Living Urbanism


Forget the Buildings, Let’s Talk about the People: Why the municipal talent crisis demands urban planners’ full attention by russellpreston

by Bethany Rubin Henderson and Ted Wieber III

Urban Planning is a public sector occupation. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, nearly 80% of urban planners in the United States work for governments, more than 66% work in local government.1 This fact may not be surprising given the often community-wide impact of planning work, but it means that the health and vitality of the planning profession depends largely on the health of local governments. And right now, America’s local governments are facing a severe talent crisis. While urban planners are comparatively well-off – increasing urbanization in the U.S. will lead to an expected 19% increase in the demand for urban planners between now and 2018 – most other local government sectors are facing a mass exodus of their most experienced workers without a sufficiently large pool of talented replacements to draw from. The fiscal and operational challenges facing cities are more difficult than ever before; yet the brightest minds are in short supply. As this crisis threatens to destabilize local governments across the country, it is more important than ever to aggressively recruit the most talented people to solve our municipal challenges.

The Relationship between Urban Planning and the Public Sector

Many of the most innovative urban planning ideas begin as broad visions devoid of regulatory context: “Wouldn’t it be nice if people could walk more in this part of town?” or “How might we create more vibrant public spaces?” or “How might this community achieve higher usage rates of public transportation?” These are questions that New Urbanists have continuously sought to answer. However, urban planning does not move forward in a regulatory vacuum. The challenge of planning lies in transforming these visions into realities. This metamorphosis can only be achieved through an intimate, and often lengthy, give-and-take with local governments and the people that run them. Like a caterpillar entering its cocoon before being reborn as a butterfly, so a planning vision must weather the halls of city government before emerging as a reality.

Who, exactly, are the people who influence planning at the local level? They include planning department employees, planning and zoning commissioners, building code inspectors, infrastructure engineers, environmental impact analysts, transportation analysts and many others depending on the needs of a particular city, community or project. Beyond the staff directly involved in evaluating proposed development projects, mayors, city managers, council members, and other city officials affect the process by determining local economic policy, property tax rates, and the amounts of impact fees, permit fees, and other fees or taxes that development projects must shoulder. Both elected and appointed city leaders, across agencies, also produce comprehensive community plans, decide the priorities of capital improvement programs, and determine official zoning and subdivision rules.2 Considering the intricate web of regulatory steps that any proposed development must survive, turning a planning vision into a reality can be a herculean task. And that does not even include the outside challenges developers and planners face, like financing a major project.

Moreover, regional, state and federal governments impose constraints on the planning process that can limit the ability of cities to pursue planning initiatives. For example, states and regions often produce transportation plans governing the development of road networks across a region and infrastructure plans with standards for water resources, wastewater treatment, air quality, parks, and transit. State governments and the federal government also control important purse strings. For example, the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act made enormous sums of money available to state and local governments for “shovel-ready” projects. Local officials have to compete for such money, often by meeting detailed Federal criteria and marshaling local political forces. Without competent, proactive and forward-thinking municipal employees, deserving communities can miss out on important financing that can make or break a needed planning initiative.

The point to take away from this laundry list of governmental actors and regulation is that the influence of government workers on the planning process is enormous. And a malfunctioning local public sector can make the job of urban planners extremely difficult – and significantly more expensive – to accomplish. The tangled web of overlapping plans and regulations can only be navigated – and reformed – by a vibrant and talented supply of knowledgeable local government workers across all fields.

The Aging Workforce

Unfortunately, America’s city governments face a talent crisis. Although the planning sector is expanding, the majority of local government administrators – not the politicians, but the people who do the day-to-day work that keeps cities running and public services on track – either could retire today or will become eligible for retirement within the next five years.34 This looming personnel exodus threatens the ability of cities to function.

The aging government workforce is not simply a consequence of the baby boom generation approaching retirement. While only 48% of private sector employees are over 40, a whopping 63.5% of local government employees are.5 Local government employees are, on average, 5-7 years older than their private sector counterparts.6 Furthermore, local government is disproportionately a “knowledge industry” requiring workers with specialized education, training or skill sets. Two-thirds of local government employees are knowledge workers; only one-third of private sector workers are.7 Nearly half of public sector employees have college degrees, versus fewer than one-quarter of private sector employees.89 Age and education levels almost twice those of the private sector illustrate that the personnel challenges facing government workforces are more serious than those of other job sectors. Interestingly, an aging government workforce is not solely an American challenge. Thirteen member countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) have public sectors where workers 50 or older comprise 30% or more of the total workforce.10

If left unchecked, the consequences of an aging municipal workforce could be devastating. First, in a few short years there simply will not be enough people to do the job. Even accounting for the inevitable downsizing and shrinking head-counts that will be lasting effects of the recession, the out-migration of experienced baby boomers will leave numerous vacancies – far too many to be filled by the existing pipeline of talent entering local government. Without adequate staff, cities will not be able to function, much less be efficient and effective stewards of public resources. While an occasional shake-up of the status quo has benefits, the current disruptive human capital crisis threatens consequences that only the skills and innovative thinking of America’s brightest talent can overcome.

