Thursday, August 7, 2008

A Call for Contributions

I was about to write a piece arguing that Chicago should drop its bid for the 2016 Summer Olympics, and then went and looked back at Jason's introductory post, and said, Oh right! This is a blog for planning PhD students to share information, not a place for Jessica to rant about whatever comes into her head.

As for our Head-Blogger-in-Chief, Dr. Brody, he is presumably taking Manhattan by storm as we speak -- that would be Manhattan, Kansas, home of Kansas State's urban planning program and, I hear, an abiding hatred of jayhawks, whatever a jayhawk is. Point is, he's going to be busy, and not in a position to contribute much. And Occasional Blogger annalise has just announced she will be doing a fellowship at Claflin University (hooray!) next year, so blogging will not be her first priority either. That leaves, as best I can tell, me and a whole bunch of crickets.

Therefore, if you are a doctoral student in planning with advice to give and pithy observations to make, this blog will be the better for your participation. Look at it this way: the more people join, the better the blog gets; the better the blog gets, the more prestigious it becomes; the more prestigious it becomes, the better you will look later on for having participated.

I would suggest emailing Jason at his brand-new K-State address, jbrody at ksu dot edu, for posting privileges. If you are impatient, email me (jessica dot doyle at gatech dot edu) and I will guest-post for you. In case it does not go without saying: contributions from other brand-new faculty, or from doctoral students outside the US, are also welcome.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Gentrification, or "Demographic Inversion"?

The New Republic has an article available summarizing what the author refers to as "demographic inversion" -- namely, middle- and upper-class residents choosing to live in the city, less affluent residents, including immigrants, going to the suburbs. As you might expect, Jane Jacobs comes up a few times.

I found this paragraph particularly striking:

Nor, in general, does the scourge of urban life in the 1970s and '80s: random street violence. True, the murder rates in cities like Chicago, Philadelphia, and Cleveland have climbed in the last few years, but this increase has been propelled in large part by gang- and drug-related violence. For the most part, middle-class people of all colors began to feel safe on the streets of urban America in the 1990s, and they still feel that way. The paralyzing fear that anyone of middle age can still recall vividly from the 1970s--that the shadowy figure passing by on a dark city street at night stands a good chance of being a mugger--is rare these days, and almost nonexistent among young people.

By "young people" the author means "young professionals"; I would not go so far as to say that the majority of less affluent people, young or not, are no longer scared of crime. But if (and I would say it's quite an if) the author is right, fear of crime may also contribute to an inversion of stereotypes: the city as lively, wealthy, safe; the inner-ring suburbs as decrepit and desperate, where no one will hear you if you scream.

This assertion about fear of crime and the city reminded me of the the Atlantic piece which looked to link rising suburban crime with Section 8 vouchers (see a debunking of said article, via Randall Crane). It is possible that certain neighborhoods of certain cities will collect enough eyes on the street, and enough amenities, to establish a feeling of safety. The question then becomes, given the very different design of most suburbs, what steps can be taken to make them also feel safe -- which is not the same as actually being safe; but the feeling and the being are certainly related.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

On Storytelling, Privilege, Individual Pride, and Yes, Finally, a Work Presented in Chicago

Be warned at the outset that this post will be quite the mishmash. (The one-sentence takeaway: go hunt down Marisa Zapata and her Chicago paper; they are both very much worth engaging with.)

To start with an anecdote from the PhD Jamboree in Vancouver last year (which is how I met Jason and annalise): as a prelude to Ken Reardon's discussion of his community-empowerment work in St. Louis and New Orleans, Leonie Sandercock played a tape of an African-American woman singing a song of lamentation. Afterwards Leonie explained that the song had been recorded by a New Orleans native (if I remember correctly) after Hurricane Katrina hit, and that she herself thought the song's observation -- that, essentially, nothing had changed and the position of African-Americans in the US was just as lowly and brutalized as it had been since before the civil rights movement -- was spot-on. In the audience, I bristled. This was due less to their being wrong than to personal events the week before the Jamboree having left me in superdefensive mode. But the immediate reason I bristled was I felt that what Sandercock and later Reardon did -- compare New Orleans 2005 with Oxford 1962, and find essentially no difference -- was to conflate two different instances of societal failure, and to do so somewhat smugly. Not that I get to make the last call on the narrative of Katrina and the position of African-Americans in the US; but I wasn't willing to cede it to them, either.

I thought of that when I read this essay by Charles Johnson (via A&LD), calling for a "new narrative" for African-Americans. Johnson's argument rests, not solely but largely, on the accomplishments of individual African-Americans: doctors, lawyers, CEOs, PhDs, actors, engineers, writers, and presidential candidates. He does not mention New Orleans 2005 in his argument, and while I haven't yet gone looking for counterarguments (and The American Scholar doesn't post trackbacks), I would guess that the aftermath of Katrina figures pretty highly in the arguments of those who would tell him that the old narrative appears, unfortunately, to have a lot of life left in it.

The tension here seems to be that between celebrating individual accomplishments and acknowledging the larger obstacles facing the individuals as a group. Does the average African-American child born in 2008 have a better chance of becoming the next scientist, lawyer, artist, philosopher, politician, or CEO than he or she would have if born in 1948? Either you say "yes," because so many legal and societal obstacles have fallen, or you hesitate, because so many societal and economic obstacles still exist. Your answer will spring from the narrative you subscribe to. The groups who usually hold power in the US (I originally wrote "the US" and then realized I needed to be more specific) have a long history of privileging stories of individual accomplishment; and those stories can be very useful and inspiring -- not least because it's easier to get relate to the story of an individual than of a group, on average. But one can point to, in discussions among Americans at least, a tendency to use narratives of individual accomplishment to dismiss the narratives of discrimination against the group.

