Monday, October 14, 2013

A Question of Legitimacy? Public Health and Planning

I had an interesting exchange on twitter earlier with @AlexKarner regarding the difference in the awareness of social injustice and advocating on behalf of the marginalized between public health professionals and, in particular, transportation planners. While I agree that public health, as a field, is much more open and honest not only about the corrosive effects of poverty on individual and societal health but also has a much more vigorous history of advocacy on behalf of the marginalized, I started wondering what were some of the structural, disciplinary, and political differences between the fields that allowed public health the rhetorical space and political capital to engage in such advocacy. These are by no means finished thoughts, but sketches of thoughts, and I invite comment and critique on this. I think this is a potentially useful discussion, though, especially as public health professionals and researchers make a more vigorous foray into aspects of physical planning.

Theoretical Consistency and Legitimacy

This is not to imply that research in public health is monolithic or one dimensional. Nor should anyone think I'm implying that there are not vigorous critiques of dominant research paradigms and approaches coming from practitioners and researchers as well as health activists. Even a cursory history of public health initiatives show a strong history of debate, protest, and contestation ranging from innovative community health programs in response to medical racism by the Black Panther Party to the direct action of gay activists in the midst of the AIDS epidemic. Of course, these traditions continue today with the field of public health being pushed from multiple levels. That being said, public health is able to rest on a relatively coherent and consistent epistemology that's firmly rooted in medical science. There are certainly challenges to the hegemony of positivist legitimacy and exploration, but public health researchers, practitioners, and activists can all reference shared notions of disease (though this can also be areas of intense contestation as in labeling homosexuality as a mental disorder) and a shared understanding that there are clear social determinants of disease in addition to physiological conceptions of disease. In turn, public health can also use the social position of "science" as widely construed as a platform of legitimacy, even in the face of historical and current abuses like forced sterilization and exposing children to lead in homes.

I think, above all else, this is what allows for the kind of message that allows public health practitioners to more fully explore and critique social determinants of disease. While we can argue over the social construction of diseases and their relational characters, public health scholars and activists can point to a child that has asthma, a pertussis outbreak, or widespread lead poisoning as clear and direct threats to public well being. But beyond having a political orientation towards the "public" (however you define that) it is the ability to express and formulate those problems that offer a foundation from which public health practitioners can not only collaborate but also critique other claims. The social realm becomes a much more legitimate arena of critique and exploration when everyone can point to some kind of disease incidence and say,"This is a clear problem and purely physiological/environmental causes are inadequate to explain these problems away."

Planning, on the other hand, lacks such consistency. Yes, planning largely adheres to a rationalist, post-structural set of theories that can encompass a wide array of knowledges, but this foundation is much more shaky and contested than public health's. Planners have a hard time truly formulating what are pressing problems that they can potentially address and serve. Ultimately, this is due to the inability of the field to adequately answer the questions,"Just what is it that planners do?" But part of why we can't answer such questions is because of our lack of a shared theoretical foundation. Calls for the rationalist, scientific city are widely discredited (though they are re-emerging with the obsession with smart cities) and planning has never been able to recover a foundation from which we can move forward.

This tension may be best illustrated by planning's continuous tension between process and outcomes. How do we balance our desires for democracy and representation with the priorities of a large city or even a region? The scalar questions alone are enough to tie you in theoretical knots for years. But a large reason why we even have such debates is that planning, and by extension planners, have little to no legitimacy in the greater public realm. We attempt to claim legitimacy through claims of technical expertise, position within a greater bureaucracy, or sometimes even as advocates, but planners in most of our cities and regions do not speak with the power and confidence that public health professionals can.

Planners cannot claim legitimacy because we have no widely accepted epistemological tradition to claim and draw upon and eventually extend into more radical areas. The result is a field where, academics at least, constantly tear each other's theories down and we move no closer to answering the essential question for the field of,"What do planners do?" This, in turn, feeds into the alienation we see between practicing planners and academic planners, whereas the public health field seems to have pretty decent relationship in terms of research from government and academic institutions reaching practitioners and being considered and used. Whereas planning practice seems to dominated by a small set of elite urban-oriented popular thinkers, sometimes academics but sometimes not, that cycle through eras of dominance. The durability of Jane Jacobs' critiques, the dominance of Florida's creative class thesis implicit in contemporary obsessions with attracting "millenials", and the new dominance of "sustainability" are all things that practicing planners draw from but can hardly be called a coherent theoretical base as opposed to a series of observations, interests, and practices at varied stages of popularity. Sustainability offers the closest to a coherent theoretical position that planners can work with, but the way it is often presented and acted out in practice is shallow and tends to favor policies that reinforce social inequity and represent the interests of social and political elites. That's a political critique, but we can also see that sprawl, while slowed down, continues on, fracking continues to despoil our water tables, biodiversity continues to suffer, and poverty and social inequity go unexamined in popular treatises in planning and quite often in published plans.

The result is a series of fads paraded as "best practices" repeated by the same cadre of consultants, journalists, and super-star urbanist academics until the next big thing comes along. All the while, the shiny new edifices planners are trying to build remain upon a foundation of sand consisting theoretical inconsistency, a lack of empirical support, and a lack of structural or institutional change that would cement the radical changes in urban governance that could actually bring about something like durable sustainability.

That's all I've got for now. I have some further thoughts also on the difference in political exposure and position within the greater economy between the two fields but I would love to hear from you all on this.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Why #MetrosDontShutDown is not only dumb but harmful

Brookings is running a social media publicity campaign under the #MetrosDontShutDown campaign to publicize their work on the rise of metropolitan areas and to highlight the kinds of policies they at Brookings seem to generally support. From the new parks construction agenda of Rahm Emanuel in Chicago to a STEM worker attraction project in Houston, Brookings is highlighting the ways cities work while the federal government fails and that metro areas are where "real" change gets done.


