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Thread: Philosophical musings for citizen planners

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    Cyburbian Michele Zone's avatar
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    Philosophical musings for citizen planners

    I have started a couple of threads containing some of my philosophical musings and rubrics for how I deal with difficult situations, namely: Advocacy and Frustration and Assertive Communication Skills . I really want such commentaries and ideas to be a basic component of this forum – a corner stone, as it were – because I believe that, in addition to basic information about planning, Citizen Planners need a “humanities education” defined as “an education that equips you to live effectively with the inconvenient, inescapable fact of your own humanity”. Naturally, a big part of dealing with your own humanity includes dealing with the inescapable, inconvenient fact of other people because humans are social animals. Professional planners in Cyburbia typically say “planning is about people”. I agree and would add that for Citizen Planners this is doubly true.

    So, consider this thread to be my attempt at teaching “Liberal Arts 101 for Citizen Planners”. Our curriculum will include relevant quotes, links to worthwhile resources on the ‘Net, my own philosophical musings, and spontaneous “guest lectures” from the citizens of Cyburbia, should any of them feel inspired to pontificate or otherwise contribute relevant resources. Additionally, I would like to encourage discussion in this thread so that it is more of a colloquium format of learning rather than a lecture format because passively taking in the thoughts of others is never as educational as participating in vigorous discussion.

  2. #2
    Cyburbian Michele Zone's avatar
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    "Career" Advice for Activists of All Kinds

    Here is an article by a journalist named George Monbiot that he titled "Choose Life". It is career advice for young journalists who would like to do meaningful work. I found it inspiring and relevant to my desire to keep pursuing my interest in various causes, and nevermind that I don't yet know how I will pay the bills. I thought other Citizen Planners might find it worthwhile reading, relevant to their unpaid (or underpaid) careers as activists.

    (The rest of the website is also interesting but some of it is a tad depressing. Read at your own risk, so to speak.)

  3. #3

    On Target!

    MZ, I think you are on target with this. I have noticed a bit of elitism in some of the replies on the forums. Most people do not make a large amount of money. Thus we cannot afford to live in center cities or shop at small, exclusive shops. Those of us who try to live on 20k or less are thankful for Wal-Mart and other discount stores. We also need to find houseing for something less than the 300k plus homes that are available in most developements. It can be somewhat frustrating to work 10 hrs a day in developments that you will never be able to live in. In my area, the usual scenario is 2 late model vehicles, upper level types, stay at home mom, and 300k plus house. I have no idea where these people get this kind of money or credit. The planning profesion needs to address the segment of the population that cannot afford this lifestyle. This is in no way an attack on anyone and I hope noone will percieve it as such. I just needed to rant a little. Thanks all

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    Cyburbian boilerplater's avatar
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    I value Nighthawks postings here for the different perspective they provide. When I'm out doing inspections at these developments of $500K -800K homes, I often wonder what the people building them think about them and the people who live there. I had an interesting conversation a few weeks ago with a concrete contractor from Brazil. I had the impression that he was a little more intelligent than most of those guys. He asked me what I thought is better, having large homes on large lots out in the country or building them more densely in a traditional town situation. I explained that I thought the large-lot homes will ulitimately be more costly for society, because they take more energy to maintain and to drive to, to which he agreed. It was kind of nice to see that someone from that background is even thinking about planning issues.
    Adrift in a sea of beige

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    Cyburbian Michele Zone's avatar
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    I don't really have a coherent reply, just a jumble of thoughts, none meant to offend anyone at all:
    I also kind of think folks in this forum sometimes lack perspective. Everyone lives in their own little microcosm and planners are college-educated professionals whose work actually has quite a lot of power in the world. They work a fair amount with other well-educated professionals, like architects, who typically make a lot more money than they do. Given that fact, I understand why they tend to feel underpaid. But I do think this forum benefits when someone from another background gives their two cents worth. However, nighthawk, you own 75 acres. As an outsider looking in -- and one who doesn't own any real estate and lives in a 955 sq. ft. apartment -- I am just as agog at the acreage you own as you are at the big houses that others own.

