FROM THE VAULT | Future Cities by Camilla Ween Review by Dr. Mark David Major, AICP, CNU-A, The Outlaw Urbanist contributor
It is difficult to know what to make of Future Cities by Camilla Ween unless you are aware it is part of the All That Matters series of books published by Hodder & Stoughton under the “Teach Yourself” banner… and not at all related to the German soap opera of the same name (Alles was zählt) with more than 2,700 episodes and counting since 2006. I mention this because Future Cities is kind of like a soap opera in that it covers a weighty, substantial topic (e.g., the future of cities in the 21st century) in a superficial manner… and thinks it is doing a public service in the process. However, many people (whether well-informed or not) are likely to come away bewildered and confused after reading Ween’s book. As they say, it is a mile long and an inch deep… or 1.6 kilometers long and 2.54 cm deep for those on the metric system. It covers a wide range of topics – all nominally under some header of (insert descriptive adjective here) sustainability – without any serious attempt at critical appraisal of concepts and ideas discussed other than an subtle anti-status quo message (primarily directed at fossil fuels and capitalism) and a vague sense that we should all become vegetarian farmers by returning our cities to a pre-industrial state of agrarian existence. However, these leanings are extremely nuanced and subtle: most people will not even notice under than a noticeable lack of ‘how-to’ explained in the book. This means Future Cities does manage to accomplish something quite remarkable, which is an almost completely value-free overview about a topic of great value, e.g., cities. Quite frankly, I did not think that was possible. This means Future Cities is unlikely to offend anyone while actually doing very little to help them.
This perspective places Ween’s book squarely within the Landscape Urbanism school with a distinctive Old Labour leftward lean to the material, which is not surprising since she worked for more than a decade for former London Mayor Ken Livingstone. For example, Ween’s description of the London Transport bus system in the 1990s (i.e., before Ken Livingstone became Mayor of London and Ween worked for the Greater London Authority) is an outright mischaracterization as anyone who lived in London during the 1990s can attest. In this sense, Ween seems to be referring to customer satisfaction surveys (a ‘take a poll to solve the problem’ solution) and not public transport usage. Anyway, there is nothing wrong with Ween’s leanings as long as you bring substantive ideas to the table but she does not seem interested in deep ideas; only fashionable ‘Gizmo Green’ solutions about the bright technologically-based, zero-carbon, fusion-fuelled, socially-just future of our cities based on ad infinitum budgets. Cities are more dynamic, complex, problematic, and deeper than Ween’s book is willing to dive. However, that is the intention of Teach Yourself/All That Matter series: a Cliff’s Notes (a series of student study guides for people who cannot be bothered to read the source material in more detail) version on any fashionable topic. When it comes to cities, you should bother. In the end, it is the superficial nature of the series premise itself, which tends to undercuts any value in Ween’s Future Cities. It is like watching the movie without reading the book… and mistaking that you know everything about the book based on the movie. Future Cities might have some minimal value for second and third undergraduate architecture and planning students as a jumping-off point for more in-depth investigations and discussions about the urban issues raised by Ween but nothing more.
Future Cities by Camilla Ween
Series: All That Matters
English, Paperback, 160 pages
Publisher: Teach Yourself (2013)
You can purchase All That Matters: Future Cities by Camilla Ween on Amazon here.
From the Vault is a series from the Outlaw Urbanist in which we review art, architectural and urban design texts, with an emphasis on the obscure and forgotten, found in second-hand bookstores.
Review | Scale: The Universal Laws of Life, Growth, and Death in Organisms, Cities, and Companies by Geoffrey West by Dr. Mark David Major, AICP, CNU-A, The Outlaw Urbanist Contributor
West implicitly – and falsely – argues a city IS a tree; an idea that comes to us pre-refuted some 40 years courtesy of Christopher Alexander.
When I first heard about Geoffrey West’s Scale: The Universal Laws of Life, Growth, and Death in Organisms, Cities, and Companies (Penguin Books, 2017) during Congress for New Urbanism 26 in Savannah, Georgia in May, I was eager to purchase a copy and begin reading the book. Once I started, each page that I read reminded me more and more of a conversation between John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) and Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) in Jurassic Park (1993):
HAMMOND: Codswollop, Ian. You’ve never been able to sufficiently explain your concerns.
MALCOLM: Oh, John, John, John (???). Because of the behavior of the system in phase space!
HAMMOND: A load, if I may say so, of fashionable number crunching!
