A Return to High Modernist Principles in 21st Century “Smart” City Planning

[Note: This was an essay that, funnily enough, I wrote for an english elective instead of any of my dozens of planning courses. I’m posting this now because the actual thing I’m working on is taking a lot longer than I expected, oops.

It’s a bit stuffy because I wrote it initially in 2018 before I got a little better at talking about academic subjects without sounding like I have my head up my ass, but I still mostly stand by the content.

This is an extra-long post at something like 3500 words, so I’m sticking it under a cut. Read on to hear me break down why this now endemic “smart cities” trend isn’t one that I’m particularly fond of. The last section is new content and expands on the ways I’ve changed my thinking since I wrote the essay.]

Continue reading “A Return to High Modernist Principles in 21st Century “Smart” City Planning”

Now, Less Than Ever

On my corner of Tumblr, there’s a good meme going around, inspired possibly by something Matt Yglesias did a few years back? And it’s been a good workout for my brain, now that school doesn’t seem real anymore because the entire world sort of went on hiatus.

Anyways, so you know how every time there’s a crisis, there’s a bunch of people on Twitter saying “if we only had implemented [my preferred policy] years ago, this could have been totally averted”? 1  The idea is to flip that for the sake of nuance and intellectual honesty. To think of policies you unreservedly support that would have made things a lot worse now, or conversely, ideas that you absolutely will not support, that would have absolutely helped.

I’ve thought of a few things that fit this profile for me:

      • I want higher dependence on mass transit and a severe reduction of car culture. But if more households did not have cars and were dependent on public transportation to get around, then our transit systems would have been truly terrible vectors of disease. Instead, buses currently are near-empty here in Waterloo, meaning that if you absolutely had to go someplace, it’s not as dangerous to use. (I think there’s still decent ridership at peak hours, which is bad. But it could be a lot worse.)

        NUMTOT asked for “angry reacts only”, but where is the lie :^(
      • Downsizing your fridge and doing near-daily grocery runs for your food is a fantastic way to increase the freshness of what you eat and reduce food waste. But without the ability to shop for a weeks’ worth of food at a time, households would need to be in more frequent contact with the community.
      • Relatedly, as a #millennial, the whole #supportlocal lifestyle where I go to 4 specialty grocers for specific ingredients instead of one (1) Loblaw is very appealing to me. Now, the thought of visiting even two different stores back to back makes my hair stand on end and I’m very grateful for big-box stores that sell most of what I need.

      • Mass surveillance. Hoo boy, to say that I am not a fan would be a giant understatement. But I can’t deny that contact/proximity tracing would have helped prevent the spread, even if that feels like pulling teeth to admit. I am very angry that many countries are working on developing such tools, and extremely concerned about the further erosion of privacy that this symbolizes as well as the fact that, let’s be real, it won’t be rolled back.

        I’m anticipating some quibble about whether surveillance at our current fidelity level is actually effective, but I’m obviously against higher quality surveillance that is 100% effective even more than I am against our current level of surveillance. 2 Basically, surveillance will help save lives and I’m big mad about that.

What are some things that you support, that would have been pretty bad?

  1. To be clear, I’m not bashing on the “[my preferred policy] would have solved this crisis years ago” folk – such commentary is often valuable and true, and I do not agree with the characterisation that that is opportunistic/in bad taste. []
  2. Okay, so this might not be strictly true. It looks like clumsy surveillance screws over more innocents than having more comprehensive profiles, which might be a worse state of affairs on balance. But in case it wasn’t obvious, I would consider both clumsy and sophisticated state surveillance to be worse than no state surveillance. []

Effective Civic Action, Inside and Outside the System

I read Teardown by Dave Meslin for a book club here in Ottawa, and it is the weirdest thing that I’ve read in some time. I’ve described it to some friends as the most milquetoast call to radicalism that I’ve ever read. But a more charitable interpretation, perhaps, is that it is a book that excludes all theory to focus single-mindedly on praxis, and how to do it well in the Canadian political context. Meslin has a wealth of experience as an activist, and his book reflects that.

Would I recommend the book? Yes, especially if you’re Canadian. The tactics that he describes does have their limitations, and don’t try to look for any sort of coherent ideology (but again…. pracccssisssss is where the book shines), but there are enough nuggets of wisdom to mine that I think it’s likely worth your time overall.