    Sometimes folks who have big homes have them in part because of the way our tax system is structured. The mortgage interest tax deduction tends to inflate house size because if you can afford to buy a house, buying a larger house and getting more of a deducation may not cost you much more. And there are other quirks of the housing market that skew things. I, personally, believe we (as a nation -- at the federal level) need to address the fact that we subsidize the upper end of the housing market but not the lower end. By that, I mean that if you can get your foot in the door, the tax incentives encourage you to get an even bigger house -- a "McMansion" -- but we don't do a good job of helping people get entry into the housing market, nor of paying for the higher "floor" that regulations have created. For example, fifty years or so ago, only half of all American homes had "complete indoor plumbing" defined as a toilet, shower or tub, at least one sink, and hot and cold running water. Plenty of folks had cold running water but not hot running water, or had an outhouse in place of an indoor toilet. Last time I checked, 99% of American homes now have "complete indoor plumbing"....and homelessness is on the rise. Folks who might have lived in a shack with an outhouse are now sleeping under a bridge or in their car. We increasingly require homes to meet more stringent government regulations but the government doesn't do anything to help with the cost of that. Those who have the money, live better than ever. Those who don't, are vilified and blamed for their circumstances, like they are just lazy or something.

    My mom is an immigrant who did not complete high school and speaks English as a second language. She cleans private homes and typically works all day in more upscale homes than her own. So I can relate to what you are saying about working on houses you cannot afford to buy.

  6. #6
    I might have given the wrong impression. I do not begrudge these large houses. My own house is about 1800 ft for me and my cat, [with delusions of catching a lady in a weak moment ]. The thing I was most after was a comment on the predominant veiw on this forum that center city/close living is the perfect situation. A large number of people have been raised in the "country" which is usually defined as sprawl. I was raised on the same farm I now live on. The 75 acre tract is only part of a total of about 500 acres of family owned land. The reality of it is that the taxes will eventually make this impossible. Also, this property is the retirement fund for my family as well as my daughter's college fund. I realize that this option is as unavailable to many as the center city dream. I guess that my point is that some of us prefer to remain somewhat isolated from close living. btw the maintanence on this much property, ie mowing and such, pretty much eats all spare time. I guess there is no free lunch anymore. My father just bought a condiminium in the mountains of NC close to Lake Juanaluska to be near the Methodist Assembly there. He said it would be ok for short visits but after 65 years in the country, he just couldn't live like that.

  7. #7
    Cyburbian Michele Zone's avatar
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    I wasn't really meaning that you begrudge them, just that things look different "from the outside" -- that you don't understand how they live like that but they wouldn't understand how you live the way you do either. And I am not surprised that you inherited the land, nor that it takes all your time in maintenance, nor that rising taxes are threatening your way of life. My comments about housing are really due to the fact that the focus of my concentration happens to be "housing", so I have done a fair amount of reading on the topic and I wonder sometimes what kind of policies would remedy our present issues in this area. Your comments brought to mind some of those ponderings and, really, it wasn't about you, per se.

  8. #8
    I know it wasn't about me MZ, and i hate I gave that impression. As far as "New Urbanism" goes, if for some reason I were to be looking for another residence, the closeness, lack of yard work, and maybe some human companionship would look pretty good to this old redneck.[if I can afford it!] Just trying to get some conversation started towards something else besides downtown. A majority of citizen planners are rural or small town volunteers or didn't move fast enough when the positions were handed out. We try to envision our communities futures without a grounding in the art of planning and usually without funds to hire experts. btw, I wonder just hjow close to the mark outside experts can be when the character of a small town is the question. I guess I'm something of an idealist in that I feel that I know my community better than any outsider possibly can. The folks here at Cyburbia have been a great help to me, both directly and by stimulating thought so keep it up guys.

