Lets talk about the emotional abuse of planners

I broached topic a bit ago and got accused of self-mythologizing, but I am going to bring it up again because I frankly think it’s an understudied and under-discussed phenomena.

Despite the (valid) critiques about planning’s dark side and how it has served as consultant to power, planning itself is not a powerful profession except by virtue of its partnerships and visions. Planners and planning influence the world in their collaborations with the state, developers, or social groups. You work for a side in the spatial politics of the future and you work with various sources of political power.*

But nobody does a thing, whether a bike lane or a freeway expansion, just because Planner Jim or Imogene says we ought.

That means planners and planning make good scapegoats for the other professions and for people angry at state/capital/community action. Planners put up with this all the time, from engineers who pull out the science status card to developers who pull out the economics education card to architects who pull out the design education card. Oh, credentialing.

For everybody who has gotten mad at a planner who acted like an expert, splained on them, you can rest assured that these planners get talked down to at least once a day by professionals that enjoy more status and prestige not because any of them are really smarter but because they are more valuable to power than planners tend to be. Why? Because planners’ expertise tends to be less about knowledge claims or specific deliverables but instead in bridging, fostering, and creating platforms for many types of knowledge claims, ranging from individual preferences about how people want the future to unfold to how likely various aspects of the future might unfold. Done well, it is an expertise, but it’s not one that necessarily translates to prestige. It’s not because such deliberation isn’t objectively valuable but because much that is valuable tends to get de-valued. Think about caregiving.

In addition to what amounts to workplace bullying of individual planners by those in other professions, there is the individual abuse that planners take during public meetings from both elected officials and the public. The number of times I’ve had electeds use public meetings to score points off planners…I can’t even count. From dismissing whatever the planner has presented as “socialism” to suggesting in public and in front of the press (with no consequences) that a planner is on the take, I’ve pretty much seen it all.

Then the public, blaming planners for everything in sight because they are less intimidating targets than the electeds, who, chances are, are the driving force behind whatever project or idea it is that is pissing off members of the public. But, hey, show a powerpoint or circulate a memo showing the rendering for the project and it’s all your idea.

I myself had a death threat stuck to my car one night. Planners who work for cities doing public engagement often work late into the night, and there’s no jolly like finding out somebody took the time to write a note to threaten you when you are alone in a dead empty–what was that noise?–city parking garage at 1 am.

So yeah I got myself a teeny weeny tiny violin for Huck-Sanders because while I have never been booted from a restaurant, nobody ever comped me a cheese plate, and my colleagues and I have tolerated tons of abuse we earned way less that she has.

People care a lot about where they live, and thus lashing out at professionals who work in systems that enable things they deplore is utterly natural. Criticizing those you oppose politically is only right. I’m not saying it should never happen, and I am not a person who necessarily thinks that civility should be prized in situations where the state is causing harm.

But I do think the emotional toll that politics, both the politics of expertise and the politics of development, takes on planners as individuals should be recognized far more than it is. I train planners that fight from within community organizations. I also have trained planners that are fighting to change the city from within its institutions. I’m not wise enough to know where they should be as individual professionals. That’s their lookout.

I am wise enough to know that each will get a lot of shit, some deserved and a lot not, for trying to help cities become better, nicer, more resourced, more just….and just more.

We do many things wrong, planners do, and yet I am often proud of us anyway for believing enough to hang in there.

Edited to add: One of my brilliant FBoo friends pointed out that all the things that I discuss here are worse for planner of color, indigenous planners, planners with difference. We should do everything to stand by and support them.

My mother’s brilliant policy standard

I was chatting with my mother yesterday–actually, checking to make sure the flowers I sent her made it in good shape because the delivery address is 000 Boon Docks–and we got to talking about politics. She said something self-deprecating about not having an education, etc. Then she said something that seems very wise:

I think about all these things like a mother. I just ask myself ‘is this something that would want for my own kids?’ Like a good school? Or for all that border stuff–would I want my own child taken from me? Kids need their parents. If something would hurt my kid, I don’t want it for any kid. If a school isn’t good enough for my kid, then it’s not good enough for anybody’s kid.”

People are smart, and my mom especially so.

Academic career tip: A faculty member’s crap inbox and sending happy emails

Every single productivity guide tells you not to open your email in the morning. Every single one. And yet for some reason, I still do it. DO NOT BE LIKE LISA.

I got in the habit when I was a consultant, and it was important that I do so then, usually because I was working somewhere far from my husband or from my project colleagues. Get up, get checking for whatever messages came. Yes, there were times when the news was bad or difficult, but it was a necessary part of my day.

