Seeking Balance: Technical and Human


New Orleans, Louisiana

In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs describes illustrations of the city as being “all about us;” she urges us to supplement diagrams and depictions with experiences of “real cities;” she implores us to “listen, linger and think about what you see.” Her response to the grim reality of urban planning in the 1960s persists as The Manifesto of this discipline. It is a compelling and calculated request to alter the orientation of the discipline away from the technical maps, grids, and alternatives that typically direct planning efforts instead toward the personal experiences, responses and interests we share in the environment surrounding us all.

This distinction is important because, still, 50 years later, the tension between the technical and human aspect of planning is palpable and we find ourselves struggling to balance the two.

Oaxaca, Mexico

In January the second year cohort began Workshop (MURP 2011 – a what, what!).  Workshop is the culmination of the last two years of academic work and is our first opportunity to synthesize the knowledge we’ve acquired during our studies.  A series of presentations were given, each to introduce us to important aspects of project management.  And while most were enduringly useful, one proved steadfastly thought provoking, in an ‘I’m not sure you should have said that publicly’ kind of way.

A local leader, when asked about his experience with local planning, quipped that the only thing wrong with planning is the public.  I paused, I uncomfortably darted my eyes like most people do when they find them self in an uncomfortable situation, and then I laughed, we all laughed – awkwardly.  It was an uncharacteristically honest statement to hear in Portland.  The truth emerged mordantly: the problem with planning… is people.

In “Making Plans that Matter,” Raymond Burby laments that the challenge of planning is the public, but he insists the public is also the key to a successful plan.  These two extremes… I feel like I’ve been in a state of pause thinking about them for three months.  I ask myself often, “what are you doing here?”  What is the aim of planning if not a better environment for people?  How badly has planning failed if the biggest problem with this public service is the public it purports to serve?

Vancouver, B.C.

I am not so naive to think public involvement is easy because I know public engagement is the most difficult aspect of planning, but I understand, like Burby, that the public is its most integral element.  Yes, public engagement is difficult; there is neither a hard and fast rule for engagement nor empirically sound evidence in favor of public involvement, but I forge ahead because I believe in the process and its outcome.  I believe it results in plans better than even the best work of the best planner.

Jane Jacobs knew this, she knew people were important to planning, and she too was afraid.  She acknowledged that planning is making order of chaos, and that’s not an easy thing to do, but she rescinded the notion that the problems with our urban environs should be solved with the removal of “blight.”  Instead, she made a simple request, that we respect the chaos of the city and work within its disorder.  Jane Jacobs knew planning could do better and she simply asked for us to plan for the city as it is.  People and environment exist in symbiosis; planning fails not because it is conceptually flawed, but because it too often relies on technically derived solutions rather than human ones.

Florence, Italy

As a community development specialist, I think often about this balance.  Unlike the land use, transportation and environmental planners I study alongside, I rely on my ability to connect with people much more than my analytical abilities.  Rather than assess, evaluate, and determine, I must first listen.  I must convert the concerns of people into issues receptive to a strategy.  It is not unusual for people approach me and look me in the eye to explain why they need sidewalks, why they need their neighborhood grocery store, and why they cannot afford to lose their home.  Not only must I listen and convey empathy, but I must carry their concerns with me as I draft plans.  This is the chaos, the chaos of life, and how a community development planner reconciles thought with action.  This is the reality of the planner who finds herself awake at 3:48 a.m. hoping she can equitably serve and inclusively involve so that she might help make the city better for the people she serves.

Portland, Oregon

When I think about plans, I think about the balance they must reflect.  Plans are not great because they offer technical solutions, plans are great because they have the potential to respond to the concerns vocalized by the public with technically feasible prescriptions.  The planner is both engineer and architect; analytically minded, but capable of emotional connection.  The planner composes a city for people so they might have the opportunity to listen, linger, and think about what they see.

No, the public is not the problem with planning, the public is the possibility of planning and cities that are all about us.

– julia crain

Identity, Planning, and Equity

I received a compelling e-mail from a very good friend recently asking me what I thought about the impacts of identity based planning.

I am currently, as many of you know, working with a team of students on a community economic development project targeted to benefit the Latino community in Portland, Oregon.  We are working for a grassroots community based organization that provides services primarily to the Latino community.

I was piqued by the question, especially as I had considered it earlier.

