Welcome to my newly-launched site! It’s a work in progress so fixes and touch-ups are under way!
The City is Sophia – My Personal Paean to Urban Planning: A field that requires us to act with greater wisdom than we possess.
In the spring of 1978, I sat slumped on a park bench on the Washington University campus in St. Louis, sipping from a big mug of angst mit schlagg. I was studying for finals in my first year of law school and I was miserable.
After a childhood spent watching Lake Erie fight for life, and concerned about toxic chemicals, nuclear weapons and power, my aim had been to become an environmental lawyer, to defend the earth in court against the ravages of mankind. Turned out most environmental lawyers worked for the polluters, and those who didn’t spent most of their time arguing whether this contractual “and” was conjunctive or disjunctive. My torts professor had been on the team that defended Ford in the Pinto case. My property teacher thought I was amusing, but suggested my penchant for starting legal arguments with ancient theories of justice hailing from circa the big bang, rather than the most recent (often odious) precedent, would suit me more to teaching than lawyering. In case after case, the law revealed itself as unhinged from any moral compass, completely contingent, structured to invite the worst of humanity even as it argued for justice. As I briefed cases for review, my whole being increasingly resisted being filled with the intimate details of real people’s lives that were so often degraded in their transformation into legal chess pieces.
As I pondered what to do, a figure caught my eye. He was obviously a graduate student, and was carrying 15 or so books in his arms, spines outward so that I could read them as he approached. I scanned the titles, one after another, hugely interesting, deeply connected, relevant and engaged to the large public policy questions that I’d mistakenly thought would have been the subject of discussion in torts, property, or at the very least, ethics or constitutional law. I ran after him, grabbed his shoulders and demanded to know, “What is it you study?”
“Urban Planning,” he said.
And so my career changed from a noun to a gerund. I moved back to Iowa, and at the University of Iowa I worked with a progressive, smart and committed faculty, to take up topics I was passionate about, now in the context of urban planning. While there, I scribbled this question to no one in particular:
“Isn’t it the job of the public works planner to see that the public has the chance to seek God?”
Looking back, I realize this has been my personal motivation, no matter what the ostensible task was: How can we help people relax enough to allow them to drop out of their reptile brain, by providing for basic needs, without taking from the future, so that everyone has the tools, support, built environment, education, nourishment and civic systems in place to do what they were put here to do? I mean, really, what else is there?
Why PolicyContinuum? And what’s up with that logo?
My career in planning has been neither stellar nor atypical. It’s just that at this point in my life, I want to share what I have learned, and play with the currents of practice as they evolve, I hope, toward something more beautiful, more compassionate, more reverent. And maybe more effective! Here I hope to explore linking what I see as problems with what I hope may be solutions. As much as possible, I will resist the urge to say “I told you so.” But as a Cassandra type, in a Cassandra-friendly field, it’s going to be a challenge. Many topics on this site will be picked up from where I discovered them, along with many other observers, back in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. And of course, even then, none of these problems were new. (Yes, I will be talking about the tragically predictable vindication of the Limits to Growth!)