Is Urban Planning Dead?

Posted: April 25th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: History, Urban Development, Urbanism and Planning | 1 Comment »

At the American Planning Association National Conference in New Orleans a couple weeks back, I participated in a session on the provocative question: “is planning dead?” The event was organized by the staff of the Colorado-based organization PlaceMatters. A small group met to discuss the question at an “unconference” session near the convention center. They were kind enough to post a live blog and summary post about the event. I thought I’d take the opportunity to share a slightly more developed version of what I discussed.

H Street NE Special IntersectionsFirst, in one sense, conventional planning is alive and well. U.S. cities continue to create and implement comprehensive plans and zoning regulations in the same ways they have since the advent of planning in the 1920s. There have been two notable changes. First, the size and complexity of plans and regulations has increased. As an example, the city of Austin, Texas has identified 67 plans, policies, and regulations adopted in the city since completing their last comprehensive plan in 1978. Secondly, although it’s not commonly recognized as part of planning, the historic preservation movement has had a tremendous impact on planning in urban areas. Preservation regulations are generally modeled on planning and zoning controls. New planning tools such as form-based codes, design review, inclusionary zoning, and other innovations share the same regulatory approach dating back to the 1920s, one that is rooted in the city’s “police powers” to create regulations for the health, safety, and welfare of the population.

Outside of this creeping expansion of proscriptive, regulatory planning, there have been alternative developments. Community development organizations and bottom-up initiatives have introduced new models of participatory planning. They should not be overlooked, but in most places city governments retain their central role in urban development. Although the process of creating plans has changed substantially, elected officials retain the final authority to modify or reject plans and development proposals. In its most advanced forms, the community development movement relies on government resources and permission to achieve their goals. (Cobbling together grants and subsidies, “pushing through” projects, etc)

Planning theorists have proposed several new models for the field, however none have significantly effected professional practice.

  • Paul Davidoff’s concept of advocacy planning is still widely discussed and taught. He proposed planners should follow the approach of the legal profession, providing each community with resources to create their own plan. However, the model has many well-known criticisms. Who gets a planner, and how are they paid? How does the government decide which plan will prevail? How should large-scale investment decisions be made?
  • John Friedman articulated a philosophy he referred to as “non-Euclidean” planning. He argued planning should be iterative, normative, creative, and based in social learning. Although this certainly describes some of the most innovative examples of planning, it is unclear how it could be followed to reform the role of government. Although containing provocative ideas, it requires further development and integration with a broader theory of governance before it can be readily applied.
  • Finally, one of the most influential developments has been the ‘communicative turn’ advocated by a variety of planning theorists. Adopting the theories of Habermas, this group focuses on the work of planning as shaping views and collecting information through processes of dialog. It also forms the theoretical basis for the consensus building approach, where stakeholders are brought together to discuss contested policy issues. In their new book Planning With Complexity, Judith Innes and David Booher provide a comprehensive statement of this philosophy and attempt to integrate it with theories of governance. They advocate for an adaptive, collaborative, distributed, and nonlinear government. Just published earlier this year, it remains to be seen in what ways these ideas can be translated into concrete practices.

I think planning can take two — perhaps contradictory — directions.

First, planning can celebrate the dynamism of the private city. Under this scenario, the field would pull back from detailed plans and regulations, seeking ways to encourage private actors to produce the desired ends. The strategy need not concede to private interests, but would seek to make public benefits predictable, transparent, and simple. It would entail the courage to voluntarily limit what powers planners would exercise. In turn, governments would take an even bolder approach to the framework of urbanization: shaping streets, lots, infrastructure, and markets.

Second, planning could re-assert government’s role in shaping the city through empowerment, not regulation. Experiments in participatory governance and budgeting could point the way towards a future where governments function as miniature development states. In this context, planning would be focused on structuring processes to involve citizens and organizations in governance in new ways, and sparking entrepreneurship and innovation.

