Can we retire the whole “public agencies aren’t real estate developers” myth soon?

Ok, I am violating my sabbatical commitment to read books and look at roses, but this piece from Dr. Jenny Schuetz at Brookings crossed my desk, and I want to talk about one part of it. First, in the interest of full disclosure, I think the world of Dr. Schuetz; I think she’s right about a lot of things and is a wonderful policy analyst. And I also understand the pressures of putting together blog post after blog post.

This one, I just disagree with. I’ve lived in cities where public housing was fine, but I don’t actually have a sense of what role public housing should play within the larger portfolio of American housing strategies. I haven’t thought about it systematically. I’m sure she’s right in that it’s not “the solution” but even upzoning, which would be a boon, doen’t strike me as “the solution” because housing, like most important things in life, is not a single-solution policy domain. I’ve never heard anybody say public housing is “the solution.” It’s a tool among many other tools. How that tool should be deployed, I don’t know, but I won’t dismiss it out of hand because I’ll take any tool I can get.

But one argument from the Brooking piece slapped me in the eyeball and we need to talk about it, and that’s this:


Proposals for “the government” to build public housing are often vague about which agency or department they mean. While funding for public housing originates at the federal level, the properties are operated by more than 3,300 local housing authorities across the country. And most of them don’t have recent experience with new construction—a long, complicated, risky business under the best of circumstances. Public agencies operate under more rigid rules and processes than private sector companies as well; for instance, procurement and labor requirements that make construction substantially more difficult and more expensive.

I get that we are now in the era of real estate specializations at universities where real estate is a very specialized thing that only certain people with certain qualifications supposedly do, but this argument is wrong the minute you step outside of housing. It MAY be that local governments do not develop much *housing*, but if there is one thing governments in the United States do as a matter of routine, it’s develop land and buildings. From bus garages to courthouses to libraries to police stations to animal shelters, etc., subnational governments maintain large real estate portfolios. The idea they are somehow incapable or less capable of managing a construction project simply ignores all the real estate that governments DO build and maintain. Governments can build bridges and dams that stand up for a century and a space program AND all the transit for the T part of TOD, but nope, an apartment complex next to the T is somehow just not something that governments can do.

The US is not called a settler-colonial state for nothing.

But let’s get to housing. Every single college student living in a dorm at a state university, from Fresno State to Applachia State to all those students at snooty UCs….all of them are living in housing constructed and maintained by public agencies. Jails, even though we all hate them, are routinely built and maintained by governments (as well as private entities, sure), but they house quite a few people. There is at any given time in the Indian Ocean at least one Nimitz class aircraft carrier that houses 8,000 people *on a boat*, which is a tiny fraction of what the US military does to house its members.

Now, all of these things are, I guess, outside the realm of “housing” but that doesn’t mean we should assume that governments are just bad at developing housing or that they don’t do it. Governments develop buildings in concert with private companies all the time, and quite often, entirely competently.

My WordPress is acting wonky so I shall stop as I’ve made my point. We could argue that private sector entities would be ever so much better at doing all the development that governments do in all sectors, not just housing, that’s fine, but let’s not act like American governments can’t develop real estate. They do it all the time.

Wonderful reads 2020: Tore Sager on planners and rejecting authoritarian populism in PT

Ok, I am going to have to admit to being a little bit of a Tore Sager fangirl because I pretty much love everything they write and everything they write about and the way they write about it and am really jealous that I didn’t write all the things they did. Like every single time they publish a thing, I’m sad I didn’t write it because it’s so good and important. So now that the introductory breathless fangirling is out of the way, let’s get to the breathless fangirling about the actual content.

Planning has a problem with democracy; not that planners themselves are anti-democratic or pro-democratic themselves, it’s just that planning as a field relies on its legitimacy to no small degree via the notion that we can help foster a deliberative, democratic decision-making about place futures. The problem we have is that democracies can do terrible things, and that plenty of democratic preferences are really shitty. Lots people in neighborhoods want to keep people out, and that is a democratic preference, and it’s generally not a good a good one. (sometimes it’s warranted, other times it is just an impulse to maintain privilege.)