Second, an outflow of experienced personnel may lead to the permanent loss of institutional knowledge. The lessons learned and experience acquired after decades of public service are extremely valuable, as relationships and job-specific expertise can only be built over time. Loss of that institutional memory will significantly weaken the knowledge base of municipal agencies. Now that so many government employees are nearing retirement, the threat of a devastating “brain drain” is becoming an imminent reality.

Third, the aging workforce threatens to topple government finances. Municipal budgets across the country are under enormous pressure. The decline in tax revenues due to the recession can be blamed for some of the trouble. However, the long-term strain on municipal budgets comes from pension and benefit obligations promised years ago. Americans are now living longer than ever. Government workers who retired over the past few decades, and those who will retire in the next few, will draw on their pensions and health benefits for much longer than cities budgeted for.11 Besides consuming increasingly large shares of municipal budgets, these pension obligations limit governments’ flexibility to address all of their other responsibilities. To meet their obligations, local governments will have to continue to cut services, shrink programs, and defer or abandon new initiatives. Furthermore, strained budgets could result in cost-shifting from the public to the private sector, driving up the costs of a project for private sector planners and developers.12 Planners – who must inevitably work closely with local governments whether they are employed by them or not – will find cities more financially strapped and inflexible than ever before.

Where are all the young people?

But perhaps the most alarming aspect of the talent crisis is the absence of young college-educated workers in the municipal pipeline. Americans need the same caliber of people in local government who traditionally join top-tier law firms, consulting firms, investment banks, Teach for America and other high-profile or high-profit careers.  For decades, America’s best and brightest college graduates have spurned local government service, leaving talented younger workers in short supply. Moreover, recession-driven layoffs – which, in the public sector often favor seniority over performance – are exacerbating the problem by forcing out many of the youngest workers that currently are in the pipeline.13

There are many reasons why young college graduates avoid municipal jobs. First, most college students know little about what government workers actually do, and the little they do know worries them. Many equate working in government with either being a politician or being stuck in an inflexible bureaucracy and endless red-tape.1415 Today’s younger workers want to work in meritocracies that value innovation and creativity and provide opportunities for continuous learning. They crave positions that challenge them, where they can be partners in the enterprise from day one, and that provide a good work-life balance.1617 Few think of municipal agencies as providers of this environment.

Second, a pervasive, decades-old anti-government bias turns off many young Americans from considering government work, even those inclined towards public service.18 Indeed, the 2009 National Leadership Index from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government found that Americans have a below-average level of confidence in local government.19 Further, when asked to estimate the inefficiency of local government, Americans believed that local governments waste more than 36 cents of every tax dollar they collect.20 Young people also connect “public service” with working for non-profits – not working in government.21

Third, young people simply are not being asked to join government.22 Worse, many city governments’ civil service rules make it nearly impossible for people right out of college to join their workforce by requiring several years of experience for entry-level jobs. Compounding the problem, college graduates now can, and frequently do, move around freely to chase opportunity. Being less rooted in their local communities discourages them from investing time and effort in tackling local challenges.

Finally, public sector compensation packages do not meet the needs of younger workers.23 Local governments pay knowledge workers 25% less than the private sector, and the public-private sector pay gap has grown in the past 15 years.2425 This makes it even harder for cities to recruit and retain the highly-skilled professionals who comprise so much of their workforce – including many who impact the planning process, like engineers and environmental scientists.26

Despite these challenges, engaging recent college graduates in local government is not impossible. Doing so simply requires re-imagining how we inspire and empower them to solve local problems. In fact, public attitudes are shifting, and today we have a unique chance to re-focus our top young people back to the local level. Many 18-30 year-olds now report that doing good for society is as important to them as doing well financially. As importantly, the reflexive anti-government sentiment among young people is decreasing for the first time in decades.2728 A January 2010 Gallup poll found that, while 59% of Americans age 18-30 still prefer working for a business over working for the government, 37% now favor government jobs.  Further, 42% of college students now agree that getting involved in politics is honorable.29

What does all of this mean for Urban Planners?

