Planners and Love from this edition of Planning Theory and Practice

This is free for the taking from Taylor and Francis Online: What’s Love Got to Do With It: Loving Attachment in Planning from a roundtable in 2009 sponsored by the Planners of Color Interest Group. It’s got a great line-up of writers including–and I’m going to sound ageist as all hell here–older and younger planning scholars. I say this with a reason, despite my desire to be both inclusive and respectful of the many wonderful scholars who are older and making great contributions. In addition to being very white, the planning academy is dominated by baby boomer full professors who seldom invite anybody but their buddies onto round-tables with them; there is a great deal of sameness in that kind of set-up.

The organizers of this roundtable didn’t make that mistake here. We have some of the field’s established scholars (Leonie Sandercock and Robert Lake, who are always worth reading) and some junior stars (Aftab Erfan, Michelle Kondo, Marisa Zapata, Lisa Bates, and Andrew Zitcer). The result is very readable mix of theory writing and riffs on personal reflections that should get you thinking.

Zitcer and Lake take up some thinking that we just explored in my justice class, on agape and eros. Our exploration was slightly different: we were using Anders Nygren’s construction of eros and agape; Zitcer and Lake examine philia while we (naturally) took up nomos–justice. I love (har! see what I did there? I slay me) Nygren’s definition of agape: “gratuitous benevolence.” Gratuitous benevolence. What would a world governed by gratuitous benevolence look like?

Love and care ethics have been around for a bit, and it’s refreshing to see planners articulating their own understanding of it.

Opinions are a bit like….

Brilliant student Muriel Skaff sent this piece from Patrick Stokes around the other day. It’s lovely, largely because the face-palms that students lead you to over their opinions, and their entitlements to them. It makes you crazy after awhile.

I don’t care what your opinion is. I care about whether you can make a reasoned argument from a position, based on what you’ve read and discussed. Rants from either Fox News or MSNBC I can get from television: I don’t need it from a student. If you want to learn to rant on Fox News or MSNBC, then watch them. If you want to learn policy analysis, then we need to reason differently.

The money quote:

If “Everyone’s entitled to their opinion” just means no-one has the right to stop people thinking and saying whatever they want, then the statement is true, but fairly trivial. No one can stop you saying that vaccines cause autism, no matter how many times that claim has been disproven.

But if ‘entitled to an opinion’ means ‘entitled to have your views treated as serious candidates for the truth’ then it’s pretty clearly false. And this too is a distinction that tends to get blurred.

Hayek being flat out wrong, on tape and in public

So one of the annoying things about the Hayek revival we are having is that people are talking about his ideas, without actually reading his work, and thus are making him into a plaster saint, which means we have to put up with a whole boatload of screaming nonsense about what Hayek meant. Urk. So like Jesus, apparently, Hayek spoke in parables.


Hayek was a scholar, and he was a theorist, but he also valued empiricism. Here he is with James Buchanan being, simply, wrong.

Because of his training and his scholarly vocabulary, he’s not reflecting on what he is saying about political or social theory here. He argues that because people don’t know what social justice is, it’s a nothing concept incapable of being enacted and we should just get rid of it.

Well, that’s nonsense. Hayek’s own body of work is based on a straight up concept from political theory central to many theories of the just society: liberty. He might not be able to frame–or even recognize–his arguments as emanating from a position on justice. But it doesn’t make his work any less relevant to those who frame justice in terms of liberty, or him any less wrong in acting as though he’s stating a empirical reality about what “social justice means’ when, in fact, he himself has taken an explicit position on what justice is and how just societies treat individuals.

It’s also pretty clear that Buchanan and Hayek, brilliant though they are, have not read Rawls particularly effectively.

Here, by contrast, is Hayek being brilliant, again with James Buchanan, on looking for patterns in the macroeconomy.

Planners and Italo Calvino

The first few weeks of planning theory always drive the students crazy because we slosh between market-based critiques of planning and then we go to critiques of planning as a means of state control from the left. For those looking for an answer or validation for why they are school to become planners, it’s tough. The point is to help people clarify their ideas and positions.

From a wonderful book that should be required reading of all planners: Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities: To be in the inferno, but not of the inferno. David Sloane pointed me to it, and he is utterly right.

