Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Time For A More Intersectional Approach To Planning

http://www.citylab.com; Mar. 24, 2018


Hello Everyone:

What is "real urban planning?"  This is the question that Deland Chan ponders in her CityLab article "What Counts as 'Real' City Planning?"  City planning sounds like something heroic, something very masculine and there is good reason for it.  Ms. Chan write, "In Cities of Tomorrow, textbook commonly use to teach the history of urban planning, Peter Hall espoused the contributions of Ebenezer Howard, Le Corbusier, and other heroic male figures of urbanism."  What about the women?  He told readers, There were, alas almost no founding mothers.  That statement could not be further from the truth.

The truth is that there has always been a female presence in city planning but, their contributions have evaporated in the mists of planning and architectural history.

Perhaps it is time to correct the situation.  Ms. Chan writes, "In light of recent discussion about the marginalization of women's in technology, the media, and other fields, it's time to bring attention to women in urbanism."  Thus far, the discussion has been centered on two points: "First, that there is a lack of representation and recognition (nextcity.org; Dec. 19, 2017; date accessed Apr. 3, 2018) for women's contributions to the field; and second, that male architects and planners fail to design cities (motherboard.vice.com; May, 15, 2017; date accessed Apr. 3, 2018) that account for diverse needs, including those of women."

Ms. Chan adds one more point, "we must expand the definition of what counts as 'real' planning."

As students, most planners learn that Daniel Burnham was the founding father of their profession.  However what is left out of the lecture is the role of women's clubs in leading "the charge for urban beautification at the turn of the 20th century, transforming the American urban landscape."  In Alison Isenberg's book Downtown America (press.uchicago.edu; date access Apr. 3, 2018), Ms. Isenberg looks at the role women played in driving urban changing through fundraising activities, organizing, presenting lectures, and getting the public's attention on improving the urban environment.

In the early 20th-century, city planning was still a relatively new discipline.  Quoting Ms. Isenberg, Ms. Chan tells us that the women's clubs legitimated [male] experts during the insecure early years of the planning profession, "helping them win lucrative bids and stimulating demand for their consulting services."  Unfortunately, once the profession was established male planners found it personally advantageous to obliterate the role of women's civic clubs from the official records and put distance between themselves gendered discussions of city planning.  Charles Mulford Robinson's General Plan for the Improvement of Colorado Springs (1912), for example, failed to give credit to the women's clubs, regardless of the fact that their efforts resulted in his employment.  Go figure.

Essentially, the ladies of the women's civic club were the "mothers of the fathers or urbanism--who then proceeded to erase them from the dominant narrative of American planning history."

The history of architecture is populated with countless women who worked side-by-side along their more bold faced male employers, but they were often considered women behind the men, assumed to play more modest function.  Here are just a few women who deserve more recognition. 

Marion Mahony Griffin (curbed.com; June. 8, 2017; date accessed Apr. 3, 2018), is best known for her stunning watercolor renderings for her boss Frank Lloyd Wright but did you know that she was one of the first women to receive an architectecture license?  Do you know who Charlotte Perriand (apartmenttherapy.com; Oct. 15, 2009; date accessed Apr. 3. 2018) was?  You definitely know the architect she worked for, Le Corbusier.  She designed some of the architect's most iconic chairs.  Lily Reich (bauhaus100.de; date accessed Apr. 3, 2018) collaborated with Ludwig Mies Van Rohe and Anne Tyng (nytimes.com; Jan. 7, 2012 date accessed Apr. 3, 2018) who worked with Louis Kahn--"...exerting a strong influence on those men's designs."

The problem is that the work of female designers are often not directly attributed or celebrated.  They either relegated to the sides or absent from the "Urbanism Hall of Fame."

It is ironic that a profession that professes to serve the public as a core value fails to acknowledge its women contributors.  Deland Chan writes, "This means acknowledging the contributions of all who are were instrumental in advancing the field, whether it is design, architecture, or planning."  Not only does this enhance the "Hall of Fame," "it is an opportunity to create a more accurate and inclusive professional identity."

"Who designs our cities, and for whom?"

Critics have observed that cities have not been designed with attention to the way in which women use (cms.mildredwarner.org; 2013 date accessed Apr. 3, 2018) transportation, public spaces, and streets. If planners designed cities to consider a broader range of needs, they would work better for everyone (huffingtonpost.com; Apr. 26, 2016; date accessed Apr. 3, 2018).

