Objectivity or Crazy Good Dreams of Wonderful Communities?

(this post from a new blogger for Bikeside, the Subjective Bureaucrat.  The Subjective Bureaucrat chooses to remain nameless, but you can bet he or she knows what he or she is talking about ; ]   I’m happy to have him or her on board!  -AT)

In the world of planning, or on a larger scale government work in general, there has always been this stated goal of objectivity. The idea being that if you take your own personal emotions and opinions out of the equation you will somehow get a more accurate, and therefore better, result. Well I am going to call BULLSHIT on that concept all together.

Take a walk through any DMV office or have a conversation with the person on the other side of the counter. It is an absolutely heartless experience. Those poor people have been stuck doing the same thing day in and day out just waiting for retirement. It scares me… seriously! As a government employee is that what I have to look forward to? I have seen it in almost every government office, people just pushing paper from one side of their desk to the other. It is happening in every planning office right now… applications for zoning variances and conditional use permits, environmental documents with the same mitigation measures that have been cut and pasted from one to the other. How is this “objectivity” considered positive?

Level of Service D - "When planners and engineers replace their judgment with 'objective' measures like Level of Service, we get atrociously planned cities.", Howard Zinn . . . ok, not really, that's AT who said that.
Level of Service, an objective blight on our communities?

Now, yes I am talking about an extreme here, but I firmly believe that this extreme is what an objective planner has to look forward to. I have come to a realization that government planning as a career is intent on destroying whatever heart and utopian ideas you went into it with. The truth is that most planners come out of college with some amazing ideas and crazy good dreams of wonderful communities where you can walk to the market or mom can borrow a cup of sugar from next door. A place where kids still ride their bikes to school…

Did you really think that a conversation about the role of bicycles in planning was not going to end up in here somewhere? What website are you reading?

It is time that planners spend less time stuck behind a counter and more time experiencing what their city, county, or state has to offer. You have to have heart in order to survive a planning career! Your ideas and opinions are not only valid but valuable as well! I challenge you to throw your objectivity under the next bus that drives by and become a subjective bureaucrat!

Getting on a bike is a good place to start. There is one simple concept that I believe will save me from a heartless bureaucratic life, what is good for a bicyclist is good for the community as a whole. I stole that damn near verbatim. In planning we call them “best practices,” everywhere else they call it plagiarism or theft. I like good ideas, if you have a good idea I am going to steal it and not give you any credit for it… it is the highest form of flattery. If you want to know about pot holes, get on a bike. If you want to know about parking (or lack thereof), get on a bike. If you want to know about traffic, get on a bike. On a bike a planner can see and feel all of the issues that face a community. Smooth streets are better for cyclists, Slower cars are better for cyclists, shady streets are better for cyclists, accessible services are better for cyclists… see where I am going with this?

People care about the places where they live and work. They are passionate about it. As a planner, you are going to get yelled at. People are going to say rude and nasty things to you that you will probably never forget. And I am not here to tell you to ignore it. I absolutely love public meetings. I love getting yelled at because at the core of it that person’s passion is what we should be listening to, they really care. I get the best ideas from people yelling at me. Bring it on. Best of all, at meetings I get to be subjective. I care about this place and I too have great ideas. I go into every meeting with one thing on my mind, “if they know what I know and they care like I care, then we are probably going to find a lot of common ground.” Ultimately I am there to sell a community good planning concepts and practices because most fear of change comes from not knowing or understanding the concepts that the change is based on. Planning is about solutions to community-based problems. The community knows what the problems are, that is what they are screaming at you about. So take a moment and not just listen to what they have to say, but actually give a shit about it. Real planning happens from there.

9 thoughts on “Objectivity or Crazy Good Dreams of Wonderful Communities?

  1. I would like to wholeheartedly disagree with the thesis of this essay. Objective measures are a huge part of governing properly.

    In the US, it is not that our measures are “too objective”, it is that we only choose to measure certain things, while ignoring others.

    In Donald Appleyard’s seminal work, “Livable Streets”, pseudo-scientific traffic engineering goals are dropped in favor of sociological measures.

    This type of survey captures a more robust picture of the effect street designs have on people’s lives.

    A more modern treatment of city planning and it’s measurable effects can be found in “Urban Sprawl and public Health” by Frumkin, Frank, and Jackson. The authors compile loads and loads of other data sets to measure the effects of planning and road designs to see what they do to humans.

    These measures show lots of clear problems with the focus on LOS and other car-only road design measures.

    The problem, clearly, is not objectivity in government work. It is one of advertising these new measures and passing into law and policy alternative metrics that balance out the car-only system of road performance measurements.

  2. Subjective Bureaucrat, have you read this?


    It speaks to your point about applying passion and leadership within a planning career. I’m guessing that you’re relatively new to the field, but you should know that this IS a career that will smash your ideals to bits if you let it, and those passionless bureaucrats you speak of are they way that they are in order to preserve some semblance of sanity.