The last page:

Already the Great Kahn was leafing through his atlas, over the maps of the cities that menace in nightmares and maledictions: Enoch, Babylon, Yahooland, Butua, Brave New World. He said: “It is all useless, if the last land place can only be the infernal city, and it is there that, in ever-narrowing circles, the current is drawing us.”

And Polo said: “The inferno of the living is not something that will be: if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, and then make them endure, give them space.”

Me on why I’m still grouchy about the haters language and the New Urbanism

Dear Mr. Speck:

a) Nope, I’m not giving you that one. We have small houses all over LA, little bitty cute ones, and the New Urbanists still treat this place like it’s one of the cities of the plain, the anti-city, a big, yucky suburb devoid of life and meaning, where we all live lives of desperation and misery. I don’t think the urban/suburban distinction holds much water when you get down to looking at functions. Single-use districts are single-use districts, but suburbs have a lot of jobs and a lot of activities. The suburb has its cultural meaning along the lines of Wisteria Lane, however, and the function and culture of the suburb do get conflated in the debate. But not by me.

Houses are nice, aren’t they?

b) I’d say the conflation of novelty with originality is the problem, not a demand for original thinking. Originality can take any number of forms; every project is happening for the first time, every context has its own vagaries; I’d argue that everything that happens when you make something–a building, a rail line–happens for the only time as it happens–if that makes any sense. Every project presents its challenges in its own way, even if you have seen various aspects of the problem before. You can reference whatever you need to so long as what you do works for that project and that place, and if it does work, I’d call that an original and strong piece of work. I’m watching cookie-cutter New Urbanism go up all over LA. You ride the train, you get off, you see the same type of apartment complexes built the same way–with different paint!–save for a few exceptional stations, like Hollywood. If people are going to critique suburban sprawl for its sameness, they had better be showing us better concepts, even if it’s not novel.

e) d annoyed me some time ago, and now I am holding a grudge.

f) Everything in urban development, except for the most minor of things, is a fight. Everything. And perhaps it should be; changes in the built environment of cities are social changes, and social changes are hard.

I would be interested in seeing the data on what is getting built right now–my suspicion is not very much due to the recession–and my other suspicion is that it varies substantially by region, but that you have been more successful than you think. Chris Nelson, for example, exulted in a recent statistic he cited that for the first time, condo building eclipsed the new construction of single-family houses. I can try to dig that up if we need it.

There may be places doing what they have always done, but I am betting that that the war of words has resulted in far more change than you believe it has, at least in particular markets. But nothing gets built easy: I spent my practitioner career working on transport projects, and people will fight you over even getting a sidewalk put in.

We make a lot of noise about the coding and approval restrictions on multi-family housing, but in my experience, whenever we came forward with multi-family housing and mixed use proposals, institutions never stood in the way. Ever. The neighbors screamed bloody murder and used institutional processes and rationales to stop it if they possibly could. It’s one thing to portray the fight as one where you’re taking on hidebound institutions, and that’s fine, institutions have their own problems here–and another to be very clear-eyed about why density is so hard to build: institutions make it hard to build because they are responding to the political economy that surrounds them, where people want to control density near them. And people want to control densities for some very rational reasons, sometimes. While many urban services are more efficiently delivered with density–mine (transit) being one–others, like schools, are not after a certain scale. I don’t blame people with children in LA Unified School districts for not welcoming the news that more families are coming because the schools are already terrible and their kids are already getting short-shrift. (Some schools are pretty good, nonetheless, but still. The graduation numbers speak for themselves.) These problems are thornier than changing codes.

People scream and shake their hands and create opposition because they care about where they live. It’s a big circle of development politics, but getting mashed up in it is the price you pay if you want a voice and influence.