I took lots of notes during my read-through, but of course focused on the chapters that are most useful and insightful for me personally. Key takeaways:

Useful ideas for local planning/advocacy:

  • 4 rules to create engaging public notices: be pretty, highlight important info, highlight engagement opportunities, finish with a call for action: “Your voice matters.” “This is your chance to be heard.” “We want your opinion.”

  • Use less planning jargon. Specifically called out examples: “podium”, “mechanical penthouse”, “below grade”, “amenity space” (be more specific – what’s going in that amenity space?)

  • City hall should have open doors (literally), council chambers should have open doors (literally).

  • Dress codes should be loosened, requiring ties in 2019 is ludicrous

  • Spontaneous consultation meetings on transit buses, giving free bus tickets as incentive

  • Providing pizza to citizens who want to host informal focus groups in their own homes

  • Interesting awareness campaign idea: put price tags on everything. Fire hydrants, bus stops, playgrounds. Show cost to build and to maintain/operate. Could be in lead-up to public budgeting session.

  • Paper newsletters in people’s physical mailboxes are still an incredibly powerful way to involve community

A very well thought out section on ways to clean up campaign money and the relative strengths and weaknesses of each solution:

(going in, it should be recognized that governments are already in the habit of giving out rebates, so none of these solutions are like, unrealistically radical)

  • tax incentives by way of rebates
    • Toronto already does this, you get a 75% rebate on all small donations
    • One drawback is that since the refund is delayed, you discriminate against lower-income donors.

  • matching grants
    • 1:1 ratio used in presidential primary elections: if you give $50, govt will kick in $50
    • 6:1 ratio for first $175 of each contribution in NY program, i.e. govt will give $6 per every $1 you donate – completely changed culture of campaign finance in the city. Before, 30% of popn donated, after introduction in 2009, 90% donated. Jump concentrated in neighbourhoods w higher poverty rates, higher concentrations of minority residents. System credited w electing a much more diverse council. In 2018, ratio raised to 8:1.

  • per-vote subsidy
    • annual allowance given to party based on how many votes they got in the last election.
    • introduced in Canada in 2004, each party got flat 1.75/vote in prior election
    • all voters (not just the 1% who donate) help direct funds
    • strategic voting becomes more meaningful
    • honestly a pretty decent option, but they get cancelled and don’t stick around because politicians hate them

  • democracy dollars
    • “bold experiment” in Seattle, each voter is mailed 4 coupons worth $25 each. tripled number of campaign donors; 84% of donors were new to political process, donors were more reflective of general popn (e.g. more donations coming from youth, women, PoC, low-income residents). % funding from small contributions went from under 50% to 87%
    • provides candidates large incentive to knock on doors, talk to voters
    • amplifies new and emerging voices
    • allows all voters, regardless of disposable income, to participate

Misc takes:

  • In runoff elections, things get friendlier because if you’re nice to another candidate then their supporters might vote for you second

  • Billboards erode our sense of collective ownership and social identity. Neighbourhoods gain their character from small businesses, public art, local architecture, and historic landmarks. Billboards create a monolithic aesthetic. It’s kind of ridiculous when neighbourhoods allow billboards but don’t allow local postings from actual people.

  • Disclosure of donations to politicians need to have more information than just a name and address, because that makes it harder to connect the dots between where lobbyists work and what the donate as “private citizens”. But possibly more importantly, we absolutely have to stop releasing them as useless PDFs, and instead release them as actually usable data sets

  • Lobbying is a good thing, as long as there’s a level playing field. Maybe the government should provide lobbyists to community groups, the same way that courts appoint lawyers to low-income defendants. They can do this by providing direct funding to community orgs that cross a support threshold, or corps can be forced to pay for opposition’s lobbying costs, or govts can create an office of public lobbyists staffed w full-time advocates. (That last one sounds a lot like Davidoff’s advocacy planning which I’m a large fan of)

“War stories”:

