Aerial view near Indiana, United States.
One of the marvels of contemporary publishing is the sense of urgency it enables a polemical tract like Alex Steffen’s Carbon Zero to take on. Steffan opens with a stark and still-fresh reminder of his book’s importance – the nearly 14-foot tidal wave that struck Lower Manhattan in late October, less than two months before Carbon Zero hit shelves (or Kindles, whatever). I was at first tempted to label Steffen rather morbidly lucky in that sense, before reflecting that it’s actually becoming rather difficult not to publish a book shortly after some catastrophic event linked to climate change (that link should lead you to a story about heavy downpours and potential flooding in already-soaked England and Wales, during the week of 17 Dec 2012; but if you’re reading this next week or the week after or five years from now, I’m sure a new catastrophe will spring just as readily to mind).
“Steffen’s correct when he claims that we gradualists need to step aside, that we’re not recommending anything that’ll fix these problems anywhere near fast enough. If ever there were an issue well-suited to convincing utopianism, global climate change is it. Nothing else is going to cut it.”
It’d be a stretch to claim that Steffen’s written the most important book of the 21st century – sorry, Alex – but he has written a very readable and really pretty useful book about the most important issue of the 21st century, and that’s a praiseworthy-enough feat, I should think (incidentally, it’s also cheap as these things go, and since you’ve probably got some spare time [and possibly a new e-reader? It’s that time of year] at the moment, you can buy it here). A few months ago, I castigated Fast Company’s “climate capitalist” in-residence, Boyd Cohen, for more or less groveling at the altar of neoliberalism and simply refusing to challenge the systems of production and consumption which undergird early-21st century capitalism; certainly no such criticism can be leveled at Steffen, who devotes an entire chapter to the subject. Carbon Zero really is a comprehensive piece of work, addressing not just all the major systems that contribute to greenhouse gas emissions and global climate change, but also potential urban solutions to mitigate or even reverse those contributions. It’s a boldly optimistic piece of writing, the sort of thing that self-proclaimed pragmatists like myself try to dismiss as hopelessly naïve or some such. But Steffen’s correct when he claims that we gradualists need to step aside, that we’re not recommending anything that’ll fix these problems anywhere near fast enough. If ever there were an issue well-suited to convincing utopianism, global climate change is it. Nothing else is going to cut it. Continue reading
In Urban Composition, Mark C. Childs presents not only an introduction to the practice of conscientious urban design, but also advances an optimistic, collectivist vision of civil composition’s contribution to the commonwealth.
[Image courtesy Princeton Architecture Press]
“Cities Should Be Like __________”
The planning profession has reached something of a critical juncture. This is not, of itself, a particularly interesting revelation; to hear planners talk about it, our profession is pretty much always reaching some sort of critical juncture, crossroads, etc. This time, however, we might be onto something.
I recent finished plodding my way through editor Roger Elwood’s Future City, an early-seventies anthology of “new wave” science fiction takes on (wait for it…) the “Future City.” The contributions were unerringly pessimistic, forecasting a future of out-of-control urbanism roughly on the model of the South Bronx circa 1977, but With Added Fancy Computers. The contributions were also, and again unerringly, wrong. The archetypal City of 2012 hardly resembles the nightmares they envisioned, and the attitudes towards urbanism held by many of the stories’ characters are if anything even more distant from the current re-awakening of interest in all things urban.
In previous posts on Landscape Urbanism, I’ve argued that the narrative of urbanism—the one accepted by both the mass media and highbrow magazine monthlies—is up for grabs at the moment. Continue reading
In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the I-10 in New Orleans became a symbol of collective failure – a long fall from the heady days when America’s interstate system was perceived as a national triumph. UCLA’s Linda Samuels asks how infrastructure can once again come to “represent our collective optimism.”
A good portion of what’s taught in basic planning history courses has nothing to do with when CIAM published La Charte d’Athenes or Herbert Hoover’s Commerce Department issued the Standard Zoning Enabling Act. Instead, the earlier days of such courses are largely occupied by learning to put up with other people’s expression of strong feelings on the subject of “Daniel Burnham: Yes or No?” About a month into my own planning education, I’d heard the one about make-no-little-plans more times than I care to remember. Continue reading
“The planning debate of the decade: Atlantic Yards, Brooklyn. The argument isn’t just about Atlantic Yards, however: it’s about what we want our country to look like next.”