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    Cyburbian boilerplater's avatar
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    What, no special tax rates for farmland designation, Nighthawk? In NJ that's one of the ways they've kept the whole state from being turned into subdivisions, besides Transfer of Development Rights programs. They also buy farmland outright for preservation as such.
    Having gone to an Ag college, I met a lot of farm people and got to appreciate the lifestyle. I don't consider rural farm areas to be sprawl. There's been a lot written on the visual character of farm landscapes and how to preserve them. Yeah, city life isn't for everyone, and I need to get out in the country once in a while. Country people seem slow, but they're relaxed. Its important to be able to relax for one's mental health.
    Adrift in a sea of beige

  10. #10
    Boilerplate, We do have special exemptions for farm land, this being described as 10 or more acres. The deal is for reduced property taxes but not total relief from taxes. If the property is sold, taxes are asessed for 3 years back. Still, the income we recieve for leaseing the land to a farmer barely cover the taxes. We do not currently farm this land ourselves due to the inability to actually make a living from this land. Agriculture as a livlihood in our area is dead for all practical purposes. Two of the largest farmers in Midland are actually part time farmers. Their real jobs consist of grading and land development. The trough I spoke of actually killed the so called family farm through gov subsidies that got larger and larger until the farm could not exist without them. I have heard full time farmers speak of "farming the government". This is welfare any way you look at it and the outcome will be the total corporation take over of the industry. With our proximity to Charlotte, the major land holders have began using their property for a retirement fund instead of as a means to make a living. Sad, but true in this area and probably for many more as well.

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    Cyburbian Michele Zone's avatar
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    Incomplete Thoughts on "Resisting Chaos"

    The comments below are an edited excerpt from a conversation with a friend. The quote at the bottom from Martin Luther King is an attempt to delineate the connection I see between these ideas and community-building work:

    When environmental issues come up, people are often very gloom and doom and sort of “hysterical” (for lack of a better word – no offense intended). I routinely argue against such views for several reasons:

    First, screaming that "the world is coming to an end" tends to be a self-fulfilling prophesy -- it tends to paralyze people with fear, who see the problem as too overwhelming and inevitable to do ANYTHING about it. Like a magnifying glass in bright sunlight, focusing exclusively on negative stuff tends to amplify it and can start a conflagration where there wasn’t one to begin with.

    Second, people who do that are often angry and want to "push back" at the system. But if you are in a rocking boat, pushing vigorously ‘against’ the present direction will only keep the boat rocking. It won’t help stabilize it.

    Third, when my first-born child was about 8 months old, I heard on the radio that 80% of what most kids hear is some version of "NO" (stop that, don't do that, quit it, etc). I decided right then and there that at least 50% of what my kids heard would be what they COULD do, not what they couldn't do. That was one of the best lessons of my life and I think it is particularly applicable to global issues: Tell me what we CAN do to start moving in the right direction, not just everything we are messing up. And if you do not know where to begin, then do not be so shocked and angry that others don't know either.

    Fourth, people are really good at noticing what they are unhappy with and at failing to notice what is going right…until it begins to go wrong and they start singing “You don’t know what you got ‘til it’s gone”. I believe it is extremely important, for practical reasons, to “count your blessings” and to count what you have accomplished, not just what you have yet to do. I have spent 3+ years researching my rail plan and devising a plan for how to implement it as a grass roots movement. I still have the implementing part ahead of me and sometimes I feel overwhelmed. But I feel that it is do-able and that is comforting in the face of all the things that are wrong with this world that I don't know how to address.

    "We have a choice between chaos and community."
    ~ Martin Luther King

  12. #12
    Not sure if this is the right place but I'll put it here anyway. One problem citizen planners seem to experience is the "vision thing". How do you get people to look past the immidiate and towards the future? 20 to 30 years in the future might as well be never to most people. We are currently working on some re-zoning and I can't seem to get across to some of the rest of the board that we need to look past right now. I actually had one of our members tell me that I had a vision that he could never match and he is a very inteligent person. Can this be learned or is it simply a factor of my very cracked mind? MZ, I know you also have this vision towards your rail plan. Have you had any sucess in getting other people to concieve what you are trying to do?