Sager speaks directly to our times with a discussion of what planners should be doing to refute the Schmittian authoritarian populism that has swept across multiple nations, including my own, with things like Trumpism. Trumpism is avowedly anti-urban, and we owe its adherents no deference just because they hold their preferences with passion or because they have coalesced into a political force.

This is in some ways not a happy or hopeful paper, but it is a VERY useful paper for understanding the profession in our current political context.

It’s not paywalled, so you can go read it noooooow:

1. Sager T. Populists and planners: ‘We are the people. Who are you?’*. Planning Theory. 2020;19(1):80-103. doi:10.1177/1473095219864692

The purpose of this article is to offer planning scholars a basis for criticizing authoritarian populism and not limiting ideological critique to neoliberalism. Authoritarian populism is anti-elitist, anti-pluralist and excluding in that the authentic people includes only part of the population. Authoritarian populists imagine a homogeneous people whose will determines policy. The article deals with confrontations and contact points between communicative planning theory and populist currents. It distils several core themes from five authoritative collections of works on planning theory and examines their relations with populist ideas. Authoritarian populism is an incomplete ideology that can fuse with various other ideologies. Amalgamations of populism and neoliberalism pose new challenges to participatory planning. Authoritarian populism criticizes planning institutions for blocking the immediate realization of the will of the people and being sympathetic to social diversity and cultural influence threatening heartland values. Neoliberalism is opposed to the welfare policies, equity goals, growth restrictions and other public interventions associated with spatial planning. Joint pressure from the two ideologies may alter the planning of liberal democracies in an autocratic direction.

How do people cope with crushing rents? USC’s Sean Angst, Soledad DeGregorio, Gary Painter and Jovanna Rosen discuss their findings

Rent burden describes much of a person’s or family’s income goes towards paying the rent. We have maps that show rent burden, we have data; we assume we know what we are talking about when we say the “rent burden is too high.”

But we really don’t. That’s why this research is so important: instead of burden being an abstraction, the survey conducted at the Center for Social Innovation delves into how rent burden dampens peoples’s ability to flourish in health and employment as well. Rent burden is a long-term barrier to community development and empowerment. These effects were in place even before the coronavirus, so that calls for extending an enforcing eviction bans are even more important now.

You can watch the researchers here in a highlights video if you are short on time.

Here is the link to the full talk.

Wonderful reads 2020: Dories and Harjo on indigenous feminist conceptions/practices of security in JPER

OMG YAYYYYYYYYYYYY this is a wonderful paper in so many regards. I have struggled in my undergraduate class, and in my own writing about perceptions of security, that planning has a deeply impoverished view of security: rejecting surveillance cameras (sure, no problem but then what? acting like bad things don’t happen is not an option) and then often glossing security as being unimportant, or just responding “Oh, the way to be safe is eyes on the street”, echoing Jane Jacobs, which again, is fine, but white shopkeepers and white eyes on the street are calling the cops on Black people and that doesn’t seem to be keeping people particularly safe, now does it?

This paper is both a wonderful theoretical contribution that recasts security as embedded in community and in “generative refusal” and it also is a fine case study on art and organizing to undo the erasure of settler colonial violence in urban locales.

Read it, just read it.

Here is the citation and the link. It’s behind a paywall, but I suspect we can find you a copy of it:

Dorries H, Harjo L. Beyond Safety: Refusing Colonial Violence Through Indigenous Feminist Planning. Journal of Planning Education and Research. 2020;40(2):210-219. doi:10.1177/0739456X19894382

Settler colonial violence targets Indigenous women in specific ways. While urban planning has attended to issues of women’s safety, the physical dimensions of safety tend to be emphasized over the social and political causes of women’s vulnerability to violence. In this paper, we trace the relationship between settler colonialism and violence against Indigenous women. Drawing on examples from community activism and organizing, we consider how Indigenous feminism might be applied to planning and point toward approaches to planning that do not replicate settler colonial violence.

Wonderful reads 2020: Amoako and Frimpong Boamah on becoming vulnerable to flooding in PT&P

Ok, I know diddly squat about Ghana other than I enjoyed my visit, and I also know diddly squat about flooding, but I LOVE how these authors use assemblage as both a theoretical approach and *almost* a method in constructing the comparative case studies of Agbogbloshie and Old Fadama, two informal settlements.

