Review: Ehrenhalt’s The Great Inversion

Posted: June 10th, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: Book Reviews, Urbanism and Planning, Zoning | No Comments »

The Great InversionIn the acknowledgements section at the end of his book, The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City, author Alan Ehrenhalt demurred he is “no Jane Jacobs” but says he followed her advice for researching cities, namely to study them through close personal observation using a minimum of preconceptions. The results of this approach are apparent throughout his readable and interesting discussion on the changing geography of U.S. cities. The vivid details gleaned from personal observation, especially in Chicago, Houston, and an Atlanta suburb, provide a vitality and richness too often lacking in nonfiction treatments of cities. In addition, his clear prose captures the essence of key intellectual debates –- such as new urbanism and gentrification –- without getting bogged down.

Organized around a series of short city-based cases, Ehrenhalt explores his thesis, that the return of wealthy residents to city centers will produce U.S. cities more reminiscent of the 19th century Paris and Vienna than the typical 20th Century U.S. city, where wealthy suburbs surround a poorer urban core. However, unlike more narrowly construed books like Lineberger’s The Option of Urbanism, or the lack of nuance in Glaeser’s The Triumph of the City, Ehrenhalt brings a reporter’s eye to his subject, presenting wonderfully detailed descriptions of how this trend is translating into unique local conditions. He describes how downtowns are becoming (or attempting to become) more residential, and suburbs are seeking to transform themselves into more urban places in response to shifting preferences. Each of the places he profiles must grapple with unique local conditions. At its best, he captures the interplay between social and demographic trends and urban form that characterizes good descriptions of urbanism. For example, he describes how Philadelphia developed into a city of owner-occupied row homes organized into largely working class neighborhoods. This produced a physical fabric, unique politics, and public policies (such as a wage tax) that together create challenges for neighborhood revitalization and largely confines revitalization to Center City. Similarly, he describes how lower Manhattan’s obsolete commercial buildings contributed to the unexpected residential renaissance there, as they were ideal for retrofitting into condos and apartments. (As an aside, a similar phenomenon is happening in downtown Detroit, including the recent conversion of the formerly largely vacant commercial Broderick Tower into 124 apartments).

The cases, selected to demonstrate the varied impact of the broad trend on urban neighborhoods or suburban municipalities outside the center city include, with these neighborhoods or suburbs noted, Chicago (Sheffield), New York City (Lower Manhattan and Bushwick), Atlanta (Gwinnet County), Cleveland (Cleveland Heights), Washington, D.C. (Clarendon and Tysons’s Corner), Philadelphia (Center City), Houston (downtown), Phoenix (downtown), and Denver (Belmar, Stapletown and Englewood).

In general, the book’s weaknesses are few and forgivable. While general well-selected, the cases show a northeast bias, with the notable absence of any west coast cities, especially one in California. While Charlotte, North Carolina is discussed at one point, another well-developed southern example might have been illuminating given the region’s distinctive culture and history. The relative scarcity of photos (just 18 in 236 pages) is puzzling, given the author’s first-hand accounts. A few more could have helped illustrate the places and people that are so well described. One strength is the well-designed maps provided at the start of each chapter.

My only substantive complaint is the relatively sketchy and simplistic treatment of the planning process that in many cases fostered or responded to the changes he describes. As an example, the light rail systems and accompanying transit-oriented development plans described in Phoneix and Denver are presented as easily adopted proposals designed by an urban elite. This account omits the extensive planning and outreach work required to secure passage of new taxes and new zoning in a largely anti-tax and anti-urban U.S. electorate. (Approval of transit taxes are by no means guaranteed.) However, convoluted planning processes that feature negotiations, ever-evolving renewal designs and plans, and interminable hearings and meetings make for tedious reading. But greater attention to these issues would help avoid two common misconceptions about U.S. urban development. First, that it is simply the product of heroic, top-down planning, such as the urban renewal feats orchestrated by Philadelphia’s renewal-era planner Ed Bacon. This type of “star planner” has faded from the scene given the separation of power and resources in U.S. cities. While leadership remains important, public action requires cultivating consensus among stakeholders. A public process that defines goals, refines plans, and analyzes proposals is often required before projects are funded and approved. The second erroneous impression to avoid is that planning is not needed because cities change by the market forces alone. Of course, private industry does not provide infrastructure, transit service, parks and public services required for urban life. While planning and public sector action may lead urban change, or respond to private initiative, it is an indispensible factor in any account of urban change.

