You patiently wait for the convention center elevator when an conference attendee joins you.
He notices your name tag and asks, “Are you here for a conference too?”
The elevator opens and you both enter and punch in your floor destinations as you answer, “I am. I’m here for the New Urbanism conference.”
“Hmm, what’s that,” he asks.
Herein lies the weakness of New Urbanism. How do we, as planners, explain this academic-sounding movement to someone without any prior knowledge from the time the elevator door closes until it opens just a minute or two later?
Fellow planners immediately understand the movement’s buzzwords and can visualize its intentions. The Congress for the New Urbanism states that its goal is ”promoting walkable, mixed-use neighborhood development, sustainable communities and healthier living conditions.”
Planners have the requise conceptual framework for this mission statement, but does it work for that guy on the elevator? Probably not.
However, if you were to say you were attending an economic development conference, he would understand what you do without further explanation. He may respond, “Oh, I have a friend who actually works in my hometown’s economic development office.”
Economic development, a field just as vague as city planning, sets off a flurry of mental connections. Economic development is mentioned on the news and by politicians and can mean something different to different people. Most importantly, it means something to that guy on the elevator. He can now engage with you since you have brought him close enough to your mental level.
New Urbanism and especially city planning lack that convenience of immediately reaching that “oh” moment — not to be confused with the “oh, okay” dismissive moment. But, New Urbanism and city planning can mean something to anyone as well.
When someone asks me what city planning is, I never open by launching into some spiel loaded with an explanation of land use regulations and the importance of comprehensive planning. I first ask where they are from and what they do so I can tailor my answer to their frame of knowledge.
If someone is from a rural area, I begin by activating their experience with residential development taking over farmland and how planners seek to avoid that trend. If someone works in medicine, I explain how we serve as the general practitioner who diagnoses cities before handling smaller matters on our own (building permits, zoning hearings, etc.), recommending it see a specialist (an engineer for instance), or calling for large-scale surgery by identifying an area for redevelopment.
Unfortunately, an elevator ride does not afford us this amount of time, and that’s why the New Urbanism pitch has to be universally applicable.
“Hmm, what’s that?”
And you answer, “Imagine a city or suburb made up of connected neighborhoods of all ages and income levels that live within a short walk or transit ride from their job or school, their social activities and their home. That’s what we design and promote.”
This response is not weighed down by any planning jargon such as “mixed-use” or “public realm,” yet touches on the importance of neighborhoods, diversity and human-scale planning. In addition, it activates the visualization process.
Hopefully, your elevator compadre will respond affirmatively, “Oh, well that makes sense” or “Oh, I’d like to see that happen.” You have him from that moment. City planning is an interesting field and New Urbanism is an interesting concept if introduced properly.
The Congress of the New Urbanism, though, has dragged its feet on developing an elevator pitch and still needs a slogan or rallying cry that imprints a clear, supporting visual.
The CNU Strategic Plan 2012-2017 neither identifies nor corrects this need. Goal 2 of the plan directs the CNU “to develop an effective communications infrastructure, networking methods and organizational alliances” and to “engage leaders in other disciplines.”
If the CNU only wants to win over city planners, urban designers, city officials, and employees in related industries, then its strategy may suffice. However, if the CNU ever wishes to go mainstream — a place city planning has rarely ventured into — it must craft a messaging strategy for the individuals who can help push for the implementation of its design methods and take advantage of its benefits.
Mark Kelly of Weld penned an interesting piece on the legacy of Birmingham’s Mayor William Bell. Kelly asks if Bell will ever stand up against ALDOT’s plans to upgrade Interstate 20/59, which slices through downtown Birmingham and cuts off the Birmingham–Jefferson Convention Complex (BJCC) from the city center. So far, ALDOT has essentially refused to merit other ideas for the interstate’s downtown segment, such as submerging it or adjusting the route outside Birmingham’s urban core.
In addition to aesthetic issues caused by the interstate, Nathaniel Baum-Snow, an economist at Brown University, has found that urban highways cause central city populations to fall by about 18 percent. Let’s not forget the Birmingham’s Entertainment District is under construction just next to the BJCC, and its benefits would not spread to the rest of downtown if I-20/59 continues to act as a barrier.
Why should Mayor Bell even be scared to speak out against ALDOT? Sure, the department could hold back funding, but would they really? Birmingham is the largest city in Alabama, so it’s safe to assume that Mayor Bell has all the leverage that he needs.