After the intellectual fall of the rational-comprehensive model of policy analysis, critics have often held the problem with planning lay with its methods. If planners didn’t posses any special skills or methods, the argument goes, what claim to legitimacy do they have? I argue this collapse of a sphere of professional authority unveiled a deeper, more fundamental crisis: of democratic legitimacy. Both of my “directions” share a critical evaluation of the legitimate power and structure of government. As a field embedded in structures of governance, planning cannot be reformed without a vision for a reformed and revitalized urban democracy.


Learning From I-Neighbors

Posted: May 27th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Blogosphere, ePlanning, History, Justice, Technology, University of Michigan, Urban Development | 2 Comments »

The story of I-Neighbors.org is important to anyone hoping to use technology to complement traditional forms of urban community. The website was created by Keith Hampton, a scholar interested in “the relationship between new information and communication technologies, social networks, and the urban environment.”

A trained sociologist, as a newly minted PhD Hampton taught at the MIT Urban Studies and Planning program from 2001 to 2005. Here he developed and launched I-Neighbors, a “social networking service that connects residents of geographic neighborhoods.” The website allows registered users to look up and join “neighborhoods.” Each neighborhood has a variety of default functions: email list, polls, business reviews, photos, documents, events, and a directory of other members. Originally it had a “GovLink” service allowing users to connect to local elected officials, but this has been shut down due to cost.

i-neighborsAlthough the website could use some design tweaks (fonts are too small, for one), the website is reasonably straightforward to use and clearly carefully thought out. I think I remember reading the site was accompanied with some offline training sessions in the Boston area.

Unfortunately, it’s taken off in relatively few neighborhoods. According to a 2006 paper, as of then 23.6% of website users hadn’t joined any neighborhood, and only 9 neighborhoods have over 50 users. These facts suggest it’s either not what they’re looking for, too complicated, or have another usability issue. When users look up a zip code, if another user has not created a neighborhood the systems says there “are currently no i-Neighborhoods in your area” asking, in smaller letters, if they want to create one. Creating new neighborhoods is simple enough, but I bet pre-creating any searched for neighborhood would get more users engaged in the system.

Individually, the tools are useful, and in fact sites have thrived performing almost all individually:

  • Business reviews – Yelp
  • Geocoded Photos – Flickr
  • Neighborhood listservs – Yahoo, Google, private lists
  • Neighborhood news – Variety of local news, blogs, neighborhood (offline) newsletters.

Why isn’t there greater use of these functions on the website? In marketing parlance, the ‘unique value proposition’ of social networking websites, is the content and the people, not the functionality. Thus in the fickle world of social networking, some have thrived while others have withered according to their relative popularity among users, not necessarily the sophistication of the functionality. I-Neighbors has struggled to take off in many communities.

Additionally, the content is carefully organized into neighborhood-specific stovepipes. This reduces the potential users able to see, say, the review of a local business. Additionally, urban residents have famously fluid conceptions of neighborhoods, suggesting perhaps the content should be organized in a less rigid way. Although functioning in some ways like a social networking websites, users don’t select which friends they will allow to see their profiles, instead all members of the neighborhood are thrown in together. Additionally, there’s no search functionality for users and users can only see other people in their networks, not across the system. These barriers to finding other people thwart one potential source of interest in the system.

A related conundrum for academic innovators is although they may be able to imagine possible new tools, they can rarely keep pace with the private sector in terms of usability, design, and functionality. However, the market may not produce the websites with precisely the sort of arrangement or functionality we’d like to see. I give Prof. Hampton credit for developing such a sophisticated tool, but it will have trouble to keep pace with private sector websites with dedicated staff making continual improvement.s

One approach to the success of a myriad of highly specialized sites for specific geographically specific information is the one taken by EveryBlock, which aggregates private and government data for every block (or zip code), including Yelp! reviews, geotagged Flickr photos, restaurant inspections, blog posts and crime reports.