Assemblage theory is an ontological approach developed by Giles Deleuze Félix Guattari in their book A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. I do not feel qualified to really present the approach, but it seems to me that Amoaka and Frimpong Boamah do a great job of taking it down from the clouds, as it were, and really unlocking the potential of the approach to help us understand how and why vulnerability to flooding happens. It releases the research from the demands of a paradigm: you don’t have to have supply or demand variables. You just examine the variables, knowing they are mutually constituted and influencing, and explore how they are assembling in the context.

My PhD students read the paper with me. There are a couple places in the cases where I think the narrative gets a muddled, but that happens to all of us and it doesn’t negate the fact that this is a very nice exemplar of really using theory to deepen empirical work.

Here is the citation and the link. It’s behind a paywall, but , I suspect we can find you a copy of it if you request it:

Clifford Amoako & Emmanuel Frimpong Boamah (2020) Becoming Vulnerable to Flooding: An Urban Assemblage View of Flooding in an African City, Planning Theory & Practice, 21:3, 371-391, DOI: 10.1080/14649357.2020.1776377

Assemblage thinking has emerged over the last two decades as an important theoretical framework to interrogate emerging complex socio-material phenomenon in cities. This paper deploys the assemblage lens to unpack the vulnerability of informal communities to flood hazards in an African city. Focusing on Agbogbloshie and Old Fadama, the largest informal settlements in Accra, Ghana, this paper employs multiple methods including archival analysis, institutional surveys, focus group discussions, and mini-workshops to study the processes of exposure and vulnerability to flood hazards in these two communities. We find that being vulnerable to flood hazards in these informal settlements emerges from historically contingent, co-constitutive processes and actants: the city officials’ modernist imaginaries and socio-cultural identities of residents in informal settlements; the social material conditions experienced by residents in these settlements; and the translocal learning networks of government and non-government actors that simultaneously (re)produce oppressive urban planning policies and grassroots resistance to these policies. The paper concludes with a call to urban planners and allied built environment practitioners to understand flood vulnerability as both a process and product of these complex interactions.

Wonderful reads 2020: Duminy and Parnell on city science in PT&P

I admit, I am one of those people who does all the eye-rolling when city science comes up because it way-too-often comes in the following form: Planners Have Failed to Solve the City, and Thus SCIENTISTS with their RIGOR are here to help. And then it boils down to a bunch of atheoretical and dehumanized equations, sometimes with BIG DATA attached.

In this “debate” piece, James Duminy and Susan Parnell say “not so fast, and don’t be so darn biased in your thinking” and they are, in general, right that knee-jerk dismissals are lazy and, over time, likely to be wrong. Now, I have to say, I am not convinced ulitimately by what they have here–they have reconceptualized science in ways that I suspect are really useful in order that there might be a possibility of city science, which is theoretically intereting but I suspect would make many a scientist get squinky. (That doesn’t disqualify the reconceptualization.) I do think they are onto something when they say perhaps the general model for a city science could come from citizen science (interesting). That releases the possibiities from the strangulation of academic hierachies in the first place. And they are right; if you dismiss it as impossible, you miss what it is possible to show with it.

I always like essays that make me examine my own intellectual biases and this one did it.

This baby does NOT have a paywall so you can go ahead and read it from here.

James Duminy & Susan Parnell (2020) City Science: A Chaotic Concept – And an Enduring Imperative, Planning Theory & Practice, 21:4, 648-655, DOI: 10.1080/14649357.2020.1802155

Debates surrounding the ‘new’ city sciences are polarized. On the one hand, a new generation of tech-savvy data scientists, spatial modellers, and analysts confidently express their ability to predict and explain city processes at unprecedented scales of complexity. On the other hand, those trained to see the world as fundamentally shaped by contingent meanings and subjectivities may see in such approaches little more than old positivism in new bottles, or perhaps a hubristic overstep of urban non-specialists onto their turf (Derudder & Van Meeteren, 2019).

Wonderful reads 2020: Kontokosta, Reina, and Bonczak on utility cost burdens for low-income households in JAPA

A few years back, I honestly told journal editors I couldn’t review any more housing voucher studies. The field was crowded, lots of people could review the papers in question, and virtually all of them would be more qualified and more interested than me in housing vouchers. I think vouchers are solid policy, but I”ve run out things to say about them. If we aren’t going to fund them generously, there are hard limits as to what they can do for affordability, granted the wage and housing scarcity environments of large cities. (A true statement about any income support policy.)