For this issue and other development and planning issues, I find it hard to believe that the city’s planning director is never anywhere to be found. He is rarely quoted in news stories and rarely publicized at public meetings. Planners are expected to be behind-the-scenes officials, but every competent planner recognizes the national trend of taking down downtown interstates.
Most major cities have strong private groups that provide support for progressive mayors. However, Birmingham has private groups that have to drag its mayor and public officials to fight for something. We got our park in Railroad Park, and we got our stadium in Regions Field. Now Mayor Bell and company have to battle one of the few state legislatures that that provides no funding for mass transit – despite the fact that the majority of the state lives in urban areas — and ALDOT, which has historically supported suburban areas at the expense of urban areas.
If Mayor Bell wants Birmingham to reach its full potential, he must fight against the state’s policy and funding biases that favor rural and suburban areas (even though supporting suburban growth inherently harms rural areas). Mayor Bell would even drum up some respect from non-city dwellers, because even suburbanites don’t think too highly of the state’s governor and legislature.
Local governments serve their communities at the most direct level, and when states attempt to withhold the powers of cities and counties, local representation becomes diluted and its effectiveness suffers. Amasa Eaton writes, “No country can live that destroys local government.” Unfortunately, states throughout the United States have followed such a course – empowering their state legislatures to handle local matters at the expense of community officials and their constituents. Although claims about the historical backing for state authority over local governments remains up for debate, the legal and judicial precedent from the United States Constitution and subsequent US Supreme Court cases certainly weighs in favor of state governments.
One state in particular, Alabama, has limited the powers of its county governments since before the 20th century to detrimental consequences. The state legislature has essentially usurped all county powers, which has left a large portion of the state at the will of representatives that it did not elect. To provide context for Alabama’s treatment of county home rule, this paper begins by outlining the history and theory behind home rule in the United States. The three major doctrines that influence the home rule debate are also explained and examined for insight into the various opinions that have been at the forefront of the home rule debate since the 19th century. The paper concludes with the history and implications of Alabama’s limited home rule for its county governments. Read more…
George Leighton of Harper’s Magazine described Birmingham in 1937 as “The City of Perpetual Promise.” Leighton saw what the city’s founders had first recognized in the mid-nineteenth century: a city blessed with unparalleled natural resources in the center of the Southeastern United States poised to become an industrial powerhouse. However, Birmingham’s long history of misfortune and mistakes has kept it from living up to Leighton’s inauspicious nickname. The city, to be named after an industrial center in England, wrongly took the name of a manufacturing town. The city’s icon was chosen as the Roman god of the forge, but Vulcan is also known as the special patron of scorned lovers. After weathering the Great Depression and subsequent troubling periods, historians coined the adage that “hard times comes to Birmingham first and stay longest.”
The Birmingham region has certainly suffered many external problems and initial misguidance, but its sprawling development patterns and lack of effective growth management over the past few decades have exacerbated its deficiencies and created a dire need for reaction. The city’s history and context, growth management challenges, and its growth management efforts explain the state of Birmingham. This report concludes with policy recommendations that can lay the framework for a regional growth management strategy.
History and Context
The Birmingham-Hoover metropolitan region is the largest metropolitan area in Alabama. Anchored and driven by Birmingham – the state’s largest city – the metropolitan region spans seven counties throughout the Central Alabama region. The region ranks as the 50th largest metropolitan area in the United States with a population of 1,132,264, according to the 2011 Census.
The city of Birmingham reached its peak population of 326,037in 1950. At that time, Birmingham nearly rivaled Atlanta’s population of 331,314, but a coupled political decision and social movement altered the city’s course of history and dictated its future development. Historical accounts conflict on the specifics of Birmingham’s reluctance to accommodate Delta Airlines’ southern hub in the 1950s, but it’s clear that the city’s political leadership failed to attract one of the industries that would turn Atlanta into one of the most populous regions in the country.  Birmingham’s role as a prominent scene for the Civil Rights Movement blemished its public perception and intensified its “white flight” suburbanization and socioeconomic segregation. These two events were turning points in the region’s history, and the metropolitan area has still not yet fully recovered.