I’ve had trouble shaking it, even as I know full well that my best writing comes in the morning. It is undoubtedly a bad habit. You get engaged with smaller items of trivia and then follow up on them or get lost down a rabbit hole.

In fairness to myself, I’ve been scheduling research interviews via email, and so I’ve been checking early and often to make sure I catch those.

But really, as I was reminded this morning, academic email is full of crap news and mean emails from colleagues. I stayed up late reading last night, and let myself sleep in. Had a lovely 8 hours anyway, woke up refreshed, thinking about doing my time on the treadmill, and fresh coffee, and I opened up my email, and it contained a slap in the face. I’m sure it wasn’t intentional, but it was very hurtful nonetheless. One of my colleagues, treating me like the help.

And now I am in tears. Thanks, bad email habits.


What but crap news shows up in an academic’s inbox? On very rare occasions, it’s a delightful invitation, news that one has won an award, a happy check-in with good news from a friend or student.

I’d say my emails run about 60 percent garbage nobody ever needs to see, 3 percent nice things–a generous account, as it’s likely less–and 37 percent crap news:

  • “We need to put you through a 4th round of revision because one of our reviewers is on a power trip I, as the editor, am too spineless to curtail.”, and
  • “We at the university are doubling what you all pay for health care….BECAUSE WE CAN!”
  • “Our new policy on-campus is to disallow drop-offs at buildings because our provost finds the sight of your poor-people cars on campus to be unseemly.”
  • “Dear Miss Schweitzer, I need a better grade because I need a better grade and I tried really hard.”

BTW, for you those of you who want to @ me on the last one, it’s way more common for undergrads to assume I don’t have a PhD than for them to get it right. I wonder what it could be?


This is reason enough to never ever check your email, but to check it first thing in the morning?


I don’t remember which book it was, but Carolyn See gave some advice to young writers that I have tried to follow over the years: randomly write a sincere, short, pleasant fan letter to a person you don’t know every day.

It is remarkable what happens when you do this, sincerely and well. If nothing else, you will have forced yourself to be positive about something. But most likely, you will have sent somebody a reason to smile during a dark job (checking their stupid emails) and will, in turn, get a nice thank-you in return.

Even if they never write you back and never read it, this practice forces you to think about somebody else (trust me, this is a good thing in the academy) and be positive about something.

Sucking is usually pretty obvious, and I’m pretty sure Noam Chomsky doesn’t need any more emails. I tend to pick people who will fully realize I have nothing to gain from reaching out to them.

Last week I wrote to an artist on faculty at UCD because I saw a piece of hers that I absolutely loved. Before that I wrote to a historian, before that a philosopher, before that a classicist.

I make a special effort to write to assistant professors to let them know when I enjoyed an article or book they wrote. Assistant profs get so little validation it’s awful. Having a random full prof show up in their inbox, even if she isn’t an expert in the field, to say they enjoyed a piece, is something happy they can file away amid the constant reviews and critiques and hourly implied threats about losing their livelihoods.

Maybe the rest of you don’t feel this way; I suspect most departmental golden children don’t: their deans and department chairs slobber over their little favorites and it’s validating enough perhaps. Even then I still doubt a happy note from a stranger wouldn’t be appreciated.

It’s not much. But it’s a good thing.

Book Recommendation: Justin Hollander’s An Ordinary City

The full title is An Ordinary City: Planning for Growth and Decline in New Bedford, Massachusetts.

Justin is an acquaintance, but I don’t know him well (but if first impressions are any indicator, he’s very nice…). This is just by way of saying I’m not just pimping a book for a buddy of mine. I think this book is genuinely important, and I also think it’s quite well done.

Perhaps the biggest win comes from the concept itself. Hollander has also written very well about shrinking cities in a book of the same name. But as he notes here in this book, cities like New Bedford seldom get much study. Ordinary almost feels like a slap in the face in 21st century late capitalism, where everything is about branding, standing out, finding your audience, etc. It’s not; it seems mean that the city itself is pretty normal. It’s not growing, but shrinking, and doing so slowly. It’s not a world city or a global city or any of the things that tend to preoccupy urbanists. Don’t get me wrong: there are good reasons to write about big regions–a lot of people live there, and the challenge of providing urban services at such a scale is real enough.

