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Thread: A career in planning? Equity and urban planning

  1. #1
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    A career in planning? Equity and urban planning

    Hi there,

    I am currently in my second year, studying Urban Studies and Equity Studies at the University of Toronto, and am considering pursuing a career in Urban Studies. I am not too sure whether this is the right sort of area for me though. Although as a child - elementary/middle school - I was facinated with maps and city planning (from Sim City), I lost interest in High School, so its interesting how its gone full circle, now that I am reconsidering this area. The reason I went into Urban Studies was because of my interest and concern in urban issues like homelessness, urban poverty, and environmental racism. Another reason is my politics, I subscribe to anarchism, specifically some of the ideas produced by Murray Bookchin (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Murray_Bookchin). A major conflict within in Anarchist thought is whether anarchism could exist under urban spatial circumstances; Bookchin argues that it could, as long as cities are decentralized institutionally, more straight forward, and physically, a bit more difficult. He does not provide specific details on physical decentralization however, and that is why I took up Urban Studies, to hopefully apply anarchist thought to urban theory/planning. I don't want to go straight into teaching however, and would like to actually work in the area of planning, at least at first. My goals as a planner would be to a) short term - make the city a kinder, healthier, more friendly place (I know that sounds pretty vague), b) long term - contribute to reorganizing our phyiscal space to prepare for transition to an anarchist society. The question is, could I apply equity with urban planning, and help people with this profession? I was speaking to a friend of mine who shares similar politics, and she expressed dismay about how conservative this profession is; is this true? Does anyone know anything about Colin Ward or Clyde Weaver? They are anarchist planners, but I haven't been able to obtain any of their books on planning.

    Also, as an INFP (Meyers Brigg's Typology), I guess I am pretty good with conflict resolution, dealing with people (as long as they don't step past my boundaries), and also speak Cantonese and Mandarin (I grew up in Hong Kong), but I am not too good with math. I don't have too much experience with GIS and other technical Urban Planning skills either, as my background is not geography. Is urban planning math intensive? Any other advice you guys would give me?


    Sorry about all these questions. Thanks.

    I also forgot to ask, would my politics hurt my job prospects? I already turned down a nomination for appointment as International Secretary of an Ontario-base anarchist organization I work with, because of time and possible impact on jobs (I will continue to work, just don't want a high-profile position). I want to either work in public-sector or non-profit. Some people think its hypocritical to work for the government, but as Noam Chomsky said, using a Brazilian rural workers' movement analogy, "they say that they must expand the floor of the cage, until the point when they can break the bars. At times, that even requires defense of the cage against even worse predators outside". I don't see anything wrong with the state and trying to work within it to further decentralize power and to reshape society towards a more equitable form, while recognizing its inherent flaws.

    Ok, I've gone a bit off topic. I've expressed this concern with Career Counselors at school, but I don't think they understand. They just assume I mean the NDP or something.
    Last edited by NHPlanner; 26 Dec 2007 at 9:27 AM.

  2. #2
    Cyburbian MacheteJames's avatar
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    Dear Flamehawk,

    Given what you've posted about yourself, I'm not sure that you would be happy with the day to day life of a municipal planner. This line of work is all about compromise and is very political by nature. If you enter the profession and immediately begin working to push an anarchist agenda, you're gonna run into big trouble. We are not politicians, and although a big portion of our work involves steering the development of our communities in the most equitable way possible, the reality of the work involves stuff like site plan review, writing neighborhood and comprehensive plans, and working with the various local boards.

    You sound like you'd be a much better fit in the nonprofit community development world. Back when I worked at a CDC, I had colleagues who worked as community organizers and a lot of their views parallel yours. The work is grassroots by nature and involves working with neighborhood residents to ensure that their needs are not overlooked by the local power structure.

    I hope this is useful.

  3. #3
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    Quote Originally posted by MacheteJames View post
    Dear Flamehawk,

    Given what you've posted about yourself, I'm not sure that you would be happy with the day to day life of a municipal planner. This line of work is all about compromise and is very political by nature. If you enter the profession and immediately begin working to push an anarchist agenda, you're gonna run into big trouble. We are not politicians, and although a big portion of our work involves steering the development of our communities in the most equitable way possible, the reality of the work involves stuff like site plan review, writing neighborhood and comprehensive plans, and working with the various local boards.