The Birmingham-Hoover metropolitan region has experienced modest growth during the past two decades. The area grew from about 957,000 in 1990 to 1.05 million in 2000 to 1.1 million in 2010, according to Census data. This growth calculates to an average annual population increase of 0.85%. Without much expected growth, the region is left to focus on enhancing the quality of life for current residents and becoming more sustainable environmentally and financially.
The federal government has issued a “silent but deadly” decree on hybrid vehicles. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has proposed regulations that force hybrid vehicles to emit a minimum level of sound while traveling under 18 miles per hour.
This proposal has been kicked around for several years and some hybrid manufactures have already voluntarily complied, but that doesn’t lessen the proposed regulation’s regressive nature.
The head of the NHTSA, a branch of the U.S. Department of Transportation with no stated purpose to protect pedestrians, vows that this proposal is in the best interest of pedestrians.
“With more and more quiet vehicles on the road, we have to consider their effect on pedestrians,” NHTSA Administrator David Strickland said in a 2011 statement reported by the USA today.
Fine, then maybe you should consider the improved urban experience for pedestrians who enjoy the diminished bustle of automobiles streaming by or the improved suburban experience that isn’t interrupted with a loud, passing vehicle.
The NHTSA, instead, is worried particularly about the blind and cyclists — on faulty data nonetheless. Even then, a vehicle traveling slower than 18 miles per hour should not cause a pedestrian fatality and the driver should have ample ability to prevent any possible collision. Parking lots and garages and other enclosed locations flush with blind spots are a legitimate concern, but enough to demand federal regulation?
According to the NHTSA itself, more than 4,000 pedestrian deaths have occurred annually since 1995. Yet, the Department of Transportation has set its sights on the alleged silent killer hybrids. If, as Strickland predicts, more quiet vehicles do make their way on the streets in coming years, pedestrians will surely adapt as they did once before to the introduction of cars in the first place. I don’t see the need to rush into this hypothesized problem.
This proposed regulation would set a flawed precedent that equates increased vehicle sound to improved pedestrian safety. Larger sidewalks, narrower roads, buffered bike lanes, shorter blocks and other traffic calming techniques are proven to protect pedestrians, but the NHTSA can only view the world through the lens of a vehicle windshield.
The proposal to force hybrid vehicles to emit a minimum sound at low speeds seems more like a needless assault on hybrid vehicles rather than a step towards better protection of pedestrians.
Originally published by The Daily Pennsylvanian
Two men ruthlessly branded their names on the American landscape between 1924 and 1998, yet they have no spiritual successor that can harness such power.
New York master public works builder Robert Moses and Hall of Fame basketball star Michael Jordan aren’t mentioned in the same breath very often, but their similar histories and impacts demonstrate our country’s need and undeniable arousal for remorseless individuals.
Both men lived with a chip on their shoulders from an early age. As a high school sophomore, Jordan didn’t make his varsity team, and Moses was forced off Yale’s swim team after daring to challenge legendary athletic director Walter Camp’s funding policy for minor sports.
They also ran into trouble early in their professional careers: Moses’ fight for meritocracy in New York government was soundly defeated and Jordan couldn’t shake off the Boston Celtics or the Detroit Pistons.
“Air Jordan” and “The Power Broker” certainly drew from influential predecessors that laid the groundwork for their pioneering. In the early 1900s, Daniel Burnham and Le Corbusier led the charge for designing cities that were beautiful on a grand scale. Moses would run wild with this idea and had the means to do so with his countless public positions.
In a similar vein, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson primed the NBA as a superstar league during the 1980s. Jordan followed up by taking the league to unimaginable heights and becoming an international icon.
The achievements of the two men may never be matched. Collectively, they amassed two streaks of back-to-back-to-back NBA championships, 416 miles of parkway, five Most Valuable Player awards, 13 bridges, 13 All-Star games, and 27,000 acres of parks. They also helped build the behemoths of Nike and New York’s countless publish authorities.
How were these men so successful? Well, it sure wasn’t because they read “How to Win Friends & Influence People.” Moses and Jordan refused to step down to anyone about anything.
During Jordan’s rookie year, teammate David Corzine was the Bull’s best Pac-Man player – so Jordan bought a machine and played at his house until he dethroned Corzine. Moses, on the other hand, kept a dirt file for everyone he crossed paths with and had no qualms about pulling it out when necessary.