Thus it always makes me happy to see housing research that reaches into the greater social and economic context of affordability as a context. Now, I am economically very lucky, but every time I open my utility bill in southern California, I have to take several deep breaths and sit down because my head *swims*. Utilitie are expensive, and while I know my specific context is special, utilties for rental houses can’t be that much less mine. Furthermore, one of the ways that climate change is going to hurt people is through their utility bills, where at least some are going to have to make choices between paying more and letting Grandma struggle during heat waves.

Kontokosta, Reina, and Bonczak take up this question about how utility costs factor into the transportation-housing cost nexus using a dataset that planners don’t tend to use much.

Here is the citation and the link. It’s behind a paywall, but if you ask me or the author, I suspect we can find you a copy of it between the two of us.

Constantine E. Kontokosta, Vincent J. Reina & Bartosz Bonczak (2020) Energy Cost Burdens for Low-Income and Minority Households, Journal of the American Planning Association, 86:1, 89-105, DOI: 10.1080/01944363.2019.1647446

Problem, research strategy, and findings: Of the three primary components of housing affordability measures—rent, transportation, and utilities—utility costs are the least understood yet are the one area where the cost burden can be reduced without household relocation. Existing data sources to estimate energy costs are limited to surveys with small samples and low spatial and temporal resolution, such as the American Housing Survey and the Residential Energy Consumption Survey. In this study, we present a new method for small-area estimates of household energy cost burdens (ECBs) that leverages actual building energy use data for approximately 13,000 multifamily properties across five U.S. cities and links energy costs to savings opportunities by analyzing 3,000 energy audit reports. We examine differentials in cost burdens across household demographic and socioeconomic characteristics and analyze spatial, regional, and building-level variations in energy use and expenditures. Our results show the average low-income household has an ECB of 7%, whereas higher income households have an average burden of 2%. Notably, even within defined income bands, minority households experience higher ECBs than non-Hispanic White households. For lower income households, low-cost energy improvements could reduce energy costs by as much as $1,500 per year.

Takeaway for practice: In this study we attempt to shift the focus of energy efficiency investments to their impact on household cost burdens and overall housing affordability. Our analysis explores new and unique data generated from measurement-driven urban energy policies and shows low-income households disproportionately bear the burden of poor-quality and energy-inefficient housing. Cities can use these new data resources and methods to develop equity-based energy policies that treat energy efficiency and climate mitigation as issues of environmental justice and that apply data-driven, targeted policies to improve quality of life for the most vulnerable urban residents.

Wonderful reads 2020: Carole Turley Voulgaris @turleyvoulgaris on transit forecasting in JAPA

I’m interested in forecasting in the same way I am interested in divination. If planning is really about trying to create future imaginaries and understanding futures, forecasting is its quantitive arm. Today’s entry in the stuff I’ve enjoyed reading this year is about how experts who work with forecasts understand them. Transit New Start project forecasts have improved over time—which makes sense. The more people do, the better we get at it; the more projects we start, the more data on passenger behavior we get.

(People used to get mad at me because I was appalled at the CA HSR cost projections and not the ridership projections, but I stand my ground on that. HSR in CA would be an entirely new service. But we should know full damn well how much it costs to pour concrete in California. Passenger forecasts are extremely hard in my mind, for a lot of reasons that not the fault of either the analysts or the project promoters. That said, the incentive to diddle them is real and there’s a reason for the upward bias.)

This is a neat paper because she’s able to interview at least one person associated with all of the 82 New Start Projects that have been funded. It’s nice to see them all examined in retrospect. I look forward to seeing more of Voulgaris’ ideas here. One thing I’ve really wished for is that planners are not the only people who introduce new services, and I wonder sometimes if the world of market research and social marketing would yield some interesting insights on the field of passenger forecasts in transit and in influencing people to try transit.

Here is the citation and the link. It’s behind a paywall, but if you ask me or the author, I suspect we can find you a copy of it between the two of us.