Your book has been in print since you published it, it’s an older book now, and people consider it a classic. The name on everybody’s lips when New Orleans needed rebuilding was Duany’s firm. That’s a fight won. Yeah, every single day you might have go through the same slog, but we’re all going through that slog if we’re in this business. From where I sit, the New Urbanism has created perverse ideological barriers to climate change regulation. How so? The New Urbanists are greenies, right? Well, yes, they are. But I think that the emphasis placed on “green development” perversely (and unintentionally) undermined movement towards stricter controls on cars. Just as some people say “Oh, we don’t need to build better cities because our cars are going to be green 10 years from now” I also encounter, with frustrating regularity, people who say “Oh, changing vehicle technology is a waste of time, you technophile! People shouldn’t be driving anyway! We should be rebuilding our cities for walking and transit!” Yeah, except for the fact rebuilding cities takes time, and if the numbers are to be believed, we need BOTH clean cars and clean cities, and we need them with some alacrity. My field, planning, has largely abandoned its interest in advocating policy and regulation: we’re not writing how cap and trade might function spatially; nobody is throwing our collective weight behind a carbon tax. Instead, it’s study after study about how VMT reduction is a good idea. Well, um yeah; but dampening VMT growth still suggests VMT growth and shouldn’t we be trying to influence the nature of the V in the VMT nexus? Am I unfairly generalizing? Yes. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t have to deal with people who treat the New Urbanism like a cult and the answer to every question that comes up.

So what am I saying? I’m saying: buck up, cupcake! You are a high-profile, influential voice. You may not think so, but if you do, I will call that disingenuous or at least clueless because you’ve certainly held leadership positions. You know what that entails. You can either use that voice and position to make caricatures of the people who don’t buy in–which might be a joke in your mind but which reads (to me) like think you are entitled to followers, which makes you sound more like cult leader than a thought leader–or you can use your voice to add value to the discussion and show us why the ideas are still relevant and what new challenges the movement has to take on. What will HSR mean for New Urbanism and compact development? LA used streetcars to spread and then really spread when we got cars because of all that nice profitable real estate all over the place. Will we use HSR merely to sprawl into the spaces in between our existing metros? Would that be different in California than in the Northeast (which is what I suspect). What innovations in design and practice will it take it make that into a vision that works? Or is HSR a terrible idea for urban form? There are 40 other questions I can think of that would be productive to put out there from the New Urbanist perspective if you need them.

All of my students are New Urbanists. All of them. And that’s ok with me, so long as they develop the critical capacity to evaluate as well as advocate.

As to my missing your subtle references to 9/11 in your portrayal of the barriers facing the New Urbanism, I have to say that I did catch it but I didn’t like it. I don’t find 9/11 amusing in any way, and I assume you don’t either, not really. Moreover, if that’s the analogy you wanted to draw, you have made my point for me. The clash ensconced within 9/11 can be interpreted as a clash between progressives and reactionaries (one read; the one I assume you mean) or it can also be interpreted as a clash between a bullying superpower and those who have been structurally excluded. You can read New Urbanism as progressives under fire from reactionaries; I can read it as the bullying superpower in my field, where anybody who raises doubts or criticisms gets treated like an enemy of the people. In reality, the complexities of these contexts mean that all these reads probably contain a grain of truth.

Again, thanks for stopping by. We don’t get celebrities around these parts often.


Jeff Speck on why people hate the New Urbanism

The Evolving Debate Over Smart Growth – Urban Development, Planning, Design – Architect Magazine

And here I was thinking people hate New Urbanists because they write stuff like this, and I don’t know, maybe some of us get tired of having smugness dripped all over us.

No, Mr. Speck, nobody actually hates you or the New Urbanism. People hate Hitler and Jar Jar Binks. But we can talk about why people might find all this really annoying:

a) the fact the Speck lives in a modernist house but prescribes a way of living in cities that suggests you’re a vacuous, planet-killing consumer drone if you live in a house. Slaps forehead!

b) the New Urbanism hasn’t created “better-looking sprawl”; it’s created “different-looking, yet still remarkably unattractive sprawl.” I read here that it’s the fault of those stylistically conservative markets, not the architects who are too craven or talentless to supply something original when confronted with easy fees.

c) the way that he implies, in the very best practice of civil society, that people who don’t slavishly believe what he does are merely “haters” with an “utterly unproductive” agenda* instead of people with questions, different priorities, doubts, and concerns; and

e) the vainglorious framing of the New Urbanists as warriors engaged in some sort of “fight” when in actuality it’s the dominant paradigm in planning and environmentalism, they own the White House and just about every urban appointee in it, every mayor of every major metro in the US no matter whether Republican or Democrat, have the developers in love with the ideas (density! Woo! And I get a bonus?!), command sizable fees to write reality-defying plans which promise stuff like “putting the theater next to florist shop and cafe will stop global warming and resurrect your dead grandma.” Now, maybe all this dominance is because their ideas are so swell, or maybe it’s because they’re brilliant marketers, but does that sound like the last fight you were in? I’m clearly not doing this “fighting” thing right.