A combination of trends is launching urban planners to the forefront of civil society.  First, America is growing rapidly.  Demographers forecast the national population will grow to more than 400 million by 2050.30 Second, America is increasingly urbanizing. The Brookings Institution predicts that nearly 90% of Americans will live in metropolitan areas – cities of 50,000+ and their economically-dependent adjacent counties – by 2030.31

Third, there is a renewed emphasis in America on finding local solutions to social problems. Cities are now being placed front and center in the public conscience. How creative urban planning can improve the quality of daily life, public health, and the environment are goals receiving significant attention. Even mainstream media is rife with praise for the social benefits of experimental urban renewal initiatives like New York City’s conversion of Times Square traffic routes to pedestrian thoroughfares, or Stockholm’s bid to make physical activity fun with its “piano stairs.”

In a nutshell, our growing and increasingly urbanized population will place greater stress on municipal services and infrastructure—creating a stronger demand for the expertise of urban planning professionals.  It should be no surprise, then, that the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that the number of urban planning jobs will increase by a startling 19% between 2008 and 2018, a faster-than-average occupational growth rate.32

This growth might be welcome news to professional planners, but it poses a serious challenge to local governments.  Not only do cities lack bench strength among their non-planning staff, most also lack viable long-term succession and recruitment plans.3334 Combine an increased demand for city services, a mass exodus of experienced workers and a lack of incoming talent, with no plan for how to deal with this challenge, and you have a perfect storm. Urban planners are caught right in the middle. Weakened local governments translate into a weakened support-system for urban planning initiatives.

One Solution to Attract the Best

Our national, non-partisan nonprofit, City Hall Fellows, offers one solution to the personnel challenges facing local governments. City Hall Fellows has found an effective, cost-efficient and highly-impactful way to convert college students’ renewed interest in public service into their taking responsibility for the challenges in their hometowns.  Partnering with city governments, City Hall Fellows runs a Teach-for-America-style national service corps program that includes more than 300 hours of training on local government policy – how decisions are made, how local policy is designed and implemented, and how programs are evaluated. The year-long, cohort-based Fellowship integrates this intensive training with hands-on, full-time professional experience working on substantive projects for city agencies.

City Hall Fellows puts America’s best and brightest recent college graduates to work directly on many of the challenges cities face – including many of the challenges affecting urban planners. For example, a recent Fellow served in the Houston Planning and Development Department. His mission for the year: tackling the problem of institutional memory loss in his department. As the largest city in the United States without zoning, Houston has a very unique approach to regulating planning. In the absence of a zoning ordinance Houston utilizes a variety of stand-alone nuisance ordinances that curb the most egregious land-use incompatibilities while preserving the enormous development flexibility that comes from limited regulation. His work was a key component of a forward-looking department initiative led by senior management to arm current and future planners with knowledge of the department’s past.  A comprehensive historical review of Houston’s development ordinances – why the city passed them, how they have been amended over time, and the kinks that may still exist in their implementation – will allow the department to preserve and learn from its history and from the experience of its most senior employees, even as they retire.

But City Hall Fellows alone cannot prevent the potentially devastating blow to our cities – or to occupations like urban planning that depend on cities’ efficacy – from the enormous municipal talent crisis.

What else can be done?

Most importantly, governments must recognize and prioritize their personnel challenges and place greater emphasis on recruiting and retaining new talent. First, cities must overhaul hiring and recruitment practices by removing unnecessary barriers to entry for promising talent.  For example, the City of Houston currently requires three years full-time experience for many entry-level positions.  This rule effectively precludes top graduates from Houston’s six major universities from working for the city right after college.

Second, the public sector needs to market itself more effectively to college students. While strained municipal budgets may preclude offering pay packages on par with the private sector, public sector workers still enjoy benefits that can more than compensate for the cash discrepancy.  For example, young public sector employees get to work at the cutting edge of public policy – and have a real impact on their communities.  Likewise, in many cities, public sector workers enjoy more flexible working hours and more paid vacation days than their private sector counterparts.35 As noted above, recent polls show that this combination of intellectually stimulating work that directly impacts the public good combined with generous non-cash benefits is very appealing to today’s college students.  Yet, few college students know that local government employment offers these opportunities.  Cities can go a long way towards solving their brain drain problem simply by raising college students’ awareness of what working for cities is really like.  Social media platforms allow cities to cost-effectively reach tens of thousands of prospective new college-age workers.

