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”

Links Retrospective – Rest of 2019

It’s weird how school terms seem pretty ok when you’re in them but then when they’re done you’re like “wow, that sure was, a brickload of stress I was under, I had no time to do anything!” You think I’d be used to it after like 4 years.

Anyways, now that I have dealt with both exams and a case of what was likely bronchitis that my friend had thoughtfully gifted me from all the way across the pond, I’m finally ready to finish what I started. So here are the some of the most interesting things from the internet that I’ve read in the latter half of 2019.

As a reminder, 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 months in question. 

August

The Anglosphere Has Always Had Three Genders (Archive)
Death is Bad Blog, 2019

I see almost everyone on both sides acting as if traditional American society has only two genders, and I don’t think this is right. It’s at least half-wrong, anyway. Because since its inception, American society has always had a third gender option for women, and I think this is true for all anglophone cultures for several centuries now. I speak, of course, of the tomboy.

I think this is an interesting theory, and honestly based on the feminist theory I’ve read it seems like it could be valid. But my own, lived experience as a tomboy is messier. My tomboyness 100% had a performativity aspect to it, and my tomboyness changed the things I was allowed to do, restricting in some places and expanding in others.

As a girl, I really liked some of the affectations of femininity – the colour pink, wearing dresses, doing my long hair in elaborate ways. but I had to act as though I didn’t. In return, I was allowed to climb trees and fences, and bring worms home when it rained, and play with beyblades with the boys in the sand pit. I think some part of me knew that I was making a bargain at the time, because the world would not accept me in its entirety. And I decided that I valued wearing dresses less than I value the freedom to climb trees. And I feel like this story of sacrifiting bits of yourself so that you’re legible to others in your society, isn’t innate to tomboyhood, or even femininity. It just sounds like part and parcel of being human, and (sigh) living in a society.

Ra (Archive)
Sarah Constantin, 2016

Ra is a specific kind of glitch in intuition, which can roughly be summarized as the drive to idealize vagueness and despise clarity.

This wasn’t like, the first time that I read this essay, but at the end of my internship deep within the guts of the federal welfare machine, as I began to see more and more of the picture, it was a piece that kept coming to the forefront of my mind. 

What’s interesting is that I think I started the term off very anti-Ra, but by the end, I was seeing many benefits that come from vagueness. It’s not a glitch in intuition, it’s a tradeoff. The vagueness is intrinsically powerful in many ways – although it is a dangerous path that is conducive to corruption and systemic rot. All in all, it’s not a tradeoff I would make, but I can see why others might. I think anyone who works in a large company or organization should read this piece, and come to their own conclusions.

September

Untitled microfiction piece (Archive)
Grimelords, 2014

There’s six guys who live in this flat and all they do all day is play WoW and watch movies.

Short and tender piece about the university experience, if you’re a certain type of nerd.

Warcraft: LFG (Archive)
Left Conservative, 2016

Think about this the next time you wonder why, as we have more loot, more sex, more games, and more media that fits our tastes than ever before, we’re also less satisfied than we’ve ever been.

A cool microcosm of what modernity does.

October

It’s not “them” — it’s us! (Archive)
Betsy Leondar-Wright, 2006

“But let’s say that some working-class people did nevertheless manage to get into this organization. What would we do to make sure they felt uncomfortable and to stop them from taking leadership?” The group launched in with gusto: “A dress code — nothing but tuxedos and evening gowns!” “Fancy food — caviar and champagne!” “The real business takes place at the golf course at the country club!”

No-one said anything like “tofu.”

An old piece, but one that is still so incredibly useful and informative for building cross-class coalitions. 

The Music of “Hustlers” and the Soaring, Stupid National Mood Circa 2008 (Archive)
Jia Tolentino, 2019

I started crying a little, because Usher’s “Love in This Club” was playing. It’s a song with synths that shudder like lasers, and a central looping riff so triumphant and brimming that it sounds like someone telling you that you’re never going to die. As the song played, a flash of pre-recession memories emerged from beneath eleven years’ worth of increasingly subdued expectations: I was in college, and things often felt that good and endless, even though the wad of bills in my pocket was a bunch of greasy ones from waiting tables and my roommates and I were blasting “Love in This Club” in our wood-panelled living room, wearing clearance American Apparel and chugging leftover keg beer, hoping that we wouldn’t see any mice. It feels unseemly and indulgent to get nostalgic about something so dumb and so close to the present, and yet “Hustlers” helped me realize how many people have begun to remember the brief period just before the recession in a similar way.

If you ever want to relive 2007, here is one very excellent way to do it.

November

Why Are My Students Afraid of the World? (Archive)
Christopher Schaberg, 2019

I’m talking about discomfort with the physical world outside our campus buildings, things like sitting on grass: many students just won’t do it.

A new(?) phenomenon, that seems simultaneously tragic, dangerous, and inevitable.

The Real Class War (Archive)
Julius Krein, 2019

The socioeconomic divide that will determine the future of poli­tics, particularly in the United States, is not between the top 30 per­cent or 10 percent and the rest, nor even between the 1 percent and the 99 percent. The real class war is between the 0.1 percent and (at most) the 10 percent—or, more precisely, between elites primarily dependent on capital gains and those primarily dependent on profes­sional labor.

The last few years have brought about a new “discovery” of working-class immiseration—a media phenomenon arguably pro­voked by renewed elite anxieties. As a result, the story of a declining working class is now broadly understood. It is, after all, decades old, and it was entirely predictable if not exactly intended. Much less understood, however, is the more recent reshaping and radicalization of the professional managerial class. While the top 5 or 10 percent may not deserve public sympathy, their underperformance relative to the top 0.1 percent will be more politically significant than the hol­lowing out of the working or lower-middle classes. Unlike the work­ing class, the professional managerial class is still capable of, and re­quired for, wielding political power.

This maps on very well to the class-based discussions that I’m seeing online and in-person (in my very academic crowd, being a uni student and all).

December

What Is a Take? A Trans Feminist Take on the 2019 British Election Results (Archive)
Grace Lavery, 2019

At some point in the last, say, five years, the phrase “hot take” both started to appear less frequently in conversations about online culture (especially Twitter), and the apparently more neutral term “take” has seemed to appear more frequently. The shift seems to have entailed a subtle shift in tone, too. The phrase “hot take” was usually fairly scornful, indicative of a callow or insincere attempt to gin up controversy for the sake of getting attention, much like “clickbait.” Another term from the same period, “thinkpiece,” possessed an even stronger critical association: the typifying thinkpiece was self-indulgent, unfocused pie-in-the-sky; the term carried the sense of intellectual irresponsibility, an inability or refusal to grasp things as they actually are. In that sense, then – and this will be a hot take for some, and a very cold one for others – that the object scorned by the term “thinkpiece” is conceptually indistinguishable from the object once scorned by the term “theory.” We have never lacked for terms to indicate our contempt for those whose thinking is piecemeal, or who fail/refuse to knead the pieces into a larger thinkloaf. 

A really weird and interesting piece, and a good example of what queer theory can contribute to one’s understanding of the world. I wanted to excerpt the entire thing.

Probably the best take you’ll get on the new star wars movies ugghhhhh (Archive)
Kuiperblog, 2019

Rogue One might be the only film since the original trilogy that really understood what, exactly, Star Wars was before it was Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. 

As someone who doesn’t care about Star Wars, this was an extremely interesting piece of analysis that made me care more about Star Wars.

 

Okay! Those are the links. Hopefully the next retrospective wouldn’t be like, 6 months late, but we’ll see 😛

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)