Olifas Marketing Group (OMG) offered city council thousands of free garbage cans. In exchange, all OMG wanted was permission to put advertising on the cans. The sign bylaw, of course, doesn’t allow advertising to be installed directly on our sidewalks, so the company was asking for an exemption. But OMG couldn’t simply offer the city millions of dollars in exchange for that exemption. Imagine how that would have looked! The optics would have been terrible because everyone knows that policy shouldn’t be for sale. But because OMG offered “free” street furniture, no one saw it for what it is: a company getting special treatment in exchange for financial incentives. Institutionalized bribery. Under this new financial model, the advertising was more important than the garbage can. So the free bins were themselves pieces of garbage, built with the structural integrity of an empty pop can. They began breaking down as soon as they were installed, metal doors flinging open and blocking the sidewalk or a bike lane. And the bins were often installed perpendicular to the curb, which blocked pedestrians but made the advertising more visible to drivers. These weren’t really garbage cans with ads on them at all; they were billboards with lousy garbage cans attached. (216)

[Toronto] has a donations policy that is explicitly designed to ensure that “donations occur at arm’s length from any City decision-making process.” But “when I filed a complaint with the city’s integrity commissioner, she ruled that no rules were broken because the ten-year-old policy regulating donations and community benefits astonishingly doesn’t include a definition of “donations” or “community benefits.” Without clear terminology, no one can actually break any rules. It’s the wild west. (218)

Tribar created the ultimate bundle: if the city gave permission to install a two-storey television screen above one of North America’s largest urban green spaces, the company would (are you ready for this?) contribute $3.5 million towards the construction of a suicide barrier on the same bridge. When the proposal was presented at city hall, the two items were bundled together, so if you were against the video screens (which I was, of course), then you were portrayed as also being against the suicide barrier. Politically, it was a nightmare situation. And that was intentional. (219)

Groups with charitable status are required to follow strict rules that limit their ability to do advocacy, while non-profit groups (without charitable status) can be much more innovative, politically vocal and effective when it comes to advocacy and community organizing. So why would any group choose to be a charity? Because charitable donations are tax-deductible. Under the existing rules, certain kinds of non-partisan advocacy are permitted, as long they account for less than 10 percent of a charity’s resources. But because board members often don’t understand these rules, they tend to take a risk-averse approach. “We have weak and confused sector organizations,” explains charity law expert Mark Blumberg, who’s calculated that more than 99 percent of charities conduct far fewer political activities than are allowed under the current rules. In fact, Blumberg estimates that the sector as a whole is spending only one-thousandth of its permitted threshold. (248)

When Ford went to rehab for two months, we literally had no mayor. As a community activist, I noticed a big difference during those strange years. Before and after Ford, it was absolutely necessary to secure the support of the mayor’s office in order to get any proposal approved by council. But during the Ford years, I was able to win significant political victories both with and without the mayor’s support. The councillors were in charge—as they should be but rarely are. (276)

Rants I won’t attempt to summarize because they are things of beauty you just kinda had to be there for:

  • “Tricks of the trade”, how politicians hide things from public eye

  • The one on billboards

  • The one on the increasing legibility of campaign running, and especially Get Out the Vote (GOTV)

    …Okay, fine, a small quote, because this very specific type of Ra-driven (archive) driven institutional rot is exactly my jam:

    “If they don’t trust their own caucus members to serve as ambassadors to the public, can you imagine how terrified they must be of having random volunteers knocking on doors and saying something that might be off message? This leaves campaigns with a dilemma: how do you distract dozens, if not hundreds, of volunteers and make sure they aren’t trying to talk to voters about issues?” (156-157)

Articles of Interest, April-May 2019

Articles of Interest is a bi-monthly post on the five or so most interesting things I’ve read during the titular two-month period. The intent is for there to be a few weeks of “lag” time between when I first read the articles and when I curate this collection, so that my selection isn’t biased by ongoing hype or sensationalism. The articles aren’t necessarily published during this period, although many of them are – I choose my collection from what I’ve bookmarked over the two months. Here are my picks for April and May:

Fandom for Robots by Vina Jie-Min Prasad

Computron feels no emotion towards the animated television show titled Hyperdimension Warp Record (超次元 ワープ レコード). After all, Computron does not have any emotion circuits installed, and is thus constitutionally incapable of experiencing “excitement,” “hatred,” or “frustration.” It is completely impossible for Computron to experience emotions such as “excitement about the seventh episode of HyperWarp,” “hatred of the anime’s short episode length” or “frustration that Friday is so far away.”