One entrée into the topic of public sector planning might have been the issue of zoning, a topic with only three entries in the book’s index. Ehrenhalt discusses zoning in the section on Houston, which famously lacks this type of land use regulation. This chapter describes how Garret Coleman and the Midtown Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone are using property purchasing and restrictive covenants to to slow gentrification in the Third Ward neighborhood. While alluding to them briefly, the analogous public mechanisms to these in other cities are not described, which include zoning and historic preservation laws, and the plans that guide detailed regulations. In fact, several recent books on zoning are notably missing from a generally comprehensive biography (including Levin’s Zoned Out, Talen’s City Rules, and Ben-Joseph’s The Code of the City).

These complaints aside, the book is unparalleled as a useful portrait of American cities. U.S. metropolitan regions are dynamic and complex, and inevitably evolve much more quickly than our understanding of them. This makes book like this especially useful. Therefore I believe it will be a seminal text of popular urban geography for this era, in the same category as such classics as Kunstler’s Geography of Nowhere (which vividly described and critiqued suburban development) or Garreau’s Edge City (which coined a term for places like Tyson’s Corner in the first place, which are now attempting to develop greater urbanity). These books share a vitality and journalistic sensibility that helps us better grasp the cities of today, whether the readers are scholars, professionals, or residents interested to know more about their place in the evolving urban tapestry.

> The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City [WorldCat]


Which Cities Create Comprehensive Plans?

Posted: March 21st, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Urbanism and Planning | Tags: , | 1 Comment »

I attended a lecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD) last night where Robert Yaro from the New York Regional Plan Association (RPA) presented about his organization’s intention begin a new plan for the New York region. (See a video). GSD professor Jerold Kayden introduced Robert Yaro. After a brief synopsis of the early history of American city planning, Kayden made the observation that “the notion of a comprehensive plan that would govern a city, let alone a region, occurs far less often than even the law would appear to demand. Cities and towns in the United States are not normally preparing, and keeping up-to-date, plans for the entire city.”

Is this true? If so, it ran counter to my sense that while the implementation of plans lagged behind, planning itself was a lively profession continuing to produce plans nationwide. I thought I would answer the question by looking at two samples: the nation’s 25 largest cities by population, and the 101 municipalities in metropolitan Boston.

Do Big Cities Plan?

I decided to begin by reviewing the top 25 incorporated U.S. cities by 2010 population. For each, I found the website of the city’s planning office, and recorded the date of the most recent general or comprehensive plan if one existed. Although there is some variation (in particular, some do not contain future land use maps but only emphasize general policy and strategy), in no case was there any ambiguity about whether a plan aspired to be comprehensive.

Out of these 25 cities, 23 (or 92%) had a general or comprehensive plan. Four cities are currently preparing new plans or major plan updates. I then calculated the number of years since the plan was approved (plans currently underway were scored at 0 years). For the group, the with an average time since adoption is only 7 years. Ten cities, or 40%, had plans that were underway or approved less than five years ago. Seventeen cities, or 68%, had plans underway or approved less than 10 years ago.

The two cities without plans approved in the last 20 years were Chicago and Boston, however incidentally both metropolitan regions recently completed regional plans.

Cities with plans underway

Plans approved <5 years ago

  • Jacksonville
  • San Antonio
  • San Diego
  • San Francisco
  • San Jose

Plans approved 6-10 years ago

  • Baltimore
  • Dallas
  • Houston
  • Indianapolis
  • Nashville
  • Washington, D.C.
Plans approved more than 10 years ago

  • Charlotte (1996)
  • Columbus (1993)
  • Detroit (1992)
  • El Paso (1999)
  • Los Angeles (1995)
  • Memphis (1981)

Cities with no plans in the last 20 years

  • Chicago
  • Boston

Do Smaller Cities and Towns Plan?

If big cities produce plans, what about smaller places like cities and towns? After all, big cities have large, sophisticated planning departments with the resources and capacity to produce comprehensive plans.

Last year I completed a similar survey for the 101 municipalities in the state-designed Boston region served by the Metropolitan Area Planning Council. In this case, I reviewed and updated an existing database listing the year of the last master or comprehensive plan.

Muni_ChartAmong this group, 73% had completed plans, with an average time since adoption of 10.2 years. The towns in the Boston metropolitan region vary widely by size. Perhaps the larger cities are planning, but their smaller neighbors are not? Surprisingly, the data show the reverse is true. Among municipalities with populations less than 40,000, 76% had completed plans. Only 59% of towns over 40,000 had plans (including Boston itself). Among the towns that had completed plans, many were within the last 10 years.

