raise my property values. (Rail is an amenity; I’ve yet to see an empirical study that finds anything else). That will get me yet another unearned increment of wealth on my home value. But it will change the place; I welcome it and am excited by those changes more than the potential increment in land value.

But what if they have to condemn my house to get the thing built? It’s not outside the realm of possibility. Then I will get some payout, grudgingly given. And I will see them subject to a bulldozer a garden I’ve spent 10 years growing–and a house that my husband and I have lovingly renovated–room-by-room, inch-by-inch, making mistakes and discoveries about ourselves at each step. Thinking about that bulldozer is a stab in the heart, not the pocketbook.

From the sky view surrounding important collective issues like “future housing” or “sustainability” or “regional plans”, my worries about my house and my garden seem as nothing. But they are much to me. Just as everybody’s home is much to them in ways impossible, really, to convey to others, particularly people who have measured out the place in parcels and believe they have justice and sustainability on their side.

This poverty in representation affects every part of this discussion. Just as it is hard to represent love for place as it is, it is also hard to represent what is missed when places become locked down by zoning, and thus, the poverty of the discussion. It’s comparatively easy to traduce somebody as believing that their asset values are more important than housing additional people; our vocabulary of the market and distributive justice readily enable such criticisms. It’s harder to convince people that the things they love can be better when shared with other people because sharing and love are not the language of planning and public policy.