Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Category Archives: City Planning

Ticket Insurance

Via Marginal Revolution – perhaps Russ should use this concept in his Transport Planning course?

“My favourite ticketing system was in Mumbai, India,” Kim enthuses. “No one actually buys a ticket, but you can buy ‘ticket insurance’ from private entrepreneurs who work at the entrance of the station. The ‘ticket insurance’ is about half the price of a regular rail ticket. It gives you a guarantee that, in the extraordinary event that you are booked by a railways inspector for taking a free ride, your fine will be paid. A relative was once booked and the ticket insurer paid the fine exactly as promised.”

Here is the link, and thanks to Brendan Leary for the pointer.

At the very least, it’s a new way of thinking about Russ’ free rider problem.

Green Activism

L Magee did me the favour of leading one of my class discussions this morning, giving me the chance to watch from the sidelines. The discussion revolved around Sandercock’s historical survey of various progressive, utopian, and radical approaches to planning. I felt just a bit guilty, realising that, when I asked LM to do this, there might have been some reasonable expectation that perhaps this discussion might revolve around… er… radicalism in some form of another. Instead, LM wound up on the receiving end of my students’ rather creative attempts to extract some practical tools from radical planning theories, so that they could apply these in their private sector consultancy work.

LM struggled valiantly to turn the conversation back to the motives or goals of various schools of radical planning, finally offering the explicit challenge: “But – don’t you think that consultants sort of sit outside the radical planning traditions? That they aren’t really trying to represent groups in the community?”

To which one student cooly responded: “Not necessarily. I mean, I know we’ve represented community groups. But… You know… Community groups with money.”

One Way

Gungahlin town centre clock, one way sign, and construction barriers.I spent some time today with a group of people working – loosely – on issues relating to heritage, neighbourhood character, and “place making” in a community facing massive demographic change. One of the persons present had been involved in the creation of the ACT Cultural Map, and presented some highlights from that project as grist for discussion. The presentation highlighted a number of features from the Gungahlin town centre design – a greenfield development that, according to the presentation, recruited a local artist to create designs based on stories collected during community consultations. Developers have begun to incorporate these designs into new structures in a variety of ways – from patterns on manhole covers, to distinctive bus shelter designs, to etchings on glass doorways in the town centre – to create a distinctive sense of place while commemorating elements of the area’s history. Much of the presentation centred on visual images of the design elements created through this process.

This kind of commemoration always has a strange, haunted character for me, as it effectively celebrates what has been destroyed by the development process, and tries to build a sense of the distinctiveness of the new community by pointing to what is no longer there – as though the new community is expected to coalesce around what it has displaced. The discussion today centred on images of various design elements – themselves generally quite attractive, and spoken about, initially, just in terms of their visual appeal and distinctiveness. The mood in the room was playful, excited about the possibility of creating similarly unique visual elements in new communities locally, and the discussion revolved around the aesthetic merit of the designs, viewed as communal art.

At one point, however, the content of the artwork suddenly broke through what had, until that point, been essentially a discussion of form, and there was an almost tactile wrenching and reorientation of the mood in the room. The shift took place as the presenter displayed an image of the grates used around the base of new street trees, and the group puzzled over what the grates – which at first glance just looked attractively functional – were meant to represent. The presenter, excited and enthusiatic, explained:

They’re tree roots! Do you see? Because beautiful old trees were cut down – and their roots were everywhere, knotted together – and they’re gone now…

The presenter suddenly paused, thrown out of the presentation by registering – as the rest of us also were – the fundamental strangeness of surrounding these spindly new trees, all planted in their isolated and orderly formation, with artwork representing the mesh of mature root systems from trees that had grown old together, intertwined, and had then been destroyed to make way for the development process. No one voiced or telegraphed any criticism – the mood in the room was poignant, not critical. The presenter paused for some time, not really knowing what to say. Then quietly, almost reverent:

Well… at least we’ve got the memory of them…

I’ve committed to writing a conference paper loosely organised around the issue of how we understand the concept of “community” in a dynamic social context. Tentatively, the paper will discuss the “problem” of post-traditional communities as a foundational issue for classical sociology, make a few gestures at contemporary planning theory discussions on “community”, and then explore the ways in which some of these concepts play out in a couple of case studies from my field research. I may periodically toss up fieldnotes of this sort, as I try to work my way into what, exactly, I plan to write – the draft paper will eventually make its way onto the site. Happy as always to receive feedback on the theoretical or empirical dimensions of the piece.

