We’re all hearing the bad news: 7.8 million Americans are out of work, while the subprime mortgage crisis exacts a continuing, ghastly toll on the American Dream, and rents rise faster than incomes.
That’s not all. Thousands more layoffs occur weekly. The mortgage crisis hits inner-city neighborhoods twice as hard as the rest of America. Low-wage renters face cruel choices as food and gas prices rise right along with monthly payments due to the landlord.
For local and state governments, the trends are a noxious broth as the taxes they collect, and thus the assistance they can provide, fall too.
But looking at today’s crises piecemeal misses a larger point, the American Planning Association (APA) argues in a book, “Overlooked America,” to be released at its 100th National Planning Conference in Las Vegas on April 28.
It’s that at least 12 percent of the U.S. population – over 37 million of us – faces serious life struggles. And that it’s not just the jobless in a recession, or people chronically without a roof over their heads. The “overlooked” of America, the planners write, include those who suffer from the dangerous emissions of nearby toxic waste dumps. They’re also teenagers expelled from their homes for being gay and then exposed to sexual exploitation on the streets. They’re sex offenders who serve their sentences, straighten out their lives, but get treated as 21st century lepers in their communities.
And the overlooked are also the elderly stranded in their homes when they can no longer drive.
The message: Planners, who most of us think of as the technicians who lay out city streets and parks and deal with building codes and zoning, can help set the rules, raise issues and act as a strong moral force in their communities.
A social agenda isn’t new. The planning profession’s roots go back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries when chaotic, unregulated growth of America’s industrial cities resulted in deadly fires, compromised water quality and generally wretched conditions in area’s such as New York’s Lower East Side. So planners pressed for safety rules, access to parks and fresh air, water quality investments – a massive public health agenda.
Planners got a black eye for their role in demolishing innercity communities during the post-World War II period of urban renewal and freeways slashing through poor neighborhoods – epitomized by New York’s heavy-handed Robert Moses.
But there were exceptions even then, such as Philadelphia’s famed planner Edmund Bacon. And in the 1960s, social activism among planners had an awakening in the struggle against racial discrimination and urban poverty.
More commonly, though, planners simply looked for paychecks in suburbia, creating communities that carelessly devoured open lands and usually shunned the disadvantaged anyway.
More recently, there’s been a dramatic shift – many planners playing a big role in dramatic back-to-the-city and downtown revivals. And now, argues Donald Carter of Pittsburghbased Urban Design Associates, the time is ripe for trained planners to become standout leaders of city redesign that will engage the public and other stakeholders, respect local traditions and heritage, and look to sustainable design as a tool for decisionmaking.
APA’s “Overlooked America” ups the ante even more. The Katrina disaster, it asserts, underscored the deep perils of focusing exclusively on physical city planning while ignoring ordinary peoples’ needs. The ring of concern for planners, it insists, must embrace a wide circle of Americans, from those just poor or jobless to the homeless, the excluded and our fast-growing mixed-race populations.
Can planners make a difference? Yes, contends Robert Beauregard, director of Columbia University’s urban planning program. They can mediate between people’s needs and the physical city. They can help enable shelters and transitional shelter for the homeless, fighting off NIMBY (“Not In My Backyard”) voices by influencing zoning and employing conditionaluse permits.
For the growing millions of elderly drivers, planners can focus on public transit and on building more pedestrianfriendly mixed-use developments. For day laborers, planners can try to set up orderly facilities where they can wait for work.
These needs are immense. I couldn’t help being deeply moved, for example, by a recent flood of mail – from paroled sex offenders and their families and friends – welcoming a column I’d written about the unfairness and ineffectiveness of harsh registry and residency laws. Hounded out of their homes, separated from families, automatically rejected by employers, many seem doomed to lifetimes of homelessness and despair.
Millions of us, notes APA Executive Director Paul Farmer, “suffer daily” at the hands of an economy, a political and belief system “too often unresponsive” to basic human needs and dignity. It’s an immense challenge to the planning profession – and to us all. Because, Farmer insists, “Our own human dignity can only exist in an environment of respect and caring.”
©2008 Washington Post Writers