Grift: Urban Planning

September 29, 2019

On Tuesday, September 3, Damon Rich, MacArthur Genius and founder of HECTOR, gave a lecture on urban planning at the Yale School of Art to an audience of mostly graphic design students. Despite a hospitable spread of various Turkish snacks—sigara böreği among them—provided by the YSA for guests, I left feeling angry with my hackles raised, for reasons partly personal, partly global, and for which Rich was an ideal (re)agent of precipitation. I give some of these to you in advance of the rant to come: the early 1970s death of urban planning due to reactionary partisans of historic preservation, racism, and comfort; the condescension of public policy discourse; a strange liberal version of the populist disavowal of expertise; and the ennoblement of the invisible hand’s cousin, the market-like ghost of consensus feeling which has come to replace planning per se (for the very word “planning” implies a conscious agent with desires and priorities!!!).

Rich started his talk with the requisite critique and rejection of architectural disciplinarity, the stand-ins for which were, in this case, Mies van der Rohe and Peter Eisenman. He illustrated an example of how the proportions of Mies and the axonometric drawings of Eisenman didn’t help him coordinate between NYC Parks and the MTA on the fate of trees on Eastern Parkway. He then took us to Newark where he showed the process of planning the new riverfront and boardwalk for the city using brightly colored diagrams, children’s drawings, and images of meetings. This was an example of urban planning.

At some point Rich asked the audience if anyone had been to an urban planning community meeting. I participated and answered to the affirmative and gave as an example some random memory: a meeting for a special use permit for a housing addition. He seemed satisfied. Really, what would he have said if I had given the full answer? That my parents are both urban planners and that I grew up going to City Council meetings, Board of Zoning Appeals meetings, Board of Architectural Review meetings, community association meetings, Chamber of Commerce meetings, etc. But he settled for the partial answer, just as urban planners generally settle for partial answers to oblique questions in participatory contexts. Instead of explaining a decision-making rationale which might go something like this: “The rest of the city needs this amenity; the only place to put it is in your neighborhood; therefore, would you rather it go here or here?” often the discussion feels more like being asked to answer “What do you want it to look like?” around a child-drawn map and being confronted with a city-wide amenity with extra zany benches 1.5 years later.

This childhood experience also provides a lens onto another central problem to the model of participation mobilized by urban planning: the people who show up to meetings are generally special interests—property owners—who tend to see public goods provision as detrimental to their own well-being. NIMBYism or the overwhelming power of no. The urban planner should always present the needs of wide ranges of groups and group sizes. Where a neighborhood might try to narrow a road for their own benefit, they disadvantage the thousands from less central neighborhoods who then face longer commute times, penalties for tardiness, etc. Urban planners today focus too much on extremely local scales, neglecting decisions to be made in consideration of regional and even global needs. Politicians (and their staff) know that the votes of people beyond city boundaries don’t factor into their reelection chances and therefore that the opinions of the local well-connected outweigh the basic needs of distant millions.

This lack of large-scale thinking is evident in a comparison between arriving in almost any city in the US with arriving in almost any city elsewhere in the world. Most cities make an effort to welcome visitors to a place with quick, efficient, and clean transportation from up-to-date, well-maintained airports to city centers. In the US the global visitor is assumed to be an irrelevant piece of trash until they manage to arrive somewhere where they can spend money. The American returning home is expected to have a car available with which to return as quick as possible to the suburbs. There is almost no way to get from LaGuardia Airport without spending either over an hour or over $30 (or both). That even basic transportation is failing shows that urban planning is dead.

Not only is it dead; urban planning was killed.

In the talk, another mechanism of participatory planning was on display: its condescension toward the people participating and toward the public at large. Along with the opening salvos against Eisenman’s axonometry, the talk also singled out Hans Haacke’s Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, a Real-Time Social System, as of May 1, 1971 for critique, as Rich argued that it was somehow incomprehensible or inaccessible for the general public. Instead, Rich presented illustration after illustration, mostly in an extremely colorful and imagistic (non-verbal!) palette, meant to showcase recenterings, reorientations, and rebalancings of representation. These drawings don’t necessarily have anything to do with how Newark residents might express themselves naturally (in that sense his club-promo flyers were quite genius), instead simply acting as evidence of a bureaucracy-favored civil society pidgin, as if the bureaucrat and the citizen could never communicate other than via crayon. Rendered in a manner akin to children’s drawings, the underlying sentiment seems to be that we expect people who live in American cities to be childlike and unwilling to learn the complex matrix of interplay between property, law, and politics; or that no one is willing to teach it. What has happened to the public that what is assumed to be necessary for engagement is taking conversations to a 5th grade reading level?1 The supposedly inaccessible Shapolsky et al. did in fact reach a public and, as an act of investigative journalism, had immediate consequences for Haacke and the Guggenheim. Participatory planning should allow us to rise to the level of code and tax law; only then can we truly understand the forces at play in our neighborhoods and regions.

In the late 60s and early 70s, shortly before it was murdered, urban planning had a different aesthetic repertoire, including the layered hydrographies and biomes of Ian McHarg, the cybernetic connectomes of early MIT programmers, the loving questionnaires and ethnography of William Whyte. This body of disciplinary knowledge was thrown away or handed out among other disciplines as urban planning programs were disbanded (along with their cousins in geography), HUD was disemboweled from comprehensive planning policy to simply managing public housing projects, and funding for public transit dried up. All we’re left with is zoning minutiae and crayons, and a massive vacuum at the scale of regional planning.

When there is no expertise or government actors have no rationale for planning decisions because they simply are not initiating them, then the only thing left to do is valorize the meeting and the production of meeting minutes. Rationale will be self-evident upon examination of the bureaucratic record, life-altering reorderings of the city emerge from the foam of path-dependent consensus, and no big visions for the betterment of life are put forward. Big ideas are risky after all! Better to leave them to tech companies or Michael Bloomberg.

1. Thanks to Willis Kingery for this gem of a question.

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