Wednesday, March 26, 2014


So I just saw If/Then on Broadway, and I highly recommend it, though I may be slightly biased by the fact that the plot is hyper-relevant to my current life as an urban planning grad student thinking about future jobs. While the show made me feel a lot of things about my life in general, it also made me think specifically about how they portrayed planning and planners, and what it says about how we see us and how the public sees us.

There are three planners in the show, the main character, her boss, and her friend, who's a housing activist and author, all of whom went to school together. The main character moves to NYC after spending a decade teaching planning in Phoenix, and in one scenario, gets a job as the deputy director of planning for the city the week she moves (would that such glories were possible). Her main project is the redevelopment of the westside rail yards (they keep it incredibly NYC specific). As they work through the project, three key aspects of planning show up: planning is passive (or at least reactive), we need both inside and outside forces, and planning only happens in NYC and London.

When Elizabeth, the main character, is asked why she wants to work in government, her answer is something to the effect of "The city is changing every day whether we like it or not, and I want to be a part of it." It's clear from her response that she knows that planners are not the main force that reshape a city, Janette Sadik-Khan notwithstanding. What's less clear is what she feels they add, what separates them from a developer or businessman. Her housing activist friend accuses her of selling out and sings about the importance of connections and gets at the idea of the ecology of a city, how someone's cause is another's effect, and so on, but the show never really commits to an idea of her purpose, other than to "give birth" to plazas and buildings.

The closest it comes is when we learn that Elizabeth and her boss got "them"to take out "the luxury tower we hated" and add "1000 sliding-scale units and 1000 rent-stabilized units." We planners are fighting for the little guy here, and it turns out it took the housing activist to win the change, but in a weird compromise that we never quite understand but results in Elizabeth's rapid rise to the top for negotiating both the housing and the prevention of protests at the opening. When we win, apparently, it's either by neutralizing or actually responding to and advocating for the concerns of those without powerful voices. 

Lastly, whatever it is that planners do, it's apparently only done in NYC and London. At one point Elizabeth notes that "teaching planning in Phoenix is like teaching breathing on the moon." With the continual references to plazas and paths, it appears that planning is the same as smart growth. walkable communities, etc., ignoring the fact that there are in fact plenty of planners in Phoenix who think a lot about many of the same questions that planners in NYC do, just with more people who drive cars.

In short, I love the show, but I'm not sure I like all the things it says about planners. I'd far rather have the profession be known for fighting for the little guy successfully, prioritizing equity, than for bringing NYC wherever we go, but given crowd reactions, I'm not sure they got that impression of the field.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Cities and surplus, take 2

So first of all, thanks for the awesome response to my last post! It even made it on Rustwire thanks to a great couple of friends.

Second, the comments both here and on Facebook posts made me think a little harder about what I was wondering more specifically and I think it was two things. First, if you could separate eds and meds activities into those designated to create additional surplus and those serving a different set of needs, which chunk is driving the "eds and meds" idea? The second, which I want to talk more about here, is how to operate cities and bits of cities with unalienated surplus (where surplus is those resources above and beyond those needed for the reproduction of society and unalienated means those whose labor is directly responsible for generating the surplus are not divorced from the decisions about its use).

This week, the New York Times had two articles that made me think about different aspects of this question. The first one talked about the Occupy movement's efforts during Hurricane Sandy and how tensions had arisen about the use of remaining donations once basic cleanup and recovery had been achieved (as well as discussions about partnering with government agencies), while the second was about Cairo residents' establishing their "right to the city" both literally and figuratively. In one example, the article describes a group of residents, frustrated with their lack of access to a major highway, constructing their own onramp. Similarly, the Occupy Sandy group established their own recovery network to help underserved neighborhoods after Sandy. In their own way, they mobilized unalienated surplus to improve the city.

Now, Occupy Sandy faces some extra surplus, and has continued to utilize it though the mission has changed somewhat. The lack of awareness by some donors as to what their money is now being used for as led to tension, perhaps signalling a level of alienation from the new process. Should Occupy give back the money, or put the use to some sort of vote among the donors, or is the money now theirs and subject to no additional approval? I don't know.

Combined, the two stories had me wondering, how could you mobilize surplus for infrastructure without taxes or bonds? I can't really imagine US drivers being ok with an unregulated onramp, though perhaps I am underselling them. What I came up with was the Kickstarter concept, used most famously by the producers of the Veronica Mars movie but more generally designed to crowdsource funding directly from fans for creative projects. Could we kickstart infrastructure?

Turns out, I'm not the first to have this idea, unsurprisingly. It is what's behind, which started in Kansas City, MO and has expanded to other cities. Currently, it appears to be starting small, and I can see any number of free rider problems, but it also could be the start of something. What if you actually could select where you wanted your tax dollars to go, the way the New York Times infographics let you "solve" the budget problem? Would we end up with more public transit, better healthcare, and less military or just a bunch of uncoordinated special interest projects?

