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Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Response to Reply -- "The Problem with City Planning"

This is a reply to Eric Davis, AIA. His comments are included in italics below this response.


Thank you for the comments. It helps to hear experiences from others. The engineering examples you cite are part of the Movement Division of the Built Environment. It has had an overwhelming federal priority, as you know; and has maintained its focus on civil engineering design specifications. These heavily influence the Life Support Division as well, but there has been little correlation of these standards with the Shelter and Open Space Divisions. We cannot blame them, however, because design specification topics and values for shelter and open space are in their infancy. Zoning topics substitute and zoning values produce unreliable results that still encounter political opposition from entrenched special interest.

My work has been based on the opinion that shelter policy is needed to support a symbiotic goal. This will require convincing political arguments based on credible research. I have concentrated on the Shelter Division of the Built Environment but can understand your disappointment with the random results in the Movement Division as well. The stakes are high and the political opposition is monumental, as you point out. We will not win the battle of opinion without improved arguments, however; and this is where observation, measurement, evaluation, prediction and conclusion come into play.

You used the word “calculation” which is unfortunate. Calculation is an engine for evaluation, prediction and conclusion but is not a substitute for observation and measurement. This is where knowledge begins. Successful arguments are based on the answers found. My work has focused on a measurement system for shelter that can lead private effort toward public benefit with a symbiotic goal. It has actually been stimulated by the failure to win arguments and influence political opinion.

Leaders change course based on persuasion from others. I believe the secret to persuasion is knowledge that has a history of credible performance, but I am the first to admit that another form of calculation has always entered the political equation. This, I believe, is your frame of reference and it will do no good to wish me luck. We will all need luck to pass this symbiotic test from a host that does not compromise with ignorance.   

Civil engineering has produced significant public benefit but the focus has been on limited technical areas. It will continue on this course until corrected with persuasive arguments for city design leadership. This is the next level needed to correlate engineering contribution with the larger symbiotic goal we must all respect. Architects, and many others, understand the broad focus of correlation because complexity has made it their profession. In fact, natural correlation over millennia permits competition within a lifetime. Extinction ia a lack of correlation. This is the next level of cultural awareness. The next great period of architecture and civil engineering will follow to symbolize this cultural and political achievement. 

You may be interested in my upcoming essay, “Taking the Pulse of Architecture and City Design”.


While I agree with pretty much everything you say, there is a significant component missing from your analysis and therefore from your prescriptions. The development of cities - and metro areas - is also simultaneously driven by politics. I'm not talking about Democrat v. Republican, I'm talking about whose ox is being gored, as they say. 

Take an example from my area, Chicago. I live in Oak Park, a close-in western suburb. It was founded as a rail-based commuter suburb. There used to be seven (not a typo) elevated or at-grade rail connections to the town. Now the main artery in terms of volume is the Eisenhower Expressway, I-290. As with most of its ilk, it is a catastrophe in urbanistic terms. For most of its run from the Loop to the I-294 (what is now inner) belt expressway, it is well above grade on an earthen viaduct. 

Except where it runs through Oak Park. For a mile and a half, the Eisenhower becomes a depressed highway, a good 30' below the adjacent local streets. While part of this has to do with topography - one of the ridge lines that is a Continental Divide, believe it or not, runs through Oak Park. Nonetheless, more than one person in the Legislature at the time has told me that it runs depressed there because of Phil Rock. Who was he? The longtime President of the Illinois State Senate who was from...wait for it...Oak Park.

Even so - it's still freakin' hideous

Now contrast that with the parkway system out on Long Island. While there are/were significant cultural differences, I would argue that a great deal of why those are so beautiful, with substantial plantings and well-designed stone bridge overpasses instead of ugly concrete and steel ones, is due to a difference in political will. Robert Moses, for better or worse, was a force of nature. He was not about to inflict his vision on the landscape without it also being beautiful and, therefore, something to be seen as a positive impact on the land. 

The only reason that, by contrast, the Eisenhower is so hideous, so disruptive of the urban landscape, is that no one from any of the design professions - at least no one with functioning eyeballs - was in a position to make the critical budget decisions. 

"Oh, but we can't afford it" is what you often hear. After 25 years of involvement in politics at all levels, I can tell you that "afford" is always a relative term. Can we afford $230 million for a single F-35 fighter? Evidently. It's not about priorities, it's about making things like good design a priority. 

There's a story that once FDR was finishing a meeting with a coalition of progressive groups whose mission he clearly supported. Nonetheless, his parting words to the group were (to paraphrase), "Great. Now go out there and make me do it." Even the President who created the WPA needed an expression of political will to make it happen. 

We need to not only read politics, we need to know when and how to drive it. I tell my students, "Politics is a design problem" and the one I like the best, "If you're not at the table, you're on the menu." 

Absent that, the calculations you prescribe are really good ideas with little chance of success because they will get run over every time if the politics of each specific situation hasn't been designed as carefully as the renderings the media loves to print. 

Best of luck.

Eric Davis, AIA

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