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Next City published an excerpt from a new book, The Metropolitan Revolution, by Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley, and it has stayed in my mind for the past few days. I’m sharing the first few paragraphs from the Next City article here. What Katz and Bradley lead with is the research of the economic sociologist Sean Safford on the role of networks in Youngstown and Allentown, Pennsylvania. Short version: networks matter to urban vitality, and “networks must cut across class, social and political boundaries to be effective.”

When economic sociologist Sean Safford first began comparing midcentury board lineups of local Boy Scout chapters and garden clubs in the cities of Youngstown and Allentown, the idea that such data could have any bearing on the future of a city seemed shaky at best. Safford’s research, about who knew who and from where, was coming at a time when communities had begun to take seriously the idea that civic participation, even participation in something as seemingly superfluous as a bowling league, mattered to the health of a community. Even so, his question — how the structure of civic relationships shapes economic trajectories — seemed rather far afield. Networks mattered. Did their composition matter to a region’s economy?

That was the early 2000s. A decade later, Safford’s argument that networks must cut across class, social and political boundaries to be effective — laid out in the book Why the Garden Club Couldn’t Save Youngstown — is particularly on point. Through his careful reading of archived society pages and board minutes dating from 1950 through 2000, Safford determined that Youngstown, Ohio, a fading steel industry hub, was actually stymied by its most powerful insiders. The network of elites that called the shots in the city were too tightly enmeshed, intertwined and isolated from other groups in the region to effectively guard against the steamroll of change that would gradually wipe out the local economy. In other words, there were too many strong ties and not enough weak ties.

These elites, marooned on their own small island, lost power as the domestic steel industry declined all around them, leaving behind a fragmented and uncoordinated region. Allentown, Pa., by contrast, had looser networks that provided alternative relationships that cut across social, class and political lines, encouraging new alliances and exchanges. All this meant that while these two areas of the Rust Belt had very similar demographics, economic structures and challenges, Allentown was better equipped to bounce back from the decline of the steel industry, specifically because it had individuals and organizations that could serve as bridges between the various groups that needed to be engaged in the region’s recovery. It turns out it did matter who was on the board of the Boy Scouts.

When telling stories of transformation and turnaround, it is tempting to shape them into personal stories about heroes. One charismatic visionary — a mayor, school superintendent, entrepreneur, outraged citizen — steps up and, with unrelenting vigor and inspirational leadership, starts an irreversible cascade of change. But there is a growing body of research suggesting that, as a system or problem becomes more complex, arriving at a solution requires multiple minds from multiple sectors or perspectives. As Safford found in Youngstown, this search for the lone superhero, or one lone team of superhero buddies, is misguided. Metropolitan areas are so big, complicated and diverse that they don’t need heroes. They need networks.

Check out the Next City article called The Post-Hero Economy and then the new book!

Given that the United States once set global precedents for environmental protection and physical planning, it is hard to grasp just how far we have fallen. The U.S. Supreme Court, though, has now made the reversal clear. In a “A Legal Blow to Sustainable Development,” the New York Times details the impact of the latest blockbuster court decision on planning.

In simple terms, the Koontz vs St. Johns Water Management District case involved a development permit decision. The developer, Koontz, applied for a permit to build a small shopping center, and his plan included filling three acres of wetlands. In a common negotiation practice, the water management district suggested changes to Koontz’s plan that would make it more likely that his permit would be approved. Koontz could either reduce the size of his development, or he could pay a fee for wetland restoration elsewhere and proceed to fill the wetlands on his own property. Koontz refused to negotiate, and the water management district denied his permit. Koontz sued, and the case went all the way up to the Florida Supreme Court which sided with the water management district. Koontz has since died, but his case went on from Florida to the U.S. Supreme Court. Yesterday, the justices delivered a 5/4 decision to reverse the Florida Supreme Court’s decision. In this blockbuster decision, Koontz has achieved a measure of immortality.

From the Times:

Lost amid the Supreme Court’s high-profile decisions on affirmative action, voting rights and same-sex marriage was another ruling that may turn out to have a profound impact on American society. The court handed down a decision on Tuesday that, in the words of Justice Elena Kagan, will “work a revolution in land-use law.”

While that may sound obscure, the decision in Koontz v. St. Johns River Water Management District will result in long-lasting harm to America’s communities. That’s because the ruling creates a perverse incentive for municipal governments to reject applications from developers rather than attempt to negotiate project designs that might advance both public and private goals — and it makes it hard for communities to get property owners to pay to mitigate any environmental damage they may cause.

As for implications:

As Justice Kagan correctly explains in her dissent, the decision will very likely encourage local government officials to avoid any discussion with developers related to permit conditions that, in the end, might have let both sides find common ground on building projects that are good for the community and environmentally sound. Rather than risk a lawsuit through an attempt at compromise, many municipalities will simply reject development applications outright — or, worse, accept development plans they shouldn’t.

