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The Outlaw Urbanist editorials.

Planning Naked | March 2017

Planning Naked | March 2017
by Dr. Mark David Major, AICP, CNU-A, The Outlaw Urbanist contributor

Your (hopefully hilarious… but not so much this month) guide to most everything about the latest issue of APA’s Planning Magazine

NOTE: The United States of America inaugurated Donald J. Trump as its 45th President on January 20, 2017, and, in response, Planning Magazine turns the crazy up to eleven.

Making Joseph Goebbels Proud. “Placemaking as Storytelling” by James M. Drinan, JD (From the Desk of APA’s Chief Executive Officer, pp. 3) contains some disturbing language. Drinan points out, “Research shows that coupling stories with data produces a significant increase in the retention rate of that data.” Basically, he is correct. However, it is important to clarify Drinan is not precise. FYI: Never expect precision from a lawyer because you will always be disappointed. It is more accurate to say that using data to better tell a story about an objective truth is an excellent means of increasing retention about both that story, the data, and the truth. It reinforces the objectiveness of both observer and the observed. Using data loosely to reinforce a lie is propaganda. This is a nuanced but important distinction. This is because Drinan goes on to state, “it is crucial to control (our emphasis) the narrative-the story.” This is a defensible position for a propagandist but not a scientist. Drinan (perhaps unintentionally) reveals he is discussing politics and propaganda, not scientific truth when you consider what he manifestly fails to say in a subsequent sentence. The key is the citation of planners as storytellers, authors, illustrators, and editors. What is missing? The answer is scientists. This ‘frontpage editorial’ is one of the most disturbing things I have read in Planning Magazine in years because it advocates for the very thing it pretends to be against. This is the insidious nature of the status quo reasserting itself against change. Forewarned is forearmed. NOTE: Having now read this, I am angry with myself for leaving this March 2017 issue of Planning Magazine sitting unread on my desk for two months. The previous months’ issues lulled me into a false sense of security. My mistake…

OMG! And I am only on page eight. “Federal Tax Credit Uncertainty Puts Affordable Housing at Risk” (News Section, pp. 8-9) by Dean Mosiman – a Madison city government reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal. RED FLAG, RED FLAG: Scott Walker is evil incarnate – contains some really bad reporting as Planning Magazine embarks on Drinan’s explicit promise to attempt to ‘control’ the story. First, it assumes a reality that is non-existent. “For 30 years, federal affordable housing tax credits have been the nation’s most potent tool to create housing for the homeless and low-income households.” Really? Have you been to Los Angeles lately? This bastion city in a bastion state of the Democratic Party has one of the worst, most despicable, and most shameful homeless problems I have ever seen in the Western world over the last three decades. It makes me sick to my stomach just thinking about what I saw and smelled in L.A. Everyday, there is another article in the mass media about an overwhelming lack of affordable housing in cities around the world including the USA. The tax credit is not a potent tool but a failed one. According to the article, the tax credit “had a major impact on the nation’s housing stock, helping create 2.8 million affordable units nationwide.” The use of ‘major’ here is shameless hyperbole and the ‘helping create’ means there might be an indirect benefit but not direct causation. Of course, these 2.8 million units were most likely woefully insufficient to replace the smaller (in square footage), more affordable historic housing stock demolished by public and private agencies during the same period. This news article is about one thing: fear that the pigs might not be able to eat at the government trough in the near future. Then, at the end of the article, the author implicitly concedes this is fear-mongering by stating the tax credit “is likely to survive.” Nothing to see here, folks, move on home! This is ‘fake news.’

People Matter. Planning Magazine ‘buries the lead’ with the “Miami Street Experiment Prioritizes People” by Susan Nesmith (News Section, pp. 9-10) by discombobulating the story across two pages, which is bad editing and bad graphic design. It makes you wonder what APA has against putting “people over cars” and “slowing traffic (with) no big gridlock.” The experiment is over but the “fancy crosswalks” remain: really, fancy crosswalks? Fancy? It is a good thing I have plenty of hair to pull out. This experiment and the subsequent attempts for a more humanistic redesign of this Miami boulevard is something that Planning Magazine needs to herald and promote, not deride as some quaint idea. Is this a failure of Ms. Nesmith’s writing or the editors of Planning Magazine? Perhaps both. I am not sure.

In ‘Do No Harm’ News. “Remaking Vacant Lots to Cut Crime” by Martha T. Moore (News Section, pp. 10) is an interesting story about a low-cost, temporary solution for vacant properties in urban conditions; as long as people and agencies understand it is not a long-term solution. All in all, however, I like the concept.