[Note: image of the Gungahlin town centre clock modified from the one Cfitzart posted to Wikipedia. The original image - and therefore this one - is posted under the terms of a GNU Free Documentation License.]

Dissertation Scratchpad: Best Intentions

So yesterday’s research meeting, aside from providing a number of comments that could be taken out of context in interesting ways, also provided some opportunity to me to revisit in a public forum the most unprofound of my research findings: the notions that (1) developers can in certain circumstances like particular kinds of regulation, and that (2) developers’ need to invest capital as older development fronts close off is a major factor in creating pressures to open new development fronts. The last time I posted on these issues, my questions were, essentially: Doesn’t everyone already know this? And: Do I have anything particularly new and interesting to say about this phenomenon, whether everyone already knows about it or not? These were, essentially, the questions I posed in my (impromptu and, I must confess, somewhat involuntary) presentation to the research meeting. Read more of this post

Romancing the Course

While the rest of Melbourne visits the Cup today, I thought I’d come in to a gloriously empty office and get a bit of systematic work done. The first task on the agenda this morning is thinking about the organising principles for the postgraduate Planning Theory course, which, as I’ve mentioned previously, is currently being redesigned to (1) update the reading selections and (2) expand and deepen the theoretical material taught through the course, given that the creation of a new mandatory planning history course means that the theory course no longer needs to double as an intro to planning history.

In its current incarnation, the course is organised chronologically and thematically, with representative themes from each era chosen for each week, and with weeks gradually moving from the late 19th century toward the present. The course reader includes four or more reading selections for each week – one “common” reading, which all students must read, and a selection of other readings from which each student must choose at least one. Prior to each class, students submit brief reviews of that week’s readings to an online discussion forum, and then come to class to discuss those reviews and other reactions to the readings. The course also requires students to submit a larger essay at the end of the term.

For the past couple of years, I’ve been involved in an undergraduate version of this same course, which I redesigned this year. Since the course covers such a sweep of history, I thought it was important to “hang” the course material on an overarching metanarrative that would enable students to orient themselves in intellectual and social history as they engaged with specific theoretical works. For the undergraduate version of the course, the metanarrative I used was, essentially, the story of how planning – emerging as a discipline out of the transformation away from laissez faire capitalism in the late 19th century – came to be closely bound with the broader discourses of “planning” associated with the rise of the welfare state – and was then caught in the undertow created by the crisis of the welfare state, leaving the planning discipline struggling to redefine its identity and purpose in a more market-centred era.

I think this narrative was servicable – certainly for the undergraduate course – but I’m not sure that this is the narrative I want to build into the postgraduate version (or, for that matter, into the undergraduate course when I teach it next term…). I may retain it, but I’m also playing around with the notion of tracking a few overarching philosophical themes through the postgraduate course (particularly given that there is some desire that this course be a “hard” course – one that stretches the students intellectually). One preliminary thought (and I’ll apologise in advance here for what is likely to be a somewhat cringe-worthy over-simplification of several centuries of intellectual and social history…) is to organise the course as an exploration of themes of liberalism and romanticism as they play themselves out through intellectual and social movements from the late 18th century – an approach that would seek to give the students at least an introductory knowledge of these concepts, and sufficient experience to track the ways in which these concepts run through major intellectual and social conflicts in different historical periods.

I am not, however, the sole decision-maker on the course structure and content (among other things, this is not “my” course – I’ve taught into it, but the course is coordinated by a much more senior staff member, who will need to feel comfortable with the material, as they will be primarily responsible for delivering the course and dealing with any problems that arise from it; the coordinator for the postgraduate coursework program also has a vested interest in the direction in which this course develops). This collaborative situation has led to some interesting and generally quite productive debates on what we are trying to achieve through this course. Somewhat surprisingly – given the range of different issues on which we needed to achieve some consensus at the start – the most persistant debate has revolved around the prospect of including explicit discussion of a romantic intellectual and social movements in the course: it was an easy sell that teaching students about liberalism was important; romanticism, however, has proven quite contentious.

