Planning January 2013

Planners Library

By Harold Henderson

Can these places be governed?

Five scholars — Paul Kantor (Fordham), Christian Lefevre (University of Paris), Asato Saito (independent), H. V. Savitch (Louisville), and Andy Thornley (London School of Economics) — compare and contrast four leading world cities in Struggling Giants: City-Region Governance in London, New York, Paris, and Tokyo (2012; University of Minnesota Press; 332 pp.; $90 cloth, $30 paper). From the top, these "global city regions" appear to be in charge of their fate. From the bottom, not so much. Can they then undertake collective action to address common problems? "It may be," the authors write, "that GCRs are mostly pushed along in similar ways by forces of the international marketplace, in effect, marginalizing whatever local governments try to do."

Each of the four cities gets two chapters of description and discussion of their past 30 years at the head of the world table. The authors manage to avoid the blandness that sometimes afflicts collaborations. For instance, they deal briefly and briskly with two long-standing dogmas: one, that competition among decentralized governments will lead to good results, and two, that regional government will evolve out of interdependence because it seems so rational.

The authors find that all four GCRs can be governed — sort of — mainly by muddling through each new challenge. But this "pragmatic adjustment" or "managed pluralism" cannot always cope, because it "rewards short-term policy making while discouraging long-term planning. ... The result is that some issues, such as climate change, social polarization, and quality of life, fall into policy voids." New York City has successfully led its region in watershed protection. But as the metropolis becomes increasingly polarized, other collaborations become more difficult. "In the long run, regional economic competitiveness is unlikely to be sustained if social divisions continue to grow." In other words, the GCRs' economic success may yet breed their destruction.


Promoting sustainable food

Editors Andre Viljoen (University of Brighton) and Johannes S.C. Wiskerke (Wageningen University) have collected 45 chapters from more than 60 contributors in Sustainable Food Planning: Evolving Theory and Practice (2012; Wageningen Academic Publishers; $141; 598 pp.). Their goal, they say, is to encourage "the many people from diverse disciplinary backgrounds who are developing ideas about sustainable food planning" to talk to each other and share ideas. The editors' own ideas are already pretty well set. They want shorter producer-to-consumer food chains, increased public involvement in procuring food, and greater participation of municipalities and city-regions in creating "urban food strategies."

These ambitious ideas are not much in evidence in the six chapters that deal with seven U.S. cities — Seattle, Portland, New York, Philadelphia, Detroit, New Orleans, and Chicago. Henry Barmeier (Oxford) and Xenia K. Morin (Princeton) compare the community gardening programs in the first four cities on this list. They find both government and citizen involvement "inconsistent over time" in these places.

Erica Giorda (Michigan State) notes that Detroit's attempt to become a modern garden city is "still in the making" (there are still some stalwarts who think the city will reindustrialize). Carolin Mees (Berlin University of Arts) and Edie Stone (New York City's GreenThumb) insist that city-sponsored community gardens have the potential to make New York City more sustainable. But in the end, they acknowledge that most government officials think community gardens are "too small in area" to make a significant contribution. Brittney Everett of New Orleans recommends that the city's markets be located in "food seams," that is locations on main thoroughfares accessible to mass transit.

Finally, Lynn Peemoeller (Food Systems Planning, Berlin) describes the development of the Chicago Metropolitan Planning Agency's 2040 food plan. She notes "the significant contribution it made to a process," but in this case the process did not even include the funding or flexibility to hold participatory meetings after normal working hours. At least these authors cannot be accused of reckless optimism.


What is good urbanism?

According to Nan Ellin of the University of Utah, there is a consensus about what makes good urbanism: "networks of quality public spaces ... lined with and punctuated by vital hubs of activity." So why are we not seeing more of it? That's the question Good Urbanism: Six Steps to Creating Prosperous Places (2012; Island Press; 164 pp.; $35) seeks to answer.

In Ellin's view, we have "buried our instinctual capacity to create habitats that support us most fully." She proposes six steps to "uncover" that capacity: prospecting ("listening to self, others, and places"), polishing, proposing, prototyping, promoting, and presenting the idea "to trustworthy partners capable of realizing the vision on an ongoing basis."

Ellin's enthusiasm and knack for phrasemaking sometimes leave specifics unaddressed, and metaphor often takes the place of argument. She opposes urban growth boundaries because they are "arbitrarily imposed" and "can act as a noose, strangling the natural growth and development of a city." Nor is she much interested in sustainability. While she describes it as "certainly an improvement over decline, better still are flourishing, thriving, and prospering." Other observers are alarmed by an increasingly polarized U.S. and world economy, but Ellin insists that "the upward spiral toward prosperity is becoming apparent at all scales." There is little mention in her book of equity as a part of urbanism.

