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Poll results: Your personal attitude, as a planner (real or 'armchair'), towards ever-expanding suburban areas

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  • Suburbs rule!

    1 0.93%
  • It doesn't matter; my role in a free society is to advise on tech aspects not influence urban form

    7 6.48%
  • My role is to help shape the built environment, but I can't really stop people wanting suburbs

    49 45.37%
  • Planners should actively discourage sprawl and encourage denser forms

    47 43.52%
  • Low-density suburbs are a plague upon the earth; in a perfect world they would be banned entirely

    11 10.19%
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Thread: Your personal attitude, as a planner (real or 'armchair'), towards ever-expanding suburban areas

  1. #1
    Cyburbian Luca's avatar
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    Your personal attitude, as a planner (real or 'armchair'), towards ever-expanding suburban areas

    let's try again
    Life and death of great pattern languages

  2. #2
    Unfrozen Caveman Planner mendelman's avatar
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    I voted that I can try to influence the built environment, but I can't stop people wanting to live a suburban lifestyle.

    But really what I am trending toward in my career is to try to encourage the shortest jobs/shopping/entertainment trips as possible and they can be done in "suburbs" as well as central cities.

    Moderator note:
    Also, luca, please put more effort into your thread starting posts than what you have in this one. One line substance free posts are discouraged.
    I'm sorry. Is my bias showing?

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

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  3. #3
    Cyburbian
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    Are they really still "ever-expanding"?... A lot of new sprawl is still going on north of the border, but down here in the US, I think it's safe to say that new sprawl is, for the moment at least, unfinanceable. Cali's (Cali has a population of 39 million) had only 43,000 new homes permitted in 2010 and half of those are infill multi-family. If one assumes that the single family units are all sprawl (which would be an exaggeration) and given the typical densities and typologies we've been seeing, that's less than 5 square miles of additional new sprawl in the entire state last year. Hardly runaway growth.

    This year to date is even more interesting. Through May, we've seen roughly 8,000 new single family homes and 8,000 new apartment and condo units permitted. All the homes built in the last five months add up to the area of a single mid-sized farm in the Central Valley. In San Diego County (population 3,000,000 approximately), year-to-date, there's been 740 new single family homes permitted and 1,620 multi-unit homes permitted. And San Diego's hasn't been hit nearly as hard as the rest of the state (hence 1/4th the starts and 1/12th the population of the entire state).

    My personal attitude as a planner is that comp plans and zoning have to adapt to the new reality - where fewer people can afford a home and where financing for the most sprawl-centric product is all but unavailable. Florida - with something like 1.4 million units of excess inventory - did exactly the opposite of what they should have when it recently ended the DRI review process for largescale developments, because it was viewed by the building industry as being too restrictive. Too restrictive? 1.4 million units of excess inventory, entire built towns sitting empty is too much restrictive regulation of land-use? Seriously? They're seriously (and clinically) in denial. Land-use regulation (or in FL's case, the lack thereof) cannot create demand for product that doesn't - and, economically speaking, shouldn't - exist.
    Last edited by Cismontane; 15 Jun 2011 at 12:45 PM.

  4. #4
    Cyburbian
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    Ah, another threads that threatens to go in a predictable direction ...

    I think there was a recent article somewhere that it's not really about "suburb" vs. "city" as walkable environments vs. "sprawl." I know there's a few definitions of sprawl, but what I think of includes non-rural densities too low to support multi-modal options or to use land efficiently in a growing region; large areas of single uses or single-unit types; lack of street connectivity; and consequently lack of transportation options, open space preservation, etc. Growth and suburbs are not sprawl per se, and while many people may want to (at some point) live in a single-family home, that does not mean they don't want planners to positively influence the built environment at the neighborhood and macro-scale. I think there are many areas planners can positively influence the built environment, particularly if the decision makers and stakeholders choose to go in that direction. Its fairly clear the market was not churning out single-use, single-unit-type developments, at least not where I live, during the last couple decades.

    I think all the threads about "suburb vs. city," single-family vs. multi-family, contain lots of straw men and as planners we should be having more subtle discussions about these issues. Sure, there are people on either side who cheer on the old suburban model, or would rather see us all in very urban areas, but I think most planning is occurring in between these extremes.