    You sound like you'd be a much better fit in the nonprofit community development world. Back when I worked at a CDC, I had colleagues who worked as community organizers and a lot of their views parallel yours. The work is grassroots by nature and involves working with neighborhood residents to ensure that their needs are not overlooked by the local power structure.

    I hope this is useful.
    Not an answer I was hoping for, but I appreciate the honesty. I could see how this profession could become quite depressing if I have to work against my ethical values everyday. Quite honestly, I plan to represent the disadvantaged and marginalized, and would not be happy if my job was simply to broker deals between various stakeholders. About site plan reviews, comprehensive plans etc., although I don't have much practical experience with this (the Urban Studies program at UofT is theory-based, there aren't any design studio courses for example), I still think that I might find this sort of work interesting. I enjoy research, canvassing, writing, and creative work.

    A professor suggested I look into Paul Davidoff's "advocacy planning". I haven't read much about it yet, but if someone else knows more about it, I'd appreciate if they'd comment on whether there's any opportunities in that area. Something else that inspired me to look into city planning was Jaime Lerner's work in Curibiti, Brazil. But I suppose the opportunity to implement such a plan would only arise depending on the politicians in office.

    Yea, community organizing is another area I am looking into. I'd probably go for law school if I went with that instead, I am just looking at all the possibilities. Its very difficult to find a progressive occupation that allows you to put food on the table, thats how society works right now unfortunately.

    Hi

    Sorry, could a mod please delete the two threads without replies. I assumed that they threads weren't going to be posted sinc ehtere was a link on it (hense the triple post).
    Last edited by NHPlanner; 26 Dec 2007 at 9:28 AM.

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    Anyone else? Any advice would be much appreciated. I'll leave final judgment until after I take a planning course next year, but it'd be quite beneficial to hear from people actually involved with the profession.

  5. #5
    Just wanted to say this is my interest as well and hope that potential planners with this interest aren't redirected just to nonprofit jobs where the influence of planners is removed. Any other suggestions would be very welcome, and looking forward to reading hawk's thoughts.

  6. #6
    Cyburbian
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    Hello!

    I think if you could provide more specific details about what you hope to achieve by being a planner, that might help in the formulation of replies.

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    Well, to be honest, my understanding of what a planner actually does is fairly vague. My only understand is from about one or two classes in my Intro to Urban Studies program, which only focused on urban planning theories not the practical day to day stuff, and some of my own readings.

    I am interested in policies like zoning requirements for developers to include affordable housing units, expropriation of unused buildings for affordable housing, working against environmental discrimination, promoting public space etc. I do realize that its unlikely a lot of these specific policies would be undertaken by planners, and would instead be under the responsibility of municipal councilors. So really, I was wondering if a planner played any part in these examples.

  8. #8
    Cyburbian
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    No. Planners have nothing to do with anarchy. Absolutely not.

    Public planners are government bureaucrats. They have two masters: the elected officials and the communities.

    Planners will only advocate affordable housing if the politicians want them to. If the community wants affordable housing, planners will help draft new zoning regulations - only when the politicians tell them to.

    Additionally, public (and most private) planning operations are hierarchical, regimented workplaces.

    You'd be better off finding work with the feel-good social advocacy group of your choice.

  9. #9
    Cyburbian MacheteJames's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by PennPlanner View post
    No. Planners have nothing to do with anarchy. Absolutely not.

    Public planners are government bureaucrats. They have two masters: the elected officials and the communities.

    Planners will only advocate affordable housing if the politicians want them to. If the community wants affordable housing, planners will help draft new zoning regulations - only when the politicians tell them to.

    Additionally, public (and most private) planning operations are hierarchical, regimented workplaces.

    You'd be better off finding work with the feel-good social advocacy group of your choice.
    A bit reductionist, don't you think? The day I call myself a bureaucrat is the day I leave this line of work and go back to the nonprofit world. Ick.