Beware of Florida Lawyers Bearing Gifts. This months’ Legal Lessons section (“Staff Reports: A Lawyer’s Take by Mark P. Barnebey, pp. 11) is one of those standard-type of articles Planning Magazine re-runs every 3-5 years due to new, young professionals entering the workforce. I remember reading the last two iterations of this article about staff reports (respond the young people, “He must be really old”). Barnebey’s article is fine for this purpose though he undersells just how influential of a role the staff report can play in quasi-judicial decisions by elected officials, if carefully constructed.

Strike that. Reverse It. Welcome, Florida Lawyers Bearing Gifts. However, having said that, the more advanced state of staff reports in Florida – due to their quasi-judicial nature associated with the 1985 Growth Management Act and subsequently, Mr. Barnebey’s greater experience with the best of such staff reports – starkly contrasts with the next article, “The Better STAFF REPORT” by Bonnie J. Johnson (pp. 20-24). Allow me to state more simply the point that I believe Dr. Johnson is attempting to convey: the best staff reports combine: 1) well-written content with 2) well-designed visuals and 3) promptly get to the point. Like most planners, Dr. Johnson’s article manages to fail on all these counts. Johnson does not even seem to know her audience for this article (i.e. there are lots of different types of planners and staff reports) so she makes the mistake of trying to address ALL possible audiences. The result is inadequate for everyone. The graphic design of this article makes the content even more confusing. I mean it is really, really bad but hardly surprising. In my experience, most planners are woefully under-trained in the art of graphic design. I do not know if this is the fault of Dr. Johnson or Planning Magazine but, seriously, reading this article gave me a fucking headache.

Meanwhile. “Here comes the Sun” by Charles W. Thurston (pp. 25-29) is the type of article you get from professional organizations nearly four decades after a nation abandons nuclear power.

The Blood Boils Over. But what really gets the blood boiling is Planning Magazine: 1) makes the preceding article the subject of this month’s cover (see above) instead of this article ‘buried’ at the end of the feature articles, “Life and Death Every Quarter Hour” by Jeffrey Brubaker (pp. 30-33); and, 2) seems blissfully unaware of the contrasting traffic fatalities data in this article (35,092 death in 2015) compared to the article about wildlife crossings, i.e. 200 fatalities associated with collisions with wildlife. That is right. This month’s Planning Magazine dedicates twice as many pages to an issue involving 6/1000th the number of traffic deaths. Worst still, the subtitle of this article claims “mixed results” for what is a complete failure. Finally, at the end, Planning Magazine adds a “The opinions expressed in the article are his own” (meaning Mr. Brubaker) disclaimer. God forbid that anyone might think APA and Planning Magazine are anti-automobile. And the thing is, Mr. Brubaker’s article is mild. It does not go nearly far enough in pointing the profession’s hypocrisy on this issue. Here is the gist: in 60 years, nothing has changed. There is still a death caused by vehicular traffic every quarter hour in the United States.

That is it. I cannot take any more of this month’s issue. I may have to stop reading Planning Magazine in the best interests of my health because you would not believe the migraine headache I have right now. Shame on you, Planning Magazine. The best article this month was written by a Florida attorney.

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

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Top 10 ‘Must See’ Documentary Films for Architects and Planners

Top 10 ‘Must See’ Documentary Films for Architects and Planners
by Dr. Mark David Major, AICP, CNU-A

Recently, The Outlaw Urbanist published the article “Top 10 ‘Must See’ Films for Architects and Planners” with reference to the influence of the built environment on film-grammars in support of cinematic narratives. However, there are other films (especially documentaries) worth seeing with a direct or indirect bearing on the built environment today. This is the purpose of today’s list of ‘must see’ documentary films for architects and planners. There are a lot of documentary films dedicated to specific architects. Most are vanity projects built on the ego of said architect, which lack much universal application for buildings or cities. You will not find such films on this list. The purpose of this list is value. What is informative and worth your time?

HONORABLE MENTION WITH WARNING LABEL
Inside Job (2010)
If you are well-informed, then there are interesting nuggets of information buried in the 2010 documentary Inside Job directed by Charles Ferguson with narration by Matt Damon (one of my favorite actors) about the housing crash and 2008 Financial Crisis. However, if you are uninformed or only casually acquainted with the facts (see below), then Inside Job is dangerous apologia propaganda for the left’s complicity in the cataclysmic events costing millions of people their jobs and homes. No one should be allowed to watch this film without first reading The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine by Michael Lewis. Damon, his wife, and four daughters lived in an 8,890 square foot home (1,778 SF per person) in southern California at the time of filming. Yeah, sorry Matt, that’s being part of the problem, not the solution.