Over the past couple weeks, the Penn School of Design and Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts have teamed up to get the Philadelphia intelligentsia talking about, of all things, an out-of-town city planning dispute. Not just any planning dispute, of course, the planning dispute. You know one: Brooklyn, the Nets, Russian oligarchy and organized crime, Jay-Z. Atlantic Yards.
You’ll notice that the words “Atlantic Yards” aren’t linked to anything. That’s deliberate: Given the heated debate those two words frequently give rise to, I’m avoiding taking anything that even looks like a position on the issue. Because this particular post isn’t actually about Atlantic Yards. At this point, “Atlantic Yards” (the cause it’s become, not the physical space) isn’t actually about Atlantic Yards anymore. It’s about a country emerging, e-v-e-r–s-o–s-l-o-w-l-y, from a long and deep recession, and what we want the country that emerges to look like.
First things first: In mid-January, The Civilians commenced a sixteen-show Philadelphia run of their “docu-musical” In the Footprint: The Battle over Atlantic Yards. PennDesign marked the show’s opening with the first of two community forums on the subject of Megaprojects, asking “Can we balance individual and social good?” (Philadelphia readers may be interested in attending the second of these forums this Tuesday at the Annenberg Center; details here.) Continue reading
Cairo’s Tahrir Square almost one year ago. International debate over the rules of engagement in public space should be one of our most important public conversations in 2012.
Early in the morning of January 1, a phalanx of would-be Occupiers stormed the (police) barricades at New York’s now-famous “publicly-owned private space,” Zucotti Park. Almost seventy people were arrested, the “park” cleared, and some semblance of the present order restored. The next evening in Budapest, protesters massed outside of the State Opera, angered by a new crypto-fascist constitution and a crackdown on public dissent near the Hungarian Parliament.
2011 will go down in history as a year of public protests in public space, from Cairo’s Tahrir Square to Madrid’s Puerta del Sol, from Wall Street and the City of London, to back alleys and village roadways in China’s inner provinces. If the early indicators chronicled above are anything to go by, 2012 will be no different. The New Year should provide plenty of opportunity for the unelected governments of Greece and Italy to show us just what decent technocrats think public space is for, while the right-wingers now running the rest of Europe (with a few notable exceptions) continue to confront public anger against government austerity; to say nothing of continued unrest in Asia and the Middle East. Continue reading
Across the so-called “Global North,” civil society is rapidly approaching its breaking point. In Europe, which recently surged ahead of North America once more in the worldwide race toward self-imposed economic Armageddon, some countries may already be there. The British hate their poor, the French hate everyone else’s, the Germans hate everyone, and everyone hates the Germans. Eastern Europeans don’t even trust themselves, with support for democracy in “New Europe” declining steadily as this Long Recession drags on. Here in the US… well, we can still show those Europeans a thing or two about loathing our fellow man (or woman).
Last week, I argued here that consensus-driven planning and designs processes are an expensive waste of time and effort for both cash-strapped municipalities and over-worked, underpaid planners and designers: participatory planning is, essentially, a mug’s game. Now, I’m complaining about the fraying fabric of civil society. Am I somehow temperamentally incapable of keeping my line straight on this important point?
Well, no. In fact, that’sthe point of last week’s argument: that participation genuinely is important, but that consensus-driven planning is ineffective and inefficient and generates an inadequate stand-in for actual participation in actual civil society. There are other arguments against participatory planning—that it enables NIMBYism, that the public don’t actually know anything about urban planning—but they’re all essentially beside-the-point. The real problem with participatory planning is that it isn’t actually a form of genuine civic participation. Continue reading
In autumn 2006, the forty-six members of the Central Delaware Advisory Group—the body tasked by then-mayor John Street with reimagining Philadelphia’s Delaware riverfront—commenced a year-long process of informing and soliciting public opinion. When the Civic Vision for the Central Delaware was finally unveiled in November 2007, the Advisory Group could proudly claim (and did they ever) to have created “a vision plan that married citizen values with professional knowledge.” Indeed, the Central Delaware Advocacy Group (born out of the Advisory Group and featuring many of the same characters; keeping the two CDAGs straight isn’t particularly important) boasts on its website today that the Civic Vision was informed by “approximately 4,000 citizens.”
The CDAG spent the year engaged in what the aptly-named Project for Public Spaces (PPS) would call a placemaking exercise. While the concept of placemaking isn’t new, the lengthy PPS definition is worth a look: placemaking “involves looking at, listening to, and asking questions of the people who live, work, and play in a particular space, to discover their needs and aspirations. This information is then used to create a common vision for that place” (the definition continues). Continue reading