    We follow the politicians' directives as long as they are legal. Elected officials tend to make numerous erroneous, misguided, and even illegal directives from time to time, and it is up to us to push back when necessary and promote sound, equitable development. Part of doing this work is being able to persuade and sell your ideas to the elected officials and community. That's an art, not a science, and when it comes to this, bureaucrats (again, I cringe) need not apply.

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    Quote Originally posted by PennPlanner View post
    No. Planners have nothing to do with anarchy. Absolutely not.

    Public planners are government bureaucrats. They have two masters: the elected officials and the communities.

    Planners will only advocate affordable housing if the politicians want them to. If the community wants affordable housing, planners will help draft new zoning regulations - only when the politicians tell them to.

    Additionally, public (and most private) planning operations are hierarchical, regimented workplaces.

    You'd be better off finding work with the feel-good social advocacy group of your choice.
    You may have misinterpreted what my anarchist political philosophy is, its not individualist, my master would be the community, minus the elected official.

    Anyways, its rather depressing to hear your characterization of the profession. I'd like to think that planners have some influence, albeit small, over policy. I mean, its not like you automatically support whatever the elected official puts forward. You might ultimately have to follow the directions, but thats not to say they couldn't advocate.
    Quote Originally posted by MacheteJames View post
    A bit reductionist, don't you think? The day I call myself a bureaucrat is the day I leave this line of work and go back to the nonprofit world. Ick.

    We follow the politicians' directives as long as they are legal. Elected officials tend to make numerous erroneous, misguided, and even illegal directives from time to time, and it is up to us to push back when necessary and promote sound, equitable development. Part of doing this work is being able to persuade and sell your ideas to the elected officials and community. That's an art, not a science, and when it comes to this, bureaucrats (again, I cringe) need not apply.
    Well, that was what I was thinking. Its obvious a planner isn't able to single handedly decide to zone a certain way, order construction of affordable housing, etc., nor should they, but that's not to say a planner can't attempt to influence. While deep down, I may object and question the legitimacy of power holders, the 'revolution' is not happening tomorrow, and therefore, I see my role as trying to steer policy, however illegitimate power holders are, towards more equitable conclusions. I see the day job as supplement to my activism. With activism serving the long term goal of replacing our current social organizations with what I believe is a more equitable alternative through education, organizing etc., my work as a planner would be the short-term baby steps.

    Ultimately, if I do become a planner, I see my role, and envision the planning profession in an anarchist society, as more of an adviser, rather than some sort of decision-maker. The job being to provide technical support and advice for communities to make informed decisions. My professor mentioned work in non-profit community housing corporations etc., this might be more what I am looking for.

    But if being a planner is as PennPlanner described, I should probably look elsewhere.
    Last edited by flamehawk; 09 Jan 2008 at 6:02 PM.

  11. #11
    Unfrozen Caveman Planner mendelman's avatar
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    Well, flamehawk, you'll never get true "anarchy" in any system where you have to build consensus in order to develop land.

    There will always have to be some level of "government" in the equation. Rules for the development of land, even if privately made through contracts, etc, will need some third party mechanism to mediate disputes relating to those contracts. That is where a "government" comes to play - ie "Rule of Law".

    Good luck,though. But you'll have a serious uphill battle to get any anacharic concepts into the present political framework in most modern democrarcies.
    I'm sorry. Is my bias showing?

    Let's not be didactic in this profession, because that is a path to disillusion and irrelevancy.

    Six seasons and a movie!

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    Quote Originally posted by mendelman View post
    Well, flamehawk, you'll never get true "anarchy" in any system where you have to build consensus in order to develop land.

    There will always have to be some level of "government" in the equation. Rules for the development of land, even if privately made through contracts, etc, will need some third party mechanism to mediate disputes relating to those contracts. That is where a "government" comes to play - ie "Rule of Law".

    Good luck,though. But you'll have a serious uphill battle to get any anacharic concepts into the present political framework in most modern democrarcies.
    Thanks for the comment Mendelman, but I think you've misunderstood me. Firstly, my conception of anarchism is not a sort of chaotic, anything goes, social organization. What we won't have however, is this sort of top-down approach to governance, representatives deciding on behalf of the people. There will still be 'laws' etc., just that they will be decided directly, through a vote or whatever form of decision-making the community decides on. An individual wouldn't be able to simply say, I want to build my home here, and a factory here by the waterfront. It would have to be decided by the community.