MUST SEE
10. The Dynamic American City (1956)
This 25-minute 1956 educational film created by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is worth viewing for contradictory reasons: 1) it gets everything wrong about vibrant urbanism; and, 2) it is a propaganda masterpiece on par with Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will in using associative and dis-associative imagery and narration to hammer home its central message of ‘building up and out’ (it is right there in the Intro graphic) for making fast money in real estate built on the twin premises of slum clearing and suburbanization. If Joseph Goebbels had been an American developer, he would have been proud. For anyone with an ounce of common sense, it is like watching a car crash in real time: horrifying but you can’t take your eyes off it. Do you want to live in old stables or “on the frontier”? Even today, some Americans refuse to let go of the Big Lie in this film. You can watch it on YouTube here.

8/9. Too Big to Fail (2011)/The Big Short (2015)
These aren’t documentaries but dramatized accounts about the housing crash and 2008 Financial Crisis. Nonetheless, they are well done, littered with nuanced performances, and even-handed in providing public and private sector perspectives about events. They successfully manage the herculean task of being both entertaining and informative. Too Fail to Fail (2011) centers around Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson’s (William Hurt in an outstanding performance) actions to advert another Great Depression. The Big Short (2015) centers around a few people (all strong performances from Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling, and Steve Carell) in the financial sector who saw the approaching cliff, bet against the housing market and banks, and won big though not without a great deal of stress while encountering record levels of stupidity along the way. The latter is based on Michael Lewis’ The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, which we also thoroughly recommend.

7. Ben Building: Mussolini, Monuments, and Modernism (2016)
Part of Jonathan Meades’ (above) series of BBC Four documentaries (Jerry Building and Joe Building aka Nazi and Stalinist architecture, respectively) about architecture and planning under totalitarian regimes of the early 20th century, Ben Building: Mussolini, Monuments, and Modernism (2016) is the best in terms of quality and quantity of material. Simply put, Italian architects under Mussolini were doing much more interesting things in terms of design, which leads Meades to more even-handed commentary about his subject. The other two documentaries are worth seeing. The first suffers from a lack of existing/built examples (and typical British vitriol about all things German; Nazi or otherwise) and the second (Soviet) from an excess of questionable architectural taste. You can watch Ben Building on YouTube here before the BBC files a copyright infringement claim.

6. The Human Face of Big Data (2014)
This is a wide-ranging PBS documentary about the applications and implications of Big Data in the 21st century. As such, The Human Face of Big Data (2014) concentrates about half of its 56-minute running time on issues pertinent to cities, e.g. mapping social-economic data, Smart Cities, consumer tailoring, etc. Some of the researchers are missing – or fail to comment on – the obvious. For example, the documentary briefly shows data mapping of repeat offenders in Brooklyn NY, which is clearly mid-20th-century public housing to anyone familiar with Modernist building footprints. While it does not offer any definitive answers to the deeper questions raised by Big Data, it is still a useful exercise in asking questions about what it all might mean for you and our cities in the future. Watch the trailer below.

5. Super Skyscrapers: Building the Future (2014)
This is one episode in the 4-part series of PBS’ Super Skyscrapers (2014). The other episodes are interesting (mostly for their overkill in terms of design and engineering). However, this episode about the Leadenhall Building in the City of London designed by Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners is a brilliant explanation about the way cutting-edge computer modeling and manufacturing processes are dramatically changing the construction industry in the 21st century. Due to the constrained site, every piece of this building was manufactured offsite and then transported in a precise order for assembly on-site, i.e. no concrete pour. The hydraulic shifting of the building by a few degrees into a vertical position is an especially jaw-dropping sequence. Watch this episode on YouTube before PBS files a copyright infringement claim here.

4. The Human Scale (2012)
This 2012 documentary is nominally about thinkers, architects, and urban planners discussing ways to increase human interaction in cities but, in particular, The Human Scale (2012) is about Danish architect Jan Gehl’s teaching and research about urbanism over the last four decades. In this, it veers a little too closely sometimes to the ‘myth of the architectural genius’ folie associated with most architectural documentary films. Ignore the hero worship and listen to what is being said about people and cities. There are plenty of common sense ideas and solutions contained in The Human Scale, which makes it must-see viewing for architects and planners.