This debate has had some amusing consequences – among them that I think I’ve managed to get myself perceived as someone who particularly loves romantic movements. I suppose this isn’t an illogical conclusion to draw: why push so hard to include something when you disagree with it? (Regular readers of this blog, of course, will know my answer to that question…) I find it strangely dissonant, however, to have these hallway discussions where other staff are casually referencing “my” romantic “mates”… (I’ve also gotten a couple of “Awww… give us a kiss then!” responses…)

Thus far, the proper intellectual debate has progressed in three stages. Read more of this post

Social Improvement with Architecture

I noticed an article in today’s New York Times titled “Social Improvement with Architecture”, which features a couple of new social housing projects in Chicago (including one near the Cabrini Green redevelopment I discussed recently). The housing projects are intended to be informed by principles of social and environmental sustainability – and, apparently, by some social theory as well:

“Sustainable design is exciting because all of a sudden architecture loses a lot of its frivolity,” Mr. Tigerman said.

“Instead of worrying about Post Modernism and Deconstructivism,” he said, sustainable design “is based on reason and the forms come out of that.”

The article also features some potentially undesirable praise for the city of Chicago: is it a good thing for the city to point out that “Both projects symbolize what some say is Chicago’s leading role in housing the homeless and indigent”?

For more information on the developments, check the websites for the Near North SRO and the Pacific Garden Mission.

Developing Regulation

In the postgraduate Planning Theory course, which I am currently redesigning, one of our recurrent themes was the process whereby support comes to be mobilised in favour of particular kinds of regulation. A number of our inherited readings asserted what, from my point of view, is a very artificial opposition between capitalism and regulation, and spoke as though the core, defining characteristic of capitalist enterprise is a bottom line orientation to the unconstrained reduction of the immediate costs of production – a concept that, if you take it seriously, can make it very, very difficult to make sense of the social history behind large-scale regulatory shifts (empirically, large business enterprises becoming concerned with the implications of social or environmental problems, and then throwing their weight behind specific regulatory initiatives, often heralds important policy “tipping points”).

In the course, we dealt mainly with 19th and early 20th century cases. An article by Royce Millar in today’s Age provides a more contemporary example: Millar reports on the support of several major developers for a proposal for a new “inclusionary zone” in the inner city, which would require developers to provide affordable rental housing to be managed by a community housing association.

Notable (from my perspective, at least) is the way the article draws attention to the bottom-line focus on the developers’ need for predictability, and the ways in which additional costs can be accommodated, as long as they can be forecasted. The article notes developer concern with social polarisation, and includes a few quotes from developers on the need for regulation to be implemented with sufficient clarity to enable forward planning (Rod Fehring from Lend Lease Communities, for example, proclaimed that he was “keen” to incorporate affordable housing “As long as it’s clear what the objective is, then we can cope with it”).

Developer support for the proposal is, of course, both mixed, and qualified – the article alludes several times to the ways in which developers are pushing the government for various concessions in exchange for the provision of affordable housing. Developers, however, will be cooling their heels on the issue for the time being, as the Victorian government apparently regards the issue as too volatile for the election period, and has cancelled a meeting intended to discuss how the proposal could be implemented.

Arrested Development

So I’m in the process of trying to organise the material I’ve collected thus far, with the goal of focussing my remaining empirical research to fill in gaps in arguments I actually plan to make in writings related to my research grant (as opposed to my standard mode of operation, which is randomly to pursue whatever interesting material happens across my path when I’m in the field…). I particularly need to make some targeted decisions about what to do with some interesting tangents that have come up during interviews and observations that were primarily designed to capture other things: which tangential material should I leave to one side? Which material should I try to make more robust through some more rigorous research targeted to the tangent? Which topics should be addressed on a theoretical level via secondary materials, with perhaps the occasional illustrative use of field material for… local colour? Read more of this post

The Ruins of Progress

Ruins of one of the demolished Cabrini Green housing project highrises in Chicago.“A Klee painting named ‘Angelus Novus’ shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.” (from Benjamin’s “On the Concept of History”)

For a change, I thought I might actually write something on planning…

The always-amazing BLDGBLOG has an article up on the demolition of the Cabrini Green housing project in Chicago. I’ve mentioned in other contexts that ruins feature somewhat prominently in my memories of Chicago. In a past life, I did some work in and around the Cabrini Green development, so I also have memories of the residents beginning to mobilise as they realised that the housing estate’s proximity to high-value land in Chicago’s North Shore would lead to pressures to displace their community. The BLDGBLOG story prompted me to backtrack through the recent history of the development, with which I had lost touch in the intervening years.