Carole Turley Voulgaris (2020) What Is a Forecast for?, Journal of the American Planning Association, 86:4, 458-469, DOI: 10.1080/01944363.2020.1746191

The forecasts transit agencies submit in support of applications for federal New Starts funding have historically overestimated ridership, as have ridership forecasts for rail projects in several countries and contexts. Forecast accuracy for New Starts projects has improved over time. Understanding the motivations of forecasters to produce accurate or biased forecasts can help forecast users determine whether to trust new forecasts. For this study I interviewed 13 transit professionals who have helped prepare or evaluate applications for federal New Starts funds. This sample includes interviewees who have had varying levels of involvement in all 82 New Starts projects that opened between 1976 and 2016. I recruited interviewees through a snowball sampling method; my interviews focus on the interviewees’ perspectives on how New Starts project evaluation and ridership forecasting has changed over time. Interview results suggest that ridership forecasters’ motivations to produce accurate forecasts may have increased with increased transparency, increased influence on local decision making, and decreased influence on external (federal) funding.

Takeaway for practice: Planners can evaluate the likely trustworthiness of forecasts based on transparency, internal influence, and external influence. If forecast users cannot easily determine a forecast’s key inputs and assumptions, if the forecaster has been tasked with producing a forecast to justify a predetermined action, and if an unfavorable forecast would circumvent decisions by the forecaster’s immediate client, forecasts should viewed with skepticism. Planners should seek to alter conditions that may create these conflicts of interest. Forecasters seem to be willing and able to improve forecast accuracy when the demand for accurate forecasts increases.

Wonderful reads, 2020: Patsy Healey on Judy Innes

I have been struggling in 2020 with keeping up this blog, and one thing I wanted to get to was really discussing Judy Innes’ legacy. I tended to be a bit on deliberative planning theory, as I fall more into the grumpy Neo-Marxist camp than in the “let’s talk things through” camp. But Judy Innes exerted an important influence on planning theory, and her contributions deserve to be recognized.

Fortunately, Patsy Healey, one of my favorite theory writers, didn’t share my inability to get some good, constructive thoughts together, and she put together this lovely retrospective for Planning Theory & Practice, which is available to all without paywall. My favorite comment is a rebuke to my own grump tendencies:

Judy’s 1995 paper generated intense debate among the ‘planning theory’ community, as it competed for attention with those developing an alternative challenge to the positivist hegemony, based in a development of neo-Marxist political economy. This was evolving strongly in Europe at the time and was represented in the US by scholars such as Susan Fainstein and Micky Lauria. The result was a critique which argued that the communicative planning theorists failed to recognise the dominant capitalist forces structuring policy-making and planning practices. Judy’s search for improved decision-making within the current structure was merely fixing a system which generated gross injustices and needed to be fundamentally changed. Any search for ‘consensus’ among stakeholders masked major divisions within social formations. At one level, this debate was implicitly about whether to accept or reject the core axioms of liberal democracy. Judy herself never lost her commitment to the founding principles of American democracy. But it was also about how power is distributed in social formations and about how change in governing practices comes about.

It’s a perpetual tension that Healey doesn’t resolve, either. Making the incremental best of a crummy situation is quite often better, however marginal, than the notion that the revolution is forthcoming if we only pound the table hard enough for it. (Or, that those we assume the revolution would benefit actually share that belief or want a revolution.)

Forget Jeffrey Toobin, the REAL scandal was Lisa’s Green Tights (a story about Himpathy and how professional standards are about punishing women)

If you have been fortunate the past few weeks, you will have missed the news that New Yorker legal correspondent Jeffrey Toobin, was suspended for being caught masturbating during a Zoom meeting. This caused quite a stir, including the inevitable backlash of “stop being so prudish, everybody masterbates, get over it!” nonsense epitomized by essays like this little testimony to male privilege right here. (Where, naturally, we can just put aside Toobin’s history of bad conduct. No, actually, friend, we can’t.

Toobin was fired, leading inevitably to the comments about cancel culture, and honestly if people had the same level of angst about right-to-work laws as they do about whether Toobin’s firing, the world would be a better place. People are in general right in that we should stop being collectively shocked about masturbation, but I don’t think anybody in the collective is actually shocked by masturbation. I think a lot of us are instead shocked at Toobin’s judgment in a world where people are fired and/or treated like garbage professionally for much, much less.