3. Poynton Regenerated (2013)
This short 15-minute film features urban designer and movement specialist Ben Hamilton-Baillie explaining the existing, seemingly intractable traffic, pedestrian, and land use problems in the village center of Poynton, England. Then, he outlines a new, radical plan for a Shared Space design concept in the village center. Plan implementation and construction is a great success, though not without a lot of skepticism along the way. The film is good at explaining the basic premise of Shared Space, which is if you design for people being stupid, then they will tend to act stupid but if you design for people being smart, they will tend to be smart in self-regulating urban systems. A good measure of this film’s success is the way-out-of-proportion fear it has provoked in reaction. You can watch Poynton Regenerated on YouTube here.

2. The Pruitt-Igoe Myth (2011)
There were several issues (racism, regulatory failures, design and planning flaws, demographics, suburbanization, and so on and so on and so on) involved in the demise of the Pruitt-Igoe Public Housing Complex in St. Louis, Missouri, which led to its famous televised demolition in 1972. This 2011 documentary does a good job covering many of them. The testimony of former residents is enlightening, especially if you listen with a keen ear about their experiences in spatial terms to better understand how architectural design/planning played a role in the social malaise at Pruitt-Igoe. You do need to be careful about the testimony of former residents who were children at the time (in the section titled “Control”). It is clear they were not privy to their parents’ decisions at the time about securing government assistance though it does ably demonstrate how it appeared from the child’s point of view. This 1 1/2 hour documentary is definitely worth the time and demands your attention. You can watch The Pruitt-Igoe Myth on YouTube here.

1. The Social Life of Public Spaces (1980)
This 1980 documentary film written, directed, and starring William H. Whyte (based on his 1972 book of the same name) is still the most important documentary about architecture, urban design, and planning today. Like Jane Jacobs before him, Whyte does something that many people still oddly consider beneath them to better understand how people really use public space. He goes out and watches them. Radical, huh? Does Whyte get everything right? No, but he does get much right, which is more than most architects and planners can claim. You can watch The Social Life of Public Spaces on Vimeo here.

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Revisiting the City-State for the Modern World | Mark David Major

Revisiting the City-State for the Modern World
Editorial by Dr. Mark David Major, AICP, CNU-A

(NOTE: I have been mulling over these ideas for more than a decade, slowly working them out and so forth. However, there did not seem any point in rushing to write something because it would have been a hopelessly one-sided conversation. I have been working on a partial redraft of the U.S. Constitution to reflect these reforms. You can also revisit my “20 Theses for Political Reform” article, posted on June 5, 2012. In any case, finally, there is a sign of hope: The Most Disruptive Transformation in History by Richard Florida in Medium.)

The post-election reactions of the Fourth and Fifth Estate have been truly madly deeply depressing, especially from people nominally associated with the political left (to one degree or another) Very few people seem to ‘get it’; namely, why these cataclysmic political results occurred in 2016 (e.g. Brexit, election of Donald Trump, and obvious rise of the European right/nationalists). Most are content with their lazy ‘go-to’ accusations/explanations of racism, fascism, misogynism, xenophobia and ‘whitelash’, all of which happens in the disturbing alternate reality of an echo chamber.

Finally, there is evidence that someone ‘gets it’ in Richard Florida’s December 1, 2016 article “The Most Disruptive Transformation in History: How the clustering of knowledge lays bare the need to devolve power from the nation-state to the city”, the link to which is available at the end of this editorial.

Excerpt:

Devolution and local empowerment would enable blue-state metro economies to invest their own resources while allowing others to do the same. It would respect local differences, local desires, and local needs.

This is a good start to the political debate, which requires both sides to converse with each other. Unfortunately, it does not happen much these days. A lot of the people who voted for Ronald Reagan and Tony Blair bought into their neoliberal economic policies (e.g. globalization) on the promises of economic prosperity and increased local power over their everyday lives; ‘returning power to the states’ in Reagan terms and ‘devolution’ in Blair terms. The Blair’s Labour Government only partially delivered. The rise of the Scottish National Party (SNP) is a positive result of British devolution (and the Labour Party’s failures) whereas the rise of the UKIP (United Kingdom Independence Party) is a result of Blair’s failure to fully deliver on campaign promises vis-à-vis the power relationship between the European Union and local (mostly rural English and Welsh) communities. In the United States, the Democratic Party has frustrated efforts to ‘return power to the states’ for three decades, which has resulted in this behemoth of a Federal state with $20 trillion dollars of debt and the massive political reactions of the last decade. Hence, these constant ‘yo-yo-change’ elections culminating in the ‘surprise’ elevation of Donald Trump to the Presidency. It was only a surprise if you have not been paying attention.