  13. #13
    Cyburbian Michele Zone's avatar
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    It is partly a factor of your cracked mind. In other words, most planners seem to be visual-spatial thinkers and visual-spatial thinkers tend to be visionaries. You see a lot of evidence of that in photoshop contests, the love of maps, etc. Visionaries see the big picture first but often have some trouble with the details of how to get there from here. They tend to feel those details can be filled in later. People who are auditory-sequential need the details first to build up to the big picture. The big picture is too much for them. They want to know "what do I do next?" If you cannot tell them what the next step is, they are likely to balk altogether.

    It can also be interesting to peruse information on Meyers-Briggs personality type and information on the interaction between internal dynamics and lifestyle -- which runs both ways. Someone who doesn't do so well with punching a clock is likely to be found in an alternative career and someone who has been in an alternative career for a long time will think differently from the norm. One of the citizen planners in this forum is an entrepreneur. Another is an artist. You have been a trucker and farmer and probably a few other odd things that aren't your routine 9 to 5, Monday through Friday type jobs. I have been a homemaker for a long time, homeschooling mom, pursued a long pro bono (volunteer) career, etc. Artists, homemakers, farmers, and entrepreneurs take a more organic approach to developing things. We expect to have to "grow" things and we expect that processes have innate cycles and "timing is everything". You can't pencil it into your schedule what day your baby will be born and an artist cannot schedule inspiration to hit at a particular time and place, and the rain will come when it comes. But people of another ilk find that difficult to relate to.

    As for my experiences with my rail plan: I get lots of oohs and aahs and people think the research is brilliant. Then I hear "But X detail has to go because it is politically dead" and when I ask someone to back me officially by letting me send letters to people in power with the name of their group and their personal signature on the bottom, they read my proposed letter, tell me they agree with my position, give me valuable and sincerely appreciated feedback on some of the details and then suggest whom else I could talk to. No, they do not want to sign on the dotted line. It is like that saying about a bacon and egg breakfast: The chicken is involved but the pig is committed. It is pretty clear to me that when I am ready to go whole hog, this will begin as a one woman show. If I fail spectacularly, I am the only one who will get my bacon burned. A lot of people just cannot see how I can possibly get there from here. It is simply too big of a mental leap for such people. I suppose some would say it is hubris on my part -- to think that little ole me has any hope of succeeding. I don't think it is hubris. But I am not an auditory-sequential thinker.

    The good news is that I think you can learn to more effectively communicate the logic behind your vision. And it helps if you learn how different minds and personalities construct reality so that you can package the information in a more palatable manner for folks who will never think like you do. Some links to start learning about theories of multiple intelligences and personality type can be found here: http://www.upsidedownschoolroom.com/...ngstyles.shtml

  14. #14
    Thanks MZ, The site is one that I will probably get lost in. As to my mind being "cracked", that is actually one of the nicer things i have been called. You are right though, I definately do not fit in a "9 to 5" world. Start when there is work and go until there is none. You are really a dear for putting up with my post. I can come up with some really off the wall stuff.

  15. #15
    Cyburbian Michele Zone's avatar
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    I don't think it is all that off the wall. I think the question fits well with a humanties education -- with exploring how humans work and what rubrics work when you have very different people, etc. The value of much art and literature is in the act of wrestling with such questions. Classical Greek tragedies are filled with examples of errors in thinking or failed communication leading to terrible outcomes -- like the one where the guy says he will come back with black sails if someone dies, then comes back with sales blackened from exposure to smoke and the person who sees the black sails and thinks it means that someone died then commits suicide. I see over and over a great deal of tragedy that comes out of lack of ability to effectively communicate with folks who think differently or whose personal experiences are different from one's own. Any effort to better understand such differences and how to reach across the chasm will make you more effective at what you do.

