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Planning Naked | May 2017

Planning Naked | May 2017
by Dr. Mark David Major, AICP, CNU-A

Your (hopefully hilarious) guide to most everything about the latest issue of APA’s Planning Magazine. It is a tale of two issues for May 2017. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…” Strange, that seems familiar.

“Oops, did I say too much? Something to think about…” James M. Drinan, JD seems to reveal way more about the professional organization’s underlying, flawed assumptions than he probably intended for the From the Desk of APA’s Chief Executive Officer article (pp. 5) of this issue. In fact, it is all there in the title, “How Do We Shape the New Normal?” Think about that for a moment. APA’s goal is not any sort of objective knowledge or the scientific truth about cities, which would have universal application regardless of whichever political party held power. Instead, by virtue of what is left unsaid, it represents something that is subjective, open to change and manipulation for the circumstances. It is an agenda that has to be ‘shaped’ to the political philosophy of the party in power; albeit, apparently only at the Federal level. This confirms APA is not a ‘neutral’ entity but a partisan one (big surprise, right). Other professional organizations have been supplanted by competitors for similar reasons in the past. Did I say too much?

Planners who forget to, you know, plan ahead. “Lessons Learned from the Oroville Spillway” (pp. 11-12 in the News Section) tries to turn lemons into lemonade. Short summary: some planners and engineers forgot to plan ahead and anticipate alternative scenarios associated with the damn and its spillway, which, if anything, shows a lack of imagination. It appears to be an example of government planning at its finest. Yes, that last comment is sarcastic.

Where’s all of the affordable housing? “Shipping-Container Homes Pose Zoning Challenges for Municipalities” (pp. 12 in the News Section) demonstrates why affordable housing is a nationwide problem as local governments impose regulatory controls on (potentially affordable) alternative housing solutions in order to artificially inflate local property values (tax revenues and sales profits in real estate for fun). Here is a little mental exercise: remove the issue of zoning out of the equation and the name of this article becomes only “Shipping-Container Homes for Municipalities.” That sounds promising…

Wait, Bourbon Street isn’t car-free already? Which was my biggest shock about the “New Orleans Ponders a Car-Free Bourbon Street” (pp. 13 in the News Section) article. Nice of APA to advertise just how far behind the United States really is when it comes to catering for pedestrians. People say cynicism is not a solution but it is hard to read a news item like this one without becoming a cynic.

Our devious plan to regulate Airbnb and its like out of existence. Here is the not-so-secret plan of APA, government regulators, and real estate industry members – representing the ‘suburban model’ perpetuation of the status quo over the last 70 years – in “Regulating Short-Term Rentals” by Edward Sullivan (Legal Lessons on pp. 14). Resist! The longer Airbnb and other share services prevail (even to the point of permanency), then the more hope there is for the future of our cities. Fight the power! Be a short-term rental outlaw! That statement is probably enough for me to be charged with inciting illegal activities in some jurisdictions.

A breath of fresh air. Finally, some solid reporting and writing in the three feature articles, “Immersive Technologies” by Emily Schlickman and Anya Domlesky (pp. 16-21), “Mapping for the Masses” by Jonathan Lerner (pp. 22-27), and “Dark Skies, Bright Future” by Allen Best (pp. 28-33). All of these articles (generalizing here) discuss the potential of their particular subject, their strengths and weaknesses, and even the possible shortcomings in the future. In 15 years as a member of APA, these three articles represent one of the best sequences in Planning Magazine during that time. 18 pages of pure bliss; more like this, please.

Then, we come to the low point for the May 2017 issue of Planning Magazine: National Planning Awards. News Flash APA! I strongly believe Daniel Burnham and Pierre L’Enfant would be deeply embarrassed to have their names associated with APA’s National Planning Awards in general and with these ‘winners’ in particular. Let’s skip over the irony that Burnham was an architect and L’Enfant was an engineer. I mean, what is APA going to do; name an award after Robert Moses. How embarrassing would that be? Moses sucked and everyone knows it now. Also, have you noticed APA does not (apparently) have a national planning award named after Jane Jacobs. APA’s Standing Committee for the Refutation of Jane Jacobs (see below) must be still hard at work.