A Success Story

One neighborhood, profiled in this academic paper, was particularly successful, resulting in a very vibrant email list. What can we learn from this case? This neighborhood was already well organized offline, is a physically distinct community with an association that adopted I-Neighbors as a platform for online collaboration. The group requires members to use their real names (something the e-democracy.org folks believe in). As an aside, the use of the site also shows the direct connection between neighborhood media to planning and policy, a early hot topics was a redevelopment plans, how the neighborhood corporation was investing revenue in the neighborhood.

This successful neighborhood benefited from several very active members. Although hyperactive participants can be a liability, overwhelming visitors or dominating conversations, a core of enthusiastic participants can benefit a forum because they create a public good – information and opinion – that others can read or react to. This relates to Noor Ali-Hasan’s blog study that argued active conversation starting blogs play an important role in a larger ecosystem of online communication.

Closing Questions

Considering the lessons this website provides, two questions arise. First, what is new? What new information was communicated, new relationships developed, or most importantly new outcomes resulted in the real world? It’s not clear how you could prove something like this, but it is the question of central importance evaluating the significance of a new community-building tool. The second but related question, how did the online intervention change existing relationships and arrangements? Did it reinforce them, alter them in another way? Answering these questions rigorously — about I-Neighbors or any other community building website — will help us understand the true potential for the Internet to affect local communities.

> I-Neighbors.org


National Planning for America’s Cities

Posted: March 20th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: History, Urban Development | Comments Off

One of the disappointments for many urban planners about the stimulus bill was the lack of innovation for urban development. Funds for community development, foreclosure response, and transportation funding flowed through existing programs and formulas, meaning the stimulus funds would share their idiosyncrasies. Perhaps this is for the best: for the interest of expediency and management clarity, our jury-rigged system for federal funds in infrastructure and urban development already functions according to well-known rules. The Obama administration’s appointees can try to mitigate the worst problems: anti-urban biases in funding formulas, contradictory federal goals, inflexible approaches and rules.

“While America is more metropolitan than ever,” point out several scholars with the Brookings Institution in a recent article, “As a nation, we remain fixed in old arrangements, established decades ago and kept in place by bureaucratic inertia and entrenched political interests.” This results in a miss-allocation of resources and a lack of strategic vision for metropolitan development. Their article contains a few concrete suggestions. On the topic of infrastructure, they adopt a couple ideas percolating in Washington I’ve written about before – an infrastructure bank for financing and an independent commission to replace earmarks with national planning:

… Congress should create a permanent, independent commissionthe Strategic Transportation Investments Commission (STIC)to set a unified priority map for U.S. transportation and use its work to inform the activities of a new National Infrastructure Bank (NIB).

This approach differs significantly from our current strategy, which puts money and decision-making power into the hands of 50 state departments of transportation and hopes that the sum of all these decisions will yield a strong national system.

The article also urges greater metropolitan governance and regional cooperation, including additional funds and powers for metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs), and applying regional policies to existing funding programs.

Such proposals are reasonable and necessary, but longtime observers may remember older arguments, including David Rusk’s “Cities Without Suburbs” from the early 90s, an even older “regionalization” debates and proposals dating back to the birth of suburbia in the 1940s and 50s. Has America ever had national planning to shape metropolitan development?

National Planning in America

“The great paradox of national planning,” muses historian Robert Fishman, “is that Americans have practiced it so successfully while continually claiming it doesnt exist.” In his provocative article “1808 – 1908 – 2008 – National Planning for America” Fishman describes three episodes of national planning.

1808 was the year of Albert Gallatin’s Report on Roads and Canals, a Federal government report that Fishman argues remains “a model of long-term strategic thinking tied to national policy.” The plan clearly identified a set of key infrastructure investments for the Federal government, and related these investments to what were perhaps the two most important policy goals – distributing vast western lands to small farmers, and provide for the transportation links to connect these hinterlands with the east. Written before the railroad, the plan proposed a bold system of highways and canals. Although implementation took nearly a hundred years, many of these connections were ultimately built by the turn of the century.