    ____
    edit: rereading your post, I myself might have misunderstood you, but my point is, that you must still secure a level of consensus (though not between businesses and other stakeholders as in today's society) in an anarchy
    ________


    Secondly, yea, anarchic principles in present liberal democratic political frameworks are unlikely to be put in practice. In truth, concepts of capitalist 'bourgeois democracy' and direct democracy are antithetical. I don't see the societies I belong to, Canada/Hong Kong, becoming an anarchy overnight. My goal in the specific area of planning, would be to gain experience and knowledge, in order to provide planning theories that could be implemented to allow for smaller-scale, self-sustained communities, what I see as a prerequisite for direct, face-to-face democracy. This will be in addition to a steering current planning policies towards more equitable goals and perhaps attempting to push for more community involvement in urban planning, though I have to be realistic as to how far I'd be able to go with involving the community.

    Haha, what I am talking about might seem like pipe dreams, like my head is up in the clouds/overly idealistic. But I really believe in this, so just try to respect my opinion ; if anything, its less idealistic than to think that our current system could lead to an equitable, just world.
    Last edited by mendelman; 09 Jan 2008 at 9:21 PM.

  13. #13
    Cyburbian
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    Quote Originally posted by flamehawk View post
    Ultimately, if I do become a planner, I see my role, and envision the planning profession in an anarchist society, as more of an adviser, rather than some sort of decision-maker. The job being to provide technical support and advice for communities to make informed decisions. My professor mentioned work in non-profit community housing corporations etc., this might be more what I am looking for.

    If you want to work in government, specifically current planning, you WILL make decisions, and they won't always be perfectly in line with your overall goals/ideology/etc. I can't advise someone not to pull 5 trailers on their property. I have to tell them NO.

    Sometimes nice people come in and want to do something that might actually be good, but is against the rules. I can talk to my boss about changing the rules, but the answer is still no.

    You would be making a lot of compromises.

  14. #14
    NIMBY asshatterer Plus Richmond Jake's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by MacheteJames View post
    ....[snip]... The day I call myself a bureaucrat is the day I leave this line of work and go back to the nonprofit world. Ick. ...[snip]....
    From Merriam-Webster:
    1 a: a body of nonelective government officials b: an administrative policy-making group
    2: government characterized by specialization of functions, adherence to fixed rules, and a hierarchy of authority
    From Wiki:

    Max Weber defined a bureaucratic official as the following:

    He is personally free and appointed to his position on the basis of conduct
    He exercises the authority delegated to him in accordance with impersonal rules, and his loyalty is enlisted on behalf of the faithful execution of his official duties
    His appointment and job placement are dependent upon his technical qualifications
    His administrative work is a full-time occupation
    His work is rewarded by a regular salary and prospects of advancement in a lifetime career
    He must exercise his judgment and his skills, but his duty is to place these at the service of a higher authority. Ultimately he is responsible only for the impartial execution of assigned tasks and must sacrifice his personal judgment if it runs counter to his official duties.
    Bureaucratic control is the use of rules, regulations, and formal authority to guide performance. It includes such things as budgets, statistical reports, and performance appraisals to regulate behavior and results.
    And you have a problem with that?

    S/
    Proud Bureaucrat

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    Quote Originally posted by Tresmo View post
    If you want to work in government, specifically current planning, you WILL make decisions, and they won't always be perfectly in line with your overall goals/ideology/etc. I can't advise someone not to pull 5 trailers on their property. I have to tell them NO.

    Sometimes nice people come in and want to do something that might actually be good, but is against the rules. I can talk to my boss about changing the rules, but the answer is still no.

    You would be making a lot of compromises.

    I guess, under the current system, that wouldn't be my job, though I am sure 'advising' will still be a part of it - 'advising the gov't?'.

    I am going to be making compromises either way that go against my ideology. It's a compromise in itself, though I haven't been given much of a choice, to be living in this society. I guess the question is how much of a compromise I am willing ot make.