Third, senior city workers should actively ensure that their knowledge and experience is not lost.  Before retiring, they should document the most vital institutional memory. They should also mentor younger employees in their agencies, preparing them for leadership. Finally, public sector urban planners, ordinary citizens and private sector workers must realize that the municipal talent crisis directly impacts their livelihoods: professionally, financially, and in the quality of service that their government can provide. While private corporations are responsible to their owners and stakeholders, the public sector can only be held accountable by an informed and engaged citizenry. All of us have a responsibility for ensuring our cities continue not just to function, but also to effectively and efficiently serve our needs.  An awareness of the talent crisis local governments face must be translated into momentum for the innovation and restructuring required to ensure a healthy future for America’s cities.

Conclusion

Left unchecked, cities’ human capital crisis could undermine even the best-laid urban plans. Talented and innovative people are the key to solving governments’ most intractable problems.

Awareness of the brain drain plaguing the public sector – and consequently the urban planning profession – is slowly growing. But, for change to happen, the chorus needs many more voices clamoring for reform. Urban planners in particular, as an occupational group overwhelmingly concentrated in the public sector, must be on the front lines of this campaign. Planners must demand that their municipal governments prioritize the talent crisis and address it as swiftly as possible; and they must be willing to partner with local governments and non-profits like City Hall Fellows to incentivize talented younger workers to enter public service. Without a steady pipeline of talented workers who can think more creatively than ever before about municipal government’s challenges and how to solve them, the future of America’s cities looks bleak.

SOURCES

Armah IV, Niiobli, et al. “Making Public Service Accessble: Opportunities to Improve the Hiring Process for Our Next Generation of Municipal Employees.” A Report by the Houston City Hall Fellows, July 22, 2009.

Barrett, Katherine & Richard Green. “An Unproductive Bump.” Governing, April 1, 2010 http://www.governing.com/columns/smart-mgmt/An-Unproductive-Bump.html

Bender, Keith A. & John S. Heywood. “Out of Balance? Comparing Public and Private Sector Compensation over 20 Years.” Report commissioned by the Center for State & Local Government Excellence and the National Institute on Retirement Security. April 2010

http://www.slge.org/vertical/Sites/{A260E1DF-5AEE-459D-84C4-876EFE1E4032}/uploads/{03E820E8-F0F9-472F-98E2-F0AE1166D116}.PDF

Benest, Frank, Ed. “Preparing the Next Generation. A Guide for Current and Future Local Government Managers.” International City/County Management Association, 2003.

Benest, Frank. “Retaining and Growing Talent: Strategies to Create Organizational ‘Stickiness’.”  ICMA’s PM Magazine. Vol. 90, No 9, October 2008. http://www.frankbenest.com/ICMA%20article.pdf

Bilmes, Linda and W. Scott Gould. The People Factor: Strengthening America by Investing in Public Service. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2009

Council for Excellence in Government. “Calling Young People to Government Service: From ‘Ask Not…’ To ‘Not Asked’.” a Peter D. Hart Research Study for the Council for Excellence in Government, March 2004.

Council for Excellence in Government & the Gallup Organization. “Within Reach . . . But Out of Synch:  The Possibilities and Challenges of Shaping Tomorrow’s Government Workforce.” updated May 22, 2007. Retrieved May 20, 2010 from http://www.hreonline.com/pdfs/06162007Extra_GovernmentStudy.pdf

Dohrmann, Thomas, et al. “Attracting the Best.” McKinsey and Co Transforming Government. Autumn.2008. http://www.mckinsey.com/clientservice/publicsector/pdf/TG_attracting_best.pdf

Economist. “A tough search for talent.” 31 Oct 2009.

Franzel, Joshua M. “Future Compensation of the State and Local Workforce.” http://www.thepublicmanager.org.  http://www.slge.org/vertical/Sites/{A260E1DF-5AEE-459D-84C4-876EFE1E4032}/uploads/{2861CCEA-7045-4C8D-86F0-1C5323204D17}.PDF

Gallup Government Poll, 2009. http://www.gallup.com/poll/27286/Government.aspx

Greenfield, Stuart. “Public Sector Employment: The Current Situation.” Center for State & Local Government Excellence, 2007, http://www.slge.org/vertical/Sites/{A260E1DF-5AEE-459D-84C4-876EFE1E4032}/uploads/{B4579F88-660D-49DD-8D52-F6928BD43C46}.PDF

Henderson, Bethany Rubin. “Don’t Shut the Door on Your Way Out: Stopping the Threat to City Operations Posed by the Aging Municipal Workforce.” 97 National Civic Review 3, p. 3 (Fall 2008)

Kellar, Elizabeth, et al. “Trends to Watch in 2010.” PM Magazine (ICMA Press) Vol. 92, No 1, January/February 2010 (cover story) http://icma.org/pm/9201/public/cover.cfm?author=Elizabeth%20Kellar,%20Joshua%20Franzel,%20Danielle%20Miller%20Wagner,%20and%20Joan%20McCallen&title=Trends%20to%20Watch%20in%202010

Kotkin, Joel. The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050. Penguin Press, 2010.