Fishman National Planning Final (12 pages)

1908 stands for the next major phase in national policy. The success of the earlier policies to use canals and railroads to link agriculture with urban markets precipitated the problems troubling Theodore Roosevelt. The year marked a Conference of the Governors of the United States where environmental issues were discussed, along with the “unbalanced transportation system dominated by railroad monopolies” that resulted in “economic inefficiency and regional imbalance.” To Fishman, “The interstates completed the regional restructuring that was implicit in the 1908 vision, helping to shift population from the rail-dependent cities of the East and Midwest to Sunbelt regions where systems of federally-financed infrastructure (water, electricity, roads, ports, housing) made possible the explosive growth that has re-shaped this country over the last sixty years.”

Where does that leave us today, at the time of the article in 2008?

As we reach the hundred-year marks for both these plans, there is ample evidence that, as in 1908, we have now reached the point where the planning vision that had shaped the nation for the previous century is exhausted and even counter-productive. The 1908 Conservation/National Development vision has done its work in saving millions of acres of threatened forests and farmlands and bringing hope and prosperity to once-neglected and poverty-stricken regions of the South and West that are now leaders in growth and prosperity. But the inherent contradiction between the conservation and national development aspects of the plan are now inescapable. Ironically, a plan based on an ideal of conservation helped to create a decentralized nation whose basic patterns of intensive land, energy and water consumption are now unsustainable. Moreover, the vision of national equity and regional regeneration inherent in the plan has been lost as some favored cities and regions forge ahead while others lag.

New Paradigm Emerging?

One irony is that the mode chosen to break the railroad monopolies in the 20th Century — highways — is now a major source of environmental harm, cause of undesired forms of metropolitan growth, and catalyst of the decline of passenger rail. This brings us to the one major exception to the stimulus bill’s use of conventional funding mechanisms: high speed rail. The bill earmarked $8 billion for development of high speed rail, separate from Amtrak. Qualifying projects must be along one of the several identified national corridors. Like Gallatin’s plan, embedded in this map of the corridors is a vision for future urban growth. Instead of re-creating a nationwide network such as we had at the turn of the century, the system features six discontinuous networks. Yes, it’s primarily a regional and metropolitan investment, not a national one, and a plan sure to bolster the economies of our largest metropolitan areas.

hsr_corridors_2009.pdf (1 page)

Will the next transportation bill (whether called CLEAN-TEA or any other name) usher in a new era of national and metropolitan planning? Perhaps. Still awaiting reform is the constallation of other Federal programs related to urban development, ostensibly coordinated by Obama’s much-discussed Office of Urban Affairs. Given other priorities, the long list of policies in that area remains largely untouched. Only time will tell which reforms and proposals will take root in this new era of national planning.


Book Review: Rybczynski’s Last Harvest

Posted: January 28th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Book Reviews, History, Housing, New Urbanism, Urban Development, Urbanism and Planning | 3 Comments »

022.jpg (JPEG Image, 702x527 pixels)Witold Rybczynski’s 2007 book Last Harvest: From Cornfield to New Town is truly a unique book: an accessible, detailed narrative of the process of real estate development. The book describes the construction of a subdivision named New Daleville in southern Chester County in suburban Philadelphia. Or exurban, rather, since the development is over 45 miles from downtown Philadelphia. (More on that in a bit) The subtitle, “Real Estate Development from George Washington to the Builders of the Twenty-First Century, and Why We Live in Houses Anyway,” suggests the second major component to the book. Interspersed with the story of New Daleville is variety of asides describing the history of residential real estate development and drawing upon Rybczynski’s extensive expertise on the topic. (He is also the author of a history of homes and biography of Frederick Law Olmsted.)

The book features an account of the wrangling with local officials over the subdivision’s site plan, trade-offs on architectural design, technical challenge of providing utilities in a rural area, and the ever-present developer’s bottom line. This rich detail makes it a particularly good introduction to the topic of land development, and it’s little wonder the author is one of the keynote speakers at the American Planning Association conference in Minneapolis this spring. I’ll leave further description of the book to the many reviews that have already been published, whether by the Where Blog, Business Week, or The New York Times.