However, as an audience, we side with Ian Malcolm in Jurassic Park because Jeff Goldblum is cool… and, well, dinosaurs are cool, too, except when they are eating you. However, being cool is not always a recipe for being right as anyone who attended high school can attest.
There are a lot of problems with West’s arguments and ideas in this book. This is not to say that there isn’t any potential value to be found in West’s Scale but you have to dig deep to find it; so deep that everyone should avoid the book except for only the most experienced and well-informed in the fields of biology, urban studies, and organizational research I am not a biologist but I can see the potential value, as West argues, of establishing new medical baselines using scaling theory in the biological sciences. In the “Postscripts and Acknowledgements” at the end of the book, West admits these ideas have come under considerable criticism from people in the biological sciences. He dismisses this out-of-hand without actually mentioning or addressing what is the substance of these criticisms. I mention this because if West’s understanding of biological organisms is as naive as that of cities and companies, then the entire theoretical apparatus of Scale will collapse under the weight of West’s ambitions.
I am an urban researcher so I am well-placed to discuss the many flaws of West’s approach to cities (and, to a lesser extent, companies, given my background in the private sector). Allow me to recount only a few of the most significant flaws in West’s book:
• West adopt an extremely narrow definition of science, which basically means no one is a scientist who is not a theoretical physicist. There are multiple generations of urban researchers performing quantitative data collection and analysis (not only qualitative research and surveys, as West asserts in the book) at and associated with institutions of higher learning at Cambridge University, University College London, MIT, University of California-Berkeley, and many others around the world who will take exception to this definition. West appears to do so in the interest of scientific rigor and, initially, I was willing to go along with him on this narrow definition. I’m all for scientific rigor and prefer on to err on the side of caution, i.e., if the R-squared of a correlation isn’t above .50, then I ignore it as meaningless. However, it soon becomes clear that West only adopts this narrow definition as a defense mechanism to guard his own ideas against criticisms, which can be easily dismissed with a ‘you’re not a real scientist’ retort.
• West presents some ideas as new that are only baked-over old ones; some very old. He asserts “cities are people” as if this is a new idea but West seems unaware that Spiro Kostof traced this paradigmatic approach to cities to Giovanni Botero in the early 17th century. Personally, I much prefer Jan Gehl’s approach that “cities are for people” but West seems unaware of the research of Gehl, William Whyte, and many others who have actually observed and quantified the human use of space in cities. In this, West also seems to have largely missed the point of Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities as he tends to exclusively focus on the economic aspects of her book. West only appears to stress the ‘cities are people’ approach so he can freely access available datasets, which have been collected (usually by public agencies) in a flawed manner. West briefly acknowledges the problems of boundary definition for such data collection in urban science. This is really problematic, especially for US census tracts. However, West then ignores the problem in his subsequent analyses. This is akin to an engineer saying “I can safely ignore gravity in my structural calculations because I have acknowledged its existence.”
• In the same vein, West calls for a new science of cities based on network theory but he seems blissfully unaware of Bill Hillier and space syntax, which is an approach tying quantitative observation of the human use of space especially movement with mathematical modeling of spatial networks based on topological graph theory. Space syntax represents more than four decades of substantial urban research based on a scientific approach. West’s ignorance – unintentional or purposeful, I don’t know – about space syntax is especially troubling because he does cite and mention Carlo Ratti at MIT and Mike Batty at UCL. A cursory review of their bibliographies should have led West directly to Bill Hillier and space syntax. Apparently, West did not bother to conduct such a bibliography search. Instead, his knowledge of cities seems limited to what people who are actively collaborating with the Santa Fe Institute are willing to tell him. West also dismisses the work of Batty (and, by implication, everyone else in the Centre for Spatial Analysis at UCL) with a casual “I don’t agree.” I have known Mike Batty for twenty years so I can argue that he should wear West’s dismissal like a badge of honor. I don’t always agree with Professor Batty but he knows a lot more about cities than Geoffrey West. The fact is a science of cities have been developing for a half-century in the field of urban studies, more or less beginning with researchers like Leslie Martin, Lionel March, and Philip Steadman in the (now-named) Martin Centre of Architectural and Urban Studies at Cambridge University in the 1960s and 1970s. To make his arguments in Scale, West has to pretend that we are living circa 1965 and none of this research exists. In this, West comes across the quintessential Baby Boomer who starts on third base and thinks he hit a triple but also has to go back to first base because it is too inconvenient for his arguments to start on third.
