The Storyteller

Social Animal by David Brooks

Social Animal by David Brooks

I’ve been listening to the Social Animal on Audible on my morning walks between dropping my son off at daycare and until I arrive at my work/school on campus. I’ve become very accustomed to the habit and have grown to treasure this quiet time in the morning before  all the thinking, before all the deadlines, and before all the doing. The only task I have during this time is to listen.  And this listening is easy, entertaining, and interesting.  Brooks explains how humans tick by telling stories.  The stories are funny, sad, genuine, and fictitious.  Through these stories he is able to take hold of my mind.  I think about it during the day, when I’m not even consciously thinking about it. I go off in a day dream evaluating the different concepts he portrays through the stories. It reminds me of what Amanda Ripley spoke about in the NCSE Conference: “Tell stories!” she proclaimed. Telling others stories of real experiences can change them she explained.  I am personally not a great storyteller. I fumble over my words, get lost in the details, and the end note always seems lacking.  How can I get better at this?  How can I make it a part of my business to tell stories?  Maybe a little mission I should pursue.

Recognize patterns

“The inherent aim of science is to recognize patterns in order to deduce or infer the underlying processes that create those patterns and govern the behavior of natural systems.”

-Ellen Wohl in The complexity of the real world in the context of the field tradition in geomorphology

image by snaps11 at

image by snaps11 at


Dow Chemical saving money through ecosystems

In 2011, Dow Chemical partnered with the Nature Conservancy to determine the economic value of ecosystems. They have invested $10 million to begin several pilot projects, one of which being their manufacturing plant in Freeport, TX near Houston. Freeport is along the Brazos River, one of only two rivers in Texas which directly deposits into the Gulf of Mexico. The three areas of concern are air quality through reforestation, coastal hazard mitigation due to hurricanes and sea level rise from climate change, and freshwater initiatives by restoring floodplains among other things.
Why is this important? Large companies are beginning to realize the benefits of ecosystems– that ecosystems in fact provide “free” services which can save them time and money. The depletion of ecosystems, the lack of biodiversity, and the looming threat of climate change, along with the economic recession may act as a catalyst in changing public opinion. And with the mention of climate change during the presidential inauguration it is hoped that it will be on the minds of Americans in the coming years.

It’s a “sign”!

Craig Fugate, the head of FEMA, explained that in the south we oftentimes talk of “signs”. It’s a “sign” that more and more people are effected by disasters…It’s a “sign” that people in New Orleans and New York and other communities were flooded so badly.

Is it a “sign” when private insurance companies won’t insure you? That the private insurance market has not found a way to make money off of flood hazards…Is that “sign” enough?

If you are in the 100 year floodplain, you will be flooded. If you are in the 500 year floodplain, you will be flooded. Do you know someone in the floodplain? Do you know who takes on that risk? Do you know who pays for it? You do. I do. We do. Despite that, every year hundreds of thousands of acres are newly developed in floodplains. Don’t allow your local planning offices to approve development in floodplains.

We know that natural disasters are not “natural”, but instead are the interactions of very natural processes with humans. We can avoid the devastation to people and property. We can build in smarter ways!