Sound and Fury … Signifying Nothing?

A grand theory explaining the purpose and function of these plans has eluded the urban planning field. Although, as Prof. Kayden implied, cities do have legal incentives to create and update plans, this procedural requirement does not explain the lengthy and elaborate processes and plans that are produced.

One naive view holds the role of planning is to design the physical form of the city. Although critics point out many of their proposals are not carried out, those who look carefully find that some of their ideas are eventually implemented (see for example Brent Ryan’s careful analysis of plans in Providence, Rhode Island). However, ideas not proposed in plans are also implemented (including dozens of stadiums, ballparks, and porkbarrel infrastructure projects), lending credence to the political scientists’ focus on power and decisions, not the source of the ideas.

Others have analyzed planning from an economic point of view, arguing planning can increase welfare by providing information to coordinate private land development, or address issues like public goods, externalities, prisoners’ dilemma conditions, and distributional concerns. (See Klosterman 1985)

Finally, contemporary planning theory has stressed the ability of deliberative processes to change individuals’ views and perhaps also institution through “collaborative rationality.” However, this approach can soon stray from the subject of planning — cities and the human and natural systems they encompass. Another strand emphasizes the “wicked” nature of problems addressed by plans, and argues problems like these need to be addressed with a combination of analysis, deliberation, and design.

Planning’s remarkable persistence, extent, and diversity suggests planning activities are serving some purpose. With cities facing great uncertainty and unprecedented problems, it seems more important than ever to untangle the origins and effects of planning to maximize the benefits from this widespread activity.


New Planetizen Post: The Coming Urban Data Revolution

Posted: September 1st, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Urbanism and Planning | Tags: | Comments Off

I just posted a new article on the Planetizen blog: “The Coming Urban Data Revolution“:

Historically, data sources for urban planning have remained relatively stable. Planners relied on a collection of well-known government-produced datasets to do their work, including statistics and geographic layers from federal, state and local sources. Produced by regulatory processes or occasional surveys, the strengths and limitations of these sources are well known to planners and many citizens. However all this is beginning to change. Not only has the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey introduced a bewildering variety of data products, all with margins of error, three interrelated categories of new data are growing rapidly: crowdsourced, private, and “big” data.


Announcement Planning & Technology Conference

Posted: January 14th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Technology, Uncategorized, Urbanism and Planning | Tags: , | 1 Comment »

I’m helping plan this conference at MIT in April. We opened registration and announced the call for papers today.

REGISTRATION INFORMATION & CALL FOR PRESENTATIONS AND PAPERS

PLANNINGTECH@DUSP 2011

Friday, April 8, 2011
11:30 AM – 6:00 PM
Location: MIT Building 9

DESCRIPTION

New technologies are transforming how we communicate, expanding access to data and information, and revolutionizing how we understand and navigate our cities. Join a diverse groups of practitioners, scholars, students, and citizens for a half-day conference on the impact of these changes on the field of urban planning. Held one day before the start of the American Planning Association’s National Conference (also in Boston), this will be an opportunity to meet innovators from around New England and the across the nation.

The event will include discussion of urban modeling, urban sensing for planning, planning support systems, meeting technology, social media and Web 2.0 tools, and gaming for participation.

REGISTRATION

Register using the following link. Registration is free:
http://planningtech11.eventbrite.com/

PRESENTATION INFORMATION

Participants have four options for presentations:
- Lightning Talks – presenters will have 20 slides, 20 seconds per slide, advance automatically.
- Paper Session – Presentation of a paper, submitted two weeks before the conference. Should be no more than 5-10 pages.
- Presentation Session – Presentation without a formal paper, A/V materials optional.
- Idea Session – A facilitated conversation on a topic. Will be finalized on the day of the conference.

If you would like to present, submit the presenter name(s), presentation type, and proposed presentation title to rob.goodspeed at gmail.com by Friday, February 25. The timeline for presentations is below.

Friday, 2/25 – Title and Abstracts due for presenters
Monday, 2/28 – Accepted presenters notified
Monday, 3/28 – Papers and final presentation titles due
Friday, 4/8 – Conference day

For more information see the conference website:
http://web.mit.edu/rgoodspe/www/planningtech/
Or contact planningtech at mit.edu


Which Crowdsourcing?