NewDalevilleSitePlan

Despite the good things about it, I have three main concerns about the conclusions it draws about American urbanism in the 21st Century.

First, the book falls victim to selection bias, presenting a distorted view of the American city and traditional neighborhood design. Although Rybczynski describes New Daleville as “neotraditional” and takes great pains to draw links with well known New Urbanist communities like Seaside, Florida or the Kentlands, Maryland, his subdivision shares little with these famous places. Miles from retail amenities, jobs, water and sewer infrastructure, and any of the myriad of other practical ingredients to actual traditional communities, New Daleville is nothing more than a glorified rural subdivision. It’s much-ballyhooed density (the plan was more dense that other area subdivisions) isn’t very impressive either — 125 homes on 90 acres. Although the developer has proven traditional neighborhood development credentials, this is not the project that embodies them. Furthermore, while I appreciate Rybczynski’s impulse to move beyond the over-studied urban core, he’s far overshot his mark. Located in a rural area far from any city, New Daleville is not characteristic of most residential development.


View Larger Map

Second, Rybczynski omits the powerful role of public policy in shaping the form of American cities. He claims the preponderance of single family homes in America reveal a cultural preference, citing neighborhoods with single-family homes around the world and a cultural tradition traced back to Britain and the low countries in Europe. While I agree that culture has played a role, our policies have shaped urban development in powerful ways. The Interstate Highway System (which at one time meant the federal government funded 90% of state’s cost of new interstate highways) made low-density suburbs an option for urban workers. The federal government single-handedly created the “plain vanilla” 30-year fixed rate mortgage. Before FHA subsidies enforced the type, commercial home mortgages required substantial down payments and short payback periods. The federal government also created the secondary market for mortgages, adding a further incentive for home ownership to the substantial tax benefits. An anecdote in Rybczynski’s chapter on Levittown illustrates this precise issue:

“… at the urging of local government officials, the Levitts offered a two-bedroom rental unit for sixty-five dollars a month. Since the monthly mortgage payment on a Levittowner was sixty dollars, there were few takers, and the so-called Budgeteer was soon discontinued.” (165)

He omits the reason the mortgage was cheaper: FHA insurance. I don’t intend to resolve the culture/policy chicken and egg problem, but a quick international comparison can show how policy can influence the form of housing. The U.S., Britain, and Australia are all relatively wealthy countries sharing historical and cultural ties. As we would expect, they share similar homeownership rates (around 66-69%). However, the profile of their housing stock is quite different: a whopping 31% of housing units in Britain are row homes or semi-detached units, compared to just 5.6% in the U.S. On the other hand, Australia outstrips the home-loving U.S. in its popularity of single-family homes. And the percentage of Americans living in multifamily buildings is a healthy 26.3%, so clearly single-family homes aren’t the full story. Here’s the full table:

USA (2000) Britain (2002) Australia (2006)
Home ownership rate: 66.2% 69% 69.8%
Percentage homes single-family, detached: 60.3% 21% 74.4%
Percentage homes semi-detached: 5.6% 31% 9.3%
Percentage homes in multifamily buildings: 26.3% 44% 14.7%
Sources: U.S. Census 2000, SF3 tables British General Household Survey, (2) Australian 2006 Census

These differences are the result of a range of forces: approaches to public housing, transportation policy, geography, environmental protection, and yes, culture.

Lastly, the location of his project means the only form of transportation is the automobile. Although it is true the car is king for most American transportation, the absence of any choice whatsoever is artificial. The American Public Transit Administration estimates only 20% of the country are without some form of public transit service. New Daleville’s residents fall into this minority.

IMG_1426.JPG (JPEG Image, 700x525 pixels)The irony is that I think Rybczynski knows all this, describing in chapter nine in detail why many wouldn’t consider New Daleville “smart growth,” concluding “for hardcore, transit-first, rebuild-the-center-city, regional planning advocates of smart growth, New Daleville is merely more of the same, what they don’t want.” (89) He immediately follows this with a description of how the form of the neighborhood will encourage socialization, reduce stormwater runoff, encourage walking, protect open space, and include shared play areas and public space. These attributes, he writes, “will be small reminders to the people living there that they are not only private homeowners but also members of a community. That will be smarter growth indeed.”