• West’s book suffers from a peculiar phenomenon that I’ve observed over the years in American academia, especially in urban studies. West is Brit, who has spent most of his career in American academia. This is the phenomenon of ‘if it wasn’t thought of at an American university or research institute, then it doesn’t exist and/or count.” There is something oddly arrogant about this phenomenon that I do not understand. I think it has something to do with first-world problems and being a member of the Top 1% of the world’s population. To be fair, the Congress for New Urbanism also seems to suffer from this particular problem (i.e., tunnel vision limited to the USA) even though it is primarily a professional organization. Someone should do some a research study.
• What is even more damning, given West’s bibliography on cities, is that it defies belief that he did not come across the work of Christopher Alexander and his associates at the University of California-Berkeley. West studiously avoids mentioning Alexander and the reasons will be obvious to most urban researchers. Manifestly, West’s ideas about cities are a biological analogy. It is in the title and again, an idea that has been around for a long time in architectural and urban studies. What this means is West’s ideas about cities come pre-refuted some 40 years earlier courtesy of Alexander’s most famous maxim: a city is not a tree. West has to avoid Alexander because his hierarchical network ideas implicitly – and falsely – argue the opposite. In this, West manages to misunderstand both cities and trees. Think of it this way: a heavy rain falls on a tree canopy and the water lands on one leaf on a higher branch but drips down from that leaf to another one on a lower branch crossing below. In West’s world, this cross-branching capability is irrelevant: trees are perfectly hierarchical systems without any overlap like the human circulatory system… as far as I’m aware capillaries do not cross-branch to share blood flow. This cross-branching capability is precisely what streets achieve in cities by connecting people and places. BTW, I might be open to the argument that a city is a scrub in terms of morphology though it is an analogy that strikes me – and probably many others – as insufficiently grandiose for the dynamic nature of cities.
• West also makes the classic sociologist’s mistake of thinking the only type of social interactions that matter is those involving some kind of high-level transaction. However, most interaction in cities are low-level, non-verbal, and do not necessarily involve a measurable transaction (other than the measurement of co-presence itself) but only the potential for a transaction. Again, try thinking of it this way. It is commonly said that 80% of communication is body language so, in a city, the overwhelming majority of social interactions represent informationalpotentials: Scenario: “She’s pretty and l like the way she dresses, I wonder if I should trying chatting her up here on the street.” This is a non-verbal social interaction based on the potential of co-presence where the only transaction is information: what she looks like, what she is wearing, assessment of what you are wearing, what part of town are you in, what kind of people frequent that area, and so on. Option 1: You do talk to her, you date, get married, and have kids where there are now lots of measurable high-level transactions. Option 2: You chicken out, don’t talk to her and go home. There are no subsequent transactions unless you run into her again, i.e., the potential value of co-presence. West scaling theory views these potentials as irrelevant. They can be measured but West does not bother with quantitative observations. I would argue this is the very stuff of cities that makes them so dynamic and wonderfully fascinating as physical objects and, as West correctly argues, complex adaptive systems.
• It is hard to believe that West’s Scale was properly refereed. A good referee would have advised him to cut the chapters on cities and companies to focus his arguments on biological systems, which seem stronger. West admits his knowledge of cities and companies is limited. He then spends almost 200 pages demonstrating how naive is his understanding of both. When it comes to organizational structures, it seems that West has never been involved in a small business venture nor oddly bothered to read Emile Durkheim, whose ideas on organic and mechanical solidarities would have been immensely valuable to better understand the social nature of companies.
• West admits his dataset on companies is biased toward publicly-traded companies on Wall Street. Yet he presents his findings as if they are universal to the organizational structure and life of all companies. If West had taken his findings of companies to their logical conclusion, then the bias of his data sample would have been apparent because the key takeaways would be: 1) emphasize short-term profit when young; and, 2) merge into oligarchic corporations with increased age. This is the data tail wagging the theoretical dog.
• In the same way, West does not take his biological analogy for cities to its logical conclusion either, This is because it would lead to the inevitable conclusion that the hierarchical manner in which we (especially in the USA) have been constructing suburban sprawl over the past half-century is the correct strategy, according to urban scaling theory. West does not mention it because he seems clearly aware that this would be an ill-advised conclusion given the advance of New Urbanism over the last three decades, which does get a brief mention. However, in even making this urban scaling theory argument about cities, West is assisting in perpetuating the dominant Modernist planning paradigm of the last century. This takes Scale into dangerously treacherous waters. Not mentioning it is not a strategy. It is avoiding the theoretical problems.
