Family Planning

In planning, we’re careful to say we’re planning “for people” or (better yet) “with people,” as a way to juxtapose us against those mid-century planners who pushed through giant, home-destroying highway projects in the name of efficient transportation, or from those architects who value form over function. It’s our way of showing we care about public opinion instead of self-interest or some ideological program.

At the same time, however, some efforts to plan run the risk of adopting some ideology of people based on whichever abstract version of humanity it chooses to adopt. Maybe it’s majority opinion, maybe it’s the opinion of the handful of people who show up to the public meeting or write angry emails, or maybe it’s a group that we believe will be ignored (if not actively damaged) by the powers that be. There are defensible reasons for choosing any one of these ideas of the public, and for ignoring them all in the service of some other end. The simple reality is that there is no logically coherent “people” we can claim to serve all of the time, so we have to make some careful choices.

Right next to the definition of the public we serve, however, there’s another important, often forgotten element of planning and policymaking: its temporal dimension. We not only have to consider the people we’re planning for now, but how the histories of the people and places we’re planning for affect things, and how they will affect people in the future. And when we think in that way, short-term decisions about which group of people we’re planning with can prove directly at odds with what might be right ten, twenty, or fifty years down the road.

This leads me to a recent piece by Benjamin Schwarz, and two accompanying follow-ups at The American Conservative (obligatory disclaimer: their definition of “conservative” is not what you think it is). Schwarz leans on planning prophet Jane Jacobs to show the importance of planning for cities with children, and how the rising urban young adult playground neighborhoods (called “vibrant urban neighborhoods,” or VUNs), which have revitalized some parts of large cities after years of decline, ignore them. (Think Williamsburg in Brooklyn, the Mission in San Francisco, Wicker Park in Chicago, or Uptown or the North Loop in Minneapolis). These neighborhoods, models for many in my field, are just shells of the bustling neighborhoods Jacobs lauded in The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Sooner or later, these neighborhoods will need to accommodate children, or they’ll just stay on as temporary resting places for young adults before they head out to their suburban destiny. The “back to the city” trend will sputter out.

This emphasis on children is something I’ve instinctively looked for in communities: long before I considered becoming a planner, my first question in evaluating neighborhood health was, ‘are there children playing freely outdoors’? These may just be the instincts of a Duluthian who expects a ten-acre park a couple blocks from home, but even in fairly dense urban environments, this is more than possible, as Jacobs’ tales of mid-century Manhattan show. If we believe it to be a worthy goal, true urban recovery from the planning horrors, economic troubles, crime waves, and political disinvestment of the mid-to-late 20th century has to reach into childhood.

Maybe I’m wrong, but I also don’t think this is always a chief concern for many in my planning cohort. This is probably because most of my peers are twenty-somethings who, like me, have foregone child-rearing until after graduate school, if they ever expect to go there. Our slow lurch toward family life feeds into broader debates about my generation, which is famous for marrying and having children at later ages than its predecessors. Among planners and my fellow Georgetown alumni, it’s mostly a calculated move for career-life sanity and near-assured economic stability; say what you will about that trend, but it stems from genuine and understandable concerns. But elsewhere in my millennial cohort, it’s often an entirely different picture, and we’d be blind not to acknowledge that many of us still do settle down at young ages, and that others possibly would if there weren’t so many barriers discouraging them.

Schwarz is pessimistic about attacking these barriers due to economic forces, but does have one memorable line: “Two words begin and end any real effort to create truly vibrant city neighborhoods: public schools.” In the second comment, Emily Washington expands on this point, but only to make a vague argument for “education reform.” The details are unclear, but it’s obviously important. And yet, somehow, there’s no hint of education policy in planning school curriculum. School districts may not be governed by city planners, but they are an essential part of planning cities, and we ignore them at our own peril.

There are hopeful hints in planning ideas like “safe routes to school” and “lifecycle housing” that get back to some idea of planning for families. Still, in the end, a philosophical disconnect lingers: we plan for the individual abstract person, not the person within a dense network of relationships that define human interaction—of which the family is the most fundamental part. For related reasons, family-level thinking has been somewhat lost in the shuffle among the many important and necessary victories for women over the past half-century, as they’ve escaped potentially crushing norms and climbed toward economic equality with men. These are essential steps for sane policy as well, but in the process, talk about families and their roles in personal formation have often posited them as something to be liberated from instead of a goal to build toward. Both can be true, depending on the situation, but the state is a crude substitute for the closest of bonds. The future of cities is inseparable from future generations of humans, and a stake in its fate requires a stake in humanity that transcends the here and now. Trite as the phrase may be, families are the building blocks of society, and its motor forward into whatever comes next. There are enough economic and other issues pushing against them that we can ill afford to let planning trouble them.

Schwarz is right when he says that Jane Jacobs-style neighborhoods aren’t coming back. But there are still other ways to build more family-friendly cities. The solutions need to look beyond VUNs and the highly educated, upwardly mobile young people (like me) they seem to want to cater to. That alone won’t keep me here. We need housing that allow for more variation in family type that can accommodate multi-generational families or large families, instead of single-bedroom units. We also need varieties of housing types, both in age and style, from starter homes to modern-day palaces, from “luxury” flats to modest apartment buildings. Building this sort of city means real pedestrian infrastructure and connections to parks and schools, and assurances of public safety along those corridors. It means green space, both in backyards and inviting parks. It spreads people out somewhat, instead of segregating rigidly by stage of life.

The list could go on; the solutions aren’t secrets. But maybe more fundamentally, we need an understanding human life that remembers that people’s closest ties are often the most important drivers of decisions. Unless plans take meaningful steps to include the next generation, the cities they build for will have a hollowness at their core.

My Life Over the Past Year in Two Articles

Two articles for a rainy Wednesday in Duluth:

First, a reflection on the experience of being a writer from Rod Dreher at The American Conservative. (Liberal readers, don’t be turned off by the name of that publication: TAC is the anti-Fox News, founded in opposition to the Iraq War, and has an eclectic bunch of writers who are willing to challenge just about any presupposition, conservative or liberal.) It sums up a lot of the things I have learned in my faltering efforts to write novels over the past few years, though I believe I’ve always been detached enough to avoid falling into the worst traps that can ensnare wannabe writers. (I’m careful not to make excessive drinking a crutch for my writing, and I’m readily aware, and more or less at peace knowing, that my odds of making a living off of writing are incredibly low.) But if you want to know why people write, and why those writers often act the way they do, this is an excellent piece.

http://www.theamericanconservative.com/dreher/you-dont-want-to-be-a-writer/

Second, also via Dreher, is an article that sums up a lot of the things I’ve been trying to say in recent posts about the “art of community.” The author emphasizes the need to ground oneself, narrow in, and choose something instead of an eternal life in the fascinating but rootless realm of diversity and “keeping options open.” We need both for a balanced life, but too often, people my age (especially college-educated and ambitious ones) seem to fear making commitments, lest doing so cut them off from some unseen future opportunity. I’m well-aware of the importance of living in community, yet I still have an awful lot of work to do on this front. At times, I’ve been an “in-betweener” par excellence, and in a certain way I’m proud of that. That is a fairly lonely existence, however, and my desire for this sort of community is the reason I want to make Duluth work for me, and even if I end up somewhere else, I’ll try to do many of the same things. Recognizing that is certainly one reason why writing hasn’t consumed me.

http://www.thismillenniallife.com/2013/10/rediscovering-art-of-community.html

If you would have told me five years ago that I’d be finding quality articles that spoke to me on something named “The American Conservative,” I would have wondered what you were smoking, or what my future self would be smoking. The world is a strange place.