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With my co-commenters, I want to embrace the begged question here: can artists, architects, and designers contribute? In answering yes, let’s not forget those who might say no, and who might come with examples! In answering yes, let’s affirm a shared commitment to translating our art, architecture, and design work into the terms, and hopefully onto the agendas, of others based on their own perceived interests. Let’s commit to civic engagement as an experimentally verifiable endeavor and the sober self-assessments it requires, to studying BATNAs, to arguing along with NOVUS for a “bigger here and a longer now.”
Onto the pregnant question of how: "When traditional planning approaches reveal their shortcomings, how can artists, architects, and designers contribute to trigger effective change?" Some thoughts organized by phrase:
“traditional planning approaches”: Is there a tradition of planning, and if so, who defines it? In the United States, it is not difficult to argue that planning as dramatized by Daniel Burnham, even at peak success, never made much headway in popular or real estate imaginations focused on the dramas of the free market in land. Contrast hard-to-find planning heroes with romantic representations of architects like Ayn Rand’s Howard Roark, who demolishes the public housing development he designed in rage at government meddling, or activists like Jane Jacobs, tearing up a planning board transcript to prevent neighborhood destruction.
In terms of legal power, the spread of democratic planning mechanisms such as zoning, planning boards, community boards, and public hearings was spotty and driven under the influence of local property owners rather than democratic mass participation. Today, public power, rhetorically aimed at corporate consolidation 100 years ago under trust-busters like Louis Brandeis, has found millions of ways to entangle in partnerships with less public powers and adopt their privacy rights, putting pressure on people seeking democratic control of their environment.
Maybe our relation to “traditional planning approaches” can be a bit more fertilely imaginative. Recalling Robert Fitch’s slightly hysterico-paranoid account of how the Rockefellers used the first Regional Plan of New York to manipulate the Manhattan real estate market, we might conclude that the very essence of our tradition of planning is for putatively public planning to be subverting and directed by private powers.
More optimistically, rather than Quilian’s “full-scale institutional failure(s)” and fretting Zaha’s effect on architecture’s general political agency, we can go beyond Good and Bad Guys to understand multiple traditions of planning in conflict. Fifty years after Paul Davidson’s “Advocacy and Pluralism in Planning,” one tradition sees planning not as something that “works” or “fails,” but as the conflictual, hard-knocks space that was opened to deliberate democratically how we create places to supplement the calculations of market power. So it could be that any “shortcomings” are external obstacles to planning rather than a technical failure of planning itself, and that diminishing the tradition of planning only serves the enemies of “effective change.” By breaking down the monolith of planning tradition, we also move away from the celebration of marginality, as I worry that stories that begin with affirmations like Ms Krasny’s “It is exactly along the margins that hope based upon a different practice of architecture can arise” often end in deceptive claims for marginality from the center. Let’s find something less fleeting than marginality on which to base our solidarity.
“reveal their shortcomings”: “Shortcomings” sounds strangely polite for Uneven Growth’s scenario of “a staggering eight billion people” hoping “to avoid major social and economic catastrophes,” not to mention slow-burn catastrophes of exploitative housing and work conditions, environmental toxins, and serial displacement. Instead of “shortcomings,” let's speak of the revelation of “power differentials” or “domination.” We don’t necessarily need more responsive design, but a clearer understanding of to whom design responds. Contestation is a good barometer here, struggles found in most local media about housing, environmental justice, gentrification, preservation, public space, etc. One way for us to try to contribute is by seeking a relationship with what Myles Horton called “conflict situations.”) Here, we must rely on old-fashioned technologies of community organizing: introducing ourselves, calling people up, hanging out, as Dr. Mindy Fullilove recommends, “talking to people like they’re people.” Let’s not allow our techno-optimism to obscure the nuts and bolts of people power. While I guess his aims are different, my colleague Mr. Lydon’s assertion that “one might say we’re using outdated software (government policy) that seems incapable of meeting the demand for new hardware (affordable housing, transport options, safe public space etc.)” veers close to Ronald Reagan’s (and Bill Clinton’s) mantra of “government is the problem” instead of putting people power (and the government it is of, by, and for) in the driver’s seat.
“artists, architects, and designers”: We inherit mighty gifts and sharp tools from our traditions for both getting things done and for nourishing ethical civics towards justice, but we can’t do it alone.
“contribute to trigger effective change”: How change happens vexes and humbles heroic visionaries and their self-promotional disciplines. The concept of change as the result of a “trigger” rather than a “long haul)” can support dramatically false self-conceptions and “Mission Accomplished” banners. The fact that successful public design in a democracy must become seen as without author or as authored by a multitude threatens our tidy stories of “interventions” and “social impact.” As for how we recognize “effective” change from its less-accomplished also-rans, my only suggestion is to substitute it for “accountable.”
With the organizers of Uneven Growth, I welcome Tactical Urbanism (while grimacing at its military tone) to the lexicon, to be filed near Temporary Services' studies of improvisatory public constructions, “placemaking” as advocated by the Project for Public Spaces (which has just sent me one of their relentless emails as I write this), Adventure Playgrounds, the wonderful Pratt Institute DIY urbanism publication Street, and other beloved things.
As the Planning Director & Chief Urban Designer in Newark, New Jersey, I've been blessed to have my jacket pulled by many, resulting in locally-made bike racks, better sidewalks, large-scale outdoor paintings, an orange boardwalk and new zoning among other monuments to the practice of environmental democracy. Here’s to finding all sorts of agendas articulated by others to fuel our planning, art, and design.
With my co-commenters, I want to embrace the begged question here: can artists, architects, and designers contribute? In answering yes, let’s not forget those who might say no, and who might come with examples! In answering yes, let’s affirm a...