Earlier this month, the Pritzker Prize jury declined to retroactively include architect Denise Scott Brown in the 1991 award given to her husband and design partner, Robert Venturi. The jury’s action came in response to a petition created by two Harvard design students. An award-winning planning blog in my hometown, Smart City Memphis, used the occasion to remind readers about the last downtown plan that Brown worked on – the plan Downtown Memphis from 1986-87. In a post titled, Cobwebs Greeted Prestigious Downtown Plan, Tom Jones of Smart City Memphis relates the discouraging side of long-range planning as revealed by Brown’s experience in Memphis:

Downtown Memphis became the canvas for her firm’s last plan of its kind, primarily because they were losing money on them.

If it was her swan song, it was a magnificent one.  The Center City Development Plan was released in 1987 and its erudition, insights and recommendations were captured in the most impressive report ever delivered to Memphis.  There were about 20 volumes [!! emphasis added] replete with drawings, thoughtful insights, and provocative and solid recommendations.  As an associate with Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates, respected Memphis architect James Williamson – now an associate professor of architecture at University of Memphis – was a vital part of the team that developed the downtown plan and was instrumental in weighing options.

Unfortunately, the ambitious and impressive plan was largely ignored.  Instead of funding the summary volume that would lay out next steps and implementation, the Center City Commission took that money and paid for yet another redesign of Court Square Park.  It was also a time of leadership transition at Center City Commission and a time when government and developers were largely unreceptive to a scholarly approach to the future of downtown, instead of quick fixes like festival market places.  The failure of Memphis to embrace the plan was another factor in her firm’s decision to end planning of this kind.

Jones goes on to evaluate why the plan floundered.

It’s likely that her work was doomed from the beginning.  Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates selected by a one-vote margin.  Developer-friendly representatives on the selection committee supported a firm whose trademark was festival marketplaces.  The other half of the committee was people more interested in the urban fabric and the historic character of downtown.  At the end of the selection process, the votes were divided down the middle, and the deciding vote was cast by the chair of the selection committee.

In retrospect, while the plan was excellent, its impact and import were undermined by lack of support by some key downtown interests.  They criticized Ms. Scott Brown’s style, her approach to planning, the extensive public input process, and her openness in public discussions.

As one of these people said at the time, “we could have had a festival marketplace but instead we got a lot of preservationist talk.”  Over time, they would be proven wrong as festival marketplaces opened with banners and fanfare and closed some years later.  The public wanted authenticity and governments and downtown agencies were delivering up artificially contrived shopping arcades.

A video of Denise Scott Brown discussing the Memphis plan:

In Her Own Words

 

Massive urban tunnel projects, like the Second Avenue Subway construction project in Manhattan, are mind-boggling in scale and complexity. The MTA just released some photos that have a lot of people talking. Read more about the project here.

Second Avenue Subway construction. MTA photo, Creative Commons license

Second Avenue Subway construction. MTA photo, Creative Commons license

Gezi Park protest - Photograph: Osman Orsal/Reuters

Gezi Park protest – Photograph: Osman Orsal/Reuters

When I first saw the now-famous “lady in the red dress” photo from the Gezi Park protest in Turkey, I had no idea that the protester was an urban planning professor from the nearby Technical University in Istanbul named Ceyda Sungur. In Luke Harding’s account in The Guardian, one of the origins of the protest, and the spark that set it off, is clearly the destruction of one of the very few green spaces in Istanbul. Harding describes it as a sort of final straw, a highly visible, in-your-face insult to the wishes of the urban population from top-down urban development decisions being made by the government.

Sungur’s urban planning department had long wrestled with the theme of how to reconcile Turkey’s economic and building boom with the fundamental needs of citizens. A petition which she and other members of the architecture faculty signed says that the rapid changes to Istanbul threaten not only “our professional field but also our living environment”. The petition adds: “All these top-down decisions disregarding planning and urban management principles are not approved by Istanbul’s citizens. We don’t accept them.”

Akgün, Sungur’s colleague, said: “The park is one of the last surviving green public spaces here. It’s calming to walk through it. You feel good.” Typically, Erdogan’s government had taken an “upside-down” approach to planning, she said, building first and considering the consequences afterwards. Akgün said she respected Sungur’s reluctance to become a poster girl for the anti-government protest movement, less of a revolution than a spontaneous citizens’ revolt.

Virtually all of Sungur’s students have taken part in the protests. Some of them are sitting finals; the dean refused a plea for exams to be postponed. On Wednesday, several of them were tinkering with architectural models in a large room next to her office. Others sat in a shady courtyard below and talked softly.

Akgün admitted: “I’ve been trying to teach my students for four years about the importance of urban planning. Now they finally understand what we are saying.”

Making Sense of the Air

Cell phones and 3D printers lead to new wave of citizen science.