• Much of Scale comes across as cribbed from a series of TEDx lectures. There is nothing wrong with this approach as long as you are willing to do the work of editing the material into a coherent argument. Neither West nor the Penguin Books editors seemed willing to do so. West repeats the same argument with the exact same phrasing multiple things in the book, especially during its first half. I stopped counting after this occurred six times but it happens repeatedly and becomes increasingly irritating each instance.
• More than this, West is a mediocre writer. He continuously throws asides at the reader that come across as magician’s misdirection, i.e., look here while the trick goes on over there. He drops names, their CVs and awards, and grant funding like we are attending a Santa Fe cocktail party instead of reading a serious book. Too often, Scale comes across like West is trying to justify his tenure as the President of the Santa Fe Institute based on who he met instead of making a scientific argument based on what he knows. The overall effect comes across as arrogant, elitist and, in some instances, intellectually dishonest.
Proceed with caution and let the reader beware.
Scale: The Universal Laws of Life, Growth, and Death in Organisms, Cities, and Companies
by Geoffrey West
Paperback, English, 496 pages
Penguin Press, 2017
You can purchase Scale by Geoffrey West on Amazon here.
For Providing Affordable Choice in Our Most Prosperous Cities From Housing Prices Being Less of a Burden to Their Citizens For Making Greenfield Sites Beneficial to the Public Good
Dr. Mark David Major, AICP, CNU-A The Outlaw Urbanist
Undisclosed Location, USA
Every day brings another news article and/or more data about the affordable housing crisis in Western societies. The pungent perfume of Lotium Pour Homme drifts through the parks and streets of our most prosperous cities, which are crowded with men, women, and children in desperate need of human charity and/or physical shelter. These homeless and chronically poor, instead of being employed for their honest livelihood, are forced all the time to beg sustenance of family, friends, and strangers; or else queue long hours awaiting the welfare of the State; turn to thievery for want of work; re-enlist to fight for their dear, native country in Afghanistan and/or Iraq; or, egregiously sell their dignity to the Fourth Estate. All parties appear to agree about the deplorable conditions arising from the manifest lack of affordable choices in the housing markets of Western societies. Therefore, whoever could devise a fair, cheap, and easy method for readily available housing, thereby making more fair the socioeconomic conditions of our greatest cities, would deserve nothing less than his or her statue erected as the savior of Democratic Capitalism. However, our intention is far more than merely providing a fair solution to the housing crisis. The goal of our proposal is nothing less than the salvation of urbanism itself and the city as a physical artifact of our collective, human nature.
Many people have had different proposals – many discussed, some implemented, and others ignored – for solving this problem over the decades. Yet, the problem persists, even worsens to this day. This is because most solutions have been and are grossly mistaken in their approach to the problem. It is true, Keynesian economics does have some relevance to urban problems at the discrete scale; and what is Marxist economics but an extreme, all-encompassing version of Keynesian principles. However, our greatest cities, especially those in the United States such as Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Savannah, Chicago, and San Francisco, were the product of private industry, both individually and collectively, before the 20th century. What has the Keynesian-produced city become after the landmark period of 1926-1945 in Western societies? Milton Keynes, Orlando, Las Vegas, Atlanta, and Phoenix to name but a few. These are not places but are the haphazard accumulation of more locations. They are blasphemous to the goals of sustainable urbanism and synergy of place. Fairness in housing is choices. The most abundant housing supply offers the most diverse of affordable choices under normal market conditions. We must pursue normality in our housing markets, not their continual perversion under Keynesian principles. This means private industry aggressively increasing supply.
At the same time, I have been assured by the publicist of a knowing Canadian of everyone’s acquaintance in New York, that thousands of acres of public parks and lands in our cities have enormous, untapped potential as ‘greenfield’ sites for private development to construct more housing supply in Western societies. The computations available to us strongly indicate the possibilities of ‘greenfield’ development might truly be without limit in resolving the affordable housing crisis by the provision of supply.
