Bad urbanism: tech and planning forum misses the point

January 10, 2014



Last Tuesday I went to an evening panel discussion at the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR) entitled “What Urban Planning Can Learn from Tech and Vice Versa.” It was one of the most disconcerting forums I have ever attended.

Perhaps that was only to be expected, since what drew me there was an equally disconcerting experience: last December I read an article on The New York Times’ Opinionator blog called “What Tech Hasn’t Learned from Urban Planning.” The author was the moderator of Tuesday’s panel, Allison Arieff, SPUR’s editor and “content strategist.”

Arieff’s point of departure in the Times piece was a seeming contradiction:

The tech sector is, increasingly, embracing the language of urban planning—town hall, public square, civic hackathon, community engagement. So why are tech companies such bad urbanists? Continue reading

Progressive Incoherence in “Radical’ Berkeley

August 1, 2013

In the fall of 2011 Occupy caught the world by surprise, as tens of thousands of Americans, led by youth no less, took to the streets demanding economic justice. In Berkeley, California, Occupy upset expectations of a different sort. That city, my home for thirty-three of the past forty-six years, is widely regarded as a prime redoubt of the American left. But in the East Bay and, for a few weeks, the entire country, the epicenter of Occupy materialized in front of Oakland’s, not Berkeley’s, city hall.

To hear the media tell it, Berkeley’s default came out of the blue. “The Occupy movement,” wrote Carolyn Jones in the San Francisco Chronicle, “has been surprisingly quiet in Berkeley, which prides itself on a long history of rabble-rousing.” The quiescence surprised the alternative press as well. “[W]hy,” wondered Zaineb Mohammed in a piece posted on the New America Media website, “is [sic] the city and college that ignited the mass protests of the ’60s barely a blip on the radar now?”

Media puzzlement at Berkeley’s truancy was predictable. For decades the press has disseminated the myth of radical—or leftist or liberal or progressive—Berkeley; take your pick, the terms are used interchangeably. With few exceptions, reporters cite sporadic “rabble-rousing” as evidence of a tenacious civic activism while disregarding numerous signs of a rightward turn within city hall, political disengagement outside it, and ideological disarray all around.

But Berkeley’s enduring radical image is not simply the creation of an unobservant media. It’s also the work of the city’s political class and its constituents. Not that twenty-first-century Berkeley politicos call themselves radical or leftist or even liberal; their label of choice is “progressive,” a contested term embraced by political actors with diametrically opposed views.

The rival claims to that label reflect confounding aspects of contemporary progressivism: Berkeley politics flesh out uncertainties if not downright disagreements on the left over “growth,” environmentalism, U.S. manufacturing, homelessness, and public employee compensation. In any serious political alignment, the positions taken on these subjects are crucial, yet their ambiguous formulation on the left has gone unremarked. To grasp the political realities of today’s Berkeley is not only to dispel an antiquated myth about an iconic place; it’s also to begin to grapple with major incoherence in progressivism at large.


Does Industry Have a Future in the Bay Area?

June 25, 2013

Plan_Bay_Area_Report In recent weeks a broad array of progressives has rallied opposition to Plan Bay Area, a state-mandated proposal to reduce the region’s carbon emissions and still accommodate massive increases in jobs and population by encouraging dense infill development close to transit, i.e Smart Growth. Drafted by the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), Plan Bay Area claims to “be taking equity into account.” However, the plan’s own assessment concedes that its implementation “could result in residential or business disruption or displacement of substantial numbers of existing population and housing,” and that those who cannot pay the “higher prices resulting from increased demand” for new housing and commercial space will be forced out.

So far, progressive critics have focused on residential displacement. But inflated land values also threaten low-rent business, including small and medium-sized industrial firms and the well-paying middle-income jobs they provide. Those who care about equity and, for that matter, about the environment, should be concerned about the vulnerability of the region’s industrial enterprise and employment.