  5. #5
    Cyburbian rcgplanner's avatar
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    While I am not a fan of the homogenous suburbs, where it is nearly impossible to tell one community from another, it is something we planners will have to continue to deal with. My attitude is not so much where people live, but giving people options for walkable communities and multiple modes of transportation, as mendelman stated can be done in suburbs or cities.

  6. #6
    Cyburbian Luca's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by docwatson View post
    ...it's not really about "suburb" vs. "city" as walkable environments vs. "sprawl."
    On one level I agree.
    On another level I think that there is an element of prevarication in the quote above. Density is not perahps teh only element in wlakability but certainly a major one. And that emans a city. SImilarly, with exceedingly rare exceptions, modern-day suburbs are ivnariably pedestrian-unfirendly and with "no there, there". It si therefore unsurprising that as a shrothand people conflate 'suburb' with 'car-oriented sprawl' and 'city' with 'pedestrian-oorientted density'.

    My poll was motivated by the fact that many recent threads evince a sense that, for actual professional planners, the default form they work with is car-centric, very-low-density (suburban) and that, even in the "design, space and place" forum, there is a great deal of "fatigue" with critiques of this form.
    My curiosity si whether this si inded the case; If indeed the average planner on this site thinks that a spatial arrangement liek SoBe / Charleston / Brooklyn / a thousand old downtowns is practically and perhaps even morally equivalent to wide-scale strip malls and subdivisions. I don't seek to convince or castigate, just to understand.
    Life and death of great pattern languages

  7. #7
    Cyburbian
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    Density is not perahps teh only element in wlakability but certainly a major one. And that emans a city. SImilarly, with exceedingly rare exceptions, modern-day suburbs are ivnariably pedestrian-unfirendly and with "no there, there". It si therefore unsurprising that as a shrothand people conflate 'suburb' with 'car-oriented sprawl' and 'city' with 'pedestrian-oorientted density'.

    My poll was motivated by the fact that many recent threads evince a sense that, for actual professional planners, the default form they work with is car-centric, very-low-density (suburban) and that, even in the "design, space and place" forum, there is a great deal of "fatigue" with critiques of this form.
    I think we need to move away from the shorthand, in not just planning but in the popular discourse, as it leads to little constructive dialogue. I try to use the literal meaning of sub-urb: an urb that is secondary to its primary urb (more or less). I agree this generally means lower density, but I don't think it necessitates the negative aspects of 1960-1990s suburbia (unconnected streets, strictly separated land uses and housing types, gross densities of under 4 du/ac; lack of multi-modal options, and often little concern for setting aside natural open space). A well-designed suburb can be structured around (a) transit station(s) and town center, with a transect of diverse housing options and a system of open spaces and trails. It may not be city (or maybe it is a small city in its own right?) but it ties into its region well. If population is growing, I will expect new land will be developed, so I can't say that the development per se is wrong, but rather than development patterns need be considered.

    If indeed the average planner on this site thinks that a spatial arrangement liek SoBe / Charleston / Brooklyn / a thousand old downtowns is practically and perhaps even morally equivalent to wide-scale strip malls and subdivisions.
    I think the impacts of different development patterns have to be considered to answer this question - measured in metrics such as conversion of prime farmland or natural areas, vehicle miles traveled, GHG emissions, transportation choice, access to open spaces, active living and health, and fiscal responsibility. And squishier things like placemaking, happiness (dare we consider this?), social integration, etc. Again, I feel if we simply hide behind the "but sprawl is what everybody wants" mantra [questionably extrapolated from preferences for single-family housing] we are selling planning short and contributing to the perception that it is a "minor profession".

  8. #8
    Cyburbian
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    IMO, we should present credible alternatives for sprawl in a thoughtful and informed way. For me at least, that means we should coming up with locally specific solutions that solve stakeholder concerns, not just be mindless shills for New Urbanist/Smartcode doctrine. At the end of the day, each region and each community needs its own answer to sprawl, not an anti-sprawl blueprint drawn up at anti-sprawl central command nexus.

  9. #9
    Unfrozen Caveman Planner mendelman's avatar
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    Also, I want to add one small thing for now - There is typically no "morality" in land development or peferring/encouraging one form over another.
    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!

  10. #10
    moderator in moderation Suburb Repairman's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Cismontane View post
    IMO, we should present credible alternatives for sprawl in a thoughtful and informed way. For me at least, that means we should coming up with locally specific solutions that solve stakeholder concerns, not just be mindless shills for New Urbanist/Smartcode doctrine. At the end of the day, each region and each community needs its own answer to sprawl, not an anti-sprawl blueprint drawn up at anti-sprawl central command nexus.
    Exactly.

    I think part of the 'fatigue' the original poster references as an observation from experiences in other Cyburbia threads is a product of the approach of many New Urbanists. I generally support new urbanist efforts, multi-modal models, transect, etc., but I find many of NU's most vocal supports, particularly SmartCode advocates, take on an almost proselytizing, religious tone to their approach, often lacking any sense of pragmatism and paying only lip service to adapting such concepts to the local perspective. Also, many of us have become increasingly concerned after witnessing some ugly public meetings involving SmartCodes in which advocates spend their time tearing down the existing model (essentially insulting everyone in the room) rather than effectively making the case for why this new approach is better. I think many of us are bothered by NU & SmartCodes being treated as a "one size fits all" panacea by its advocates.

    I like the concepts of NU and the SmartCode as I feel those types of approaches represent the best attempt thus far to curb the negative effects of sprawl and put greyfield/brownfield redevelopment efforts on more equal footing with easier greenfield. I actively encourage form and the goals of new urbanism in changes to development codes, design of public spaces, and transportation systems. I actively encourage the city to adopt policies that result in suburb/sprawl modeled development to pay their proportionate fair share. Unfortunately, I think many of the messengers of the NU/SmartCode philosophy, particularly in the consulting community, have done a great disservice. Many do a simply terrible job of framing the concepts to local context, and don't present the benefits in such a way to get effective buy-in.

    Sorry--that's a lot of stream-of-consciousness writing, but I hope it helps you to understand why some of us may give of a slightly cynical perspective in regards to these issues. Some of us have experienced this first hand, including failed projects.
    Last edited by Suburb Repairman; 17 Jun 2011 at 9:12 AM.

    "Oh, that is all well and good, but, voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country."

    - Herman Göring at the Nuremburg trials (thoughts on democracy)

  11. #11
    Cyburbian ColoGI's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by mendelman View post
    Also, I want to add one small thing for now - There is typically no "morality" in land development or peferring/encouraging one form over another.
    But there is morality in providing supportive and quality environments.

  12. #12
    Cyburbian
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    The suburbs are always going to be popular with families who want large homes, on large lots in safe neighborhoods. However, they are a substantial drain on all types of resources. It's all actually financial backwards. People also move to the suburbs because housing is usually cheaper than closer to the center of town. However, suburbs use a disproportionate share of resources. Anyone should be able to live in the suburbs if they choose to, but they should be required to pay more into a resource system somehow to make up the difference they are costing the rest of us by doing so.

  13. #13
    Cyburbian ursus's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by smccutchan1 View post
    Anyone should be able to live in the suburbs if they choose to, but they should be required to pay more into a resource system somehow to make up the difference they are costing the rest of us by doing so.
    Point taken. You're not just talking about tax structure and impact fees, though, I gather. What kind of system would you envision? Might it require an odd layer of goverment to determine what was truly "suburban" enough to require paying into the system, along with collection and re-distribution of those kinds of monies? Very interesting.
    "...I would never try to tick Hink off. He kinda intimidates me. He's quite butch, you know." - Maister

  14. #14
    Cyburbian stroskey's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by smccutchan1 View post
    Anyone should be able to live in the suburbs if they choose to, but they should be required to pay more into a resource system somehow to make up the difference they are costing the rest of us by doing so.
    I'm not a fan of the suburbs but I'll stick up for them on this point. They already do pay more. They pay for the road construction from the developer's when they buy the house. They pay more in gas tax when they commute longer distances. They pay more taxes on garden and lawn care supplies, etc. Where I grew up only about 20% of the metro population lived in the city. The other 80% lived in the suburbs. My guess is those cities take more tax money from the pot than they put in so in some respects suburbs might be paying more than their share. If you live in the city your infrastructure has been there for 100+ years so it's been paid off (no bond issues), you probably drive less, although in a weird way your utility bills are probably higher because the houses are less efficient.
    I burned down the church to atone for my transgressions.

  15. #15
    Cyburbia Administrator Dan's avatar
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    This is probably going to turn into a multi-parter with a few stream-of-consciousness posts. I don't want the message to get lost in a hundred-line thesis of TL/DR.

    First off, personally speaking, my preferred living environment is an older streetcar suburb; someplace platted in the 1920s with an overall density of about 6 du/ac (15 du/ha). These areas tend to have a connected street network, a variety of housing types, a commercial area within a reasonable walking distance, and a diverse range of household types. As the transect crowd would say, something between a T3 and T4. Kind of like the neighborhood in suburban Cleveland where I used to live ...













    Quote Originally posted by Suburb Repairman View post
    I generally support new urbanist efforts, multi-modal models, transect, etc., but I find many of NU's most vocal supports, particularly SmartCode advocates, take on an almost proselytizing, religious tone to their approach, often lacking any sense of pragmatism and paying only lip service to adapting such concepts to the local perspective. Also, many of us have become increasingly concerned after witnessing some ugly public meetings involving SmartCodes in which advocates spend their time tearing down the existing model (essentially insulting everyone in the room) rather than effectively making the case for why this new approach is better. I think many of us are bothered by NU & SmartCodes being treated as a "one size fits all" panacea by its advocates.
    I'm a champion for the SmartCode in the community where I work, but my recommendation comes with several caveats.

    * A SmartCode needs extensive calibration to fit in with the demographic, topographic, cultural, and environmental character of the community; and work its way around larger legal constraints. Just as with conventional zoning, it should not be a one-size-fits-all solution. New York State is fashionably late to the form-based code party, and much of what's in the uncalibrated SmartCode and its modules just isn't possible here due to the state's environmental laws and building codes. The community where I work is collectively smart, open-minded and with a high "planning consciousness", but they don't want a built environment that will be too polished or Disney-esque, so the calibration of the internal working draft has to take that into account.

    * Making the SmartCode mandatory throughout an entire community will be a political and legal nightmare. (I'm recommending it be mandatory for new development in some areas.)

    * The SmartCode has a steep learning curve compared to conventional zoning, even though the code is more concise than most typical zoning codes.

    Also, I make it clear to stakeholders that "I don't drink the New Urbanist kool-aid." The SmartCode is just one tool in my toolbox, and I think it's an ideal solution to a few issues we are facing. It's not a cure-all.

    One thing planners advocating the SmartCode need to make clear is that there's a place for everything, and the SmartCode accommodates lower-density single-household development. Proper calibration and assurances that the code doesn't force change in established neighborhoods should address any concerns that planners are "forcing people to live in little apartments. I promote it as something that will better fill in a "missing middle" -- the gap between large lot subdivisions and low-mod income/student apartment complexes we now have -- than 1970s/1980s-style planned unit development.

    Everyday working planners also need to begin to take ownership of the SmartCode. I think all too often, communities adopting the SmartCode fall back on the "acolytes" of New Urbanism, those that found themselves in the inner circle early on, to do most of the heavy lifting. The people behind the SmartCode do deserve a lot of credit and accolades for crafting and promoting a brilliant document, and making it open source. However, I feel that as a regular working planner -- and the owner of a Web site that the NU crowd doesn't hold in high regard -- there's no room at the table for me, nor for other everyday working planners. Planners are often seen as part of the problem, not the solution. We don't need to convert to Duanyism to add NU/SC to our toolboxes. Besides, if we take ownership of NU, we might be able to revive what some see is a dying profession.

    Consultants definitely have their place, of course. Like I said, SC and FBCs has a steep learning curve; for planners it's like learning a new language, and some of us could use some help from those who are fluent. However, should it be their jobs to remake a community in their desired image? I like the "planner as city doctor" analogy. If I go to the doctor with a problem, they may be blunt about my issues, and recommend some strong prescription medicines and lifestyle changes, but they're not going to tell me that I'm an inherently bad person.

    Next up: suburban mythbusting, suburbia ≠ sprawl, and the ongoing battle between New Urbanism and Landscape Urbanism.
    Growth for growth's sake is the ideology of the cancer cell. -- Edward Abbey

  16. #16
    Cyburbian stroskey's avatar
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    Maybe this is a stupid question - but all of those houses had driveways to the street? Didn't most streetcar suburbs have alleys, making the street scape more unified?
    I burned down the church to atone for my transgressions.

  17. #17
    moderator in moderation Suburb Repairman's avatar
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    What Dan said is exactly what I'm driving at--support comes with caveats in my world, especially when it comes to extensive calibration. And we should be champions in advocating best practices in planning: planner as city doctor = good analogy. But we cannot do it alone--I've yet to see a SmartCode or similar policy adopted that lacked a citizen champion outside of the department/consulting team.

    I'm also slightly jaded because I watched a consultant try to pass off a SmartCode that was supposedly calibrated with insufficient public participation. This consultant also failed in how the message of the SmartCode was defined, neglecting to address key issues and concerns of those that would be affected. There was no citizen champion. The department staff had to resurrect it and it was the working planners that fixed the issues, got the buy-in, and found citizens willing to step-up to be the voice of the process.

    I generally like the SmartCode and am looking at it as part of a solution to some issues in my fair city--one of many tools, as Dan put it. I'm just trying to explain why the original poster may sense some cynicism among us working planners. My whole issue with the cynicism comes from those that have free-based and shot-up Duanyism, failing to adapt their message to the locale and its attitudes. In my opinion, these folks have damaged the positive concepts of NU and the SmartCode by allowing skeptics the cannon fodder to dismiss it as ivory tower/socialist propaganda. Many advocates fail to explain that the SmartCode provides a place for all types of development, and is not just about densification. In contrast, that aspect of FBCs has always been a key emphasis in every presentation I've done on the topic.

    Those that take the pragmatic approach like Dan are the ones that will get the truly successful results.

    "Oh, that is all well and good, but, voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country."

    - Herman Göring at the Nuremburg trials (thoughts on democracy)

  18. #18
    Cyburbia Administrator Dan's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by stroskey View post
    Maybe this is a stupid question - but all of those houses had driveways to the street? Didn't most streetcar suburbs have alleys, making the street scape more unified?
    Off-topic:
    Alleys weren't universal throughout the United States. They were far more common where town plats typically followed a PLSS grid; generally, Toledo and points west. Cleveland is technically in PLSS turf, but the Western Reserve has a much different arrangement of township boundaries and range lines than other PLSS lands.

    Outside of PLSS areas, alleys are the rare exception, not the norm.
    Growth for growth's sake is the ideology of the cancer cell. -- Edward Abbey

  19. #19
    Cyburbian Linda_D's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by stroskey View post
    Maybe this is a stupid question - but all of those houses had driveways to the street? Didn't most streetcar suburbs have alleys, making the street scape more unified?
    Not in Western New York, and apparently not in northern Ohio, either. In Upstate NY, alleys are uncommon except in cities that were/are influenced by East Coast preferences. Albany, Troy, Schnectady, etc have alleys in residential neighborhoods built between 1910-1930. Buffalo, Rochester, and smaller cities in WNY very rarely do.

  20. #20
    Cyburbian
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    My guess is those cities take more tax money from the pot than they put in so in some respects suburbs might be paying more than their share. If you live in the city your infrastructure has been there for 100+ years so it's been paid off (no bond issues), you probably drive less, although in a weird way your utility bills are probably higher because the houses are less efficient.
    I think we have to be careful with these assumptions. In general, there are few mechanisms I know of the distribute funds, particularly locally raised funds, within urban areas, with the exceptions of places like Minneapolis or cities like NYC with the economic strength to tax their in-commuters. And, those central cities which have low property values have been notorious for having higher tax rates to try to keep up.