In his 1987 book, historian Robert Fishman described suburbia as “bourgeois utopias,” arguing their cultural origins lay with evangelical Christian men in 19th century London who sought to combine proximity to the city’s jobs with an idyllic, urban residential life free of urban vice. Fishman argues the modern movement of jobs and industry to the periphery has meant the end of true suburbs under his definition. Perhaps Last Harvest is part of the suburban tradition: holding up an idealized, rural, economically unsustainable lifestyle as the best way to live, even if the reality of American cities tells a more complex story.

Fishman observes, “the bourgeois utopia rested on a frighteningly unstable economic base. The bourgeois utopia depended for its survival on market forces that even the bourgeoisie could not control.” It is on this note that emeritus urban planning professor David R. Godschalk closes his generally positive review of Last Harvest in last October’s Urban Land:

It is ironic that Rybczynski, with his magisterial grasp of American development history, did not anticipate fully the impact of the current development downturn. Perhaps the five years that he devoted to studying the project blinded him to the cruel force of the boom-and-bust cycle, especially on vulnerable rural subdivisions remote from an urban real estate market. Today, according to Web and news reports, Ryan Homes is offering a cash-back bonus and up to 60 percent off chosen options, and New Daleville is only about half built out with prices halved to get homes off the market.

In the end, these criticisms aside, Last Harvest opens up the largely mysterious process of land development to a popular audience, laying bare the complex factors that produce urban space. By provoking a dialogue and explaining the contrasting viewpoints of the story’s different actors, Rybczynski does urbanists a service and elevates the conversation around residential development. If it provokes an urban planner to build on the work started by Christopher Leinberger in The Option of Urbanism and pen an equally complex and compelling accessible book in reply, so much the better. That at least is the view of this, “transit-first, rebuild-the-center-city, regional planning advocate of smart growth.”

> Amazon.com: Last Harvest: How a Cornfield Became New Daleville


Searching for Philadelphia’s Trinities

Posted: December 2nd, 2008 | Author: | Filed under: Architecture, History, Philadelphia, Urbanism and Planning | 1 Comment »

Trinity HouseWhen I visited Philadelphia in April 2007, I stayed with my friend Emily in an improbably tiny house. She had explained that it was off a pedestrian alley off an alley itself an unusual description but when I entered I discovered the house had, apparently, just one room.

A tiny, twisting staircase led up one floor to another tiny room and bathroom, and the staircase led up again to a bedroom. Instead of conveying claustrophobia, the house exuded a comfortable, almost nautical sensation of functional smallness. The style was known as a “trinity house,” Emily explained, a uniquely Philadelphia invention. My interest piqued, I turned to the web and library for more information on these unique structures. My search eventually led to one of the city’s most famous residents, Benjamin Franklin, and offered a window into the city’s early history. Many trinity houses turned up for sale or rent on Craigslist, often along with photos of their interiors. A discussion forum operated by a local blog describes residents moving beds in through second story windows, and the unique quirks of living in such small homes.

Trinity Homes

Few websites could describe their origins, number, or typical form. One real estate website described the type as some of the citys oldest houses, generally over 100 years old, cozy, and located off shared courtyards. A Frommers webpage describing the architecture one might encounter during a walking tour provides just one short sentence, contrasting them with their larger neighbors, The less wealthy lived in trinity houses — one room on each of three floors, named for faith, hope, and charity. However, other sources contradicted the names origin. The introduction to a collection of stories about the 19th century working class neighborhood Flatiron reports residents of the Catholic section called their 14-foot-wide homes “Father, Son and Holy Ghost houses” for their three-room makeup.(1)

Early examples of the buildings dating from the 18th century have been preserved in a National Historic Landmark called Elfreths Alley. A nonprofit educational organization sponsors tours of the alley and boast its the oldest continuously inhabited neighborhood in America. While the official website doesnt use the term, another unofficial website describes the architecture as Georgian and trinity.