Part of the lack of inclusivity in professions that create cities is that women are in the minority.  Strangely, in the United States, women compose the majority of architecture (ncarb.org; 2017; Apr. 3, 2018) and urban planning (planningaccreditationboard.org; date accessed Apr. 3, 2018) schools but things are quite different  in the working world.  Ms. Chan explains, "As of 2014, only 22 percent of licensed architects and 17 percent of partners or principals in architecture firms were women."

Increasing these percentages could help, "but the professions might still end up prioritizing a narrow segment of the population."  After all, the spectrum of gender identities does not square with the traditonal male-female dichotomy anymore.  Intersectional determinants--race, ethnicity, religion, socioeconomic backgrounds, and age--all affect the way women relate to place and space.

According to Ms.Chan, "The real problem is when people in the field lack the framework or tools to approach inclusive design for cities.  Clare Cooper-Marcus and Carolyn Francis wrote in their 1997 book People Places,

Most of the design literature we have reviewed--if it refers to users at all--assumes that they are all able-bodied, relatively young, and male.

Twenty-one years later, we are still having a conversation about this problem (architecture.yale.edu; "Noncompliant Bodies: Social Equity and Public Space;" April 6, 2018; date accessed Apr. 3, 2018).

There have been ample missed opportunities and life-threatening results when designers fail to take into account inclusivity, they can (and do [amazon.com; date accessed Apr. 3, 2018]) fill a book.  One example are the car companies who used to test airbags using dummies with the average height and weight of a typical American male.  It was not until 2003 that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration began testing airbags (washingtonpost.com; Mar. 25, 2012; date accessed Apr. 3, 2018) with the average proportions of an American female.

In terms of the built environment, "many solutions are simply not designed for a wider range of needs." Just try pushing a collapsible shopping cart along a wet narrow sidewalk or navigating a badly laid out intersection with a stroller.  

Deland Chan says, "Increasing the recognition and representation of women and other underrepresented groups design and planning, and expanding our conception of who uses urban space, are important."  Additionally, "We can break down the increasingly limited box of what even counts as planning."

"Expanding the definition of planning"

The current planning canon continues to reinforce the binary concept of what real "planning" constitutes.

According to this black and white reading (citylab.com; Nov. 16, 2011; date accessed Apr. 3, 2018), "'real' planning is either big in scope, or focused on 'hard' infrastructure implements, or based on highly technical expertise--or some combination of those three qualities."   Daniel Burnham famously said "Make no small plans," and Jane Jacobs' sparring partner Robert Moses is grudgingly considered a "power broker."  However, ground-up planning and "soft" human-oriented work like community outreach, are not given the same weight.

Therefore, if we enlarged our definition of planning, we might include Majora Carter's (ted.com; date accessed Apr. 3, 2018) employment development and environmental justice work in the South Bronx, or the work of Antoinette Carroll's (fastdesign.com Feb. 16, 2017; date accessed Apr. 3, 2018) Creative Reaction Lab, which focuses on inequity in St. Louis, Missouri.  Both women are not "real" planners in the sense that they are professional trained and certified planners, but they help shape their cities and brought attention to "place-based work already happening in low-income communities of color."  Therefore, instead of expecting their place-based work to fit neatly into the planning paradigm, city planning should expand itself to include "the critical intersections they explore between planning and public health, environmental justice, and education."

Without expanding what counts as planning, we shut out ways of making sense of our cities that would help find new approaches.  One example, "community development groups can help planners think about achieving sustainability through cultural preservation, which is already happening in Little Tokyo in Los Angeles (huffpost.com; June 7, 2014; date accessed Apr. 3, 2018) and San Francisco's (fastcompany.com; Mar. 31, 2016) Chinatown (sustainablechinatown.org; date accessed Apr. 3, 2018)."  A lot of local expertise is lost if non-professionals are consulted when their approval is needed.  What if they were engaged in defining the goal and priorities from the start?

What role do professors and the planning school curriculum play in addressing these disparities (stanforddaily.com; Mar. 20, 2018; date accessed Apr. 3, 2018)

From the outset, colleges and universities that educate future planners should rethink what they teach. Ms. Chan proclaims, "It is time to recognize that our shared identity as planners is based on privileging the contributions of certain individuals and groups over others.  In specific terms, institutions can reshape curricula to include missing or marginalized voices."  This can incorporate professionals from non-traditional planning fields as co-teachers and co-researchers who can offer innovative strategies for studying the urban environment.

At the end of the day, "we will have to challenge our own deeply held assumptions about 'real' planning."  This is the only way we can pave the way for the future leadership of the profession who will be prepared to address the needs in cities of the present and future.