One of her three case studies, coauthored with Jennifer J. Johnson, describes a three-sided development involving a baseball field, a transportation interchange, and the Hennepin Energy Recovery Center in Minneapolis. Part of the urbanistic convergence here, they write, involves "transforming the public perception of the facility from a 'pollution-spewing garbage burner' to a forward-thinking community amenity." The authors do not, however, acknowledge the ongoing local controversy over the development's environmental quality, leaving it unclear whether the book's catchy phrases are in the service of good urbanism or feel-good urbanism.


Celebrating an anniversary

Editors Bishwapriya Sanyal (MIT), Lawrence J. Vale (MIT), and Christina D. Rosan (Temple) observe the 75th anniversary of MIT's planning program with Planning Ideas That Matter: Livability, Territoriality, Governance, and Reflective Practice (2012; MIT Press; 422 pp.; $54 cloth, $27 paper). They bring together 14 essays under four main headings: livability, territoriality, governance, and professional reflection.

Not much can go wrong with Robert Fishman on new urbanism ("as a guide to action ... [its] work has only begun"); Timothy Beatley on sustainability (the greatest challenge "will be retrofitting existing cities"); Robert Yaro on metropolitan planning ("a bottom-up approach undertaken by civic leaders"); and June Manning Thomas, FAICP, on social justice ("we still have neither the tools nor the social will to resolve" our urban problems).

Two other contributions revisit some popular shibboleths. Neil Brenner (Harvard) and David Wachsmuth (NYU) question the idea that cities and regions "must compete with one another for economic survival by attracting transnationally mobile capital investment." The practical effect of this call for competition over the past 30 years, they write, has been to push into the background concerns for social justice and balanced urbanization.

Lynne B. Sagalyn (Columbia) blows the whistle on an even trendier concept: the promotion of public-private partnerships as an innovative and efficient way to implement large-scale initiatives. "The limited evidence on performance from detailed case studies," she writes, "consistently reveals that results have been considerably less than the theoretical and rhetorical claims." In many cases government paid the price.

Of particular concern is that the specific terms and conditions of the deals are often not made public. And, like the territorial competition fad, "PPPs are biased toward market-based investments and only secondarily, if at all, address social equity concerns." In the long run, both trends serve to disempower planners and the public alike.


Motor City as 'Mortropolis'

In Driving Detroit: The Quest for Respect in the Motor City (2012; University of Pennsylvania Press; $45; 305 pp.), George Galster of Wayne State University has penned an insightful history of Detroit from its accidental birth to its tortured present. And by Detroit he means both bitterly antagonistic but inextricably linked units: the largely black city and its largely white suburbs.

Planning as such is not a main concern of the book, although everything Galster says is relevant in various way to planning concerns, and to other cities with similar problems. Detroit's history is one of fault lines, dividing labor and capital, black and white, city and suburb. Some divisions along these lines are typical, but few cities in Galster's account have had the combination of a flat and permissive topography, an extreme state home-rule regime, and domination by a single industry. Countervailing powers wound up imitating one another, as the union came to resemble the complacent and bureaucracy-bound automakers, and black separatists sometimes echoed white segregationists.

Surprisingly, in light of the city's history, Galster claims that Detroiters are "deeply antiurban" with a penchant for rural solitude when they can find it. Does this make him partial to the latest vogue for turning emptying city blocks into urban farms? No. He can only gape at "the irrationality of trying to recreate nontoxic farmland in the metropolitan core at huge expense, while verdant farmland is being ravaged every day by developers at the fringe."

Detroit boosters aren't likely to give this book reading time or shelf room, but they should.


Healthy cities over time

Russell Lopez (Northeastern University) has written a compact and well-documented history of the intersection between planning and public health in Building American Public Health: Urban Planning, Architecture, and the Quest for Better Health in the United States (2012; Palgrave Macmillan; 254 pp.; $90). The 11 chapters cover the high spots of both disciplines, from 19th century reformers to the rise of zoning, suburbia ("a missed opportunity"), modernism, public housing, urban renewal, and the current view of urbanism and health, particularly obesity.

As a chronicle of events, the book is fine. The author presents the full cast of characters and situations, including the city's 19th century industrial pollution and the various factors (including the fear of crime) affecting cities in the last century.

Where the book is lacking is in its simplification of history. "For more than a century," Lopez writes, "most city planners, public health advocates, the public, and policy makers assumed that overcrowding and congestion were bad for cities and health" — hence building codes, new towns, highway construction, and all the rest.

The catalyst for change, in the author's view, was Jane Jacobs, who "argued that the density, congestion, and chaos of overbuilt cities should be celebrated." In fact, however, decentralization and separation of uses were good ideas in the context of the 1890s. Their very success made it possible to see value in lively urban neighborhoods in the 1950s, as Jane Jacobs did in Greenwich Village. To reduce this complicated story to a simple morality play — in which Jacobs discovered in 1961 some eternal truth that planners of 1911 could have known but simply overlooked — is unjust to the people involved and their very different historic and urban situations.


Harold Henderson is Planning's regular book reviewer. Send new books and news of forthcoming publications to him at 1355 W. Springville Road, LaPorte, IN 46350;