A 1986 Philadelphia Magazine article by Stephen Fried points out the homes are precisely what city founder William Penn hoped to avoid when he founded a city he envisioned would be a “greene Country Towne” filled with homes set amid gardens. The article describes the homes usual form, reporting they are “much in demand” among the well-to-do, and that sometimes several are combined to form “quadities” or “quantities.” For an example of the form, the author suggests Elfreths Alley, or the 1900 block of Waverly Street. The author also describes a typical layout: a kitchen in the basement, and the homes often had two front entrances, one leading up to the living room and another providing access to the basement.(2)

An essay on housing for the poor provides additional insight into the origin and early history of the homes. The author describes how property speculators built long rows of identical row homes, and even how the city took possession of small alleyways and subdivided them. The process of what he calls back-alley dwellings is described:

The back-alley dwellings represented a particularly difficult problem. They took several forms. Owners of houses fronting on main streets might simply add on buildings in the rear to the end of the lot, creating a dark, unpaved, unsewered alley. A more famous Philadelphia rear-dwelling was the band-box, or “father, son, holy ghost” house. These houses rarely fronted the streets, but instead were built in the back yards and formed little courts, which were often invisible from the street. Of three, or less frequently two, stories, they contained only one room per floor, with an unenclosed stairway leading from one floor to another. They could be suitable for one small family, but they were unfit for the poor who often crowded into them. These real courts multiplied as the city’s original large lots were subdivided. They were probably built both for speculation and for servants’ quarters. Of great significance is the fact that they were rear dwellings, often obscured from the view of passers-by.(3)

This description is accompanied in the text by a diagram from W. E. B. DuBoiss text The Philadelphia Negro. However, a simple aerial photograph of the trinities above can illustrate the ingenuity of Philadelphia’s alley developers:

Philadelphia Trinities

Sutherland describes how these houses afford home ownership to the citys ethnic communities and avoid the problems of high-density tenements like in New York. However, the overcrowding and substandard sanitation caused high rates of typhoid and tuberculosis. His analysis of tenant owners reveals they generally did not hold extensive properties, and often lived in the building itself or nearby.

Sam Bass Warners classic account of Philadelphias growth suggests one of the citys most famous residents was responsible for several trinity homes.

To accommodate as many families in so little space some of the blocks for the ward had been cut by alleys so that little houses might be crowded onto the back lots of the houses facing the main streets. Strawberry Alley and Elbow Lane cut through the first block, Pettys alley divided the third block, and Benjamin Franklin had begun the alley process with his house lot off Market Street in the second block of the ward. He had built a row of three houses on Market Street, thereby turning his home yard into an interior lot. In the early nineteenth century Franklin’s home parcel became Franklin Court, an alley lot which opened up the interior of the block.(4)

Warner reports the tremendous density and low sanitation caused periodic epidemics of yellow fever, typhoid, small pox, and dysentery. He finds the 1774 census reported 1,401 people and 337 dwellings in the citys middle ward, composed in turn of five developed block of “slightly less than five acres of land.” Erring on the generous side to assume the ward was composed of 25 acres of developed land would yield the density of 13.5 dwelling units per acre (more than 55 people per acre), considered a high density today, let alone in an era without modern sanitation. He reports that street railways opened up “cast tracts of cheap suburban land and thereby destroyed the market for new alley construction.” Noting many of the old alleys remained standing for years “giving discomfort to Philadelphias poor for many generations.”

It is no small irony that the extremely dense urban fabric that constituted an urban problem in the 18th century is precisely the antidote to 21st century ones: sprawl, housing un-affordability, and auto dependence. Now may be the right time to learn from Philadelphia’s trinities, to study their dimensions and construction, as we seek to learn how to build more humane, resource-efficient urban homes and neighborhoods.

