Teaching Urban Planning in a Not-Yet-Post-Pandemic World

A few days ago Mike Dobbins published a collection of preemptive thoughts about the changes Covid-19 might force on urban planning thinking, and when I saw his essay, I perked up immediately. This is partly because I know Mike Dobbins. He teaches urban design at the School for City and Regional Planning at Georgia Tech, where I got my PhD in 2018, and if we were to pass each other in a hypothetical hallway somewhere, each of us would want to know what the other had been up to lately. But we haven’t actually had a chance to talk at length since a long-ago end-of-year school banquet when we spent a very enjoyable hour arguing about French economic policies. So a dose of Mike’s voice was welcome, especially in our current state of hallwaylessness.

The other reason why I was so happy to read Mike’s thoughts was that we’re in the same boat. Mike started writing to answer his own question, “Where should I begin with my students this fall?” Meanwhile I’m teaching CP 4020, Introduction to Urban and Regional Planning, starting in mid-May. I taught the course last year, but you can see from my syllabus that I didn’t talk about disasters at all and barely mentioned public health. So clearly I’m going to have to do something different. And reading Mike’s thoughts prompted me to stop my comfortingly self-pitying spiral of I -don’t -know-argh! and put down some actual thoughts of my own.

What follows consists of three parts. In the first part, I address two broad, important guiding principles that Mike emphasizes in his piece. In the second, I suggest a few specific areas where the pandemic and its consequences require a new planning response. And finally, I want to bring up my own bigger question of how we think about planning and policy in the long run, even after we’ve collectively wrestled Covid-19 into submission.

Democracy and Planning

With democracy, I believe. Democracy based on the tenet that all people and their lives should be valued equally, the “promissory note” as Martin Luther King, Jr. put it, from the Declaration of Independence.

I think he’s right, and I’ll talk more about why later. But there’s a challenge he’s setting up for himself, and maybe more for the rest of us trying to teach planning: that planning itself, however it may labor to bestow value on people who deserve to feel more valued than they do, can be tricky to reconcile with democracy. Planning as an ideal may be deeply democratic; planning as a process runs into all sorts of conflicts with democracy — how do we value people when their spatial visions and values conflict with each other’s, and our own?

Reading Anthony Flint’s Wrestling With Moses, in hopes of making my students read some of it, reminded me of this challenge. The first chapter describes Jane Jacobs skilfully disrupting a public meeting about the proposed Lower Manhattan Expressway, and ends with a picture of Robert Moses fuming at his desk: “It was preposterous, he thought. Some busy housewife thought she was better equipped to plan a roadway network for New York that he knew would last for a century.”

It’s a punch line, of course. But the punch line isn’t that a “busy housewife” brought down one of the most powerful men in New York City, though that’s how it looks at first glance. It’s that Robert Moses, in his smugness, thought “busy housewife” when he looked at the author of one of the most influential books of the twentieth century. Jacobs was better equipped, as far as lower Manhattan was concerned. Her triumph says more about her extraordinariness than it does about the planning process’s ability to be re-directed by housewives.

A housewife did start the campaign against the destruction of Washington Square Park, the first battle Jacobs joined against Moses. Her name was Shirley Zak Haynes; she was a neighbor of Jacobs’s and a mother of four. From Flint’s description she seems to have been a very smart woman, with PR savvy and the tenacity to hold onto her vision of the park. But she didn’t have Jacobs’s autodidactic architectural training, or holistic vision of the city, or skill in articulating that vision, and so Jacobs is the closest thing American urban planning has to a saint and Haynes is at present unknown to search engines.

But would we, as planners, want it any other way? If we put a development on the table, and the modern equivalent of a Shirley Zak Haynes comes to the public hearing, saying, “I love this park and my children love this park and I won’t stand for even a square foot of it to be changed,” is she a wise bulwark against destruction, or an example of the kind of petty self-satisfied privilege-hoarding that inspires a lot of planners today to want to take up arms on behalf of the less fortunate? What makes Jacobs the hero of her story wasn’t her humble status but her thoughtfulness. But the vast majority of people we plan for don’t have the time or incentives to develop such thoughtfulness, or to present it so cleanly if they have it. (Mike refers to this, I think, indirectly, with his mentions of “fake news”; but of course the problem with “fake news” is not the news itself but the people who believe it’s real.) So how do we, as planners, emphasize democracy in our work if democracy carries with it a risk that our work will be hijacked by the unthoughtful?

The other, related, point of Mike’s I wanted to highlight was his question, “Will planners for the post Covid-19 world put purpose and meaning back into the forefront of their work?” The obvious objection is that purpose and meaning are excellent asphalt with which to pave the road to hell. Robert Moses had purpose and meaning. Flat-earthers have purpose and meaning. “Three generations of imbeciles are enough” is a statement ringing with purpose and meaning.