Levine, Peter, et al. “The Millennial Pendulum: A New Generation of Voters and the Prospects for a Political Realignment.” New America Foundation Next Social Contract Initiative (Feb. 2008). http://www.womenscolleges.org/files/pdfs/Millennial_Pendulum_Feb08.pdf

Miles, Mike E., et al. Real Estate Development: Principles and Process. 4th Edition. Urban Land Institute, 2007.

“National Leadership Index 2009.” Center for Public Leadership, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University.

Partnership for Public Service.  “Poll Watch: Public Opinion on Public Service.” May 2, 2005.

Pew Research Center. “Millenials: A Portrait of Generation Next.” 2010. http://pewsocialtrends.org/assets/pdf/millennials-confident-connected-open-to-change.pdf

Puentes, Robert. “How Are We Growing? Where Are We Going?: How We Will Live and Move in 2050.” Presentation at American Transportation Association. Sept. 19, 2007.

“Survey of Young Americans’ Attitudes towards Politics and Public Service.” Harvard University, Institute of Politics: 17th Edition. March 9, 2010. http://www.iop.harvard.edu/var/ezp_site/storage/fckeditor/file/100307_IOP_Spring_10_Report.pdf

“A Tidal Wave Postponed: the Economy and Public Sector Retirements.” Center for State and Local Government Excellence. May 2009.

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. “2010-11 Occupational Outlook Handbook.” http://www.bls.gov/oco/ocos057.htm

Young, Mary B. “The Aging-and-Retiring Government Workforce:  How Serious is the Challenge? What Are Jurisdictions Doing About It?”  CPS Human Resource Services, 2003.  http://www.wagnerbriefing.com/downloads/CPS_AgeBubble_ExecutiveSummary.pdf

NOTES

1 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. “2010-11 Occupational Outlook Handbook.”

2 Miles, Mike E., et al. Real Estate Development: Principles and Process. 4th Edition. Urban Land Institute, 2007. Ch. 13

3 Young, Mary B. “The Aging-and-Retiring Government Workforce:  How Serious is the Challenge? What Are Jurisdictions Doing About It?”  CPS Human Resource Services, 2003.  http://www.wagnerbriefing.com/downloads/CPS_AgeBubble_ExecutiveSummary.pdf

4 Henderson, Bethany Rubin. “Don’t Shut the Door on Your Way Out: Stopping the Threat to City Operations Posed by the Aging Municipal Workforce.” 97 National Civic Review 3, p. 3 (Fall 2008)

5 Greenfield, Stuart, Public Sector Employment: The Current Situation, Center for State & Local Government Excellence (2007), http://www.slge.org/vertical/Sites/{A260E1DF-5AEE-459D-84C4-876EFE1E4032}/uploads/{B4579F88-660D-49DD-8D52-F6928BD43C46}.PDF

6 Kellar, Elizabeth, et al. “Trends to Watch in 2010.” PM Magazine (ICMA Press) Vol. 92, No 1, January/February 2010 (cover story) http://icma.org/pm/9201/public/cover.cfm?author=Elizabeth%20Kellar,%20Joshua%20Franzel,%20Danielle%20Miller%20Wagner,%20and%20Joan%20McCallen&title=Trends%20to%20Watch%20in%202010

7 Greenfield, Stuart.

8 Bender, Keith A. & John S. Heywood. “Out of Balance? Comparing Public and Private Sector Compensation over 20 Years.” Report commissioned by the Center for State & Local Government Excellence and the National Institute on Retirement Security. April 2010

9 Greenfield, Stuart.

10 Economist. “A tough search for talent.” 31 Oct 2009

11 Bilmes, Linda and W. Scott Gould. The People Factor: Strengthening America by Investing in Public Service. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2009. (p. 23)

12 Miles, Mike E., ch. 13.

13 Barrett, Katherine & Richard Green. “An Unproductive Bump.” Governing, April 1, 2010 http://www.governing.com/columns/smart-mgmt/An-Unproductive-Bump.html

14 Council for Excellence in Government & the Gallup Organization. “Within Reach . . . But Out of Synch:  The Possibilities and Challenges of Shaping Tomorrow’s Government Workforce.” updated May 22, 2007. Retrieved May 20, 2010 from http://www.hreonline.com/pdfs/06162007Extra_GovernmentStudy.pdf

15 Benest, Frank, Ed. “Preparing the Next Generation. A Guide for Current and Future Local Government Managers.” International City/County Management Association, 2003.