*Of course I could be one of those stealth auto lovers who aren’t for him, so in the very best reasoning that involves the incapacity to hold two ideas in one’s head at the same time, I must be an enemy in the colossal fight. Maybe Spike TV will feature us on “Deadliest Warrior: New Urbanist vs. Social Scientist: who’s the deadliest warrior?! One has regressions and data; the other has colored pencils and crowds of adoring fans. Who will win this epic battle?” I know whom my students prefer.

I would feel better about the sustainable city of the future if the supposedly evolving debate around it didn’t strike me as being about a largely symbolic dustup between oligarchs over economic rents: car companies versus the professional development army of the Smart Growth machine–all of whom want your money and cover their prodo with greenwash in order to get it. What’s Good for the New Urbanism is Good for America!

Marcuse on the Right to the City

City journal this time out has a collection of papers about and from Peter Marcuse and critical urban theory. The entire edition is worth reading, but in particular it’s worth reading Marcuse’s own contribution:

Marcuse, P. (2009). From critical urban theory to the right to the city. City: Analysis of Urban Trends, Culture, Theory, Policy, Action, 13, 2(3), 185-197.

It’s worth reading largely because–and I say this with great respect for Professor Marcuse–he’s so misguided in how he describes our contemporary crisis and in how he describes a right. I really wish we in urban and planning theory could get to a point–particularly in critical theory– where our theories concern more nuanced views of power and influence than what happens in this article: i.e., “I blame whatever political or social ideas I personally find distasteful on the Right.”

In political philosophy, Mary Ann Glendon started a firestorm, rightly, when she published Rights Talk: the Impoverishment of Political Discourse. Her point, and it’s a good one, is that American politics had devolved away from fruitful deliberation about the nature of the collective good towards arguments about individual rights over and over again. She’s got a very good point: I routinely hear students refer to their “rights” and even Burger King had a campaign the “Right to Have it Your Way.” Ill-defined rights are all over the place everywhere, virtually all the time, largely because they do have the sense of being Dworkin’s “trump card” in political discussion. Rights are tempting to use because they carry the air of being entitled to an outcome we want out of a (probably distributive) conflict and shutting the cakeholes of those who would deny us what we want. They can be assigned to me as a person (yay) or to whatever group I like—whether it’s property holders (who have a strong legal tradition on their sides) or people with disabilities (who recently have had gains in establishing legal civil rights).

Planners hear a lot of Rights Talk. If somebody has a “right to have a park nearby,” somebody else has a “right to keep Person X out of that park” because they “have a right to keep their kids safe.” Rights claims are in contestation because they concern both the fundamental entitlements of society, but also because they have secondary distributive consequences—particularly in collective good provision in urban life.

Thus for many who would have our cities be socially just in terms of distribution, Henri Lefebvre’s writing about the city has become, as Marcuse notes, a slogan various urban movements. One recent high-profile movement is an anti-gentrification group.

For me, I have never found Lefebvre’s “right to the city” to be a clear concept in his own writing except for his point that the city itself–if a good city–is defined by social inclusion, and in that sense the city does become a metaphor for society. But because cities themselves are geographic and social systems, the right is one of engagement within those to whatever degree is necessary to give legitimate opportunity for engagement and voice in outcomes for the collective space that is the city. These include both the distributive outcomes that usually take front-and-center–for inclusion means the ability to partake of collectively provided services–and in the deliberation.

This means the opposite of “we don’t like certain people and certain ideas” or “those viewpoints or ideas we find distasteful should be eliminated or contained” Instead, these are part of the mix of collective urban furtures; these ideas may or may not govern the allocation of urban services, but they are not used as a rationale for exclusion either.

Work that informed this post:

Dworkin, Ronald. 1978. Taking Rights Seriously. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Glendon, Mary Ann. 1991. Rights Talk: The Impoverishment of Political Discourse. The Free Press.

Harvey, David. 2008. The Right to the City. New Left Review. 53.