Letter from the Chair of Planning
Going Big at PennPlanning
There's a saying that comes from Southern California's surfing culture: Go big or go home. Stated less colorfully, this means "take on the big challenges or stop whining." What are the big challenges facing today's generation of global planners? I have been fortunate enough over the last year to touch down in cities on every continent but Antarctica, and been able to observe some of the globe's biggest urban planning challenges. Here, in no particular order, are five of the biggest:
- * Right-sizing Shrinking North American and European Cities: American Rustbelt cities aren't the only ones losing people and jobs. Many European cities are losing population as well. How might these "shrinking cities" be proactively right-sized to reinvigorate viable neighborhoods while at the same time speeding the conversion of nonviable residential and commercial locations to other uses, including parklands and even wildlands? The practice of planning started as a means of managing industrial and population growth, and it has never adequately diversified its theoretical basis or toolsets to deal with population loss and urban-repurposing.
- * Repurposing and Reinvigorating Older American Suburbs: Roughly one-third of American households live in suburban communities developed between 1945 and 1970. While the urban fabric of many of these communities is still attractive, many of the homes in these communities are either too small or too old to meet modern day housing demands. Likewise, many of the vacant retail spaces in these communities-often in old strip centers-will never attract another paying tenant. Planners are caught between a rock and a hard place in these communities. Kelo-style government-sponsored redevelopment is too politically unpopular (not to mention increasingly unaffordable), while waiting for the private market to redevelop or repurpose these uses opens the window for blight. Local planners need to find bottom-up tools for incrementally repurposing older suburbs. Somebody should do today for older suburban communities what Jane Jacobs did fifty years ago for older urban neighborhoods with Death and Life.
- * Technology-based CO2 Emissions Reductions: Time to face the music: There isn't going to be a carbon tax. Or a national greenhouse gas reduction plan. Here in the U.S., or in China, or in India-the only three counties that really matter. Nor are we going to be able to adequately adapt our way out of a one meter rise in sea levels or a eight degree increase in temperatures. We must start to cut carbon emissions now. Not reduce the rate of increase, but cut. And the only way to do that is through an international Manhattan project to expand natural gas production for electricity production to fuel electric vehicles, while at the same time cutting domestic and building-based CO2 emissions throughout the world by 50%. Engineers and entrepreneurs will do most of the heavy lifting, but society will also need planners to help integrate these technological innovations into urban settlement patterns.
- * Reinserting the Public Realm into Rapidly Growing Asian Cities: Been to Beijing lately? Or Bangalore? Or Bangkok? Or Shenzhen? These fast-growing Asian cities have numerous and new high-rise buildings, new roads and transit systems, and some even have new planned green spaces. What they lack, almost without exception, is a local public realm for day-to-day social and human interaction. The planning and development of local public realms is falling further and further behind rapid private and infrastructure investments. This is creating urban forms of vast private accumulation but little in the way of public pleasure or meaning. Whereas urban planners in North America and Europe are rediscovering the importance of a pedestrian and human-scale urban places, city builders in China seem to see such places as somehow un-modern. More and better urban design of the public realm is needed in every city, but no more so than in Asian megacities.
- * Smartphones and Slums: Everybody in the developing world it seems has a cell phone. And an increasing number also have Internet-based smartphones. The diffusion of multi-channel (voice + text+ Internet) communication devices throughout the developing world, especially among young people, offers the potential to open up a vast network of small-scale and paperless entrepreneurs who can deliver goods and services without the need for office buildings or warehouses or other permanent structures. This opens up the possibility of slums becoming true "spaces of flows," (to use Manuel Castells' wonderful term). Can this type of communications potential be converted into more traditional forms of private investment or economic development? And if so how? These are the questions today's community development specialists in Latin America, in Africa, and even in America, should be seeking to answer.
These are but a few of the big challenges and opportunities facing today's planning practitioners and students. The thing about globalization is that there are no such things anymore as local solutions to local problems. All local solutions can also be solutions to global problems. For us in the PennPlanning community and planning more broadly, it's time to go big or go home.
John D. Landis, Crossways Professor and Department Chair