16 Armah IV, Niiobli, et al. “Making Public Service Accessble: Opportunities to Improve the Hiring Process for Our Next Generation of Municipal Employees.” A Report by the Houston City Hall Fellows, July 22, 2009.

17 Benest, Frank. “Retaining and Growing Talent: Strategies to Create Organizational ‘Stickiness’.”  ICMA’s PM Magazine. Vol. 90, No 9, October 2008. http://www.frankbenest.com/ICMA%20article.pdf

18 Benest, Frank, Ed. “Preparing the Next Generation. A Guide for Current and Future Local Government Managers.”

19 “National Leadership Index 2009.” Center for Public Leadership, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University.

20 Gallup Government Poll, 2009. http://www.gallup.com/poll/27286/Government.aspx

21 Council for Excellence in Government. “Calling Young People to Government Service: From ‘Ask Not…’ To ‘Not Asked’.” a Peter D. Hart Research Study for the Council for Excellence in Government, March 2004.

22 Partnership for Public Service.  “Poll Watch: Public Opinion on Public Service.” May 2, 2005.

23 Franzel, Joshua M. “Future Compensation of the State and Local Workforce.” http://www.thepublicmanager.org.  http://www.slge.org/vertical/Sites/{A260E1DF-5AEE-459D-84C4-876EFE1E4032}/uploads/{2861CCEA-7045-4C8D-86F0-1C5323204D17}.PDF

24 Bender, Keith A. & John S. Heywood.

25 Greenfield, Stuart.

26 Bender, Keith A. & John S. Heywood.

27 Pew Research Center. “Millenials: A Portrait of Generation Next.” 2010. http://pewsocialtrends.org/assets/pdf/millennials-confident-connected-open-to-change.pdf

28 Levine, Peter, et al. “The Millennial Pendulum: A New Generation of Voters and the Prospects for a Political Realignment.” New America Foundation Next Social Contract Initiative (Feb. 2008). http://www.womenscolleges.org/files/pdfs/Millennial_Pendulum_Feb08.pdf

29 “Survey of Young Americans’ Attitudes towards Politics and Public Service.” Harvard University, Institute of Politics: 17th Edition. March 9, 2010. http://www.iop.harvard.edu/var/ezp_site/storage/fckeditor/file/100307_IOP_Spring_10_Report.pdf

30 Kotkin, Joel. The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050. Penguin Press, 2010.

31 Puentes, Robert. “How Are We Growing? Where Are We Going?: How We Will Live and Move in 2050.” Presentation at American Transportation Association. Sept. 19, 2007.

32 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

33 “A Tidal Wave Postponed: the Economy and Public Sector Retirements.” Center for State and Local Government Excellence. May 2009. p. 3

34 Kellar, Elizabeth, et al.

35 Dohrmann, Thomas, et al. “Attracting the Best.” McKinsey and Co Transforming Government. Autumn.2008. http://www.mckinsey.com/clientservice/publicsector/pdf/TG_attracting_best.pdf

Advertisements


Density and Urbanity by russellpreston

View of the Pyramid block from the northeast (along Columbus). The proposed 555 Washington Tower is to the left of the Pyramid.

By John Parman

Early in 2010, San Francisco witnessed another skirmish over density. This one involved a proposal to replace an existing building on the same block as the 48-story, 850-foot-high Transamerica Pyramid (1972). Located at the corner of Sansome and Washington Streets, along the north edge of the Financial District, the proposed 38-story tower considerably exceeded the maximum-height “wall” of 200 feet called for by the City’s current zoning regulations along the district’s north edge.

Dubbed 555 Washington by its backers, a Dutch insurance company and a local developer, the project was hotly debated until April, when the San Francisco Board of Supervisors unanimously decertified its environmental impact report. I wrote a polemical piece for Architect’s Newspaper noting the exceptions to existing zoning the tower would require and suggesting that its approval would put pressure on the much lower blocks north of Washington Street1. I was inspired to write it by a column in the San Francisco Chronicle by the local political commentator C.W. Nevius. He wrote,

This is supposed to be about a debate over erecting a 430-foot condominium tower in the Financial District. But that’s not really true. This is actually a battle for the soul of new San Francisco. That’s not an overstatement. This is the central issue of the emerging, changing city—to build or stall. Detractors have decided to make their stand with 555 Washington St., in the shadow of the Transamerica Pyramid. They’re not just trying to stop a construction project—this is a statement against renovation, new construction, and urban gentrification. They are complaining that the 38-story building is too tall, casts too much shadow, breaks too many planning guidelines and violates the established values of old-time San Francisco.2