    In my experience, the folks who get wound-up and nasty at public meetings do so far more out of a perceived threat to their self interest than because of an altruistic passion for a better built environment. But that’s where you come in, after all.

    Looking forward to more posts.

  3. Well, if you’re challenging folks in the bureaucracy to become ‘subjective,’ then shouldn’t the reader expect as much from the columnist? Step out behind the cloak of anonymity. The need to remain nameless is a sure sign that the problem in public-sector planning is not objectivity but rather fear.
    Planning is neither a subjective endeavor or an objective process but both. Above all, though, it’s a political activity. Planning directs resources; planning changes the value of land; planning creates or stymies opportunity. All of the good language in plans themselves contravene the often pragmatic (or cynical) values that propel the activity of planning. If the alternative is state planning, with little accountability to the public, then perhaps political planning it need be.
    To your point about stepping out as a ‘subjective planner,’ I do agree. Planners should be challenged to state their values. Planners should function as public advocates by helping the public to understand the process (i.e., effective participation). Planners should represent the public interest behind closed doors too, as a way to militate against self-interested actors from developers to politicians and, yes, politically-appointed planning directors.
    Developers’ motives are often clear; elected officials and planning directors frequently less so. We need to hold them to a higher standard. I think that the public should challenge each of these actors to state their subjective positions.

  4. First let’s talk about why I post anonymously. Everyday I practice creative dissent within the walls of my jurisdiction, I am personally blessed to work for some folks that really respect my ideas and what I have to say. This support goes all the way up the chain to our director. But I push them out of their comfort zone yet they continue to back me. I have no problem with the position I currently hold, I refuse to back down even if it may mean at some point I am skipped for a promotion. I also have no fears about anyone knowing who I am, chances are most of you already know me. I post anonymously to protect the people who back me on a regular basis. They do not deserve to miss out on opportunities because the have the unfortunate task of managing yours truly. I post anonymously out of respect for them. Dig?

    As for experience I like to consider myself young, perhaps even sexy… I certainly act like a twelve year old, but I am by no means wet behind the ears. Don’t write me off because you think I am some newbie just because I refuse to lose my vision… even if it means sacrificing my sanity in the process I will not be tamed.

    I am doing planning by any means necessary, I understand that it is a political game and that political decisions must be made. Many decisionmakers rely on data formats that they are familiar with, like LOS. So if I can make my argument with that data I am going to use what is most familar to them. They need to be comfortable making hard decisions… I need to provide that comfort. It is too easy to say no to a new idea but the funny thing about data is that it is more maleable than you may think, more like asphalt, less like concrete. Josef I could not agree with you more that our metrics are a joke, LOS and ITE trip generation have a facade of science but there is very little there. Honestly I find myself as a professional laughing about it frequently.

    The article about Jane Jacobs influence on planning is interesting… mostly because I am not a fan of Jacobs. But the authors conclusion suggests that the solution is more education for planners. Yet it points to another theory (perhaps without realizing it) that planners need less education in a classroom and more education in the field. Get out from behind the desk and go outside! A masters degree speaks very little to ones ability to be a successful planner. I learned more about planning in my first 6 months as a working planner than I did in my damn near 10 years it took me to get my degree.

  5. You had me right up until the “not a fan of [Jane] Jacobs.” I hate to speak for her, but I’m pretty sure she’d be right there with you on many of your points. She wanted community involvement, but more importantly she wanted planners, etc. to give a damn about people who are indeed passionate about their communities. She pushed her planner friends to actually visit “bad”neighborhoods, which in reality were vibrant communities. Oh and she learned everything she knew simply by walking around her neighborhood….and she rode her bike to work. Try reading Death and Life one more time…

    If I could reconcile Josef’s comment, I think there is a common ground here. I haven’t read “Livable Streets”, but am familiar with Eric Dumbaugh’s work using well documented research to overturn established “objective” measures of (car-centric) street design. I suspect there’s a level of subjective bias in both of their works, but our challenge is to express our passion while backing it up with evidence. In the end, though, I agree that the most important things planners must do is to maintain their passion and get outside to experience their communities. Far too many (most) of us don’t.

    This is the first time I’ve seen this blog, I’m glad Streetsblog linked to it.

  6. >Yet it points to another theory (perhaps without realizing it) that planners need less education in a classroom and more education in the field.

    I couldn’t agree more. Not especially with regard for the technical fine points, which I think are not communicated effectively in the classroom, but for a grounded understanding of how planning actually works. For that matter, I expect that programs do a poor job of communicating what viable job opportunities exist for a fairly flexible degree.
    I’ve met many lay planners in years working with Los Angeles neighborhoods, and I can say that many of them are much more knowledgeable about the finer points of planning than are most every graduate, and more savvy about the power structures too, of course.
    Back in the day when John Forester wrote up the power dynamics of the planning encounter, he couldn’t have foreseen that in the not too distant future, the professional planner would be almost entirely cut out of the power loop. Today’s power dynamics are waged behind closed doors between policymakers’ staff and developers, and in the incohate chatter of the public arena – and decided long before significant projects make it to hearings.

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