Anyway, I do not want to spend too much time on these so-called awards. Judging by the full-page insert on pp. 48-49 practically begging for more entrants as well as the low quality of recent winners, it seems relatively clear that APA’s National Planning Awards are experiencing some problems staying afloat just like APA’s Planners Press. Or wait, should I have not said something about the failure and announced closure of Planners Press? Next time, maybe publish better books (just a suggestion).

Have you ever noticed when APA is embarrassed, Planning Magazine does not show any plans or satellite views of particular projects? I mean, it is almost like they do not want you to know that they are writing hosannas and/or handing out awards for suburban sprawl. Let us take one example, the 2017 National Planning Excellence Award for a Planning Landmark winner: Montgomery County, Maryland. Where is Montgomery County, you ask? It is to the immediate north/west of Washington, D.C. and to the near-immediate south/west of Baltimore, Maryland. Looks like an obvious location for high-density, urbanized in-fill between two growing metropolitan regions. You know, planning and design with foresight.

Google Maps view of Montgomery County, Maryland showing its intermediate, suburban location between Washington, D.C. to the south and Baltimore to the north. (Source: Google Maps).
Satellite view of Montgomery County, Maryland from 15 km (Source: Google Earth)

But wait, what is this? Gee, that looks like extensive physical evidence of suburban sprawl development patterns. The configuration of the ‘protected’ agricultural land is conversely that of the direction of the development patterns for Washington, D.C. from the southeast (the nearest urban center) to the northwest. Wait, it is possible this is part of a green belt for Washington, D.C.? Strange, I don’t recall the project description mentioning that information. Didn’t the Centre for Transport Studies at University College London demonstrate in the late 1990s that the effect of green belts was to increase auto-commuting travel miles, levels of carbon emissions, and suburban sprawl patterns (see The London Society’s refutation of green sprawl here). That is embarrassing. Not only is APA over two decades behind on this issue but they are actually still giving out awards for flawed policies perpetuating suburban sprawl.

But that’s OK. By implementing policies such as transfer of development rights (TDR) to protect agricultural lands, maybe Montgomery County dramatically increased density in its buildable areas. What is the average population density in Montgomery County, Maryland today? 3.2 people per acre. Mm, average population density for New York City (the ‘unicorn’ of American planning, I think it is far to say) is 43.8 people per acre. New York Ctiy is neary 14 times denser than Montgomery County, Maryland.

To paraphrase Britney Spears: oops, they did it again.

Planning Naked is an article series of observations and comments about a recent issue of Planning: The Magazine of the American Planning Association.

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Planning Naked | April 2017

Planning Naked | April 2017
Special Issue on Transportation
by Dr. Mark David Major, AICP, CNU-A

The previous issue of Planning Magazine (March 2017) gave me an excruciating, migraine headache and I definitely lost my temper while writing Planning Naked. I watched about one year’s worth of slow but steady progress in the editorial/word choices of the American Planning Association go out the window in a hysterical, reactionary response to the election of President Donald Trump; assuming these Planning Magazine articles are queued out a couple of months in advance. The fault is not Trump’s but the ‘establishment’ using any excuse (however, flimsy) to assert the dominant planning paradigm of the status quo for the last 70 years, which can be simply summarized as ‘Cars, Money, and Bureaucracy.’ I don’t have much hope for this April 2017 Special Issue on Transportation doing much to alleviate my professional concerns since the special issue on this very topic two years ago was an unmitigated disaster; especially the cover of vehicular road signs, which still irritates me. Let us see what this issue has in store for us…

A car is still a car. On the cover is the “front of a Waymo driverless car at a Google event last December in San Francisco (see pp. 5). So yeah, ‘transportation is cars’ is once again the front and center visual for APA’s Planning Magazine special issue on transportation. I can hear their objections to this observation, “But, but, but, but we have articles about bike-sharing and mention pedestrians and walking and rail and nature.” Yes, you do but the graphics and digging into the substance of the content only illustrates how APA ‘talks the talk’, ‘drives the drive’, and even ‘drives the talk’ but refuses to ever ‘walk the talk’ when the rubber meets the road. OK, there are a LOT of mixed metaphors about lip service in there but you know what I mean.