Nevius noted that the 200-foot wall was put in place by San Francisco’s 1985 Downtown Plan. “The idea back then was to limit towering office buildings,” he added. “It never occurred to anyone that in 25 years people would want to live downtown.” He quotes Telegraph Hill Dwellers President Vedica Puri: “So they are saying the Downtown Plan is outdated. You know what you have to do then? Redo the Downtown Plan.” This would take years, Nevis argued, urging that 555 Washington be approved. Otherwise, “this project would die, putting a serious chill on any interest in fighting this battle for another development,” he wrote. “And keep in mind, this in an area that hasn’t had significant residential building since the 1980s.”

I agree with Puri. When you remove the current 200-foot height limit along the north edge of the Financial District, what’s at stake is the district that adjoins it. The Downtown Plan didn’t set the height limit to preclude residential development, but to establish a clear boundary. While 555 Washington is 420 feet shorter than the Pyramid, it is 220 feet taller than it should be. Located right at the edge, the Pyramid—completed 13 years before the Downtown Plan—sought to shift the center of gravity of the Financial District north from Market Street, away from transit. The Downtown Plan rejected this, emphasizing the Market-and-Mission corridor as the core of high-density redevelopment in downtown San Francisco. That emphasis was reiterated more recently by the Transbay Terminal Area Plan, which calls for very tall buildings in the corridor.

Nevius is also privileging a “progressive” future against a stagnant present. The opponents of 555 Washington are portrayed as nostalgic, elitist, and out of touch. Although he opposed the tower and called for a new Downtown Plan, the San Francisco Chronicle urban design writer, John King, has expressed a similar view of “reflexive” preservationists. So has the San Francisco Urban Research Association (SPUR), an influential urban policy group in the city.

Place Versus Progress

A question that these arguments raise is whether modern life has left us ill-equipped to consider density in relation to the scale and character of a place. Have we actually been blinded by the assumptions of modernity to disregard what surrounds us and opt instead for “progress” that speaks to abstract values rather than to the actual experience of a city as a series of places?

Reading an interview of the philosopher Ivan Illich3, I came across a reference to Leopold Kohr (1909–1994), a political theorist best known for the phrase, “Small is beautiful.” In a talk that Illich gave at Yale University in October 19944, he noted that Kohr advocated for proportionality rather than smallness. Reading Illich on Kohr’s main themes, I saw his relevance to the question.

Kohr argued that everything that exists has natural limits, and that cities arose and thrived thanks to a widely shared “common sense” about the limits of their pieces and parts, and the ways in which they properly related to each other. Proportionality for Kohr meant “the appropriateness of the relationship.” Another key word for him was certain, as in “a certain way.”

Kohr would say that bicycling is ideally appropriate for one living in a certain place. This statement reveals that “certain,” as used here, is as distant from “certainty” as “appropriate” is from “efficient.” “Certain” challenges one to think about the specific meaning that fits, while “appropriate” guides one to knowledge of the Good. Taking “appropriate” and a “certain place” together allows Kohr to see the human social condition as that ever unique and boundary-making limit within which each community can engage in discussion about what ought to be allowed and what ought to be excluded.

In other words, we cannot meaningfully discuss density except in relation to a certain place. The question density poses is, “What relationships are appropriate to that place?” It’s not a question which is meant to be posed or discussed in abstract. “Who is the community?” is also a relevant question: in relation to a certain place, “community” is no abstraction, either. In his talk, Illich noted that, with the Enlightenment, we began to lose our grasp of proportionality in this sense.5

A Loss of Specificity

“Plato would have known what Kohr was talking about” Illich said. “In his treatise on statecraft he remarks that the bad politician confuses measurement with proportionality.” He goes on to note how words like ethos, paideia, and tonos, which implied “proportion as a guiding idea, as the condition for finding one’s basic stance,” were either lost or took on new meanings during the period of the Enlightenment.

This disappearance has hardly been recognized in cultural history. The correspondence between up and down, right and left, macro and micro, was acknowledged intellectually, sense perception confirming it, until the end of the 17th century. Proportion was also a lodestar for the experience of one’s body, of the other, and of gendered relations. Space was simply understood as a familiar cosmos. Cosmos meant that order of relationships in which things are originally placed. For this relatedness—this tension or inclination of things, one to another, their tonos—we no longer have a word. Tonos was silenced in the course of Enlightenment progress as a victim of the desire to quantify justice. Therefore we face a delicate task: to retrieve something like a lost ear, an abandoned sensibility.