Central Park lies in the heart of the most densely occupied, urban area of the United States: Manhattan Island in New York City. Central Park represents approximately 850 acres of raw land. It is readily available for the construction of affordable housing at the center of our greatest and most wealthy city, where there are an abundant quantity of enviable employment opportunities for our poorest citizens, while still leaving approximately 20% of that acreage (170 acres) untouched as ‘pocket parks’ in the newly created neighborhoods.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of housing units in the five boroughs of New York City was 798,144 in 2000 with an approximate average density of 54.3 dwelling units per acre (du/acre). Residential density in Manhattan appears slightly higher with about 72,033 people/square mile in Manhattan, which translates into approximately 112.6 people per acre. An average household size of 1.5 people indicates an approximate housing density of 75 du/acre. However, let us be conservative in our computations and proceed based on an average housing density of a mere 65 du/acre, approximately 15% above the average for the five boroughs but 15% below the greatest development potential for Central Park.
The City of New York could transfer 680 acres of Central Park into the ownership of private industry without cost, upon the condition that the construction of affordable housing within certain price point limits must commence within five years or else such lands will revert to public ownership in the future. This will represent a tremendous opportunity for private industry to profit on the land without having to bear the costs of its purchase. At an average housing density of 65 du/acre, this would provide for at least an additional 44,200 dwelling units in Manhattan.
With further implementation of this strategy on more ‘greenfield’ development sites of New York City, the number of additional, affordable housing units will, in fact, approach a doubling of the current housing stock of Manhattan. There are approximately 28,000 acres of municipal parks in the five boroughs of New York. There seems little doubt that some of this public land may already exist as ‘pocket parks.’ Let us proceed based on the idea that only 50% of this acreage (14,000 acres) truly constitutes potential ‘greenfield’ development sites to be turned over to private industry for the construction of affordable housing. At an average housing density of 54 du/acre, this would generate an additional 756,000 dwelling units in the bound of the City of New York, effectively doubling the capacity of existing housing stock associated with Manhattan and potentially reducing housing prices by a significant percentage across the entire metropolitan region.
Indeed, 130 square feet per person of recreation space for those living in the five boroughs seems redundant and excessive in a country where there are six acres of land for every single man, woman, and child. One might describe such space allocation as extravagant. It is akin to the false piety of persons who pray in public for the sake of demonstrating their piety for all to see and behold. Behold! We have so much space and money that we can willingly waste both in our cities and forsake affordable shelter for the neediest of fellow citizens!
It is true the property values of all existing homes in Manhattan and across the five boroughs would experience significant declines in price. As other municipalities pursue this strategy of ‘greenfield’ development for more affordable housing in Western societies, properties in such cities will similarly experience a significant decline in the face of a rapid and dramatic increase in the housing supply. It is likely such decreases in property values will prove only temporary as market forces slowly re-assert themselves over time in the absence of the previous restrictions on housing supply. Such a period might last two decades, and perhaps as little as one for our most attractive cities, e.g. New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, London, Berlin, Toronto, and so on.
This very knowing Canadian of everyone’s acquaintance in New York argues our most prosperous cities are populated by the most educated, politically progressive, high-minded, and enlightened of our citizens. Surely, such estimable citizens would be willing to temporarily sacrifice some amount of personal worth in the value of their homes/properties for the sake of a fair solution to our affordable housing problem. I am assured by numerous public proclamations about their most charitable nature on this matter and many others issues of similar nature.
It is also true that these new dwelling units in the heart of our most prosperous cities would only be affordable, in relative terms to nearby existing housing process, during the initial offering in sales to the general public. Eventually, the dynamics of the real estate market would reassert itself. This represents a tremendous wealth-generating opportunity for our most needy citizens through the mechanism of land appreciation. However, the initial injection of 44,200 additional dwelling units in Manhattan – and the potential increase of an additional 756,000 dwelling units in the five boroughs – would have a systematic effect across the housing market for the entire New York metropolitan region, effectively reducing the cost of housing in neighborhoods more peripheral to the five boroughs.
Nonetheless, the creation of affordable housing neighborhoods in the vacant lands of Central Park will perform a public good in another regard. It will finally end the suffering of the Upper East Side and Upper West Side residents in Manhattan, who have been long segregated from one another in social terms by physical barrier of Central Park itself. The new neighborhoods of the ‘Upper Central Side’ will forever bind residents of the Upper East and West Sides together in a new interconnectedness of brotherhood and charity.
It is also true that a ‘greenfield’ development strategy for some cities (e.g. unsuccessful ones such as St. Louis and Detroit) would be a fruitless gesture due to the number of public-owned lots arising from the wholesale demolition of historic housing stock over the previous seven decades. However, such municipalities may pursue a strategy founded on the same principles by the wholesale release of these public-owned lots to private industry with the same restriction imposed on the land in a ‘greenfield’ development strategy. Nonetheless, a ‘greenfield’ development strategy will also afford our most prosperous cities, especially those in North America, with an opportunity to further densify their housing and neighborhoods, thereby making public transportation alternatives such as rail transit more economically viable options in such cities over the long term.