I’ve been in fandom for half my life, and it’s a delight to see it so lovingly represented – not just the love of a piece of media, but the familiar intercommunity dynamics that spring up around the love. The friendships that emerge, the petty squabbles between fan factions. The way your burning desire to get a smidge of extra insight into this universe you love will force you down multiple rabbit-holes of topics relevant to the fandom in question, until, say, your historical cdrama discord server also becomes your de-facto place to ask about the interplay between Taoist and Confucian philosophies in the Southern and Northern Dynasties and yell about traditional silkworm cultivation. A short and beautiful piece of fiction.

Heaven or High Water: Selling Miami’s last 50 years by Sarah Miller

I asked how the flooding was.

“There are pump stations everywhere, and the roads were raised,” he said. “So that’s all been fixed.”

“Fixed,” I said. “Wow. Amazing.”

I asked how the hurricanes were.

He said that because the hurricanes came from the tropics, from the south and this was the west side of Miami Beach, they were not that bad in this neighborhood. “Oh, right,” I said, as if that made any sense.

I asked him if he liked it here. “I love it,” he said. “It is one of the most thriving cities in the country, it’s growing rapidly.” He pointed to a row of buildings in a neighborhood called Edgewater that were all just three years old. “That skyline was all built in the last three years.”

4000 words of pure “thanks, I hate it” energy, if you’re into that sort of thing. Also in general Popula’s a cool website which is Doing Things On The Blockchain if you’re into things like that and you should go check it out!

Susan Sontag Was a Monster of the Very Best Kind by Lauren Elkin

You won’t find Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, Hume or György Lukács nonchalantly dotting the page in criticism today; it is supposed that readers aren’t up for it. But Sontag charges in and dares to distinguish between their good and mediocre work. She isn’t afraid of Jean-Paul Sartre. Writing on his book on Jean Genet, she notes: ‘In Genet, Sartre has found his ideal subject. To be sure, he has drowned in him.’ She stood up to men held up as moral giants. Albert Camus, George Orwell, James Baldwin? Excellent essayists, but overrated as novelists.

Until this article mentioned it, I kinda… never really thought about how you can dunk on well respected thinkers of previous generations? I mean, an in-group kind of dunking, a skewering of their work by people who also exist in the same space. Like, I don’t care about any critique that stemlords care to launch because they’re very, very bad at engaging in good faith with philosophers. But I didn’t realize until Elkin pointed it out, that I want to read more about the thoughts that other women/PoC/queer folk/disabled people/members of the subaltern in general had, doing close readings Locke and Rousseau and Marx. So, for now, I’ve picked up a copy of On Photography, and I’ll let you know how it goes.

Comrade Vine died for Workers Rights™

I once attributed the death of Vine to executives shrugging at the popularity of Black youth comedy, foolishly saying, “we can’t monetize this!”

Nope. They just refused to share.

A very welcome reminder as we all watch YouTube and Twitter fail time and time again at kicking Nazis off their platform, and an interesting look into what labour activism can look like in digital spaces.

“Hey, how’s this for autism ‘awareness’ month: some percentage of you who are reading this tweet are #actuallyAutistic and aren’t aware of it.” A very long twitter thread by @mykola

When you think about interacting with people, how much effort do you put into being understood? Are you compensating, without realizing it, for the fact that nobody understands you unless you reframe it in terms you’ve slowly learned they grok?

When you see a complex system, does your brain get excited? Do you just automatically find that your awareness can easily flow through the system, consider its many parts in relation to each other and the whole, etc? Do you understand more than you can say in this context?

When you first entered ‘society’ (for me it was kindergarten) did you have a sense that everyone else must have somehow already known each other? That they all somehow knew the rules and you didn’t, or something? Did you spend 5, 10, 15 years playing catch-up?

Look: a lot of people can say yes to a lot of these questions and not be at all disabled, right? And because Autism is often spoken of as a disability in and of itself, anyone who has a ton of autistic traits but is doing fine in life doesn’t get diagnosed.

There’s a common refrain on parts of tumblr that I’ve taken to heart, about how people should use assistive devices more. Even if they don’t “need” it, even if they “aren’t disabled”. I’ve been mentally referring to this as “the shower chair creed”, after this thread (perma). So I decided that since I recognized enough of myself in this thread, as well as this other very pointed tumblr post (perma), I should go ahead and pick up some books on autism, social skills, and coping mechanisms for living in neurotypical society. It’s been an ongoing thing, interesting and scary in turns. But all in all, it’s been pretty rewarding to explore myself in this new light, and I think if you recognize yourself in the thread you should do it too.