One of the things I always found most striking about the administration of public housing in the US was the way in which the system seemed structurally geared to penalise intact families. To obtain access to public housing, families were often in the position of either hiding the ongoing family involvement of a male partner – or, alternatively, of electing divorce and separation in order to secure stable housing for the mother and children. I notice that similar choices are still being made by families caught up in the Cabrini redevelopment. To qualify for residence in the mixed-income North Town Village development that would be built on some of the housing estate land, Cabrini residents had to pass drug and criminal background tests and agree to complete a “good neighbour” seminar program designed to help them “fit in” in a community they’ll share with much wealthier neighbours. For some families, these requirements have entailed a choice between keeping the family together (and having to choose housing options outside their long-term local community), or excising family members who can’t make the cut. As Vicki Mabrev reports:

Sheri Wade was desperate for a safer community. A run of bad luck landed her at Cabrini-Green eight years ago. And for her two youngest children – Travis, 12, and Jamilla, 9 – the projects have been a prison. In fact, Wade says, she had to keep them indoors in order to keep them safe.

Sargent and Wade both made it to the next stage of the application process, which included attending a meeting with some of the buyers.

Wade seemed a shoo-in, but her application hit a snag. Her on-again off-again husband wouldn’t pass the drug test, and she knew it.

So she found herself in a difficult position: her husband on one hand, a brand-new home on the other, and Howell in the middle. Wade made a wrenching choice. She and her children would leave her husband behind.

“I couldn’t keep having it happen to the whole family,” says Wade. “It wasn’t just affecting him. It affected the whole house.” From Vicki Mabrev (2003) “Tearing Down Cabrini Green”, CBS News, 23 July

The other thing that struck me, from my admittedly very brief look at the Chicago Housing Authority plans for the redevelopment, is the rather narrow and technocratic understanding of “sustaining viable communities”. In my current work, I often express some scepticism about the tacit (and sometimes not-so-tacit) romantic notion of “community” that underlies some community development projects. Reading the CHA document, I found myself reacting even more strongly to the singular focus on physical asset management and top-heavy managerialism, in what is apparently the section of the CHA plan most directly relevant to community building. I’ve been reminded that it is, in fact, possible for something to be too… non-romantic for my taste.

The redevelopment plans for the Cabrini Green site can be found online at the Chicago Housing Authority website.

Some of the backhistory for the redevelopment is provided in articles assembled at the Chicago Tribune, while the Cabrini Green article at Wikipedia, though a bit rough, has a nice list of further resources on the estate and the redevelopment process.

Readers interested in some of the more complex dimensions of Chicago’s public housing history, including particularly the complex intersection of racial segregation and public housing policy, might be interested in the background material on the Gautreaux case – a case that also occupies an interesting place in the sociological literature, for its role in making possible a “natural” sociological experiment into whether dispersing poor households into mixed neighbourhoods would itself have a positive impact on poverty.

Excuses, Excuses

It occurs to me occasionally that a random reader of this blog could easily be excused for not being aware that I’m supposed to be doing a dissertation on urban planning… This insight has also occasionally occurred to my supervisors… My normal excuse for not blogging more on planning issues specifically is that I don’t believe it’s appropriate to write in a rapid-fire draft form on the somewhat sensitive issues I’m observing in the community where I’m conducting my research. Then I read something like Russell Degnan’s Knotted Paths, which reminds me that, of course, there’s more to the field than what I’m intending to cover in my dissertation – like, for example, Russell’s recent comment on the media coverage of “obesogenic” environments

Now I’ll have to think up another excuse for why I don’t write more about planning here… ;-P

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