They surrounded themselves with “yes men.” Both scoffed at the idea of failure before embarrassing themselves respectively in a run for governor and a stint in minor-league baseball. Neither respected authority figures. Moses referred to only one of the seven governors he served under as “governor,” and Jordan nicknamed the Bull’s general manager “Crumbs.” Finally, they didn’t know how or when to retire – Moses worked until his mid-70s; Jordan might still be considering another return.
These two men were addicted to success and had egos that filled rooms. But, their accomplishments and supreme more than made up for their tough exteriors. Moses is considered the greatest public works builder in American history and Jordan the best basketball player of all time without question.
Even when considering the ill side effects they caused, it’s difficult to disparage Moses and Jordan. Moses’ public works displaced thousands and didn’t have adequate capacity, but New York could have never built much of its infrastructure without him. Jordan’s guard play led to a glut of immature imitators in the early 2000s, but the NBA needed him as its successive superstar.
Our generation doesn’t have someone to pick up the mantle that Moses and Jordan carried. We yearn for a leader to combat the national political stranglehold and secretly wish for a dominant sports figure (word to LeBron James). However, no one with the moxi necessary has proven he or she can replicate the individualistic forces that Moses and Jordan were.
Perhaps we have simply built too many defenses for ruthlessly effective individuals to operate in our current environment. Either way, it’s our loss.
Originally published by The Daily Pennsylvanian
Picture this: a cute girl you’ve been checking out from afar is in range. She’s right across the room, anxiously holding her glass, hoping someone talks to her before it becomes obvious she’s unoccupied. This is your chance.
You walk up to her and after the customary name exchange and “where are you from?”–type questions, there’s a brief pause. What’s your next course of action?
Well, there’s the data approach: “Based on my calculations, we are 75 percent compatible. How about dinner Friday night?” Then there’s the metaphor approach: “Good thing I’m a firefighter, because you are smoking.”
But there’s also the personal narrative approach. You craft a story based on personal experiences you think she’ll be able to relate to and trust. Deep, I know.
Maybe it’s not a girl you are trying to charm — perhaps it’s a guy, a job interviewer or the American electorate.
All date requesters, interviewees and politicians look the same until they distinguish themselves from the pack — and facts or one-liners can’t work that magic.
When Vanity Fair’s Michael Lewis asked President Obama how he would prepare someone to be president, he said, “I would say that your first and principal task is to think about the hopes and dreams the American people invested in you.”
During the 2008 election, Obama separated himself from other candidates with an enduring personal narrative that supporters could relate to and trust.
We lack that luxury in this year’s election. Instead, both sides are content with tossing around manipulated data and language to frame the election’s perception to their advantage. This strategy is overly concerned with winning voters rather than engaging and enlisting their support.
A bevy of actors have fueled this age-old political condition. There are political scientists who vouch that campaigns aren’t statistically important, economists who can’t fathom why individuals would support something other than their best interest and linguists who treat language as a weapon to rewire the brain politically.
While injecting more human stories into the ugly political affair won’t elevate the discourse, it will bring an extra layer of accountability and engagement into a campaign. After all, I’d rather vote for someone that I trust as a person than someone I only trust to support my political beliefs.
The introspection and passion required to conjure a personal narrative means that it is difficult to execute and can be politically costly. As a result, candidates that run with a personal narrative usually have a high level of commitment to their cause.
When supporters can get behind a candidate’s personal narrative, it removes the unhealthy reliance on political parties and ideologies.
Of course, there are problems and weaknesses with politicians crafting a personal narrative out of mushy emotions and heartfelt stories. For one, narratives can be exaggerated for effect and used for the wrong reasons.
More importantly, they create an alarming level of exposure and responsibility for a candidate.
To even craft an effective personal narrative, a candidate must reveal their true selves, which opens him or her to personal attacks and unexpected responses. Then, if elected, the candidate is already burdened with the added weight of upholding his or her campaign narrative.
A personal narrative shouldn’t replace facts or issues that frame a campaign, though. It should weave the various strands of a candidate’s platform together with a personal story. Today’s advanced telecommunication allows for this strategy too, since we can easily disseminate personal stories over a variety of platforms.
So let’s get back to that cute girl across the room. How are you going to win her trust and get her to agree to a dinner date on Friday night? The “be yourself” advice isn’t half-bad, but amp that up to “reveal yourself” and you’d better pick out a nice restaurant. Heck, she may even end up voting for you.