Yet the same reason exists for studying the New Bedfords of this world. When you add them up, a lot of people live in the New Bedfords you find throughout the United States. New Bedford, as it happens, is a post-industrial port city. Hollander traces the efforts the city to made to de-densify (reverse transect) and to recover for de-industrialization. He interviews residents who in general like the city but expressed the all-too-common concern that middle-class neighborhoods around them have become increasing impoverished over their lifetimes. It is unfortunately an everyday story.

Managing the changes in New Bedford occurs through a mix of leaders and organization trying to manage slow decline and find new opportunities. In line with his early thinking, Hollander describes the approach as “smart shrinkage”–cities trying to cope with their social and demographic changes to keep things nice for those who remain.

I am greatly irritated by Palgrave for this price on this book, as it’s expensive; I do hope they plan a paperback version but I don’t have high hopes for the pricing there because the ebook version is pricey, too. Dang them–this is a book that really does deserve to be in the hands of more people than will likely happen with this price tag. It’s a worth taking out from the library. Honestly, why do book proposal guides all go on and on about you describing the “popular appeal” of your book if they are just going to put a high price tag on it for libraries purchase?

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Economics as a responsibility

I’ve been reflecting on multiple things for a few days, and two recent events brought them into focus. First, I was having an online discussion with somebody really smart* who was critiquing a journal article that was likely to become grist for the YIMBY mill. She caveated the discussion by noting that researchers can’t really control how people use their findings. They can’t, not strictly, but that means they have a strong responsibility to think ahead about what kind of knowledge they are trying to create and who it benefits and in staying engaged with the work after publication. Edited to add: Smart Tweeter notes that this makes it sounds like she was absolving scholars, when in fact “it’s a misread on your part. The caveat – included in that same tweet – was that scholars were responsible for the ways in which their work upholds and caters to the very paradigms those that use their work as weapons take their cues from.it’s a misread on your part. The caveat – included in that same tweet – was that scholars were responsible for the ways in which their work upholds and caters to the very paradigms those that use their work as weapons take their cues from.”

The second thing that I’ve been reflecting on was that dumb piece from Forbes about shutting down libraries and replacing them with Starbuck’s and Amazon from Dr. NoName this weekend. I shan’t link to it because I don’t want to give him or Forbes any links for garbage.

See, the thing is, I do think scholars can reasonably see how people are going to use their work, and it’s a matter of research ethics to think about those consequences. Human subjects review requires you think about potential harm the participants might experience weighed against the research’s benefits. But that is different than thinking about the potential harm caused by the research itself to social groups.

For instance, I think Charles Murray knew *exactly* what he was doing with The Bell Curve–he’d have to have done in order to go to the lengths he does to come to the conclusions he desired–and he’s been living off it ever since. I think the person who published the “Hey, maybe colonialism was good for all those countries and peoples” piece (also not linking) last year knew what they were about. It’s easy and sloppy and lazy–and likely very remunerative if you get lucky and go on “universities are oppressive dens of political correctness” circuit if you fail to get tenure.

For research harms that are harder to predict than these, it can be tough. I don’t know how many programs teach research ethics, but they should. I got a good dose of it from my feminist epistemology teacher, Sandra Harding, who assigned in that class a book that in my opinion is a classic in research design, from an anthropologist who is also Maori: Decolonizing Methodologies from Linda Tuhiwai Smith. Now, if you can think of any discipline more responsible than anthropology in messing up things for the Maori, I’d be impressed because I can’t. In this book, Tuhiwai Smith lays out a research ethics that places “do no harm” and “elevate the subject” at the center of inquiry. I highly recommend it because it’s not just useful for researchers; it’s useful for planners, too, and public administrators, doctors, parents, etc. Anybody who wants to find things out in order to help serve other people.

Which brings us to economics as a responsibility. Economics is the king of the social sciences, and thus it’s also the king of the policy fields, much to the chagrin of political scientists and sociologists who legitimately have a great deal to contribute to the discussion. Many economists would argue they have this status because they are more rigorously trained, and as a result, their findings are more accurate and more useful in shaping policy (and management strategies, etc).

The critique, of course, is that economics gets elevated because as a paradigm, they are consultants to power who tell power what it likes to hear. They provide the intellectual cover for policies austerity, despite mounting evidence that there is little wonderful about austerity or trickle down or supply-side anything.

You could say that the truth is somewhere in the middle, but I’d argue that these two points are duals, two sides of the same coin, and as a result, economists have a responsibility–and it isn’t just the responsibility that all of us have to be as rigorous as possible. The responsibility is to recognize that the status and privilege enjoyed by economists in the policy fields means that they have to be ultra conscious about the ways they frame, evaluate, study, and interpret social policy questions. All scholarly disciplines have some power to some degree, but it’s really nothing like what economists have when it comes to social policy.