Forgive the profanity, but this campaign is emblematic of what's very wrong with the way popular urban commenters view cities/metro areas and their relationship with the rest of the country and world. Allow me the space to offer a few reasons why this kind of campaign is harmful and disingenuous to the point of being offensive.

The Literal Approach- Cities/Metros Do, in fact, Shut Down

I appreciate a pithy hashtag as much as the next twitter user, but the hashtag itself is just wrong. Metros do shut down. In fact, there are multiple metros right now that are functionally shut down. Here's a post from Governing magazine covering recent municipal bankruptcies that forced city governments to sell off assets, cut essential services, or, in some cases actually dissolve. Yes, there are the expected cities on that map like Detroit but a quick glance at the map shows that the problem of actual governments shut down because they are incapable of meeting their obligations is very much a real phenomenon that has afflicted cities of ALL sizes. 

Some metros(in case you don't want to click the link provided) that have field for bankruptcy or have defaulted in the past couple of years:
  • San Bernadino, CA (population: 210,100)
  • Stockton, CA (population: 289,926)
  • Detroit, MI (population: 738,223)
  • Harrisburg, PA (population: 49,499)
  • Central Falls, RI (population: 19,360)
That's a little over 1.3 million people that live in cities that cannot meet its obligations to its creditors, employees, or citizens. And that's within the last few years! 

What are you actually trying to say?

Something that puzzles me about this position that Katz and Brookings have been pushing pretty consistently for a few years now is the basic question of why? Metro areas really don't need much more positive press extolling their economic might, their cultural influence, or as pockets of progressive, or at least daring, policy opportunities. So, what does it gain you to try and constantly parallel metropolitan governance to federal governance?

There's a curious politics here and I'm not entirely sure what it is. Is this more a libertarian call for radical decentralization of power and authority from the federal government to metro areas? Is this a call for a resurrected system of independent city-states al la Italy before the unification? What's your damn point?

The Quiet Hypocrisy or Brookings is just being dishonest

Something interesting about the way the so-called "metro revolution" is framed often by Brookings and other urban boosters is that there's little recognition or a begrudging admission that our metro areas exist in a federalized system that means that different scales of political organization and governance are dependent upon every other scale. This means that while metro boosters sneer at congress (and it is deserving of sneers) they should also take a look at their and themselves and their dependence upon federal resources.

For example, did you know that 10% of NYC's revenue (h/t to @xenocryptsite for this link) collected for its budget is federal grants and aid?  All of our cities and metro areas, ESPECIALLY the largest metro areas depend on the federal government to provide multiple essential services or to offer money for the city to operate those services. This interdependence means that urban boosters like Brookings need to not celebrate the fact that, supposedly, metros don't shut down, but instead they should look at how the shutdown of the federal government exposes their own weaknesses and how metro areas can navigate those weaknesses until House republicans pull their heads out of their asses. 

And, of course, I gotta point out the obvious contradiction of metro boosters championing and comparing metro areas with federally supplied data. Literally, the primary means by which these folks can say that metro areas are even engaged in a revolution is because the federal government gives them the data necessary to make that assertion. City and metro agencies that deal with a lot of federal data from environmental departments, to public health agencies, to city planning departments ALL depend quite heavily on current federal data in order to do their work. The shutdown of the census website is many ways a disaster for these departments and for the people they serve. 

Austerity as Shutdown or "It's About the Governance, Stupid"

Something that a cursory reading about the "government shutdown"makes clear is that this isn't really a total shutdown of the government. "Essential services" and employees are still in operation, although who counts as essential is a heated topic. Law enforcement is still in full effect but the vast majority of employees at the EPA, CDC, and NIH are no longer working.

While this is a tragedy this is not a total government collapse or a shutdown. This is a particular form of austerity politics played out in real time. It's open knowledge that the republicans are using this as a negotiating chip for future debates on the debt-ceiling. The direct cutting of federal jobs, limiting environmental regulation, freezing scientific research, and hobbling the nation's public health agency just happens to coincide with traditional targets of conservative ire. They couldn't cut out the EPA through direct debate so they use the shutdown. This is a particular articulation of right-wing governance. We should examine the policies conservatives in congress have called for before and what they say openly they want with their current shenanigans. That's a much more subtle job than simply pointing to a shutdown and simply citing "gridlock". This isn't about paralysis, this is about a group that seeks to impose a particular set of austerity-based policies that involve cutting environmental regulation, limiting civil rights, and increasing social inequality by favoring social elites.

Why does this matter? Because we see our metro areas engage in the same kind of austerity politics that are hostile to environmental regulation and exacerbate social and economic inequity. This is where Brookings performs a neat trick of selectively highlighting policies that fit its narratives around metropolitan policy leadership, particularly around encouraging exports, while ignoring issues around gentrification, other forms of displacement, poverty, and the increasing social inequity that now largely define many of our urban areas. For example, one of the programs breathlessly reported by Brookings is a new parks funding program in Chicago. While it is an ambitious program this is also the same mayor that signed off on closing nearly 50 schools, primarily in poor African-American and Latino neighborhoods, against the protests of teachers, parents, and students in neighborhoods, that due to decades of racial and social segregation and disinvestment, where schools were vital community centers. It is telling that the policies highlighted deal only generally with "economic development" and don't mention pressing issues around social justice, housing affordability, jobs-first policies, poverty reduction etc...

So...even if metros did not shut down, though they do, we still need to recognize the selective, shitty politics that Brookings seems hell bent on co-signing, both at a national and metro level by engaging in these antics. And I, for one, am tired of it.