Then today I read this and this (courtesy of Megan McArdle, an ex-co-worker of mine) and thought the two posts together wonderful, for the author's frank discussion of the fact that narratives of individual empowerment are... well, empowering (I did this) and when you start placing such narratives in the larger context of the group (you did this, but in part because you benefited from certain privileges that you lucked into, and not everyone gets those same privileges, and you can't swear that you would have been able to accomplish that same thing without the privileges) will almost certainly meet resistance.

When I wrote earlier that storytelling is dangerous, I was speaking from a fairly self-serving point of view. Here is a larger point: if storytelling is to become an effective planning tool, American planners (I can't speak for other cultures) will bump up against this tension time and again. A good many of us will want to tell stories to bring attention to underserved communities. But to tell such stories in ways that inspire helpful, rather than defensive or guilty, reactions, is tricky. Including stories of individual accomplishment can help inspire, but may also seduce the audience into thinking that things aren't so bad after all. And the underserved community itself may be divided as to which stories should get privileged.

I want to conclude by pointing to Marisa Zapata's work, because I got to see her presentation at Chicago and many other people didn't (it was in the last session of the last day). One point she made at the end of her talk about a planning process that deliberately sought out people from different cultures was that at the end, the white participants felt depressed and worried for the future, while the Latino participants were energized. Zapata suggested (I may be putting words into her mouth here) that this was a reflection of different cultural norms: that the Latino participants were much more comfortable with a process that focused chiefly on problems and not on easily implementable solutions. I suspect that this tension was similar to that between individual-focused and group-focused narrative; and if I'm right, that may suggest that, one, such longing for the individual-focused, inspirational narrative is not universally subscribed to in the United States, and two, there are ways to introduce other narratives, other approaches.

Finally, I will say that, to avoid overgeneralizing, I end up talking a lot in ways that put a white woman front and center ("I bristled... I felt... I read... I got to see"). Such is another danger of storytelling; but that one's more easily solved -- by making sure that other stories get space as well.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

On Olympicized Beijing

In the runup to Chicago -- and don't forget, if you're coming to Chicago, to RSVP for the Tuesday night students' reception -- I am repeatedly distracted by interesting articles: this one, a New Republic book review, focuses on China's political culture in the run-up to the Olympics. It is only tangentially related to planning, in that the first book discussed focuses on the modernization of Beijing and the resulting changes in its urban fabric. But Andrew Nathan is a major figure in his field (not for nothing was he a coeditor of this book) and if you are not terribly familiar with Chinese politics, this could be a very useful introduction to how the state currently works, and how the central government can absorb blows such as the Tiananmen protests, the criticisms over Tibet, and the continuing efforts of pro-democracy advocates in Hong Kong, and yet keep on going.

(The other reason why I was so quickly distracted is that of the three authors of Beijing: From Imperial Capital to Olympic City, one was my undergraduate advisor and chief academic mentor, and another taught me about the Fifth Generation Chinese filmmakers and is responsible for my continued love of red bean cakes. So reading Andrew Nathan's praise for their book leaves me tickled pink.)

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Europe's Declining Fertility Rates, and What They Imply for Cities

Another interesting article, from the New York Times Magazine. It's more broad than deep, surveying some of the literature on why fertility rates in Europe are dropping so fast (and not reaching any definite conclusions, though some of its hypotheses surprised me), but gets particularly interesting for city planners about halfway through, discussing the plans of some German cities to shrink their urban footprints. As a bonus for those of us insular Americans: it will give us something to talk about with our new European acquaintances in Chicago, beyond "That Sergio Ramos is something, huh?"

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Some Interesting Climate Change Speculation

I know: we the DSUP cabal have been neglecting you quite seriously of late. Some of us have been looking for jobs; some of us are finishing our dissertations; and some of us have been caught up in a combination of various offline events and changing our operating system three times. (Somewhere, Commenter Nick is laughing.)

So as not to neglect you, I bring your attention to Sustainable Energy--Without the Hot Air, a work-in-progress by David MacKay, a Cambridge professor. There's also a blog and an article in The Register -- the two are related, as MacKay uses his blog to correct some of the impressions a Register reader might get. The nice part about MacKay's work is that he puts it all online, so you can download it, examine it, and argue with it at your leisure. Note that you cannot just read the four-page executive summary and get his full conclusions that way; I tried that already.

(Link originally found at Arts & Letters Daily, though, strangely, not at its sister site, Climate Debate Daily.)

Monday, June 2, 2008

Plug: Lisa Schweitzer

UCLA professor Randall Crane (whose blog you have in your RSS feed just before or after ours, right?) has posted a profile of Lisa Schweitzer, who got her PhD at UCLA, spent some time at Virginia Tech, and is now at USC working on issues of environmental justice and transportation. I got to hear Dr. Schweitzer present in Milwaukee last year, and although she admitted straight off that she was presenting on research (on hazardous waste-related disasters and environmental justice) she'd just begun, it was still a very interesting presentation. Her presentation style was relaxed, friendly, and confident, which can be difficult in a conference setting; that style may not be everyone's cup of tea, but it worked well for me.

And since the Chicago schedule is now posted online, I can now tell you that Dr. Schweitzer will be presenting at 9:45 am on July 8th, moderating a panel on measurements and techniques later that day, and helping with a roundtable on environmental justice (alongside Ann Forsyth) first thing Friday morning the 11th. Even if you are neither a transportation person nor an EJ person, I would recommend you check her out at some point.

(Standard doctoral-student disclaimer: Dr. Schweitzer is not on any committee of mine and is not reviewing any papers I have written.)