I fumbled initially through a few blunt bullet points in my head:

  • Our group was contracted by a third sector (i.e. non-profit) community development corporation that focuses it’s service provision primarily on affordable housing and education services for the Latino community in Portland, OR  — however, this organization is not restrictive, there are other immigrant groups provided for by this organization, nonetheless, they are primarily focused on providing services for Spanish-speaking people
  • Latino’s in Portland make significantly less money than non-Latinos
  • 26% of Latino families in Portland live below the poverty line
  • As evidenced by the 2010 Census, Latino’s have increased by 65% Portland since 2000.  Yet this group is significantly underrepresented and under-benefitted in city projects and economic development initiatives.

But this doesn’t really speak to the legitimacy or moral grounds of selective identity based planning.  Can it be damaging?  Is it necessary?  Are there other approaches?

So I took the opportunity to bring up the point in class.

A discussion on this point ensued briefly with quick conclusion identifying that the proverbial scales are tipped so unevenly into the hands of the have’s and out of the hands of the have not’s that identity based planning (in addition to third sector development to fill in the gaps left by traditional economic development) is an absolute necessity in order to restore some semblance of a balance.

This argument however does not speak to the legitimacy of the tool of identity based planning or its impacts.  It mixes identity planning (in this case, defined by the heritage, race, or ethnicity of a particular group) with the broader concept of planning for have’s and have not’s that attempts to equally distribute benefits across a community — something more accurately called equity planning.

So, why should Latino’s get the attention in this and other low-income groups be left out?  Is this equitable?

I tried the question out once more in an informal discussion with another professor – and the answer here was quick and dirty:

“Planning has always been identity-based, it’s just that no one labels it when it’s white and middle class.”  Read – planning has not been historically equitable.

Ah ha, now we’re getting somewhere.

Let’s take a moment and consider that equity planning, not identity planning, is necessary beyond the grassroots level (where advocacy and identity planning have a place).  At higher levels of government advocacy and identity planning are precarious.  It creates policies that are exclusionary, whether they are known and understood or not.  A city planner should not orient around identity based planning, but should push forward a philosophical shift and focus on tangible equitable values as an emphasis.  Planning at the city level should not be for “middle-income whites” or anyone else specifically for that matter; but should emphasize an ethical and moral ground to serve and to plan with the least-well-off in mind so that benefits are distributed equally throughout a municipality or region.  For any fellow students that are reading this – yes – this is straight from our ethics class, and it’s worth remembering while we’re now working on our projects or in our professional positions.

As for my current role, our team has been contracted by a non-profit that works directly with the Latino community – a non-profit formed around an identity base to provide culturally appropriate counseling and services (in this case in home ownership and education) and has done so in a viable and proven way. Is it ethical that we work with this grassroots group?  Well, to start yes.  We are not working for the city in this capacity, but for a grassroots organization, that orients and builds its members around an identity, and there is no one group that can work effectively at the grassroots level with all communities of people (but if you find one, please let me know about it).  People organize at a grassroots level around identity because it makes sense.  It is an effective and efficient way to reach a specific goal as a group.  This is advocacy and the non-profit that we are consulting for is an advocacy organization for the Latino community that also helps other groups of people as it can.  Not to mention that this organization would not need to exist if all things were truly equitable, planning and beyond.

So yes, we are working for a grassroots organization that is mobilizing to empower their community.  I am working for a grassroots organization that is advocating for economic development initiatives that will benefit their immediate community and not push their community members out when the opportunities arrive.  I am not working as an identity planner, I’m working as an advocacy planner for an identity based grassroots organization, and I think that’s a-ok.

If and when I work at the city level as a planner, the focus must be in equity and equal access to information.  My recommendations for city level focus and change are currently being ruminated and cultivated in another paper that I’ll possibly post tidbits of later on.  Key focuses there start in a shift of nomenclature for groups and a true consideration of what identity is, and how the city can move past certain types of loaded terms (“minorities”, “disengaged”, “disempowered”) and begin to work with the fundamental needs and realities (they may be very engaged and empowered and a majority within their own communities).  It’s a big shoe to fill, but I want city level government to reconsider what they mean when they speak of identity.  It will take some huge corrections, this work is like trying to use a paddle to steer a tanker ship – but if enough people get paddles and enough people that are re-thinking what true engagement is, it creates a two-way street and not just a passive open-door policy.  Then we’ll get some movement forward into true equity planning – which is the type of work I believe policy makers should be doing, whoever they are, and wherever they are.

— Ellen

DEIS: An Opportunity for Public Involvement

The Federal Transit Administration (FTA), Metro, and Trimet published the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) for the Lake Oswego to Portland Transit Project earlier this month. This statement looks at future transportation options (streetcar, enhanced bus service, or no change) along Highway 43 from Portland to Lake Oswego.

