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.