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A Flood Conference in Grand Rapids

Greetings from Michigan.

I’m spending the next few days in beer-filled Grand Rapids, Michigan at the Association of State Floodplain Managers national conference. It’s a fairly packed agenda of talks and workshops, though I’m trying to work in a hefty dose of seeing the city, grabbing various burgers, and sampling some of the aforementioned beer. It’s a fitting location, what with Lake Michigan just a short trip away and the Grand River running through the heart of the city. The conference itself is an order of magnitude smaller than the APA Conferences I’m used to, but it’s also more intimate. The few sessions I’ve been to thus far more readily feature discussion, which is a welcome break from the standard powerpoint. These discussions have also been more technical than I’m used to, another welcome change from the sometimes too broad for their own good talks at planning conferences.

This is an interesting time for flood plain managers and coastal planners. The effects of climate change and sea level rise are palpable. There’s also a certain morbid satisfaction that the general projections of sea level rise from a decade ago are being validated on the ground today. The focus on risk projection and assessment are a primary focus. The FEMA flood map just isn’t good enough anymore. Things are changing, and they’re changing fast. Retreat and accommodation of water is a primary thread. The literal evacuation of the floodplain is being seriously considered by planners nationwide. It’s harrowing to think about, but it’s and important conversation. As the data and modeling continue to improve, I think it’ll point to serious opportunities for more robust master planning, especially on the coast. A rosy prediction, though. It’s gonna be a lot messier than that.

I’ll be checking in throughout the week with more updates and hopefully some substantial writeups on what I’ve learned.

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Popular Action and the Roots of Planning

Hall’s “Cities of Tomorrow” is reminding me just how prevalent the fear of class action was on the development of planning in the late 19th century. The characterization of the industrial poor as desperate wretches certainly provided the impetus for state and philanthropic action, yet it also seems to have led to a more imminent fear of the lower classes. As Hall explains, this was almost certainly spurred on by a growing class consciousness, direct action by labor unions, and the rapid spread of socialist and worker’s parties throughout Europe in the 1880’s and 90’s.

After completing this chapter, I’d like to revisit this same topic from a modern vantage point. The mass action and popular agitation that has come along with the rekindling of the civil rights movement and growing perception of wage inequality will help to form the planning priorities for the next several decades. The State, corporate, and philanthropic response is underway, though in fits and starts. Next week I’d like to evaluate where popular action might drive planning in the near future.

Revisiting Peter Hall’s Cities of Tomorrow

After a full year’s separation from planning school, I’ve decided to revisit some of the standard  literature that formed the basis of my early, non-blog/pop-planning education. I figure with some professional experience under my belt I’ll be able to approach these things with a more critical eye, see what works and what doesn’t (at least from my limited personal experience), and wring a bit more academic enjoyment out of something that doesn’t come attached to an assignment. Working in the field, it is remarkably easy to fall out of academic practice. You lose sight of the things that got you interested in planning in the first place, overshadowed by the standard struggles of the workday.

I’m starting with Peter Hall’s Cities of Tomorrow, which might be my first assigned reading as a student. I remember most of broad strokes. The colliding and diverging branches of theory spiraling into and out of bureaucratic practice, planning as problem solving giving way to new urban crises, the outsized character of Le Corbusier, and the emergence of modern global cities. A brief reading of the opening chapter reminds me of the complicated and twisting nature of new ideas in planning and how they come into and out of favor, how they are bastardized, coopted, rediscovered, or refounded. Hall specifically points out Howard’s Garden Cities as indicative of this phenomenon.

I recently found out about a city planning book club, which should be a good resource for future, non-syllabus-related lit. I’ll be following up with my thoughts on this and future readings weekly.