The concept behind the DEIS is to provide the decision makers and the community with information about the benefits and trade-offs related to a variety of factors for each alternative. For each project, a comment period is announced when the public has an opportunity to provide feedback on the document and their preferred alternative. For transportation projects, a decision is made on the Locally Preferred Alternative following the comment period.

One of the challenges with the DEIS process is that the document is often very long and very technical. Although this information is meant to inform the public and the decision makers, the sheer length of the document often intimidates the pubic. Also some of the technical analysis, that needs to be detailed to provide the important information necessary for good decisions, may not be very accessible to the larger public.

These challenges highlight the strong need to conduct public involvement during a DEIS process in order to get public input from a wide range of community stakeholders. Metro will be conducting two open houses in December (December 9th, 4-7 PM, PBS Conference Center, 4343 Corbett Ave. and December 16th, 4-7 PM, Lakewood Center for the Arts, 368 S. State Street, Lake Oswego) to explain the DEIS findings to attendees and to ask for public comments. For those that wish to read the DEIS findings they are available on the project website, along with a DEIS summary.

– Bernadette

Of Planning and Power

The Delta in August - still lots of water

On paper, the planning process for the Okavango Delta Managment Plan appears to be an inclusive, thoughtful, successful process.

The Okavango River is one of the world’s largest inland water systems. The river begins in Angola, flows through the Caprivi Strip in northeastern Namibia, and culminates in the Okavango Delta in Botswana. The coverage area fluctuates from approximately 5,400 square miles during low water flow to approximately 9,600 square miles during peak flooding (Okavango-Delta.net, 2010). Botswana has approximately 2 million inhabitants and has been labeled an “African Success Story” for its stable government and increasing GDP since independence in 1966. The Delta is a major component of Botswana’s multi-million dollar tourism industry.

Five distinct ethnic groups, each with its own language and customs, inhabit the area. However, the Delta is dominated politically by the Tswana, who live only in small numbers on the fringes of the Delta but are the dominant tribe in Botswana and control the government (Okavango-Delta.net, 2010).

To address the increasing pressure on the environment and biodiversity of the Delta by the growing tourism industry and the needs of its residents (including fishing and farming), the government of Botswana undertook a comprehensive planning process which would culminate in the Okavango Delta Management Plan (ODMP). The overall goal of the ODMP is to “integrate resource management for the Okavango Delta that will ensure its long-term conservation and that will provide benefits for the present and future well being of the people, through sustainable use of its natural resources” (Government of Botswana, 2008).

On paper, the planning process for the ODMP appears to be an inclusive, thoughtful, successful process. Because transportation consists of walking, poling a canoe, or hitchhiking for many residents of the Delta, the government brought the meetings to the people and convened dozens of public outreach meetings in villages across the Delta. Translators for the local languages were provided. Public comments were recorded. 

Yet, as in planning processes in the United States, there is a deeper story of power issues and how this affected not only the process but also the end result.

As noted by Dukes (1996), to move beyond power, interests, and rights, the I of self-interest must be transformed into the we of common welfare. To achieve this, he offers the vehicle of “relatedness.” This concept embodies the qualities of recognition, respect, and responsibility, specifically “a sense of responsibility for one’s actions; a sense of obligation to those who are dependent. . .a respect for the tradition’s of one’s own and others’ cultures. . .” (Dukes, 1996, p. 169). In the case of the ODMP, the process was set by the government, and thus the majority Tswana tribe. Though the government espouses the ethic that “we’re all Batswana” (residents of Botswana) and tries to blur the lines, in truth intertribal relationships – and thus power relationships – are complicated. All goes well as long as all go along with the Tswana. This included the ODMP planning process and document.

I learned the inside story when I met a planner in Namibia who had lived and worked in Botswana for many years. The outreach process was based around a Tswana community meeting process led by chiefs called kgotla. Because it wasn’t an indigenous process, the government brought Tswana chiefs to the Delta to run the meetings, effectively shutting down the local residents of different tribes. Despite the extensive outreach process, the resulting ODMP reinforced official views and policies, which supported both local and national power and money brokers.

Seen through the lens of Dukes, there is no true we in this process. One can argue that recognition of, respect for, and responsibility to the groups who live in the Delta are missing as well.

In American vernacular, the fix is in.

The lesson is easy – to be truly representative, the planning process must involve affected communities in the design of the planning process and must not only listen but also incorporate the input of the local community. Yet, this view assumes a government interested in the views and needs of local communities. So what does a community do when it appears the government isn’t interested in its view?