Other municipalities of our most prosperous and expensive cities could elect to pursue this supply-side strategy for more affordable housing. For example, Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, California represents another potential ‘greenfield’ site of 810 acres (less 20% retained for ‘pocket parks’ of the total 1,013 acres). At a mere 50 du/acre, this could represent another 40,500 dwelling units introduced in short order to the San Francisco housing market. According to the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department, they manage approximately 3,400 acres of parkland in San Francisco alone. Again, using conservative computations, this potentially translates into an additional 85,000 dwelling units with approximately half of that situated in the former Golden Gate Park.
In central London, the potential of ‘greenfield’ development sites for more affordable housing is significant in such places as Hyde Park/Kensington Gardens, Regent’s Park, Lee Valley Park, Richmond Park, and Hampstead Health, which alone could conservatively account for an additional 350,000 dwelling units in the London housing market.
Simultaneously, if every national bank and even all Federal, state, and local government agencies released all of the properties and housing units they owned on to the market, this would have an immediate effect of reducing cost by dramatically increasing the supply of housing and/or sites for housing. Indeed, for at least a decade now, perhaps even longer, our national banks, many headquartered in the Wall Street ‘heart’ of Manhattan, have desperately sought a means to make a more honest profit. Releasing all of the properties on their books will be an important step along their way to redemption in the eyes of our fellow citizens.
Bibliography and References Population density and land area data compiled based on U.S. Census Bureau, Wikipedia, City of New York, City of San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department, and Greater London Authority.
Florida, Richard. 2016. “Mapping How America’s Metro Areas Voted.” CityLab, December 1, 2016, retrievable at http://www.citylab.com/politics/2016/12/mapping-how-americas-metro-areas-voted/508313/.
Major, M.D. 2017. The Syntax of City Space: American Urban Grids. New York: Routledge Books/Taylor & Francis Group, forthcoming in Fall 2017.
Swift, Jonathan. 1729. A Modest Proposal For preventing the Children of Poor People From being a Burthen to Their Parents or Country, and For making them Beneficial to the Publick.
Central Park, Manhattan: Friends of the Upper East Side Historic Districts, retrievable here.
Golden Gate Park, San Francisco: Photograph by Rich Prillinger, retrievable here.
New York, New York with Building Footprints: Originally available from schwarzplan.eu, retrievable here.
San Francisco, California with Building Footprints: Originally available from schwarzplan.eu, retrievable here.
London, United Kingdom with Building Footprints: Originally available from schwarzplan.eu, retrievable here.
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.
“This one book will do more for some readers than four years of higher education.” – Andy Boenau, Foreword to Poor Richard, Yet Another Almanac for Architects and Planners
A version of Poor Richard, Yet Another Almanac for Architects and Planners (Volume 3) specifically tailored for Kindle devices is available for purchase from the Kindle Store. Be sure to check the online store in your country/currency (USA store available below).
Praise for the first two volumes of the Poor Richard series of almanacs for architects and planners by Mark David Major: “worthwhile” and “thought-provoking” “readers will love” Poor Richard in “following both Benjamin Franklin and Ambrose Bierce” (Planning Magazine and Portland Book Review).
Poor Richard, Yet Another Almanac for Architects and Planners (Volume 3) offers more common sense proverbs, astute observations, and general rules of thumbs about architecture, urban design, town planning, and much more in the third and final volume of the Poor Richard series. Author Mark David Major blends original ideas with adapted wisdom in an easy-to-read manner designed to spark deeper thought about hearth and home, streets and cities, and people and society. It is essential reading for anyone interested in the future of the built environment. Poor Richard’s witticisms are often eloquent, sometimes biting, occasionally opaque in the absence of reflection, and always insightful. They offer a valuable resource for the entire year. A clarion call and warning for everyone involved in the creation of our built environments to embrace their better angels and reject the worse demons of human nature.
The clear message of Poor Richard, Yet Another Almanac for Architects and Planners (Volume 3), with foreword by Andy Boenau (author of Emerging Trends in Transportation Planning), is we can do better and we must do better for the built environment and our cities.
Poor Richard, Yet Another Almanac for Architects and Planners (Volume 3) by Mark David Major
Foreword by Andy Boenau
February 12, 2017