Ditch the word transportation. Maybe Planning Magazine could start with something simple like changing the title of this annual issue to “Special Issue on Mobility” or “…on Movement”? Just a thought…

Oh, chase the shiny object. “The Road Less Traveled” by James M. Drinan, JD (From the Desk of APA’s Executive Officer, pp. 7) sets the tone for APA as a professional organization chasing the ‘next shiny object’ that just so happens to pass across its field of vision. The advertisement photographs of planners playing in the exhibit’s area of national planning conference (prior on pp. 2-3) only reinforces the idea: Computers! Pinball machines! Free promotional pamphlets! Up, close, and personal with a drone! Virtual reality! Projector graphics and ice cream scoops?!? (Not sure about that last one) In any case, for this issue, it means new “disruptive transportation technologies” and “calls for infrastructure investment” (translation: there is “bipartisan support” to give us money), which can be linked to “economic development principles (jobs!).” Ahem, how about better understanding the road most travel by most people first? All of the evidence suggests APA is still clueless about that.

Cars, money, and bureaucracy. All-inclusive including the inside/outside of the front and back covers, this issue is 56 pages long. About 65% is really about cars, money, and protecting/promoting the bureaucracy/regulatory regime of planners. The issue pays lip service to other issues but…

Good News! You can be an Outlaw, too. The “New Hampshire Greenlights Granny Flats Statewide” article by Madeline Bodin (News Section, pp. 13) is great news! However, it is extremely disturbing that “the New Hampshire planning community was mixed on [the law].” Of course, the planners and municipalities initially opposing the law introduced a condition requiring that granny flats be ‘owner-occupied’, which is an insidious attempt to limit affordable, rental housing for lower income and young people. The Outlaw Urbanist would like to encourage all New Hampshire homeowners to violate this law immediately and continually since the ‘owner-occupied’ provision is essentially unenforceable. We are all outlaws now! “Lord I never drew first, But I drew first blood, I’m no one’s son, Call me young gun…”

So that happened… The “Zoning and ADA Compliance” article by Robin Paul Malloy (Legal Lessons on pp. 14) is an inoffensive reminder for people who might fall short in common sense, basic decency, and good manners.

I’ll pass, thanks. “Here Come the Robot Cars” by Tim Chapin, Lindsay Stevens, and Jeremy Crute (pp. 15-21). Full disclosure: I have known Lindsay Stevens since 2003. She is a friend. I have also met Tim Chapin, who invited me to guest lecture at Florida State University in Fall 2008. I don’t know Jeremy Crute. Out of respect for Lindsay, I am not going to comment on this article about autonomous vehicles (i.e. driverless vehicles) based on a study conducted on behalf of the Florida Department of Transportation.

I love the smell of sarcasm in the morning. Q&A section about “Disruption: Bike-Share” (pp. 24-25) in which Planning Magazine’s Editor-in-Chief, Meghan Stromberg interviews Jon Terbush of Zagster, a venture-funded startup company based in Cambridge, Massachusetts that designs, builds, and operates bike-sharing programs. I absolutely LOVE Terbush’s response to Stromberg’s question, “What are the minimum requirements for bike share?” Terbush responds, “Well, I’d still say the vision is the most important thing.” You can feel Terbush’s sarcasm dripping off the page after receiving such a backward ‘trapped-in-the-box’ type of question. Well done, Mr. Terbush. You smacked down APA and Planning Magazine even if they seemed blissfully unaware of it.

You can do those things that are ‘generic’ to all cities. The Q&A section “Disruption: Ride Share” (pp. 26-27) is a straightforward discussion about profiteering on the share services associated with the automobile… as if ‘unlicensed taxi services’ haven’t been around for decades (such as in London). That is essentially what companies such as Uber and Lyft are, i.e. they are circumventing government regulations (nay, restrictions) on labor in the same way zoning out granny flats restricts affordable housing and owners’ ability to profit on their property without the blessings of government. In any case, Andrew Salzberg’s closing comment is great advice, namely to “focus on things that are eternally true.” Well said, sir.