Richard Florida’s article is a good start but delaying action in the USA for the last three decades now requires us to think bolder and get completely ‘outside the box’ to develop truly innovative solutions. We need to simultaneously solve multiple problems while drawing on the beauty of the constitutional system established by the Founding Fathers. Greater local political power for cities is certainly a big issue. Americans now live in an urban nation and we have to address this issue while still maintaining the horizontal and vertical balances of power inherent in the U.S. Constitution. How do we accomplish this? The answer may be to revisit the concept of the city-state for a modern world whilst reforming political representation at the Federal level. What might a plan of action look like?

1. Create criteria for city-states in the United States
Such criteria will have to be debated but a good starting point is physical and population size tied to population density in order to promote density, e.g. if cities want to become states with their own representatives, then they need growth management policies to densify their urbanized area. Right now, there are only a 6-8 US cities that would probably meet such criteria for statehood: New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Boston, Miami, Washington, D.C. San Francisco (oops, forgot SF in initial publication) and perhaps Philadelphia. Houston, Atlanta, and Dallas are probably insufficiently dense at this time (order revised to discount Atlanta at this time).

2. City-state status is not a permanent condition
Cities that achieve statehood could lose that status through a process of promotion and relegation (yes, like the English Premier League). That is, if a city falls below the size and density threshold, then such cities can be returned to their original state. These criteria reflect the competitive component of cities, their rise and decline, and the fact that there can be no shortcut to statehood and greater political power. Because urban growth and decline occur over a very long time (except in conditions of catastrophes), there is time to adjust/prepare for promotion to statehood or relegation back to the state. For example, Chicago would become an independent city-state with its own representatives in the U.S. Congress but, if for some reason, the city declines over successive decades (loss of population and density, etc.), then Chicago would automatically revert back to the State of Illinois. Early in the 20th century, Detroit probably would have achieved statehood but no longer due to its precipitous decline.

In a sense, the Blair government already accomplished something similar, in part, with the creation of the Greater London Authority in the U.K. during the late 1990s. The USA and the United Kingdom are quite different in size, democratic representation, and constitutional structures but similar solutions could be pursued based on the same principle (e.g. devolution), though obviously tailored for their specific conditions.

Such a constitutional change would better reflect the urban reality of today’s world in the United States. However, under current conditions, it would also represent a dramatic, unsustainable increase of political power in the urban power base of the Democratic Party. This would terrify the rural power base of the Republican Party, rightly so. Constitution reform of democratic representation within the ‘vertical’ balance of power framework established by the Founding Fathers (rural-urban, small-big states, etc.) is necessary. This can be accomplished by reinvigorating the republican (with a small ‘r’) foundations of the country while simultaneously reducing the size of the Federal state. How?

We would have to redress the vertical balance of power by reducing the legislative size of the Federal government.

3. Reduce the number of U.S. Senators to one per state
Limit representation to one senator per state in the U.S. Senate, thereby significantly reducing the size of this legislative body (and their associated political staffing). If six to eight U.S. cities achieve statehood, then we would have only 56-58 senators, creating political power for the representatives of these city-states while redressing the rural-urban/small- and big-state balance with greater political power for constituencies that are predominantly rural in nature (Wyoming, Oklahoma, Dakotas, etc.).

4. Reduce the size of the House of Representatives to 217 members/End gerrymandering of districts (convex shapes)
Same principle at work for the reduction of legislative size except for representation in the House of Representatives is tied to population size. In order for this to work, we have to end gerrymandering of districts in favor of common sense districts that are physically convex in shape, which incorporate a diversity of populations and thereby moderate political representatives; promote compromise and work ‘across the aisle.’ There would be no ‘single issue’ representatives (most often associated with identity politics). Gerrymandering of districts (nominally in some cases to ensure ‘diversity’) is a real problem in the USA because when you gerrymander one district (nominally for laudable goals), you are gerrymandering every other district immediately adjacent to it. There is a ‘domino effect.’ The result is the legislative dysfunction of political extremism we have witnessed over the last three decades.

5. The domino effect on Federal Power
This would have a ‘domino effect’ on political power of the nation-state, making more feasible the devolution of all sorts of functions from the Federal department level to the local level (especially to the city-states: those that are already states and those that aspire to statehood), more fully meeting Reagan’s pledge to return power to the states and reduce the role of the technocracy at the Federal level and in people’s everyday lives.

This is the conversation we need to be having right now. Not the lazy attacks and doublespeak that is currently dominating the conversation. Let the real debate begin.