> See also my post on “An Architectural Aesthetic of Efficiency,” about how the “forced austerity” of the third world can result in a fundamental re-evaluation of residential architecture

(1) Gerard, Shields. Flatiron. Hilliard & Harris Publishers: 2006.
(2) Fried, Stephen. Philadelphia Magazine. April 1986. “The Trinity House Last Thing Founding Father Thought Hed Be Remembered For.”
(3) Sutherland, John F. “Housing for the Poor in the City of Homes: Philadelphia at the Turn of the Century.” Chapter 9 in The Peoples of Philadelphia: A History of Ethnic Groups and Lower-Class Life, 1790-1940. Allen F. Davis and Mark H. Haller, eds. Philadelphia: Philadelphia University Press, 1998.


A Brief History of Public Participation in Urban Planning

Posted: June 9th, 2008 | Author: | Filed under: History, Public Participation, Urbanism and Planning | 1 Comment »

This post is Part 2 of my public participation in urban planning series, adapted from my urban planning final paper, Citizen Participation and the Internet in Urban Planning.

In order to describe the potential uses of the Internet in public participation in planning, this section will begin with a short history of public participation in planning. The history seeks to challenge the professions view of participation as simply the public processes designed and controlled by planners. Public participation includes not only the deliberate hearings, but also the role of politicians, civic activists, business leaders, the media, and others in engaging in or forcing public conversation about planning topics. Before the advent of modern urban planning regulation, American urban planners directly communicated with the public in order to implement their plans. The framers of early zoning laws sought to engage the public through an open and transparent process. Given the increasing power of citizen groups and growing complexity of urban development, contemporary planners crafting outreach strategies can learn from this history to achieve consensus about and the coordination of new urban development.

Participation to Realize Burnham’s Plan of Chicago
The Plan of Chicago of 1909 is an important document in the early history of American city planning. A group of Chicago business leaders commissioned architect and planner Daniel Burnham to create a plan for the citys development. The plan reacted to the congestion and pollution created by industrialization and rapid urban growth by calling for new infrastructure, parks, and establishing a framework for future development. Noted for its comprehensive approach, the plan was adopted by city government, who created one of the countrys first city planning commissions to oversee its implementation. Although the plans creation is widely cited for helping to spark the planning movement in America, it is also associated with an important early example of public participation in urban planning.(1)

In 1909, city governments did not yet have the legal authority implement plans through zoning and an official planning commission. As a result, plan advocates turned to an unprecedented publicity campaign to win public support for the plan. Although the plan was commissioned by elites and presented to citizens through a propagandistic publicity campaign, plan advocates viewed public education as integral to the practice of planning itself. Voting citizens held direct power over the plan, since plan implementation depended on the approval of public bonds at the ballot box for road expansions, parks, and other initiatives. Therefore, before planners obtained the legal authority and institutionalized power to implement plans, the success of the nascent field depended on voluntary public and private coordination, created through broad public communication.(2)
Read the rest of this entry »


Remembering 1968

Posted: April 4th, 2008 | Author: | Filed under: District of Columbia, History | 2 Comments »

I thought I would post a short note commemorating two anniversaries, one significant to the nation and the other the city of Washington. Forty years ago today Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. That event sparked civic disturbances in over 100 cities including Washington, D.C.

This map, published in the book Ten Blocks from the White House shows the extent of fires and looting. The event lay the groundwork for both the large number of subsidized housing projects along these corridors and new private developments like U Street’s Ellington and DCUSA in Columbia Heights.

Washington, D.C. - April 4-8, 1968

The late 1960s events are also usually said to be related population decline. Like most cities, its population peaked around 1950 — 18 years before the civil disorder. Population decline should be understood as an interplay not only of urban problems causing middle class “flight,” but also the draw of the suburbs in the form of superior public services and inexpensive housing subsidized by government highways and mortgage programs.

D.C. Population

Here are just a few links, please feel free to contribute more in the comments.

> Previous post: Understanding the 1960s’s ‘Civil Disorders’
> History News Network: April 4th, 1968
> W. Post: 40 Years After King, Legacies of the Riot

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