One worry I’ve had for a long time since I started to get into planning abut a decade ago was that planners often try to apply theory and received wisdom to the solution of other people’s problems. We have a set of canned answers which have been researched, contested, debunked and revived over the last century. We try to involve stakeholders, and get the heavy hitters and power brokers in the neighborhood with enough time and opinion to show up. The rest just don’t have the time. We get data from the census, market surveys, opinion polls, GIS et cetera. We even do site visits at the kickoff of the project, Sometimes we might even walk around the place we want to destroy. This is all in preparation to repair away to our offices and write the perfect plans, unsullied by the messy realities, stories and crackpots of the public.
When looking at case studies of distant European places, tut-tutting all day that America is not like this, we sit in cafes like stationary flaneurs mourning every morning for America, as we sketch our figure grounds and ask why we aren’t more like Paris. We know that European cities only got that way through millennia of walkability, centuries behind walls, and dozens of sieges and epidemics., We pine for that level of intimacy and authenticity, maybe we would have done better with a nice plague or a siege 300 years ago, instead of doing that to the natives. We want authenticity in a can, a pill, an EIFS.
Planners are tourists.
I had that misgiving first when working on a commercial corridor revitalization Like most of West Philadelphia, it had crime and dilapidation issues, but strong community leadership for both the native and immigrant communities. I visited the corridor less than ten times during the semester, and only one time at night, for a lighting survey.
It occurred to me that the people living there had a better idea what was going on than our student workshop could. They walked past where the drug deals were going on, they heard the “popcorn” at night, they knew what families were having what troubles in what houses far better than the five of us ever could. We all lived miles away, and had classes to go to between trying to solve their troubles.
Our teachers wanted us to propose new construction to replace the dilapidated units, demolishing entire blocks to be replaced with market housing. Surely there would be a return in that.
I saw a side yard park on one of my tours that brought the trouble with this into sharp focus. A Vietnam Vet had converted a side yard in to an elaborate park, with hundreds of hours of landscape, furniture and sign work It was just sitting there, behind a fence, unloved and unoccupied. The people who built it had enough heart to build. Without grabbing the hearts of the residents to love it as a place, it failed. I saw that any plan was going to work for the people who were there was going to have to work for them, not despite them.
A new apartment block would not be nearly as good for the neighborhood as a new community group to pool renovation dollars and effort to work on the most troubled properties and alleys first, then all of them routinely. A job skills and career placement office with ties to the good paying companies in Center City would give people more opportunity than a block of new unaffordable apartments. Driving property values up would not do for residents barely able to afford property tax, and would just encourage the many landlords to spend less on routine maintenance. We suggested a plan that tried to build community, not buildings
We were just visiting and making bold proclamations. Best that our proclamations be fit to their places and people rather than our practices and theories. After all, they were going to have to live with our plans.