And yet the counter-argument is equally obvious. The truly humble planner, aware that their education is riddled with anachronisms and unexamined systemic biases, seeks refuge in the very technocratic approach whose drawbacks prompted Mike to pose the question in the first place; or allows someone else full of passionate intensity to take control of the project; or hesitates — and in a field where pretty much all problems worth thinking about are wicked, to hesitate is often to act poorly. Cities don’t stop for contemplation; they keep changing and growing, so that a proposed change becomes costlier and more disruptive. So planners have to keep planning, while staying humble, but not so humble as to risk self-erasure; and planners have to talk with (rather than to) their constituents, all the while keeping in mind that said constituents are potentially full of unacknowledged wisdom and also potentially self-servingly blind.

This challenge is much older than the pandemic, but the pandemic has made it all the more acute. We have spent the last two months adding rapidly to our collective store of known unknowns: what is the most efficient way to transmit the coronavirus? Why does it cause some people to deteriorate rapidly and others to carry on asymptomatically? How many people are asymptomatic anyway? Et cetera. We’ve also been adding rapidly to our collective store of case studies of officials charged with protecting the public on the basis of incomplete information, being swayed by their own personal purposes: Trump, obviously, and Brian Kemp carrying water for Trump (and/or just being wilfully ignorant), but also Bill de Blasio hesitating to close New York City schools in part out of fear of making a bad situation worse for the poorest students. And we have all been charged with making those decisions, on a smaller scale, ourselves: go to the grocery store or have the groceries delivered? Buy an extra six-pack of toilet paper or leave it? Go to the park or risk contributing to a crowd? Buy coffee for a good cause or make it at home because who knows how bad the unemployment numbers will get before this is all over? I’m more confident than I am of a lot of things that when COVID-19 has run its course, whenever that happens, both planners and the people they serve will be emerging into a world where knowledge is less trustworthy (our own, and other people’s), resources are scarcer, stakes are higher, missteps are costlier, and everything seems more fragile and fraught.

What This All Means for Planning: A Sample

  • The scale and tools of economic development. How do we help the small businesses which have been devastated by the lockdown? The issue of scale seems most important to me here: media discussions have focused relentlessly on the federal response, but that response is slow and clumsy, and even if Trump were the kind of person who could recognize the value of a Buford Highway, he wouldn’t be able to focus on it long enough to provide it with appropriately customized aid. What tools do those who do care about, and know, Buford Highway — people such as Conor Sen and Marian Liou; organizations such as We Love BuHi, the Latin American Association, and CPACS; cities such as Chamblee, Doraville, and Brookhaven — have available?
  • Relatedly: the destruction of tourist, leisure, and artistic activities. All the attractions Richard Florida originally emphasized in his writing about the “creative class,” from coffee shops to art galleries to performance spaces to clubs to theaters to universities — the reasons for people to “go into the city,” the very things that, in the popular imagination, gives a city its very city-ness — have been severely damaged, at minimum. There will undoubtedly be artists, designers, actors, and chefs who won’t be able to afford to come back, and a lot of tacit knowledge and potential collaborations lost with them. What should planners’ role be in mitigating that damage?
  • The spatial logic of aging. On the one hand, we still don’t know how much of a role intra-family transmission plays in the spread of Covid-19 (I know it’s been blamed on and off for the horrifying spread in northern Italy) and experts may be advising senior citizens to keep themselves generally distant, even from loved ones,for quite a while to come. On the other hand, the reputation of nursing homes may never recover from what happened at the Life Care Center of Kirkland, and even in a terrible economy people will not be clamoring to work at such places, given that the work was generally underpaid, thankless, and physically wearing before it involved risk of exposure to a deadly virus. How do our settlement patterns need to change if we’re going to honor seniors’ desires for family, community, and dignity while keeping them safe?
  • Within Mike’s list of transportation variables I would emphasize air pollution, a public-health risk that apparently is worse than the American public generally recognizes, and may make a respiratory disease like Covid-19 more deadly. For planners looking to advance transportation systems that put much less emphasis on personal car use, it may be more useful to focus on the immediate health damage of air pollution than the longer-term, harder-to-predict damage of climate change.
  • Surely resilience and redundancy in supply chains will need attention. To some degree economies may become more local or regional, but cities will still be dependent on trucks, ships, and planes able to deliver freight — food in particular. Both the logistics specialists and the researchers already working on urban agriculture and food deserts will have a lot to contribute here.
  • Density’s new PR problem. Planners were just starting to poke holes in the general simplistic Single-Family Zoning Good, Multi-Family Zoning Bad assumption, and Covid-19 may set those pro-density efforts back considerably. It won’t help that the worst and most publicized outbreak has been in the city best known nationwide for packed subway trains and for density in general. We can point out that Boston and Chicago have had far smaller outbreaks, or that Singapore and Seoul are even denser; we can emphasize Todd Litman’s useful distinction between density and “crowding.” But any existing tendency to want to zone other people away is in danger of strengthening.
  • Primary schools as community centers and sources of services. Richard Layman has previously written quite a bit about schools as loci of community activity, but I suspect a lot of people outside education and social work hadn’t really recognized how schools provide free meals and other services until those schools had to shut down. (See also the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s series of articles on Harper-Archer High School.) These are separate social goods from the social good of meeting each student’s unique educational needs — and in fact, if voucher programs or other inititatives make non-community schools available, then the two sets of goals may end up in opposition, as Layman has noted. My impression is that generally in the United States, with the exception of Layman and a few others, or some very specialized subjects (i.e., Safe Routes to School), planners don’t talk much about primary or secondary schools. But the pandemic has illustrated that we may have underrated the role of schools in community development.
  • Finally, one real problem we’re going to have to confront is the deinternationalization of planning knowledge exchange. As Alon Levy has written, American policy-makers are historically terrible at learning from non-American examples. Planning academia is slightly better about this, and I know Georgia Tech’s been sending its MCRP students on studios abroad as often as possible. But that’s not feasible for the immediate future; neither will be learning from planning students who come to the United States from abroad. In my class last year I had the benefit of students who could talk about the layouts and transit systems in Toronto, Shanghai, Monterrey, and multiple cities in India; it’s possible I’ll get as lucky again this year but I’m pessimistic. The pandemic is going to exacerbate any tendency towards parochialism we already have.