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Eds and meds and cities and capitalism

I've been doing some pre-grad school reading now that applications are done. Before getting to the awesome list of LA centric books sourced from parents and family friends, I set myself the task of reading Social Justice and the City, by David Harvey. I'm not finished yet, but I'm up to the second-to-last chapter of the original text (my edition has the 2008 right to the city essay at the back) on urbanism and the city.

On the T tonight, I came across this section: "In a capitalist economy, accumulated surplus value is in large part put to work to create even greater quantities of surplus value. This process does not occur with similar intensity in all sectors or territories of the capitalist economy. Its intensity depends, among other things, on the degree of market penetration in the sector or territory in question." As the chapter is largely on the relationship between cities and surplus value, an idea popped into my head, and I'm hoping/guessing that it is not original, but I'm curious to know what's out there on the topic, so here goes.

 "Eds and meds" have been touted as the saviors of rust belt cities. Major hospitals and universities have led turnarounds in Pittsburgh and Cleveland, among others, and are looked to in any number of cities as the sectors that will at least stabilize, if not reverse the end-of-manufacturing decline. My idea/question is: Does the use of eds and meds as urban growth engines actually signal the penetration of health care and academia by the market, meaning that, potentially, much of the rising cost of healthcare and education is due to the institutions being put in place to ensure health care providers and universities are operated as a business/extract additional surplus value, rather than as a doctor's office and a school? In healthcare, examples I can think of would be the biopharmaceutical industry, the patenting (or commodification) of genes and procedures, and the proliferation of shiny new hospital wings and research centers for things. In academia, in addition to the insanity that is textbooks, which economists keep trying to explain away as a incentives problem (the assigners of the books don't pay for them, but that doesn't explain why young economists need new editions every 2 years), there's the idea that schools need to sell themselves with buildings, and study abroad, and all manner of bits of education that you consume rather than, I don't know, grapple with in a good conversation with other smart people.    

Second, if that is the case (and I think it is), how does thinking about it that way lead to better solutions? I think that among its key usefulness is that it shifts focus from the bits of the institutions that are still trying to operate like doctor's offices and schools to the bits that are operating like businesses. In other words, if you're looking to cut costs in healthcare, cut profits in biopharm and hospitals by making them less market-based rather than more. This means stop patenting plants and genes and allow the government, not "the market" to set prices for procedures, rather than blaming doctors or patients or emergency rooms. Stop the ballooning administrative positions, building construction, and degrees created to make money university tactics in favor of supporting faculty and student research, and stop trying to create performance measures and standard methods of evaluating the productivity of faculties and departments. None of those ideas are particularly novel, but I don't know that I recognized their importance relative to other strategies that don't specifically target the market penetration problem until I started thinking about surplus value.

That brings me to the last part of the thought, though. I like cities. I prefer cities that don't have multiple sections that could be zombie movie sets (no offense meant, Cincinnati). If I'm against the collection of surplus value from the eds and meds sectors because it puts people I know and love into serious debt and makes others fear that they have outlived their funds and are a burden to their family, am I also then, without knowing it, calling for Pittsburgh and Cleveland and even Cambridge to be less vibrant and enticing places to live?

My current answer is I don't think so. My two favorite quotes from Marx so far in this book are "All history is nothing but a continuous transformation of human nature" and "The productiveness of labor that serves as its [capital's, I think] foundation and starting point, is a gift, not of Nature, but of a history embracing thousands of centuries." We know more than we have ever known about the way the world works (and can/should work), and we can get to a point where the idea that people work to feel fulfilled and there is enough to meet everyone's needs does not make the reader of this blog shake their head at my naivete. We have learned that we like cities, and that people think great big thoughts best in cities, and that while cities may have arisen because they were located at necessary transhipment points and were a place where capitalists could capture value as goods were transported (among other reasons), they are also awesome places to try to cure cancer and teach yoga and have science museums and aquariums and Japanese burritos and kosher gluten-free dim sum and stores devoted entirely to lox. Therefore, even in a world where workers were not as alienated from the surplus they produced, surplus would likely still be used by many to support the cities we have come to love.

I think.

What do you think? 

Monday, April 15, 2013

Regulation of hazardous material by rail

So I learned something new today, and I thought I'd share it with you all.

As far as I can tell, there is no government regulation of hazardous material routing by rail.*

Why is this important? Let me give an example, and the reason I went fishing for this information.

Global Partners, an oil and gas company with a refinery in Revere and an transhipment point in Albany, among others, mixes ethanol and gas at the Revere refinery. Currently, it receives ethanol inputs by barge from Motiva in the Port of Providence, which receives ethanol both by barge and rail from Global's Albany facility. Rail shipments meander through Connecticut and Massachusetts before heading into Providence.** Both Albany and Providence have made significant investments in their ports in recent years to facilitate this trade. Providence also receives ethanol by barge from international ports.