Marty Feldstein produced a reasonable critique of Social Security and a proposition for changing it. Paul Ryan turned it into the Satan’s baby of a social policy proposal individual accounts became.

We in the policy fields tend to describe economics as a “tool” in policy formation and analysis.

But I see it used more often as a weapon. And that’s what Smart Lady on Twitter was describing. Instead of approaching a study as partial, it becomes a weapon to club the people you see as your political enemies instead of a spark to begin thinking together and deliberating about what we want policy to be.

In that kind of knowledge environment, it’s not good enough to write the study and wash your hands of it. It’s not good enough to enjoy the privilege that our systems convey upon economists and to ignore the rest. Economists have a responsibility to de-center themselves at times and elevate the work of disciplines that bring to the table what economists don’t. There is a responsibility for clarity about the harms that may result from implementation of teh ideas. You can’t be everything to everybody, but you can speak up when you see your results misinterpreted (I particularly like the way Christina Romer has done so over her work on minimum wage.)

Or you can get up in the morning and “own the libtards” and write an obviously idiotic, click-bait essay highlighting all the things you know will piss off liberals. Replace beloved local institutions (libraries) with Amazon and Starbucks, two corporate giants. Watch the libs melt down. Whee.

*I never know whether to identify people on the blog or not, and since I seem to annoy this person anyway, I’m going with no this time out just in case I misread her points.

Promoting your work as a new scholar

I got tagged on a Twitter thread, and since I hadn’t thought about it for awhile, I didn’t have anything intelligent to say about it.

Anyway, how to promote your work as a new scholar. There are several ways to go forward, and some of these strategies will suit you better than others.

1. Write well in the first place about important problems. This is here the gold standard, and it’s very hard to live up to that every time, so we have some corollaries, including what I call the “George Harrison” strategy.

Some things do not need a lot of explanation. Good writing on important urban topics is a pleasure to read, even for busy people. We remember and appreciate it when we get it.

Now, not every paper is a major contribution paper, and I don’t think it’s a great idea to swing for the fences every time you go up to bat. Until you get some experience, it’s hard to know what is major and minor. Do your best, try to get help from mentors, etc.

The good news is that I can say without reservation that even work that isn’t all-that is better circulated than not. Maybe I am weird, but if I have somebody who sends me a badly written paper on something, I will *at least* register the thought “oh, so-and-so is working on topic X”. This is useful in a couple ways:

a) it means I might return to the paper to cite it, even if it is poorly written, if when I do slog through it, it has good social science work in it; I also might note to somebody else “oh, hey, so-and-so is working on topic X.”

Both of these are solid doubles in self-promotion.

b) it’s enough for me to see somebody’s name cross my desk frequently enough with journal articles. This is a solid single. (Sorry for the sports analogies, but this seems to be what I have this morning.) Even if I don’t know what your specific contributions are, it’s good to have established scholars thinking “Boy, so-and-so is productive.”

Ok, so now for the Freakonomics and Un-named Urban Scholar problem: status-quo reinforcing bon-bons written up in a click-bait style of “oh, there’s a new science of the city and you won’t believe what it finds!” way. And then it’s some puff piece about predicting fuel consumption and emissions. One thing is for sure: it’s not upsetting in any way to anybody in power.

I may be in the minority on this, but I am willing to put up with some of this if there is good, solid scholarship elsewhere in your record. If this is all you produce, you will honestly probably do fine in today’s world where superficial treatments of every topic are very, very popular for everybody: audiences who don’t like to think; journalists who don’t like to do any work understanding difficult analyses (sorry, there are great journalists out there, but all of us know there are lazy ones, too); journals that are hoping for something a little different to boost up the eyeballs on them; deans/provosts who are happy to have press attention but not the type that makes their usually conservative business donors squinky; and students who like to rub elbows with star proffies.

As a matter of research ethics, however, I suggest new scholars, who have to exist in the world I just described, try what I call the “George Harrison” approach. Harrison’s solo albums tended to be cerebral and full of music that wasn’t really radio-friendly. Whether it was good, hell, I dunno. But he usually had one radio-friendly one on there to get people listening and paying attention. “I’ve Got My Mind Set On You” I swear has only six words and 1 chord in it, but it paid the bills for and carried a lot of the rest of the work into the mainstream. Do one for “Them” as they say, then do a bunch of work you think truly matters whether anybody is willing to look at it or not. And then do another one for “Them.”