  16. #16
    Cyburbian Michele Zone's avatar
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    Movies as modern "literature"

    I see movies as a form of modern "literature". It is how we tell stories. Some of them are just entertainment but many of them are quite deep and philosophical. I can think of three to recommend at the moment:

    1) Cool Runnings: Based on the true story of the first Jamaican bobsled team, it is upbeat, extremely funny, and an all around feel-good movie that also gives examples of how to get things done when you try to do The Impossible. I have heard that they took some creative license, such as rolling two real people into one movie character, but it is basically the story of these real-life events. I find it inspiring to watch.

    2) Groundhog Day: Many people may not know it, but after Bill Murray made his first million off of sheer raw talent and innate genius (in "Ghostbusters"), he went to The Sorbonne to get a proper education in philosophy and history. I think it really shows in this comedy which asks many of the classic philosophical questions, such as "If you had only one day to live, what would you do?" and comes up with some of the classic philosophical answers, such as "Live as though you'll die tomorrow. Learn as though you'll live forever." (For a not so funny philosophical movie by Murray, you could watch "The Razor's Edge".)

    3) Monster's Inc.: Okay, it's a kiddie movie. But it has great ideas in it, like the monster's are terrified of kids, whom they think can destroy their world (classic fear of anyone who is different) and that laughter produces much more energy (for their dying energy plant) than screams do. I found this movie suprisingly deep.

    I recommend these movies in part because I think it is much easier to face conflict, controversy, and all the nay-sayers, pessimists and folks wanting you to "be realistic" if you are upbeat and having a good laugh about it all. I think it makes the difference between being "thick skinned" and resilient versus being calloused and crusty. And that is what a humanities education is all about: how to be effective without losing your humanity.

  17. #17
    Cyburbian Michele Zone's avatar
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    Philosophical Musings while under fire: A practical application

    Earlier this year, I inadvertently ended up in an argument on a list for parents of very difficult kids. Such lists are typically volatile places, filled with stressed out folks who are short of sleep. People can be very touchy and misunderstandings can quickly turn into a raging inferno. Additionally, in such an environment, my optimism sometimes rubs people very wrong. They don't want me to come in singing "The Sun will come out tomorrow..." Sometimes, they want to know who to blame for the suffering of their beloved child (and their own suffering). In this case, the blame was being laid on doctors and I was attacked for, essentially, trying to be the voice of reason and not join the mob in condemning doctors wholesale. Below are edited versions of two of my e-mails in an exchange with a very upset parent. They did not end the confrontation but were key turning points in getting to where we could both disengage without anyone "losing face", without having to forever watch our backs for the next attack, etc. I thought folks here might find them a worthwhile read to fortify them in their on-going adventures in tilting at windmills and such and perhaps even a source of "pointers" on how to handle upset people in touchy situations.

    WARNING: GRAPHIC EMOTIONAL CONTENT -- NOT INTENDED TO UPSET ANYONE -- MAY NOT BE "WORK SAFE" (I would give it an "R" rating)
    PROCEED AT YOUR OWN DISCRETION


    The First Letter
    ****,
    I didn't begin my comments the other night as a "rebuttal" to you. So I can't really 'refute' your comments point by point because I don't feel my original e-mail was written in that manner.

    I get told by a lot of people that because I am an optimist, I must not be familiar with the horrors of the world. I get told my head is in the sand and I am not being realistic. I don't think that is true. The only "answer" I have is this:

    When I was a little girl, I was sexually abused over a long period of time. I attempted suicide and spent time in a mental institution when I was still in my teens. I spent a lot of time in therapy, in both my teens and in my twenties. In my twenties, while living in Germany, I regularly shared my thoughts on rape and what I was doing in therapy with a close friend of mine. Later, when she left her husband, he decided that if "I can't have you, no one can". He kidnapped, beat, raped and tortured her for 4 hours, intent upon killing her. She survived and escaped. When I returned to the U.S., I told her one day that I felt really bad that I had not been there for her in her hour of need because I was still living in Germany. Her reply to that was "But you were there. Even while he was beating and raping me, I remembered our conversations and I knew that it did not matter if he hurt me with his fist or his penis: it was not about sex. It was about hurting me and controlling me. You shielded me during the worst of it."