I don’t have an answer. Literature suggests many ways to go about this – alliances, protests, circumventing power structures – that, in all honesty, are oriented to those with money and/or time and assume (1) free time, (2) financial ability, and (3) some political savvy. It is, at heart, a first-world, white, privileged perception. For many in the developing world, this is a stretch. But Dukes’ words run true. We must begin with respect, responsibility, and recognition.
 
Works Cited
Dukes, E. Franklin. 1996. Chapter 11 “The practical foundations of a transformative process” pp. 156-171. In Resolving public conflict: transforming community and governance.

Government of Botswana, Department of Environmental Affairs. January 2008. Okavango Delta Management Plan. http://www.ramsar.org/pdf/wurc/wurc_mgtplan_botswana_okavango.pdf

Okavango-Delta.net. 2010. About. http://www.okavango-delta.net/info.htm.

— misty schymtzik

Campus Planning

One thing we invariably all have in common is the overwhelming amount of time we spend on the PSU campus. As a destination for 28,000 students, 3,000 employees, and numerous visitors, PSU is a highly influential institution within the Portland area. From humble beginnings in Lincoln Hall in 1952, the University has grown to become the largest in the state of Oregon and has constructed scores of buildings, purchased dozens more, and has truly shaped the course of this part of the city. Nearly 3000 students now live on campus and the combined bus, MAX, and streetcar stations on campus make it the most frequented transit destination in the TriMet service area. Given that, I thought a brief summary of what’s going on on campus today might be of interest.

Electric Vehicles

Oregon is one of several states benefiting from a $200M federal Department of energy project to bring thousands of electric-powered automobiles to the U.S. Through this effort, The EV Project, hundreds of EV charging stations will be installed throughout the Northwest and PSU is collaborating with a number of partners to provide on-street charging stations along stretches of street in the university area. The Portland State “Electric Avenue” will include Type II and III chargers, which can recharge a vehicle in 4-5 hours or as little as 30 minutes, respectively. Other improvements to these streets may include electric bike charging, bikeways, and Green Street infrastructure. Once a final road segment is selected and PSU coordinates with PBOT on traffic and parking concerns, chargers may be installed as early as February 2011. Below is a photo simulation showing potential charging stations on SW Mill between 5th and 6th Avenues.

Bicycles

The opening of the new Harrison Street Bike Garage between 5th and 6th Avenues has been very successful. Nearly 80% of the available permits for this 86-space facility have been sold out for the quarter. Not including bicycle garages the University has just over 1600 short-term bicycle parking spaces on campus. On September 29 of this year there were 1103 bikes parked on campus, a strong indication of the 11% bicycle mode share the University reports. The University is working with public partners to develop other bicycle routes to and from campus, including possible extensions to the Broadway Cycletrack, facilities on northbound 4th Avenue, and routes eastbound towards the river and South Waterfront.

Food Carts

Another component of the renovations to the University Center Building included the construction of a corner location ready for future retail development. PSU is in the process of soliciting food cart vendors to occupy the location, on the southwest corner of SW Harrison and SE 5th. Keep an eye out for carts possibly moving in by January 2011.

Campus Housing

At the far southern end of campus, demolition work in anticipation of a new University Housing building has nearly been completed. The new College Station development between Jackson, College, 5th and 6th will house over 600 students, provide additional academic office space, and support ground floor commercial uses. A second set of campus-area MAX stations will be incoming as the Milwaukie Orange Line MAX is developed over the next five years.

Climate Action Plan

PSU has one. We’re a member of the American College & University President’s Climate Committee, and thus we have agreed by charter to numerous carbon reduction strategies. Find it here: http://www.pdx.edu/sites/www.pdx.edu.sustainability/files/media_assets/ClimateActionPlan%284mb%29.pdf

Public Transportation is good for Kids (via Gris)

Planning and the people element…a lot of transportation planning comes down to economic decisions, things like congestion pricing, supply and demand, etc., but absent from the financing and economics is the people quotient.  Why do people make the choices they do?  In “Why Public Transportation is Good for Kids,” Grist writer Carla Saulter explores the lessons inherent in public transit. I think Sauter is on to something here, her choice isn’t an easy one to make, it certainly is a more difficult alternative, but it has unknown benefits.  Not only is she doing something good for the environment and her household economy, but she is, of course, also introducing her children to a mode of transit that instills essential life skills, particularly those that behoove the urban traveler.  Cool, right?