Read the full article here: The Most Disruptive Transformation in History | Richard Florida | Medium

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Planning Naked | August & September 2016

Planning-2016-08Planning Naked | August & September 2016
by Dr. Mark David Major, AICP, CNU-A, The Outlaw Urbanist contributor

Hopefully, your hilarious guide to most everything about the latest issue of APA’s Planning Magazine

The August/September issue of Planning Magazine is a Special Issue about the Local Impacts of Federal Environment Policy. It is sure to induce a headache. Hold on tight, it’s going to be a bumpy post.

Congratulations, APA Executive Director! James M. Drinan finally wrote an editorial, “Share the Street” in the From the Desk of APA’s Executive Director section (pp. 3), to hit the right notes… mostly. I did chuckle about Mr. Drinan’s comment that shared space “may appear startling at first to the average citizen.” I think what he meant was the ‘average planner.’ “The everyday experience of navigating our streets is an opportunity for planners to apply lessons – from Chicago and elsewhere – to provide leadership in shaping our evolving culture.” I never thought I would read those words in an official capacity in Planning Magazine. Amen, brother! What is that I’m feeling? Could it be … hope? Nah.

A plague o’ both your houses! “Disaster by Design in Houston?” by Ryan Holeywell (pp. 10) in the News section briefly covers the arguments (pro and con) about the role of private development in contributing to the recent spate of flooding in the Houston, Texas area. Unfortunately, the agenda-driven, black and white perspective of both sides of the issue (regulatory-driven planners vs. profit-earning developers) is the only clear thing that comes across in the article. Perhaps this is a topic requiring more room in Planning Magazine in order to more thoroughly review the issue? I came away only disgusted.

Celebrate bureaucracy, not results. “NPS, 100 Years and Counting” by Jake Blumgart (pp. 11) in the News section summarizes some of the activities celebrating the 100-year anniversary of the National Park Service (NPS) established in 1916. However, the first national park, Yellowstone, was signed into law by President Ulysses S. Grant in 1872. Is the creation of a government bureaucracy really something to celebrate, I wonder? The answer is no, which is why half of this news brief is really about money, e.g. NPS doesn’t get enough money, NPS needs more money, how can NPS get more money, etc. It is a tiresome, old school type of Planning Magazine article.

Be afraid, be very afraid. In the News Briefs section (pp. 11), there’s this little tidbit of information. Home prices in seven U.S. cities climbed to record highs in April 2016 according to Standard & Poor’s/Case-Shiller’s National Home Price Index (as if S&P can be believed about anything); only 9.6 percent below the peak a decade ago. Fortunately, none of the cities listed were in Nevada or Florida. Should you be comforted or frightened? Not sure. Plan for the worse, hope for the best, I guess.

Last stand of Communism in the world. “Welcome to Cuba” by Katie Halloran (pp. 12) discusses some of the issues surrounding historical preservation and the rapid return of overseas/American tourism to Havana, Cuba. It is an interesting update but mostly lacking in specifics. There seems little doubt this is due to the opaque nature of Cuba’s communist government, which seems to be following the Chinese model of ‘opening its economy’ from 20 years ago. We hope the Cubans do not make the same mistakes as the Chinese when it comes to rapid urbanization. The differing demographic scenarios indicate Cuba has an unique opportunity to do better, given the right leadership.

Come ride my yo-yo, please. It is disconcerting when the first line of an article is blatantly false such as in “Reading Between the Lines” by Stephen D. Villavaso, JD, FAICP of the Legal Lesson section (pp. 13), which begins, “Since the 1920s, courts have regularly given clear signals to professional planners on how to plan better and, maybe more easily.” The offending words of this opening sentence are ‘clear’ and ‘better.’ The post-war disaster of American suburban sprawl and downtown decline tells a different story. It is even more disconcerting when the next sentence completely contradicts the first one so both sentences are rendered meaningless. Yeah, the author is an attorney. Having said that, Mr. Vilavaso’s review of the constitutional issues discussed in the dissent to the Baton Rouge case is enlightening. This includes Euclidean zoning restrictions of building use based on the definition of “family.” This issue sits at the crux of the problem arising because of AirBnB, i.e. unfettered expansion of land tenure rights under suburbanization (which Euclidean zoning is manifestly based and promulgated) and the property rights of homeowners to use their property at they see fit when there is little or no evidence of negative impact to neighboring properties. The final three paragraphs of this article is only a historical fluff recap (e.g. Kelo, Dolan). Ignore the nonsense at the beginning and the fluff at the end but definitely read the “Beyond the final ruling” section in the middle.