Another word Illich mentions is temperament. “To temper was to bring something to its proper or suitable condition, to modify or moderate something favorably, to achieve a just measure,” he explains. At the beginning of the 18th century, though, it took on a new meaning: “to tune a note or instrument in music to fixed intonation.” Music strove for universality in this shift, leaving its roots in the local and specific, an impulse with parallels across Enlightenment-influenced culture. “Proportionality being lost, neither harmony nor disharmony retains any root in ethos,” he says. “The good, Kohr’s certain appropriateness, becomes trite, if not a historical relic.” The result is a shift from “the good” to “values” as the rise of science changed the nature of language:

An ethics of value—with its misplaced concreteness—allowed one to speak of human problems. If people had problems, it no longer made sense to speak of human choice. People could demand solutions. To find them, values could be shifted and prioritized, manipulated and maximized. Not only the language but the very modes of thinking found in mathematics could norm the realm of human relationships. Algorithms “purified” value by filtering out appropriateness.

Modernity, that child of the Enlightenment, came with a price. The prestige of science meant that scientism entered the rest of life. How we think and talk about density today, and how we try to regulate it, is symptomatic of this. Much urban development is a diktat of abstract values, higher density for its own sake, which refuses to see the existing cityscape as being a “good” in itself.

A Plea for Tonos

“In matters of the heart, we acknowledge an abiding uncertainty,” said the writer Siri Hustvedt. Ordinary people express their desires, and desires are ambiguous, she went on to note.6 The East German activist Bärbel Bohley, describing her disappointment in German reunification, said, “We wanted justice and we gained the rule of law. Our society was never speechless or dumb. That was only in public. Problems were discussed around every kitchen table—much more than they are today.”7 Leaving room for ambiguity is hard when density is reduced to an abstraction. Discussing it around the kitchen table is hard when ordinary people are viewed by experts as an obstacle to progress. Perhaps we could say, with Illich and Kohr, that modernity itself has left us without sufficient specificity about the cities we inhabit to discuss their density meaningfully.

Not every planner is proportion-blind, as Kohr and Illich might put it, but the justification for density in urban settings often takes leave of nuance, cutting itself off from the qualities of place that are reflected in the existing urban fabric. The question to ask of density is, “What will it actually contribute to this place—this site, block, neighborhood, or district—in terms of livability, urbanity, and sustainability?” To answer it, we need to restore a “common sense” about proportionality and appropriateness, so that the subject of density regains moorings to actual settings and to those who live and work in them.

This is not to say that the existing fabric should simply be replicated at its current scale. That’s too often the argument on the other side: Leave it as it is! Kohr and Illich are not making that argument, but suggesting that there is a potential common ground between the two poles of applying abstract regional density targets, on the one hand, and resisting urban redevelopment, on the other. However, there is also massive distrust across that divide. On both sides, bridging the gap means finding a shared language about the evolution of our cities that honors the heart as well as the head, restoring tonos and common sense—temperament in its older sense.

The ends are worth these means. Without substantive, ongoing, community-based debates about our cities as a series of real places, we’re not as smart about their development as we need to be. What’s at stake is our cities’ urbanity—now and in the future. Behind urbanity are the place-specifics of proportionality and appropriateness. And behind them are the people who care about these places, sometimes with the irrational ardor of lovers. Planners should be among them.

Notes

  1. John Parman, “Urbanity, not just Density,” Architect’s Newspaper, California edition, March 31, 2010, page 22.
  2. C.W. Nevius, “Tower new front line in fight for S.F.’s future,” San Francisco Chronicle, February 13, 2010. The quotes from Nevius that follow are from this article.
  3. David Cayley, “Introduction,” Ivan Illich in Conversation, Anansi, 2007, pages 15–16.
  4. Ivan Illich, The Wisdom of Leopold Kohr, 14th Annual E.F. Schumacher Lecture, Yale University, October 1994, E.F. Schumacher Society, 1996. The other quotes are from the lecture, which was republished by the Schumacher Society as a pamphlet.
  5. Words like proportionality are being used here in their pre-Enlightenment sense.
  6. Siri Hustvedt, “A Plea for Eros,” Yonder, Henry Holt, 1998, page 90.
  7. The first sentence is from “Bärbel Bohley,” The Economist, September 25, 2010, US edition, page 107; the rest from Quentin Peel, “Bärbel Bohley, East German dissident, 1945–2010,” Financial Times, 25–26 September 2010, US edition, page 5.

John Parman writes for Arcade, arcCA, Architect’s Newspaper and other publications, and co-founded and published the journal Design Book Review (1983–1999). He lives in Berkeley, CA.




%d bloggers like this: