in Politics and Plans, System Change

Creating a Living Place

Search Places to Live, and billions are available, add /NYC for 1.3 billion places, add /Des Moines, and you get 16 million locations.

The question asked here is, why do practically all of them suck?


Living places are no longer designed or defined by individuals expected to be permanent or even temporary users. The villagers are no longer the village builders. It has been that way for a very long time. A generous estimate is only two percent of households in the U.S. have contact with an architect, a place-making professional. Is that place all they want it to be? Is the purpose of fulfilling the private dreams involving their access to capital and nothing else?

The villagers can be a restoration force with capital and fundamental quality. They are often called “the gentry” to distinguish those with easier access to capital or ownership. Still, it could be any group working to care for and keep control. Despite being without capital, recognizing unique ways to control quality is essential. The villagers can become a resistance force fighting displacement in opposition to a set of known forces. Inadequate maintenance, high rents, badlands, drought, fire, unenforced protective ordinances, and so on describe all “the other” powers that are uncontrolled.

Once in a community meeting fearful of a new residential tower, a resident lightened the mood with a story. She said,

“You know, this isn’t a unique experience. It dates to the early 1600s. Picture two men on a boat were immigrating to America. The first asked, ‘Why are you going to the new land?’ The second guy looked up and said, ‘I’m primarily coming to America for religious freedom, but my long-range plan is to go into real estate.'”

The laughter was good, but not the groan of recognition. Understanding forced displacement and how to fight it remains a battle of centuries. How can a place become a living one, one that is not built on the tragedy of others?

How is it Built?

The designs and definitions of an urbanized place as good, or excellent, or beautiful are controlled by those who may never live or work in them. Nevertheless, it is a practice embedded in American history because they are built to a niche, a specific market segment in a region believed capable of holding a fifteen to thirty-year loan to maturity. In this context, everyone may consider a place desirable given the elasticity of price. In contrast, residents still consider the niche where they are economically assigned by their economic power (or lack of it) a failure for the lack of control of the designers, architects, planners, and engineers. Lower-income households, for example, are held by categorical malfunctions directly attributable to the people involved in the place’s creation or title. The global mega-cities that have emerged since the 1970s are pushing the poor to the favela-fringe of informal housing.

Over the last two centuries, society has accepted “place creating” professionals, architects, and engineers. They work for other built environment leaders composed of real estate developers, planners, and urban designers with one motivation before all others — acquire a contract. Pubic regulatory partners carefully examine questions of safety and quality from a physical standpoint. At this point, the contradictions emerge clearly.

Professional Failure

The professions of law and health provide significant levels of responsiveness from a social standpoint. Unlike the builder’s society, they have established exceptional nonprofit institutions rightly focused on the rights of individuals and, through them, the communities in which they live. Their successes and failures have acquired an expansive public debate. No such debate swirls above the head of architects and engineers. Furthermore, the built environment professionals advise that place-making remains a matter of market forces, caveat emptor. A place is little more than a spot on a grocery shelf offering a choice of Caviar or krab sticks.

Lynch, Alexander, Jacobs, Ching, Gehl, Calthorpe, and hundreds of others provide typologies and processes for deliberation on places’ material quality and cultural impact. Some of the good news is the pressure of these critiques is beginning to take effect, but not as a result of brilliant arguments. Climate change, global population, desertification, loss of groundwater, and so on press hard against the place-makers. Most recently, principles of sustainability and resilience have entered the “how-to” dialogue; however, ideas attempting to inject social justice and diversity principles remain in the quagmire of policy debates. The failure to develop professional institutions focusing on the needs of whole communities is the responsibility of these built environment professionals. It fails because they deny it as a task and do not seek partners or social change allies.

Policy Failure

More recently, the public regime produced concepts for economic integration, such as NYC’s zoning law, known as mandatory inclusionary housing (MIH). This approach to placemaking as social responsibility is now under constant attack. It is on the table as a production failure, averaging just 500 dwelling units per year over the preceding four years. Nevertheless, MIH became law in 2016. It is also under attack for using well-established zoning laws as a policy framework to achieve economic integration (here).

The history and implementation of zoning, building codes, and related land use regulation have a social impact component. They were implemented to protect the public from physical harm. Nevertheless, the social cost of system failures and malfunctions by place-makers is due to the lack of a comprehensive institutional response. The argument for a nationally powerful institution of place-makers has precedent in law and health, but it needs to catch up.

For example, health and science institutions have been able to respond efficiently to the pandemic crisis. However, for the lack of a similar institutional effort, more households were displaced and lives destroyed when great swaths of cities were left to ruin in cities across the country. The impact on low- and moderate-income people today has only changed from the urban disinvestment at the end of the 20th to the 21st, where hyper-investment and the rising cost of housing ironically allows a moderate-income household to invest in their own displacement.

These system failure costs fall to the end-users of a place in succeeding waves until the last group is left to die in the wake of all those before them. On the other hand, the urban environment with a hyper-sensitive government can build a kind of undulant maturity that exhibits how well it adapts to opportunities and restraints. The critical juncture is to know how well the people are informed by the challenges posed by the weaknesses in a community and failure to use its strengths (SWOT) to win battles.

The material quality of a place is relative to economic demand and nothing more. The reason for this is known but remains arguable dollar per dollar, year by year, end-user by end-user. Prisons, shelters, public housing are living areas that shape places and influence people. So are billionaire mansions embedded in the hills of Montana and the towers of Manhattan. All of them shape communities. The political problem is an American value system that says it has to be that way as a force of capital.

The condition of lifetime place quality is primarily relevant to the professional class of placemaking professionals. Nevertheless, as a professional class, they face the raw acceptance of urban decay as an enormous political problem that cannot be confronted or resolved in the midst of a contract for altering a place. Whether a bridge or office building, a parkland, or a housing estate, the job is to design and build it. The work of resolving all of the problems associated with its programming, development cost, operational management, and long-term maintenance is a function of capital and nothing else.

Force Fallacies

Search “unknown force,” and a mix of mysticism and math is revealed. Seems accurate.

The forces, policies, practices, and processes that separate places are well-known. Those that would argue for ways to bring them together are judged ideological fantasies. The locations of people by economic class, race, religion, even typography are merely the practical decisions of investors and the simple desires of people to be with those they know. Some succeed, some fail only to be replaced dollar for a lesser dollar, year by year.

The entropic disarray of a place is not a reinvestment strategy. It looks that way, but the failure is in the eyes of those trapped in the wake of a place’s end. One thing must be made super clear at this point. These forces are built on ends established by social values, and when it comes to them as ends, the reason is silenced. The only invisible hand is the one that holds all the important things that go unsaid, unacknowledged, and, if they are, shamelessly devalued with misinformation.

Change agents will need a new game with new rules to successfully confront this enraging, frustrating, hurtful political reality. Creating positive change for the sequence of end-users of a place, on the other hand, is not fiction. The criteria for positive change include generations defined by community health, jobs held, businesses developed, and the type of support systems that reveal and build on the human capital resources available. Strong societies form as they survive challenges and thrive if they figure out how they succeed. Where are the mechanisms that reassure the victories?

Every community is different for distinct reasons. Pragmatic distinctions between societies within these communities are fundamental but poorly understood. In an extreme example, a community able to establish subsistence from natural resources builds a culture of survival. On the other hand, a community sustained in poverty through financial transfer policies or oppression experienced by women and people of color includes a sense of unfair subjugation and containment. The subsistence culture will build with partners for resources to add layers of resilience. Despite the self-canceling effect, the community sustained by suppressive financial mechanisms considers escape and resistance the only viable opportunities. 

These two exaggerations are stated for one purpose, to reflect a body of anthropological knowledge that is unused in modern community development practices. Regardless of the location of a place, its end-users represent a reservoir of formal knowledge and informal understanding. Whether wealthy or poor, it is human nature to demonstrate satisfaction and dissatisfaction towards the conditions of specific locations.

Examples would be. “I am fearful of the poor everywhere,” or “The concierge takes care of everything.” Other examples would be, “We live in a child care desert.” and “The building (or neighborhood) includes space for grandparents to be grandparents.” Establishing a balance between reducing the bad and finding the good is a source of power to sustain a living place. Consequently, it is essential to recognize all of the terms and demands used to build pathways to the full potential of a place. The resource needed will only come from a better understanding of the human mind.

Emotional Intelligence

The science journalist Daniel Goleman. Goleman defined emotional intelligence (EI) as skills and characteristics that drive leadership performance. Cognitive anthropologists, as an example, attempt to discover how systematic and non-random transformations of culture occur. Attempts to draw answers from Darwinian theory to such questions are popular. However, the need to learn how the diversity of urbanized cultures interact and change is in its infancy. The following suggests the question of improving this kind of intelligence is correct. However, sufficient data is unavailable for assigned action.

Shortly after the rapid change in Afghanistan in August of 2021, a television interview with a three tour veteran answered a question.  “Was being a participant in America’s longest war worth it?” The answer was direct. “The people experienced American’s face to face. There were more civilians there than warriors, so many people experienced our sense of independence and our understanding of freedom for twenty years, so yes, it was worth it.” Moreover, twenty years in Afghanistan will produce data concerning cultural exchange in a force control system over several decades.

The ability to view evolution in cultural practices will remain rudely speculative in the short term. However, what is known in the record involving many thousand years to all other biological species development is less uncertain. Twenty years in Afghanistan will produce data for cultural exchange in a force control system over several decades. Perhaps with a minimum of a half-million years of cultural data, cultural anthropologists and historians will know something.

Despite intuitive and augmented abilities, science has difficulty comprehending complexity. The primary reason is a “system” can only be described by a higher level of sophistication of a larger system or in parts in which broken connections and linkages can only occur in theory. Examples of complex systems include cities adequately described by region or nation or economies best expressed through trade. Exchanging all goods and services in a civilization within a vast historical and cultural context can now include thought. Again, examples abound. Our nervous system is understood as part of the human body, the Internet a repository, and ecosystems in terms of global networks by region and the earth as an object that orbits the sun. All of these things have been newly injected into our emotional system in just the last two decades.

Organizational Justice

Walt and Selby Kelly were right.

Organizational Justice Fixes Intolerance.

The central assumption is people what to live in a living place, one that holds virtue, with the capacity to reject corruption. Exceptional mechanisms that enable a combination of physical and social changes are available but undervalued and poorly deployed. So when the Kelly’s came up with, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” They said two things, get the human impact on the earth solved, and the enemy was male. The message was accepted, viral for its time, and it slipped easily into the world of clichés.

The power to improve user control over a place belongs in all community development practices before, during, and after an urban development or restoration process. But, unfortunately, the current approach is to wait. Planners call it “catastrophic resolution.” It is a bankrupt financial structure for solving problems in this century.

New community development practices combine tools for expanding personal self-knowledge as participants in various interpersonal relationships. With skilled professionals, the practice will expand both individual and group capacity for sharing realities. One of the odd catchphrases in this practice is you only see what you think is there. A way of saying we tend to fill in data during an experience. One of the best is we are only as smart as all of us. A way to encourage human perceptions in specific terms that other people can trust as real but not experienced personally.

New business “start-ups” have processes available that are useful to neighborhood-based organizations seeking improved controls and capacity for problem-solving. A link to start-ups examines one of these practices (here). The means and procedures necessary for solving a social issue or a marketing problem from a specific place to a regional or global view are in every configuration imaginable and very similar in content. The missing element for these practices is a trusted integrator of the choices available in specific places. The B corporation idea (here) is similar to LEED and SEED certification to inject a broad set of social change values (here).

Examples of these integrating policy structures range greatly. In New York City, a newly built multistory 100 d.u. Residential buildings would contain 20 to 30 apartments are made affordable to households with incomes at $80,000 (family of four). The building is a product of inclusionary zoning. It could be across the street from a 1957 multi-story public housing location where a single mom with a child earning $38,000 as a clinic receptionist can also live affordably. Across the nation, differences of place remain by acreage, building type, involving segmentation and separations of a vastly different nature from Louisiana to New York.