A couple of years ago, Global proposed a project with PanAm Railways, which owns the spur that directly serves Global's facility, to improve the spur and create a space on their property to store ethanol cars, enabling them to receive ethanol by rail as well as by barge. They would share the costs, PanAm gets new freight service on the northern east-west route it just partnered with Norfolk Southern and MassDOT to improve, Global gets a redundancy in its supply chain, and everyone wins.

Well, no.

Any route to Global's facility passes through the most densely populated areas of Massachusetts, areas which also happen to be rather lacking in the alcohol fire fighting foam that a derailment would necessitate. Perhaps not coincidentally, with the exception of Belmont and West Somerville, nearly every census tract the routes pass through are designated environmental justice areas, with significant concentrations of minority and low-income populations. One route that passes through somewhat fewer EJ areas is instead on a railroad that is not up to the Class 3 standard that the MBTA commuter rail tracks maintain. Speaking of MBTA commuter rail, all potential routes include significant commuter rail traffic.

In other words, PanAm's and Global's sweet deal is a sweet deal only because all risk and payment for risk mitigation falls on someone else. Understandably, the local communities are raising their voices to the agencies they assume should have some say (MassDOT and MassDEP), and even managed to get a bill through the Mass legislature asking for further study.

Mass DOT did a study, and identified many of these concerns. It wasn't perfect (no study is), but it highlighted the EJ populations, noted the lack of foam and poor track conditions, and made a number of recommendations and identified sources of public funds for mitigation.

Yes, public funds. Why? Because MassDOT has zero leverage against the companies, as far as I can tell. MassDEP gets to permit the site, but not the route taken, so it can ensure state of the art storage once the ethanol makes it to Revere, but I don't think it can require that PanAm and Global buy the Revere Fire Department foam trucks or pay to upgrade tracks and improve grade crossings. Sprinkled throughout the federal hazmat transportation regulations (49 CFR 171,172, and 174) is federal preemption of state regulation, specifically forbidding things like prohibiting the transportation of hazmat on certain routes.

Now, such a clause isn't totally crazy, and it's one of the reasons a federalist system has a lot of merit. Without such a clause, at worst, every state and community with political power bans hazmat transportation immediately and relegates it to those areas, often EJ areas, with little political power, and at best, results in disjointed and mismatched networks. It makes sense to have a managed and planned network, where one can assemble resources, assure shortest distances and minimum damages, and prepare contingency plans nationwide.

Such a system (mostly) exists on the highways. Each state designates hazmat routes, free from tunnels and avoiding populated areas where possible, runs them through a public outreach process, and submits them to the federal government, which then reviews and approves. Boston just had a run-in with this following completion of the Big Dig, when the truckers leaving Revere refineries wanted to take surface streets over the Dig and Boston wanted them to go around. The truckers lost that one.

For rail though, there's no such procedure. Even though the MBTA owns nearly all the track within the densely population areas, the contracts they made with the former freight owners long ago gave the former owners exclusive freight rights to the track. While the MBTA and other passenger trains take priority, the MBTA cannot refuse a particular shipment. Therefore, even though Mass DOT reviewed three route alternatives and clearly showed (though did not tell) a clear winner safety-wise, they can't ensure that it is the one selected, nor will any sort of environmental impact statement be conducted.

Perhaps less important but equally intriguing to me, there is also no one looking at the impact this may have (beneficial or not) on Providence. On the one hand, if rail shipments of ethanol there decrease, theoretically there's a safety benefit to residents, and given the meandering route nature, there may be just as many affected residents. On the other, there's also investment that may now go to waste and barge owners in Providence sitting empty.

That second part is all the more reason for the feds to be involved. Mass DOT should be allowed to select an alternative and require that the private companies provide mitigation, but the feds should both a) verify that Mass DOT isn't squashing interstate commerce (setting aside for now the valid question of whether more ethanol is worth squashing) and b) that this more direct route to the customer is not putting more lives at risk both from fire and from an economic and job loss standard.

I yearn for the day when an environmental impact assessment gets to really ask questions like, "What is the net job loss?" "Where are those jobs?" "What are prospects for laid off employees getting rehired?" and so on, as well as "Really, Global? You're betting on ethanol now? Would you still make that bet if you covered rescue costs in the event of an emergency, as well as yearly training costs for fire personnel and track improvements? Don't those barges just suddenly gleam?"

*Rail carriers self assess routes with explosives and poisonous vapors. Assessments are yearly reviews of routes with shipments and alternative routes, and are secret/classified unless specifically requested by certain government officials. Not at all the same thing (49 CFR 172.820).
**If I can make the map work, I will post it. I'm not kidding about the meander. It crosses the Mass border like three times, all to avoid being charged an arm and a leg by Amtrak.    


Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Thoughts following the Chiefs-Chargers game

So I stayed up late watching the Chiefs beat the Chargers in overtime (an outcome that lost me points in a pick 'em pool but secured my fantasy football team's victory!!) and found myself rooting inexplicably for the Chiefs. Seeking answers, I turned to Wikipedia. I discovered that the lovely metropolis of Kansas City has the 43rd worst WalkScore of the nation's 50 largest cities and is represented by a Democrat minister and a Republican farmer. I figured that most of my friends, would, as usual, find my desire to go learn more about, and possibly visit KC, to be strange and not at all to their taste.

This got me thinking about a book I skimmed in the fabulous Harvard Book Store. I don't recall title or author (will go back and update this with that information later when I go buy it), but the argument was: Americans have now more than ever sorted themselves into communities of like minded individuals...and that's the problem. It takes a common theory of urban economics--given a choice of towns with varied policies, you'll move to the one that best suits your lifestyle (more or less money for schools, more or less money for public transit, etc.)--and explores what happens when you still have to debate federal/state policy with people whose lifestyle choices you not only don't agree with but now don't even have the means to understand. Familiarity may breed contempt, but interacting with others face-to-face generally leads to civil discourse, particularly compared to the internet.

In short, I think its worth spending time in places you may at first find not your style. In long, I'm going to go read that book and get back to you.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Land banking and Cincinnati

I just saw this article on the Planetizen website. It's about how Youngstown, OH is handling being a shrinking city, and intriguingly, it mentions that both the city and the university, Youngstown State, are buying houses from willing sellers as part of a land bank, an idea I'd mentioned. While the article's point is that shrinking isn't enough (to which I might add "yet"), I looked into the literature on land banking and sure enough, it's recommended practice for shrinking cities. In the same set of articles, I also got outside confirmation that Cincinnati is indeed shrinking. It lost over a third of its population between 1960 and 2000, and I would bet that percentage will be around the same when the 2010 numbers come out.

Most importantly, it turns out that land banking has been authorized in Ohio since 1976, and that Cincinnati has had a land bank since 1996. It acquires only ~10 properties a year whereas Flint, MI and Cleveland, OH acquire around 1000. In April, former Gov. Ted Strickland signed a bill authorizing land banks in every Ohio county (previously only Cuyahoga County was authorized to land bank on a county level, and Cincinnati's was a municipal enterprise). Expanding to Hamilton County would allow Cincinnati to take advantage of the extra money that could come from taking less-damaged foreclosed properties in the outlying areas and reselling them and using the profits for upkeep and redevelopment. Apparently, though, according to this Master's thesis from the regional planning program at the University of Cincinnati, the Cincinnati Land Bank has even bigger problems to sort out first.

This probably still would not help my grandmother, as condos are not particularly valuable land banking property, and she can still pay her taxes. Still, a new and improved Hamilton County Land Bank might be able to help with the zombie move malls.

Deep Economy pt. 1

Two questions that I often get asked when I say I am interested in urban planning and regional policy are 1) what do you think about gentrification/is there a way to improve impoverished urban neighborhoods without forcing out long term residents? and 2) what hope do small rust belt or agricultural towns have for redevelopment and regeneration?

Conventional economics does not have much in the way of politically-viable answers to these questions, in part because it advocates for labor force mobility. When possible, people should leave these areas in search of a better life somewhere else. This is the view put forth, for example, by the UK think tank Policy Exchange in their 2008 report entitled Cities Unlimited, which suggested that the government's regeneration efforts should be focused moving Northern England's residents to the prosperous South-East rather than trying to buttress more impoverished Northern towns. Similarly, the gentrification of a neighborhood is often held as a good thing, although more and more research is pointing to a displacement of the poor out to the suburbs as city living once again becomes fashionable, meaning that while the neighborhood may be looking up, that change did not help its residents.

In many ways, the conventional answer is dodging the question. There is no fix for these places, so either tough it out or get out. Recently, I've been doing some reading on these questions, to see who has a better answer, preferably one that keeps the community and their geography intact.

The first book, which I read this autumn, was Deep Economy, by Bill McKibben. He advocates for a more localized economy, with as much of an emphasis on building community as on amassing wealth. His favorite analogy is that the birds More and Better have long been sharing a branch, enabling the Western world to hit both with one stone, but at some point in the last 60 years, Better changed branches. His argument(s) is complex enough for me to devote a few posts to it, mainly because I think he is on to something, but I don't think he makes a good enough case. For one, he has the privilege to live in Middlebury, VT, where it is pretty easy to live locally, and he doesn't do enough to address the challenges one might face living in, say, New Haven, CT, where there is not a single grocery store remaining.

So in short, keep an eye out for forthcoming posts looking at the questions I mentioned above from a number of different viewpoints.