    I might be better suited, should I pursue planning, for non-profit/public housing corporations. But I am a bit confused as to what exactly a planner working in those areas does? I'd appreciate it if someone could shed some light on this.

    Cheers

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    Quote Originally posted by RichmondJake View post
    From Merriam-Webster:

    From Wiki:



    And you have a problem with that?

    S/
    Proud Bureaucrat
    I think he's referring more to ..

    Also from M-W
    2. an official who works by fixed routine without exercising intelligent judgment.
    from American Heritage Dictionary
    Someone who works in or controls a bureaucracy. The term is often used negatively to describe a petty, narrow-minded person.


    Sorta like the protagonist city planner in the film Ikiru, before he found out about his cancer.

  17. #17
    Cyburbian
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    Quote Originally posted by flamehawk View post

    I might be better suited, should I pursue planning, for non-profit/public housing corporations. But I am a bit confused as to what exactly a planner working in those areas does? I'd appreciate it if someone could shed some light on this.

    Cheers
    Several of my tutors during my undergrad days worked for such organisations before, but their roles were mostly a mix of advisory and advocacy. Advisory in the sense that with new large planning proposals, they would evaluate whether the proposal was suitable: traffic, land use, urban design etc. Advocacy in the sense that they rally the community to support / object the proposal, through writing, public meetings, etc. But take note that they do not work for the government - instead they work for non-profit or community groups.

  18. #18
    Cyburbian MacheteJames's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by flamehawk View post

    I might be better suited, should I pursue planning, for non-profit/public housing corporations. But I am a bit confused as to what exactly a planner working in those areas does? I'd appreciate it if someone could shed some light on this.

    Cheers
    I knew a number of folks with planning degrees who worked at CDCs as project managers for housing development. I did it myself (though my degree was in economic development, not planning). In this role, your task is to see housing projects through from predevelopment/visioning, securing funding by patching together a variety of local, state, and federal sources, going out to bid for a general contractor, and then managing construction until completion. This job requires a degree of entrepreneurship, because you're literally going out there and looking for burned out and derelict buildings in distressed neighborhoods to purchase and redevelop. A knowledge of finance and accounting is needed in order to make the numbers work, too. In this capacity, you're really not a planner per se, but are something else entirely.

  19. #19
    Cyburbian
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    Quote Originally posted by flamehawk View post
    I guess, under the current system, that wouldn't be my job, though I am sure 'advising' will still be a part of it - 'advising the gov't?'.
    Yeah, you'd be advising them but that advice is based on the ordinances, not on your personal feelings. I've seen a planner go up in front of the commission with a project he thought was good and make an ass of himself trying to convince them. He spent 20 minutes talking (more than the usual 3 or so). Didn't go over well.

    Quote Originally posted by flamehawk View post
    I guess the question is how much of a compromise I am willing ot make.
    That's your biggest issue. You do want to keep in mind that with any career you're not going to be able to jump in and do exactly what you want. There will be a supervisor who will have his or her own agenda that you'll have to meet. As you get more experience over the years, you'd be able to try your own methods.

  20. #20
    Cyburbian
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    Quote Originally posted by PennPlanner View post
    Public planners are government bureaucrats. They have two masters: the elected officials and the communities.
    I guess as public planners, we do have other masters as well (assuming you are a junior planner), e.g. developers, business groups, senior planners, the "planning system", other professionals like engineers, etc. :P
    Last edited by joshww81; 10 Jan 2008 at 11:27 PM.

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    I wonder what you think about this quote from Edward Relph's "The Modern Urban Landscape"

    Planning acts as a constraint to the more outlandish activities of developers .... it ensures that minimum social provisions are made in any development. The narrow private interests of developers are thus made wider by planners representing the public interest.
    The last line, about representing public interest against corporate behaviours - externalities, is what sort of got me interested in planning. It is quite clear that governments and corporations have colluded, its the very logic of the system we have, but I'd like to think some limited changes can be made towards equity within the system (that said, keeping in mind that its imperative that the system should be replaced). How true do you think is this notion, that planners act to regulate private interests for the public good?