Just be careful with what you choose to simplify. This is not an easy strategy and you can really hurt people by over-simplifying policy or planning.

2. Engage with established scholars online. You will certainly gain followers if you snark at them, but it’s probably not worth it. But many, many scholars do have Twitter accounts, and while they may ignore you, many of us are simply, captivated by interesting ideas. “Hey, ImportantScholarBob, do you have any book recommendations to read now that I am done with your book? What are you reading these days?” It’s sucking up and we all know it, but it’s still kind of nice and there are lots of genuine interactions you can have with people without necessarily gushing or going overboard.

3. Networks upwards. You all know this already. This is very hard because many established scholars are jerks about it. Nonetheless, I have colleagues who are great at this. If there is a Famous Scholar(TM) anywhere in the world, she will find a way to get to know them, charm them, and leave them worshipping at her feet.

I can’t. I am weird and awkward and in general, nobody wants lumpen me pushing myself into their lives. My homely appearance and awkwardness mean pretty much that only the academics with the biggest hearts wanted to mentor me when I was young. And I am also dreadfully, dreadfully shy. So if you come and hit me up at conference, I can sound super-unfriendly when really I am just overwhelmed and want to cry. This is one reason why chatting with me online is not a bad idea. IRL I am a generous person and I like to help people. I just have real problems with face-to-face interactions unless you happen upon me on a really good day.

If you can do this one, though, good on you. Managing up is a job skill.

4. Ask your advisors and mentors to circulate things for you, or ask them if they would let you guest blog on their platform. Or whether they might be willing to introduce you to somebody at a major online outlet or Op-Ed editor who might be willing to let you write for them. (This will mean your best writing.)

I’m always amazed that my students blow me off when I ask them if they want to guest blog here. I know not everybody reads everything I put up here, but I have quite a few subscribers. Every bit counts.

5. Use your university PR people for what they are there for. These folks are hungry for well-written content, and if you publish something interesting and can talk about it in human terms, most PR people at universities will be happy to help you put together and circulate press releases.

6. You can use the money in your faculty account to purchase services from a publicist. I won’t tell. I have colleagues who use publicists, and the strategy has worked very well for them. I’ve not done so (yet), so I don’t really know how it all works, but publicists stay in business for a reason, and that reason is they do what they say they can. They are very likely to help you get agents, and trust me, I’m pretty sure NOTHING is more satisfying to your ego that being able to say in response to an invitation “You’ll need to check with my agent.”

(yech. but again, you didn’t make this rotten world, you are just tryna live in it.)

7. Ask your dean or chair for resources to do some of these things. I’m not into bullshitting. Like everything in the academy, privilege favors people in self-promotion: Men over women, pretty people over homely people, white people over everybody else, etc etc.

And absolutely. It’s way easier to get media attention if you study and work in a place with large media outlets. Geographic privilege works in that manner, too.

It’s a lot easier to have a publicist if you have money, and it’s a lot easier to use whatever research allowance you get from the university if a) you get one and b) you don’t have to use to fund travel, students, etc.

But if you have a book coming out, it’s not like this happens every other month. Asking your dean or chair for a little money to promote the book is a reasonable thing to ask. They will probably say no but you won’t know that unless you ask. If they do say no, they likely will feel a little bad and maybe offer to do something else or get you something else, and that’s often better than nothing.

Good luck, friends.

USC has a new online executive master’s degree in urban planning

My colleague, and the chair of my department, Marlon Boarnet, killed himself getting this done, so the least I can do is get the word out.

Check it out here.

Marlon writes:

The EMUP is aimed at persons with five to seven years of work experience at the intersection of urban planning and real estate development, and for persons who see their future career at that intersection. It is an executive degree, designed for mid-career professionals. We are offering the degree in an online environment, available to working professionals anywhere in the world.

We will maintain a clear distinction between the executive degree and our on-campus Master of Planning. The MPL remains our flagship degree, and is the only degree that provides a full introduction to urban planning and that is open to students with a broad range of work experience. With the executive degree, we are expanding our education to an audience that we did not previously reach.

I will teaching urban informatics in the program along with, I really hope, Hunter Owens, one of LA’s young stars in the field. We haven’t figured out if Hunter is going to have time, but I really really hope it works out because he’s got a great handle on the challenges, he’s funny and will be engaging, and has the right values we’d like to convey about informatics to people in the program (i.e., this is a great tool, and it’s very cool, but it’s only a tool and human beings are still responsible for their analyses and how they use data, big or small.)