Planners and the Potential Devil’s Bargain

Here’s what I mean. Since Trump’s election there’s been an increasing (and contested) movement under the Republican tent towards a set of policies that center around nationalism, social conservatism, and a stronger state, including with regards to economics — in order words, against “capitalism” and “big business” in the sense of a multinational system with few barriers to movement of capital. On occasion this line of thinking is intensely local, such as Rod Dreher’s Benedict option, but more often it calls for increased power and coordination at the national level. See, for example, this essay in The American Interest, which combines heaping doses of Sinophobia (the author would not have regarded my Shanghai-based student nearly as gratefully as I did) with calls for renewed infrastructure investment, an end to the practice of saddling college students with loans, and protection of American labor. Boris Johnson’s combination of increased support for the NHS with Brexit and more stringent immigration rules — a healthier British state, for Britons only — is a variation of this line of thought.

I don’t think this line of thinking will go away even if Trump loses the election in November. Arguably, Trump’s muddled, Trump-first approach to policy has hurt this group more than he’s helped it, but he’s given it a start, to be advanced by someone smarter and less egocentric down the line — a Josh Hawley or a Nikki Haley, perhaps. So a post-Trump American political landscape might have, in addition to a capitalist-to-varying-degrees center encompassing everyone from Joe Biden to George Mason University’s economics department, more visible and more passionate anti-capitalist movements on both the left and the right.

This opens up the possibility of alliances that didn’t exist before. The other day Streetsblog’s daily email linked me to an essay on the correlation between Covid-19 mitigation resistance and climate change denialism, that concluded, “All these challenges require a collective, unified solution,” and while reading it I imagined Adrian Vermeule nodding along: “Yes, see, that’s what I’m talking about! We need principles that promote the common good and make for a just and well-ordered society!” Which principles exactly could be negotiated. We can imagine, for example, a Green New Deal with the language about indigenous communities and communities of color stripped out, signed onto in exchange for an end of all talk of open borders.

I wouldn’t strike that bargain; I think it’s nightmarish. I’m certain Mike wouldn’t either, nor Jane Jacobs, for that matter. But how many planners would? We’re supposed to be spatially focused, after all. We’re supposed to prioritize the residents of our communities, not the residents of communities thousands of miles away.

This question becomes all the more pressing once you throw climate change into the mix. It may well be harder, especially after this period of enforced deprivation, to convince people to modify their behavior to meet the more abstract threats from climate change. (Heck, two Georgia State researchers found they couldn’t get Floridian homeowners to openly change their minds on climate-change threats even after seeing maps that put their own properties underwater.) This is why I keep circling back to Mike’s point about democracy. If the way to prevent climate change is to reduce collective emissions by sharply reducing fossil-fuel use, and Americans emerge from the pandemic even more inclined to self-isolate in their cars and their refrigerator-and-air-conditioning-equipped stand-alone houses, how costly does democracy look? How long do advocates of transit and density let Americans fiddle while the planet burns? At what point do we lose patience and start ordering them to do the right thing?

Again, these tensions aren’t new to the pandemic. (And my preoccupation with them may just be my confirming my priors.) But the pandemic has increased the level of uncertainty both for the planners and for the people they’re trying to serve. The challenge with uncertainty, always, is how to face it and acknowledge it and work with it, instead of being pursued by it into distrust and frustration. And now that’s harder.

Which is why I think Mike is, in the end, right to start with democracy, and with the task of treating people as an end in themselves — to put those principles first, and thereby greatly reduce the risk of casting them aside in the name of greater efficiency. I’m taking his essay as a challenge: to design a course that’s informative but clear about its limits, and respectful of the students taking it.

Writer; urban planning researcher and teacher; pop music critic; mother and household manager. http://www.jessicadoyle.space

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