Posted: January 4th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Public Participation, Urbanism and Planning | Tags: , | 4 Comments »

I wrote this article for the most recent APA Technology Division Newsletter, which we sent out this week. Other articles include city apps, water quality mapping, TOD database, a VMT estimation tool, and online participation.

The expansion of the Internet has made possible amazing examples of the collaboration of large groups of people, a phenomenon often called crowdsourcing. Projects like Wikipedia and OpenStreetMap have created new types of encyclopedias and maps. Other projects have coordinated thousands of volunteers to perform major outreach events, such as cleaning up garbage in Estonia or coordinating relief efforts for disasters such as the earthquake in Haiti.

As examples have proliferated, city planners have begun to explore whether the web can be used to tackle urban planning problems. Reviewing some well-known crowdsourcing examples with a focus on urban planning, I will describe four distinct models of crowdsourcing. Understanding these different models and their relative merits is required to integrate successful models of public sector crowdsourcing. The four types are crowdsourcing are:

  • Soliciting solutions to problems
  • Coordinating many individuals to achieve “collective intelligence”
  • Novel combinations of incentives, processes, and staffing to achieve organizational goals
  • Peer production of public goods

Some projects have used crowdsourcing as a way of soliciting innovative designs to a problem online. In Salt Lake City’s Next Stop Design project, Thomas Sanchez and Daren Brabham led a team which held an online design competition for a bus stop in Salt Lake City. In a recent article for the journal Planning Theory, Brahbam argues crowdsourcing should be viewed as a new type of public participation. He cites as an example the company InnoCentive, which operates a website where corporations post technical problems and “solvers” compete to win cash prizes for the best solution. “In essence, any urban planning project is predicated on a problem.” Brahbam writes, “Typically that problem is how best to accommodate changing populations with different infrastructure, all while considering the interests of residents, developers, business owners, and the environment. If a problem can be framed clearly, and if all the data pertaining to a problem can be made available, then that problem can be crowdsourced.”

In Melbourne, Australia, Mark Elliott and a team of collaborators took quite a different approach to crowdsourcing for a project completed in 2008. Partnering with an official city planning process, Elliot’s group created a wiki so the plan could be written in the same way as Wikipedia is – through the contributions of hundreds of different authors. In his doctoral dissertation, Elliott proposed a theory of “stigmergic collaboration.” Stigmergy is a theory developed in the natural sciences for a “mechanism of indirect coordination between agents,” such as the ways ant colonies can work in highly coordinated ways without a central authority. Elliott argues this type of cooperation and collaboration is made possible through technologies that create a “localized site of individualistic engagement” that reduces demands placed on participants.

A recent paper by MIT researchers argued crowdsourcing projects should be viewed as innovative arrangements of components, what they call a genome. Through a detailed analysis of the organizations Linux, Wikipedia, InnoCentive, and Threadless, the authors conclude each share a common set of ingredients which fall into four categories: the goal to be achieved, the structure or process of achieving the goal, incentives, and staffing. They observe these projects combine the components in different ways. For example, in the case of Linux, the crowd contributes new software code through collaboration for recognition, but only a small group decides which modules are included in each release through a hierarchy. In the case of Wikipedia, although the crowd creates articles, but the website uses voting and administrators for other decisions, such as whether to delete an article.

Finally, many have speculated that crowdsourcing should move beyond the realm of ideas. Citing examples of massive cleanups and emergency relief efforts, they argue city governments should use technology to crowdsource the production of public services. Instead of the government being the sole provider of certain public services, such as filling potholes or cleaning graffiti, could they simply coordinate citizens to help each other? I am skeptical of such claims for a number of reasons. Governments are subject to unique political and institutional arrangements which make collaborating with citizens difficult. Even if these barriers can be overcome, the flexibility of purely private organizations may be required for a successful project. However, even if governments can’t crowdsource their core functions, there may still be a need for a different approach in this new world. Bas Kotterink, a researcher in the Netherlands, argued in a lecture last summer that the expansion of private crowdsourcing may mean governments should take on expanded roles facilitating innovation, monitoring, and enforcing basic values such as privacy.

Although sharing similarities, each of these models contains distinct assumptions and approaches. Successfully using crowdsourcing for urban planning may require another approach entirely, taking into account the unique characteristics of each city and project. By describing some of the diverse approaches used thus far, I hope this article will help provoke ideas and innovation.

Originally written for APA Planning and Technology Today


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.


Planetizen Post: iPads for Planning

Posted: April 2nd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Technology, Urbanism and Planning | Comments Off

See my latest Planetizen post on how the iPad could be used for urban planning.

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