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    Quote Originally posted by flamehawk View post
    I wonder what you think about this quote from Edward Relph's "The Modern Urban Landscape"



    The last line, about representing public interest against corporate behaviours - externalities, is what sort of got me interested in planning. It is quite clear that governments and corporations have colluded, its the very logic of the system we have, but I'd like to think some limited changes can be made towards equity within the system (that said, keeping in mind that its imperative that the system should be replaced). How true do you think is this notion, that planners act to regulate private interests for the public good?
    No one? Its my last question really.



    I really wish there was less pessimism, what I am detecting, in planning as something progressive and just. Because really, being apolitical, is just another word for saying support for the status-quo, there really isn't such a thing as 'apolitical'. Not that there's anything wrong with that per-say if you think what we have is just and equitable, but I have a feeling most would find that idea quite absurd.

    I don't know, perhaps these things only exist in film. But I kind of found it inspiring, in Ikiru, how the career bureaucrat planner, has a paradigm shift after cancer, and starts questioning bureaucracy and rediscovering his purpose. To work for the underprivileged, instead of simply claiming to 'follow rules' and be 'apolitical'. Same with Hands over the City, though not really focused on the planning occupation itself, but question the power imbalances in city politics. Where real estate speculation and profits take precedence over people. Again, not an accusation that planners are immoral or what not, but it does appear that social issues are being left out of the equation or not given enough of an emphasis. I got similar feelings from reading about the emergence of the planning profession, in Peter Hall's City of Tomorrow. The idea of planning as opposition against the construction of cities without consideration for the people, the marginalized, who will end up living in these built environments. I hope what had inspired me is still true today.

  23. #23
    Cyburbian MacheteJames's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by flamehawk View post
    No one? Its my last question really.


    I really wish there was less pessimism, what I am detecting, in planning as something progressive and just. Because really, being apolitical, is just another word for saying support for the status-quo, there really isn't such a thing as 'apolitical'. Not that there's anything wrong with that per-say if you think what we have is just and equitable, but I have a feeling most would find that idea quite absurd.

    I
    You know, I really do believe that urban planning can be something progressive and just. This belief is what allows me to wake up and go to work each morning. I try to filter all the decisions I make through this ... although as I said before, many decisions are in fact made for us and we are called upon to execute.

    As far as support for the status quo: in my municipality, we are working on a new comp plan. We have held numerous public meetings in order to present the plan to the public, get input, etc. Guess who came to these meetings? 98% of the attendees were those who you might term "insiders". Folks who are active in the community, own property, etc. You might call them the enfranchised, as opposed to the disenfranchised. This is a very diverse community but you certainly wouldn't know it from the attendance at these meetings. We (the planning staff) do our damnedest to be inclusive - we want everyone in the community to have their voice heard, but it just doesn't pan out that way all too often. Perhaps it's an issue of social capital, or lack thereof. Maybe it relates to the hierarchy of needs... i.e. folks who live every day in fear of the INS aren't going to care about downtown redevelopment. I don't know quite where I'm going with this, but I want you to understand that there is a role for promoting social equity within the framework of municipal planning, however difficult it may prove to be.

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    Colin Ward

    This comes a bit late in the discussion, but, well, I just registered on the forum I just wanted to jump in with some info on Colin Ward. I've been looking into his work for a project, and as a starting point, his book "Anarchy in Action" would not be a bad idea. There are two chapters there of interest, one on planning and another one on housing, and these chapters are full of ideas and references. Then there are two collections of essays that might interest you: "Talking to Architects" and "Talking Houses". They can be found in the british version of Amazon, at least.

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    Local government

    Is this thread still alive? I'm searching all over the net for anarchist urban planners to talk to and build solidarity with. I plan to write a PhD on anarchist urban planning and want to talk to more people about it.

    I worked in local government for a year and felt dirty, like I was whoring out my brain for cash, because the work wasn't fulfilling in any way. I wasn't making the town a better place, I was enforcing the status quo and protecting property values. This may be a problem for other planners who identify as anarchists. Now I work for free on projects that I believe in.

    x

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