Oh, parking, you’re so fine, parking’s so fine, it blows my mind! Oh, parking! Ahem, four pages about parking with all sorts of buzzwords designed to promulgate the status quo. “Parking is an asset for cities,” “It plays a vital role (in making money, I translated the ‘code’ for you here but the “Driven by Technology” insert makes it clear),” it is “an important planning resource,” and so on and so forth. I was especially amazed to read how parking is “helping to reduce roadway congestion.” Along the way, the editors implicitly promote the decades-long myth of every Main Street shop owner, namely ‘Main Street would survive if we only had more parking.’ Planning Magazine does not say that, of course, but instead tells us people “will avoid public parking” if you charge too much for it. They do not mean people might walk or use a bike. The little 1” x 3.5” insert for The High Cost of Free Parking by Donald Shoup within the context of this article is quaint. See: equal time (<sarcasm).

Insidiously lies the crown. At first glance, “Connecting the Dots” by Greg Griffin (pp. 32-39) seems like it is promoting the bike share concept. However, by tying bike sharing to inequity issues it is actually undercutting it. This is ironic considering the equity and standard of living impacts of not owning a car are much, much worse and pervasive in American society. This article is insidious because the key underlying issue is American settlements have been building large rectangular blocks, expanded road widths, and consuming land for centuries, which the automobile has only accentuated over the last century or so. It is the spread-out physical nature of the American settlement itself, which generates many of these inequity issues. However, by ignoring the real issue (planning and land consumption), Planning Magazine can use the inequity issue to undercut the bike share concept. Not overtly, you understand, but by throwing up ‘cautionary’ impediments along the way in the regulatory regime.

See: APA mentioned rail. Planning Magazine pauses in “Rail Relationship” by Raymond Besho (pp. 40-42) to remind us that freight rail traffic is worth a lot of money, too. They then prescribe solutions to promote rail freight at the expense of livability for human beings in settlements; all in the name of “safety.” Trains killed 265 people in 2016 (Source: Federal Railroad Administration). Wow, it is an epidemic! Automobiles kill more than 30,000 people each year. Perspective, people.

In closing. I want to close out this version of Planning Naked by repeating the opening line of the “Cultivating Stronger Connections with the Natural World” article by Timothy Beatley (pp. 49-50):

“Too often nature seems abstract and far away, difficult to know and touch in any visceral way.”

I would like you to think about that statement. I mean, I want you to think really hard about the opening line of this article in a national magazine of a national organization dedicated to the ‘art and science of designing cities.’ I hope you do not laugh too hard when you realize the statement is patently absurd.

At least, this time I kept my temper and I did not get a headache. This represents progress of a certain kind, I suppose.

Planning Naked is a series of observations and comments about a recent issue of Planning: The Magazine of the American Planning Association.

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PAPER | A Failure of Modernism: ‘Excavating’ Pruitt-Igoe

“The present contribution is a nice and proper scientific excursion through the fits and misfits of an emblematic “failure” of modern urbanism – Pruitt-Igoe, overcoming superficial critiques and less interesting commentaries on the case. I recommend it to be accepted for presentation at the conference and published (in) its proceedings.” (Referee Comment about M.D. Major research on Pruitt-Igoe for SSS11)

Click to download a PDF of the paper “A Failure of Modernism: ‘Excavating’ Pruitt-Igoe” here.