    I learned that day that I am not defined by what has happened to me. I am defined by what I choose to do with my experiences. Hemingway once said "Life breaks us all and some grow stronger in the broken places." Aldous Huxley said "Experience is not what happens to us. It is what we do with what happens to us." I hold such sayings near and dear.

    I don't expect you to believe me. It isn't a story I usually tell so publicly. You are already pretty hostile towards me and I don't expect to win you over or something. But maybe others will believe me and, therefore, be less shocked when I remain optimistic in the face of whatever evidence you present to me that this world is a terrible place. But, honestly, I hope you don't try too hard to convince me that you are right and I should go around horrified at everything. To my mind, it seems like a campaign to break my spirit. I never understand why good people seem to want to do that.

    Peace,
    Michele
    The Second Letter
    **** said:
    At what point do we say, "I don't care that you speak idealistically. Who you are, as expressed by what you are doing, is destructive"?
    ****,
    Again, there is a very good reason we have the saying "The road to hell is paved with good intentions". Doctors often have Good Intentions -- or think they do -- just as I am sure you think you have Good Intentions in attacking me, claiming that I am stupid and ill-informed for the crime of not being angry and depressed -- as if my emotional state says anything at all about what I know -- and picking and choosing whatever you want to attack in my e-mails and not responding at all to anything else, neither to acknowledge that I might have a point nor to admit you may have been in error, etc. Just as doctors have a group-think, this list does too and many people here will side with you because many people here are as angry as you are and see it the same way you see it. Replying to you at all puts me in real danger of being the victim of a mob scene.

    I, personally, am very slow to condemn a human being. I may be quick to condemn their actions but if I used the rubric you list above, I would have already concluded that your treatment of me in this conversation "proves" that you are "evil". But I do not see it that way. What I see is this: You are hurt and angry and lashing out. You don't know me well, which means the conversation lacks context. E-mail communication leaves out voice tone, body language and facial expressions -- which convey the vast majority of meaning in a face to face conversation. The actual words we use carry only a small part of the meaning we are trying to convey. etc.

    Helen Keller said:

    • It is wonderful how much time good people spend fighting the devil. If they would only expend the same amount of energy loving their fellow men, the devil would die in his own tracks of ennui.
    ----
    I find Helen Keller inspirational. Some of my thoughts along those lines: I have never found hatred to be an antidote to hatred. I have never found that my anger extinguishes the anger of an enemy. I have never found that blaming someone and embarrassing and insulting them brings them to realize the error of their way and clean up their bad behavior. I have never found revenge very satisfying. I have found it to be an excellent way to turn a person into a bitter-to-the-end enemy who will never let it go and will seek to escalate things every chance they get.

    I have found that compassion for folks who are angry at me sometimes does help calm things down. I have found that patience and tolerance can go a long way to reduce hatred and anger and the hurt and fear which fuel them. I have found that if I am courteous on an e-mail list, even to those who would attack me, it makes the list a safer place for all to open their mouths without fear that the entire group will gang up on them and claim they brought it upon themselves.


    Helen Keller also said:
    • Although the world is full of suffering, it is also full of the overcoming of it.
    • Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement. Nothing can be done without hope or confidence.
    • Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. The fearful are caught as often as the bold.
    • While they were saying among themselves it cannot be done, it was done.


    In closing, let me note that I do agree with your basic point that the training of doctors in America is seriously flawed. And my 1:00 am comments the other night had no intention whatsoever of "rebutting" that. I really don't want to fight with you.

    Michele

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