    I recall two studies I encountered in the 90s in NY state - prior to more equitable distribution of transportation funds (and its only equitably distributed by state, not metro) through the various TEA's, the Buffalo metro got something like 10 cents in federal transportation spending for every dollar in gas taxes paid, while federal funds flowed to faster growing subelt regions. In another study on education spending in NY state, it was concluded that the City paid in about as much as it received, the NYC suburbs paid more than they received, and upstate received more than they paid. Sorry I have no cites for these, uh, you'll have to trust me ...

    I think overall it is hard to do these comparisons. I agree TODAY most new development in 'burbs pays the capital costs of much local infrastructure (excepting highways which become congested with suburban commuters), but this was after decades of investment in 'burbs and disinvestment in cities. I also think of all the sweet deals - like $300 million in taxpayer subsidy to greenfield development that occured in a small city in my state; or the 1/3 of Wal-Marts the received incentives to open, or the de-funding of the ARC train in NJ and the proposal of moving some of these funds to subsidize a mall development.

    It's also hard to say what benefits whom - is that highway that allowed suburbanites to drive to (or through) downtown, but destroyed neighborhoods, caused pollution, and permanently cut off the waterfront - a boon to the city or the suburbs (OK, that may be an easy one)? Is rail transit a benefit to the city by strengthening downtowns, or is it a benefit to the suburbs where employees can now live and not be stuck in traffic and where new town centers can be built? If one works downtown and lives in the suburbs, where is the wealth created by their job being generated? Is education in the central city an investment in the people who live there, or also an investment in the economic health and workforce of the region? I think of places like Rochester which have had trouble attracting and retaining young professionals, due to their unattractive inner city, while equally cold and grey places like Minneapolis thrive.

    I think the more we can as planners move the debate to the health of our metro regions, rather than the city vs. suburb debate, the more we promote good planning.

  21. #21
    Cyburbian Luca's avatar
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    First of all, thanks for the thought-through responses.
    Point taken, in particular, about avoiding excssively generic buzzwords and shorthands, especially in a dedicated forum.

    I also sympathize with the "fatigue" some of you pointed out that stems from random posters who have "read a book" rushing to spam the interweb with NU/Jacobsian screeds.

    I get the same thing in my profession where too many bloggers fancy themselves instant experts.

    That said, as several of you point out, the basic critique of the car-supremacist post-war suburbs seem fairly well articulated and something that, as an amateur, I would have perceived could / should (?) influence how planners operate / wield influence.

    As a (hopefully) non-doctrinaire, amateur, infrequent poster, I thought the tone over recent weeks was particularly "fatigued" with NU/Jacobsianism to the point that it seemed to imply an aologia of "things as they are".
    Life and death of great pattern languages

  22. #22
    Cyburbian
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    I find interesting the fact that so many of the leading thinkers on these issues are not planners because it suggests that professional silos and specializations may be in large part to blame for the current state of affairs in much of the U.S.

    We need more generalists, as well as planners that think like generalists. Moreover, I am glad that the general public is becoming more literate about these topics since they are, ultimately, the people who have to live in these places.

    A basic understanding of planning should be taught in public schools for that matter

  23. #23
    Cyburbian boiker's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Pragmatic Idealist View post
    A basic understanding of planning should be taught in public schools for that matter
    It's a facet of the social sciences that everyone will directly experience and it would be great if everyone got to stick their toes in the water.
    Dude, I'm cheesing so hard right now.

  24. #24
    Cyburbian ursus's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by boiker View post
    It's a facet of the social sciences that everyone will directly experience and it would be great if everyone got to stick their toes in the water.
    We get invited to "give a class" to Civics classes here and there, and lots of kids from the local high school come to PC meetings and City Council meetings for extra credit, but it would be more effective it were actually part of curriculum.
    "...I would never try to tick Hink off. He kinda intimidates me. He's quite butch, you know." - Maister

  25. #25
    Cyburbian Raf's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Pragmatic Idealist View post
    I find interesting the fact that so many of the leading thinkers on these issues are not planners
    And who are the leading "thinkers". "Thinkers" tend to be people that have no clue how the real world workers. They think, but rarely can move those spinning wheels in a forward direction, just constantly spinning and spinning sucking in the naive.
    Men do dumb $hit... it is what they do to correct the problem that counts.

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