Joe Urban | Sam Newberg, Urbanist

Notes on the Contested City

Dateline: 11:17 am September 17, 2012 Filed under:

Earlier this year I attended “The Contested City,” a two-day seminar organized by the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy. The event brought together urban journalists and writers from across the country to hear presentations and discuss, among other things, the impact of the Tea Party on urban planning and development, as well as the overall impact of technology on our industry. The speakers and discussion was much more varied, and while I will write in more detail about certain ideas, the following are little nuggets to chew on. Enjoy!

“You have to show up” Meaningful business and personal relationships are still made face to face. For all the buzz about the digital age, place matters. You have to show up. Serendipitous meetings can unlock long-term income. For example, a graphic designer was new to New York City. His buddy invited him to play a pickup game of basketball. Lo and behold, the game included members of the Beastie Boys. That face-to-face interaction led to a business agreement to design an album cover, and never would have happened through virtual introduction. I, too, have experience with this. Specifically, playing pick-up basketball directly led to income for me (this is remarkable because I don’t exactly light up the court or the scoreboard). But that face-to-face time is critcal.

What about the tea party? Kate Zernicke of the New York Times pointed out that the Tea Party has been successful in the sense that they took national issues and brought them down to the grass roots, door-to-door level. They also control the rhetoric. “Neighbors aren’t policy wonks, but they know how the government should work for them,” is how Sam Staley, a self-described libertarian and managing director of the DeVoe L. Moore Center at Florida State University, puts it. It seems like planners and new urbanists should take these lessons to heart. Maybe instead of using the words “charrette” and “transect” and other buzzwords, we need to talk more about “beauty” and “prosperity” in simpler terms and convey how good planning and design can achieve that.

Don’t use Europe as an example Well why not!? The fear of being labeled socialist or worse doesn’t hold water when you consider how much Americans seem to enjoy actually spending time in Europe! Ever notice that European towns and cities (hell, even the countryside) is much more walkable than America. There are reasons for this. We like being able to traverse a city on foot without having to cross over or under freeways or traverse broad swaths of surface parking and dead streetscapes. We enjoy the Underground in London (mind the gap!) and German intercity trains that run on time down to the minute (should we expect anything less?). Sure Europe isn’t perfect (nor can its urbanism be summed up succinctly as “European”), but we can and should take a number of lessons on urbanity from across the pond.

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