For all the reasons implied, the methods for leaning-in vary greatly by the location where the desire and design to build and recognize greatness in a community can be established as policy. Nevertheless, work to achieve new goals in different places includes some common threads. The capital investment role of the government for services such as clean water and sanitation also includes various lesser-known techniques in the public sphere. These consist of an incentive/disincentive relationship with residents and private developers to simulate supply or increase demand where neither is working well but deemed most useful by residents and thereafter all others. An early but failed experiment is known as NYC “Community Boards.” They were initiated as the first step toward community government and as an extension of the planning and budgeting responsibilities of the city’s planning department. (See Planning Board Index here for a series of explorations.)

Professional Responsibility

A strong “before, during, and after” practice has a legal standing within the well-established environmental impact assessment regime. The “mitigation” and “do no harm” policy can be slowly changed to “don’t even go there,” but the road remains long and difficult to navigate. Place three words in a search engine: cumulative environmental impact.  The result will produce close to two million scholarly articles regarding current limitations on every aggregate impact imaginable. Whether dulled by lead or displaced by a forest fire, the irony is not lost on the widespread ability of science to be predictive and the inability to measure the whole in a political partnership with a community.

The physical environment’s urban image and pattern makers share less than two centuries of institutionalized professional development. Yet, they are responsible for the newly created, restored, or rehabilitated urban assets that surround us all. The profession is without an institution able to control or command capital. Compared to the social change influence of law and health institutions, the lack of impact is tragic. It has limited itself to chasing contracts. The professional members are not prepared to become accountable to the social economics of a place because the commitment to place is limited to building one. There is community development staff with social change skills in small and global firms, but for one purpose only – to close the deal to build.

In this discussion, the initial question is how a path to excellence and quality can occur for a specific community and location. First, it can happen before the inevitable and dramatic change is expected. Second, it can function with power while expanding the impact of that change. Most importantly, after the change, the resource to reflect on successes and failures is well provided.

Recommendations

First, readiness or resilience can become a planning initiative well before any significant capital development is modeled or natural disaster imagined. The public/private development of housing, institutions, and commercial real estate is predictable and responsive to stimulus and courageous disincentives. In addition, civic improvements such as parks, schools, roads, and bridges often make decades available to prepare before implementation. Therefore, it should be highly reasonable to provide every community with an anticipatory plan on prioritized issues from year to year. Two full-time planning and architectural professionals should be on the staff of a community district.

Second, several of the tools needed are held by the social and organizational development professionals functioning in the corporate sector. These institutions are well into the power of diversity and can reflect the communities they engage. However, today they are not focused on social change in the community setting. Why? Simple, they are not paid to be there. Nevertheless, they can be re-purposed to address these issues and provide concepts for building collaborative, innovative teams of people within a specific community. A partnership with organizational development firms can put positive change on the agenda. There is much more to a community than a vision of itself in spatial terms. The alternative to the first recommendation would be to have two full-time organizational development business services professionals on the staff of a community district.

Third, it is essential to consider a broader range of social change partners within existing institutions. For example, restorative justice practitioners, trainers in anti-violence techniques, and artists as leaders are examples of participants in a community that can establish a foundation for positive change. In another district, it might be composed of a housing rights specialist, tenant organizers, coupled with financial literacy programs. In another, a child care facility development consultant, a gang assessment group, and a civil rights attorney. A highly targeted, well-resourced response could be an alternative to the first and second recommendations.

Fourth, a citywide or regional training center would support these three components (design, organizational development, special issue teams). Every resource cannot be everywhere all the time and be efficient. Nevertheless, a core, locally trusted staff with a long-term commitment to the district is the essential “trust factor” composed of all three recommendations. The choice is based on local interests and need. The core staff, as individuals, would have the power to bring in strangers for a multiple-day or annualized program conducted over several months to offer its assessment of an unwanted condition or anticipation of a project’s impact.  The well-timed injection of a specific professional input would prove dispositive.

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