When government doesn’t work. “Before It’s Too Late” by Brian Barth (pp. 14-20) is planning masturbation at its worse. There is a well-established response to dramatic climate change in human history, which is thousands upon thousands of years old: people move. What this article makes clear is the massive amount of time, money and effort being wasted on unnecessarily studying the ‘climate refugee’ problem to death:

  1. Let’s do a study to see who is vulnerable;
  2. Let’s do a study to see where they might move;
  3. Let’s do a study to assess the environmental impact of a relocation;
  4. Let’s do a study of the flaws in the initial study;
  5. Let’s do a study of project costs;
  6. Let’s do a study about cultural loss;
  7. Let’s do a study about so on and so on…

All humans are ‘climate refugees.’ Otherwise, we would all be living in Africa right now (and not so many of us). Here’s the real kicker: “…the inherent challenge of navigating the dozens of local, state and federal agencies implicated in establishing a new community from scratch have kept the pace of relocation efforts at a slow slog.” This is a cause célèbre about how government is the problem, not the solution™ (1980, Ronald Reagan). The people who live in these villages will eventually solve this problem themselves because they will have no choice. Government bureaucrats and planners will continue to squeeze as much cash as they can out of the process until the solution happens on its own. The accompanying article “The Resettlement of Isle de Jean Charles” by Craig Guillot (pp. 21) about a relocation in Louisiana due to soil erosion even admits most models of relocation planning ‘have not done very well.”

When government works. “Good Habitats Pay Off” by Madeline Bolin (pp. 22-27) is a stark contrast to the previous article. Bolin’s article actually discusses alternative tools to full implementation of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) such as habitat mapping, Habitat Conservation Plans (HCP) and variations thereof. There is not a single mention about money. In fact, Bolin’s article effectively demonstrates how local, state and federal government can effectively work  together with the private sector to implement environmental protection measures. It is informative, interesting and useful. The insert “Federal Environment Laws and Land Use” by Ms. Bolin (pp. 26) is a brief, useful checklist of relevant legislation.

I feel like I’m taking crazy pills. “The ‘If’ Game” by Allen Best (pp. 28-35) is when I lost my patience with this special issue of Planning Magazine, began to stop diligently reading and went into browse mode. However, the real kicker is in the next article “Is Nuclear Clean Power?” by Susannah Nesmith (pp. 36-39). Here is a short summary: 1) nuclear power is bad for habitats; 2) a potential problem disrupting local habitat is identified with an intake pipe at a nuclear power plant; 3) a solution is identified (e.g. installing a grate); 4) it takes the Federal government 8 YEARS to approve the grate installation: 5) ergo the problem with nuclear power is it destroys habitats. Does anyone else not notice the Federal bureaucracy prevented the installation of a solution for years that, at worst, would take a few weeks to implement, therefore the problem is not nuclear power but the Federal government?!?!

Save yourselves! It’s too late for me! Sorry readers, my sanity couldn’t take any more of the drivel in this special issue about the Local Impacts of Federal Environment Policy in Planning Magazine.

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

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PHOTO ESSAY | Oddballs and Curiosities in Los Angeles

There are few cities in the world more perplexing than Los Angeles. The reasons are many. The Outlaw Urbanist will take a closer look at some of the reasons in a multi-part, photo essay series. Today, we look at oddballs and curiosities in Los Angeles. If you dare to walk in Los Angeles (let’s face it: if you dare, you will have to walk a lot as the price paid), you never know what you might find in the City of Angels.

Los Angeles has been in the midst of a drought for nearly five years now. The evidence of ‘brown lawns’ is everywhere as well as a few, industrious solutions such as in front of this apartment building where AstroTurf serves as a grass substitute.

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‘Forever green’ AstroTurf law in front of a Los Angeles apartment building (Photo: Mark David Major).

By all appearances, this ‘rock garden’ in front of a Wells Fargo building on Wilshire Boulevard is not in response to the long-term California drought but represents a purposeful landscape design choice. To say it is ugly is an understatement. You can also physically feel the temperature increase in proximity to this rock garden (which is much bigger than shown here). It should be filed under “What Were You Thinking?”

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Rock garden (courtesy of Home Depot?) in front of a Wells Fargo building on Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles (Photo: Mark David Major).

For the most part, the Los Angeles Metro is impressive and growing. This seems to include putting in the hard work of stations in the right locations as opposed to only conveniently available ones. However, there were a few, odd things about the L.A. Metro. The stations I used did not have above-ground buildings but rather large stairways/escalators opening up to street level with associated signage. This makes the station entrances difficult to see from a distance, for example compared to the distinctive, red tile buildings of the traditional London Underground stations or the most flamboyant designs of its newer stations. The lighting in these underground stations is incredibly subdued. The purpose of the ‘romantic lighting’ is unclear since it tends to render a somewhat unsafe feeling to these underground spaces  (even though the stations seemed perfectly safe). I noticed the same subdued lighting at some downtown underground stations on the St. Louis MetroLink. The brighter lighting in stations on the London Underground is preferable in my opinion.

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East Hollywood Metro station in Los Angeles (Photo: Mark David Major).

The other noticeable thing about these L.A. Metro stations is the manifest lack of advertising on the walls. There are gobs and gobs of wall space, which are left completely unused. It is unclear why the L.A. Metro would forego the additional revenue stream of advertising in their stations to help offset the operating costs, especially if they control where and how that advertising is located. It is a bizarre choice, especially in a city where the film industry thrives (e.g. movie posters). London Underground generates significant revenue from advertising in their stations, on platforms and along escalators. Why leave all of that money on the table in L.A.? It doesn’t make any sense to me.

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Wilshre Boulevard Metro station in Los Angeles (Photo: Mark David Major).

Nothing destroys the street frontage quicker than a continuous row of garage doors such as this recently constructed apartment/condominium building in Mid Wilshire. Ahem.

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A row of garage doors for a newer apartment building in Mid Wilshire, Los Angeles (Photo: Mark David Major).

Or the continuous blank wall of a massive parking garage such as this one behind the Petersen Automotive Museum along South Fairfax Avenue. The pitiful – almost apologetic – street trees do very little to mediate for this massive blank wall. Walking around L.A., I reached the point where I swore “if I see one more insensitively designed parking garage, I’m going to scream.” I was screaming a lot after that ill-advised vow.

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The blank wall along South Fairfax Avenue is a massive parking garage behind the Petersen Automotive Museum on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles (Photo: Mark David Major).

There are some interesting (current and past) rehabilitation projects in Los Angeles. For example, this conversion of what appears to be an extremely old motor inn (or perhaps hotel bungalows) into an apartment/condominium complex one block south of Hollywood Boulevard in Hollywood.

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Apartment/condominium complex one block south of Hollywood Boulevard in Hollywood, Los Angeles (Photo: Mark David Major).

This adaptive re-use serves as quite a contrast to the standard, courtyard apartment building typology found in many neighborhoods of Los Angeles such as this one in La Brea.

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Typical courtyard apartment building in La Brea, Los Angeles (Photo: Mark David Major).

The coolest alley in Beverly Hills (yes, they have alleys in Beverly Hills, quite a lot of them) is located between Dayton Place and Rodeo Drive (at the far end of this photograph). This alley is called Fred Hayman Place. Fred Hayman was known as the ‘Godfather of Rodeo Drive.’ To the right, is The Grill on the Alley restaurant.

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Fred Hayman Place alley between Dayton Place and Rodeo Drive (Photo: Mark David Major).

One of the most charming buildings along Wilshire Boulevard is Bernie’s Coffee Shop (formerly Johnie’s Coffee Shop) at the northwest corner of South Fairfax Avenue. It is more interesting than the Peterson Automotive Museum sitting on the opposite corner. Wikipedia even attributes a style to this type of building called Googie architecture, described as a form of modern architecture, which is a subcategory of futurist architecture influenced by car culture, jets, the Space Age, and the Atomic Age (Source: Wikipedia). Personally, I’ve never heard of this architectural style. It only looks like an old Denny’s Restaurant. In any case, it is listed as a Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument. The building has appeared in several movies including Volcano, The Big Lebowski, Reservoir Dogs, American History X and Gone in 60 Seconds. You might be able to tell from this photo the owners of Bernie’s Coffee Shop were ‘feeling the bern’ for Democrat Bernie Sanders at the time.

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Bernie’s Coffee Shop (formerly Johnie’s Coffee Shop) at the northwest corner of South Fairfax Avenue and Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles (Photo: Mark David Major).

We conclude today’s essay with a great find, a discovery made only possible by doing the unthinkable: walking a lot. The largest section of the Berlin Wall outside of Germany is located in Los Angeles in front of the Sprüth Magers Art Gallery on Wilshire Boulevard. You would think its proximity across the street from the heavily-visited Los Angeles County Museum of Art would mean this section of the Berlin Wall was easily-found and visited a lot. However, it was deserted most of the day. Most everyone ignored the history located a short walk just across the street from them.

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