To wit, everybody masterbates, but it’s not good professional conduct. Nobody really wants to watch Toobin do his thing, just like everybody poops, and absolutely nobody wants a to watch you do it.

What we have here around Toobin, more than any real prudery-busting, is what Kate Manne called “himpathy” in her wonderful book, Down Girl. Himpathy is the process society uses to make excuses for men’s bad conduct. The problem with himpathy is that it’s a built-in safety net for men that is simply not applied to rest of us. Imagine if Michelle Obama had been caught masturbating during a Zoom. The result is that men remain less accountable for their bad conduct, while the rest of us, particularly women and Black people, get punished again and again and again for our mistakes with no mercy at all.

A further example may help illustrate. Once, when I was a young consultant, I wore green tights to a client meeting. OMG! My dusty old white boy dinosaur boss said he when he saw what was an objectively cute outfit with green tights. THAT is SO unprofessional, we’ll stop on the way and get you PROPER NYLONS , but alas, Other Moldy Dude was 20 minutes late meeting us so that we could arrive to the meeting as a group (something Dinosaur insisted on, largely so that he could control our interactions with the clients lest they get to thinking (rightly) that Dinosaur didn’t in fact know how to do all the technical stuff he was charging his gigantic salary to them for “managing” us as we actually do the work they needed.)

So because Dude was 20 minutes late, we couldn’t stop to get pantyhose to correct my OUTRAGEOUS professional lapse of my green tights. It was a disaster before the meeting even started. My luck being what it is, the clients were really unhappy with the project—not my part of it, but various different parts, including that of the Dude who had been 20 minutes late. As we rode back in car together, I was roundly blamed for the disaster of the meeting. The clients, undoubtedly seeing my green tights, had taken us for “kids” and “amateurs” instead of the SURIOUS EXPERTS we were, and it was all my fault for not looking “professional” that day. (Keep in mind: I was a wearing knee-length skirt, a blazer, a shirt, and a scarf in addition to the INSUBORDINATE tights.)

The deal is this: nobody but my dinosaur of a boss was likely looking at my legs or if they had, they probably thought “huh, tights. Smart. It’s February in Chicago, after all.” The Dude was responsible for making us late; The Dinosaur was responsible for demanding we all show up together and for demanding we do so that we could brief him on the way so that he could take credit for our work. The Dude was responsible for the work they didn’t like; the Dinosaur, as the “manager” was supposed to be “managing” the Dude to what the client wanted. NONE of ANY of that, supposedly, made us unprofessional, except that, of course, it did.

Instead, it was the green tights, the tights that granted a hint of individuality to me in a world where pantyhose were the done thing.

When my yearly performance assessment came up SEVERAL MONTHS LATER the green tights came up AGAIN “you need be more aware of your professional appearance.” Professional dress is about making people spend money and controlling them, and it’s especially controlling and punishing to women of color whose bodies do not conform to white expectations. I feel a great deal of empathy for this. I can’t tell you how often, as a busty woman, my Dinosaur of a boss stared and glared if button went wonky or my shirt shifted so that a bit cleave showed. I LITERALLY CAN NOT HELP THAT BUTTONS AND SHIRTS shift.

So you will need forgive all of us women whom have been bludgeoned for years and years and years for our “failures to be profesh” if we don’t think Toobin merits all the grace in the world. You see, at the same time that people are lecturing us on how we simply mustn’t, mustn’t be judgey about Toobin and his needs, we are still being subjected to horsepoop from the WSJ (not linking; they can get their own damn clicks) lecturing us on how it’s not longer “cute” when children and pets interrupt Zoom, and now professional conduct demands children be put away. One wonders what those without live-in help do: it’s generally frowned upon to handcuff children to the water heater in the basement to preserve one’s professional image, but I dunno we wouldn’t wanna be unprofessional. Rolls eyes.

Look, women are already working themselves to death during the pandemic. They are doing the best they can to keep kids/dogs from interrupting your precious PowerPoint presentation that nobody is listening to anyway. Telling us we need “understand” some old guy’s showing his junk while granting us NO allowances for the same natural, meaningful homelike interruptions is gaslighting a major scale.