During the closing reception of Space Syntax 10 at University College London in 2015, Dr. Mário Krüger asked me to “promise” to attend Space Syntax 11 in Lisbon, Portugal in 2017 after attending my first Space Syntax Symposium since 1999. I politely promised to “try” to attend. Two years is a long time and I hate to make promises without knowing beforehand whether it will be possible to fulfill them. Mário noticed my equivocation, so he again asked me to promise to attend. He asked again… and again… and again… and again. Upon Mário’s fifth request, I finally offered the unequivocal promise to attend SSS11 that he was seeking from me. This created two problems for me: one short-term and the other long-term. I could delay answering the long-term problem until the last minute; namely, would I have the personal and/or professional resources (i.e. time, money, etc.) to visit Lisbon, Portugal in two years time? The short-term problem required an answer much sooner since the SSS11 call for abstracts was only five months away; namely, what suitable research could I possibly write about for the blind referee process of Space Syntax Symposia? I did not know.

However, finding an answer was one of many issues I was dealing with in the latter part of 2015, including the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) hiring me as a part-time, adjunct Professor of Urban Design in November, my subsequent relocation to that city in December, and preparing the syllabus/materials for the URBA 739: Economics of Urban and Regional Planning course at SCAD, which I would begin teaching in January 2016. I decided one of the lectures for URBA 739 had to be about social housing. I had conducted some social housing research in Europe during the 90s and I had also read a great deal about the most infamous public housing project of them all, Pruitt-Igoe, because I was born and raised in St. Louis, Missouri. That was when the ‘lightbulb went off over my head’ (always an Edison bulb in my imagination). Space syntax is famous for its research into European social housing and crime patterns (see the “Back to the Street” article in The Economist). However, as far as I knew, no one had ever researched Pruitt-Igoe using space syntax. It was easy to understand why. Pruitt-Igoe was demolished in 1972-76 and, as I state in the paper, “any researcher is willingly wading into a distinctive American cesspool of racism and ideology sufficient to scare most people away” (Major, 2017; pp. 5).

Figure-ground (space in black, blocks in white) of north St. Louis showing the Pruitt-Igoe site (highlighted in gray) in 1933 (left) and circa 1958 (right).

The paper you can now download for free (see above and below) represents about a year of research and only 5,000 words about this particular subject. My first full, unedited draft of the paper was about 15,000 words. Quite frankly, this was also insufficient for the scope and multitude of issues raised by the design, management, and history of Pruitt-Igoe. For example, there is some delicate nuance preferable for many of the issues crudely summarized in the paper as well as additional material by other researchers, which deserve to be more fully described than I have time for even in the 2.5-hour course about Pruitt-Igoe, now available on The Outlaw Urbanist course website. I fully intend to expand this research into a book at some point in the future. This because Pruitt-Igoe remains an important lesson for us; one that many people still misconstrue or fail to understand altogether, where the consequences of future mistakes can be just as costly as our past ones if we are not careful. We consign Pruitt-Igoe as something solely belonging to the past at our peril. As Albert Einstein pointed out, “only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I’m not sure about the former.”

In the end, researching Pruitt-Igoe was an often frustrating but hugely rewarding experience for me as an architect, urban planner, and native St. Louisian. However, as fate would have it, I could not answer the long-term problem to keep my promise to Dr. Krüger about attending SSS11 in Lisbon, Portugal. I simply do not have the resources at my disposal that so many other people casually take for granted to attend conferences worldwide. For failing to keep my promise, I feel bad and I apologize to Dr. Krüger. Nonetheless, the end-product of this journey is far more important for our profession than a broken promise so I am making my paper “A Failure of Modernism: ‘Excavating’ Prutt-Igoe” freely available online for anyone to read. I welcome any comments or suggestions about the ideas discussed in the paper and, once again, I strongly recommend you watch the 2012 documentary The Pruitt-Igoe Myth, especially after reading my paper if you have not before seen the documentary.

Click to download a PDF of the paper “A Failure of Modernism: ‘Excavating’ Pruitt-Igoe” here.

NOTE: This research was paid for and supported by me. There was no grant to pay for this research. I have not had any classes assigned to me to teach for over a year (due to “declining enrollment”) so the Savannah College of Art & Design did not financially support this research, either directly or indirectly, in any way. This research was not born of any privilege except the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. Enjoy!

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Support The Outlaw Urbanist Today!

Now Accepting Contributions from Fellow Resistance Fighters
by Dr. Mark David Major, AICP, CNU-A, The Outlaw Urbanist Founder

We founded The Outlaw Urbanist almost five years ago. During that time, we have produce more than 220 posts of freely-available content on our blog about architecture and urbanism across a vast range of issues as well as nearly 4,000 tweets on our @OutlawUrbanist Twitter feed.

We have also produced two volumes of the Poor Richard almanac series for architects and planners (available for purchase by clicking on the links to your right) with three more books (American cities, Poor Richard Volume 3, and Collected Essays) on the way. We have also produced more than 20 hours of professional development, continuing education and training classes, either exclusively on The Outlaw Urbanist Courses website or in partnership with Planetizen Courses.

In that time, we have found many valuable allies such as Andy Boreau of Urbanism Speakeasy, the people at Planetizen, and many members of the CNU and Space Syntax communities even as powerful entities with a vested interest (often purposefully obscured) in perpetuating the status quo continue to work against our message. Most definitely, we sometimes feel grind down by this fight; much like Patrick McGoohan’s Number Six in The Prisoner above. However, we often receive encouraging messages from users such as this Canadian academic researcher only last week:

“I am writing you a brief note to say how inspired I am by your blog and manifesto – I agree wholeheartedly… I had this great feeling again today when I found your work.”

Such messages are ‘manna from heaven’ for us. However, believe it or not, The Outlaw Urbanist content has been produced on a shoestring budget over the last five years. A reasonable estimate is we spend about $500 per annual in out-of-pocket costs to offer the (mostly) free content on The Outlaw Urbanist. The rest is brain power, elbow grease and lots and lots and lots and LOTS of time.

We have reached the point where we need to ask for your help. There are a lot of upgrades we would like to implement on The Outlaw Urbanist but for a lack of funds: upgrade our hosting service package to speed up loading of the website, offer a monthly newsletter through the facilities of Paper.il to share more content, jointly produce continuing education courses and podcasts with Urbanism Speakeasy, securing pre-approved credits for courses with various professional organizations (for which we will be charged) and, eventually, switching over to an annual subscription-based platform for The Outlaw Urbanist Courses instead of the current ‘per class’ cost structure.

We have introduced a “Donate with PayPal” button to our content sidebar (at the upper right hand corner) to enable our users to financially support The Outlaw Urbanist. PayPal enables you to make donations using your debit or credit card.

We are asking for donations to support our continuing efforts. We appreciate receiving any donations, no matter how small or large, for that purpose. We are creating a special category called The Founders Circle for anyone who makes a donation of $1,000 or more on an annual basis, which includes prominent display of your business, personal or organizational logo with a link to your website.

Please support The Outlaw Urbanist today with your donation!

NOTE: We would be remiss if we did not mention everyone involved with the open resource platforms of WordPress, LearnPress, and many other associated plugins, which indirectly support the efforts of The Outlaw Urbanist. Thank you!

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NOW AVAILABLE | Housing and Modern Corporatism

Housing and Modern Corporatism: Inside the Doomsday Machine explains basic economic principles and tools at work in the housing market during the post-war period in the United States with an emphasis on the cumulative origins and causes of the 2008 financial crisis. The course covers the role of: purposefully opaque, financial instruments; mistakes in political and regulatory policy; naked, greedy (even fraudulent and/or corrupt) self-interest in the marketplace; and the unspoken, self-deluding assumptions underlying the housing and real estate market, which collectively sparked the Great Recession from 2008 until ‘to be determined’. The course is tailored for architecture, urban design and planning professionals, students, and others engaged in creating built environments to better understand the impact of these often unseen, poorly understood forces at work on their livelihood and the future of our cities (2.0 hour course).

Key concepts: capitalization, credit, money, housing, mortgage bonds, reserve currency, securitization, value.

Instructor: Dr. Mark David Major, AICP, CNU-A

Check here to purchase this course ($14.99), which includes an one-hour video presentation and PDFs of the course supplementary materials and slide handout.

Note: We are beta-testing with these initial course offerings so if you have any issues accessing the course material, please do not hesitate to contact us at courses@outlaw-urbanist.com. Thank you!

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