The Growth of The Citizen: Part 5

The City Planner’s Future:
As a designer, I fully believe in the power and ability of the environment to better people’s lives (Beatley, 1984) (Rawls, 1971). Planning is inherently spatial through the understanding of physical forms and use of the land. The future of planning lies in the recognition between the connection of physical forms and “wicked problems” (Davidoff, 1966) (Rittel & Webber, 1973).
As a civil servant, it is more important to serve the whole rather than a single individual. Serving the whole often means addressing the needs of low socio-economic or marginalized groups. Not everyone sees the value of this perspective. In fact, large swaths of the population, especially in Texas, actively advocate against this perspective. What is created is a schism between two sides. Future planning should be focused on open discourse about political and social issues (Davidoff, 1966). Divisive groups refuse to sit at the table as equals, let alone to work together to reach an agreement. The unwillingness to participate may be the greatest threat to the planning process. We must fight for dialogue and support The Citizen by emphasizing the frustrations of limited choice.
Unfortunately, being a planner can have negative connotations. It seems as though urban planning has played as much of a role in the inequitable distribution of primary goods as any other factor. Sadly, urban planners have tended to take the side of big capitalist prospects and not the side of The Citizen. While it can be argued and even justified that a particular developer will bring in “x” number of jobs and economic development, the question remains: is that good for The Citizen? After informing a friend about my career choice, he responded with, “just don’t urban plan near my ranch.” His clinched lips and stern voice—which dropped an octave lower—made me realize the impact urban planners have on The Citizen. I wanted to jump up and tell him that I hated sprawl and that we fight to preserve our beautiful countryside, but I knew it really didn’t matter. What he, and citizens like him, needed was action. The Citizen needs to know someone is on their side. The Citizen needs to know what positive things come out of urban planning. This is an extremely personal issue to The Citizen and that which feels much bigger than my role in urban planning.
Gone are the days of the planner as a “technician” (Davidoff, 1966). So we must advocate for our role. We must explain with evidenced-based research the power of land-use decisions to improve people’s lives. We must communicate our efforts to the media, who are able to steer the national agenda (Habermas, 1984). We must quantifiably show that what is best for the community is best for the individual. And we must do it all while building relationships, lifting people up, and listening to their voices.
Planning is at a crossroads, a tipping point. Either planners will play a role in advocating for The Citizen and empowering people to make a difference, or planners will be little more than a technical puppet, advocating for financial and industrial interests. I foresee a better future. I foresee a future in which people are called to action because they crave the ability to change the world for the better (Innes & Booher, 2004). What better opportunity than community building. What better opportunity than changing reality!
So in the face of divisive language, in the face of political turmoil, in the face of environmental and wicked problems, just remember to:
…look back down the path as if seeing
your past and then south over the hazy blue
coast as if present to a wide future.
Remember the way you are all possibilities
you can see and how you live best
as an appreciator of horizons,
whether you reach them or not.
Admit that once you have got up
from your chair and opened the door,
once you have walked out into the clean air
toward that edge and taken the path up high
beyond the ordinary, you have become
the privileged and the pilgrim,
the one who will tell the story
and the one, coming back
from the mountain,
who helped to make it.

(Whyte, 2007)

The Growth of The Citizen: Part 4

A City Planner’s Outputs:

Of course, there are specific outputs that should develop through the planning process (see Figure 1). All of the input questions the planner will ask with the framework of Innes and Booher’s “role of the planner” in mind. The planner will sit at the table among equal participants advocating for the powerless, the under-served, the vulnerable, those you cannot help themselves or do not know how to help themselves. The plans and decisions will be legitimized by community participation and action will take place through the plan. This plan will not only have been developed for The Citizen but with The Citizen. We plan with a community, not to examine and base our decisions on other communities, but to think through what will work for our community. This plan ought to be about action, about doing, and about “changing reality” (Friedman, 1987). In order to truly understand something you must participate in it, mold it, and/or change it. This viewpoint is best summarized by the idea that “all genuine knowledge originates in direct experience” (Mao, 1968, p. 8). The genuine knowledge that all participants receive is in the turbulent process of shaping their community (see Figure 1). The learning process “flows from the attempt to change reality through practice” (Friedman, 1987, p. 182). We must put our thoughts, and ideas, and plans into practice as a way to adaptively learn what our community needs. It is an experiment of sorts, because good decisions are not cookie-cutter copies. Good decisions are detailed, precise, particular, and planned for inevitable yet unexpected changes.

The Growth of The Citizen: Part 3

A City Planner’s Inputs:
A planner should receive inputs from The Citizen. My background in design has shaped my thought process. There are three questions which designers ask: What do we have? What do we need? How do we get it? (Murphy, 2005). These are the same questions planners ought to ask (see Figure 1).
What do we have? In order to answer this question we must gather technical data. This can come from primary and secondary sources and should entail population data, economic data—as well as other sources. These data are important in understanding what you cannot gather from local knowledge. Critical theory explains that data can conceal or reveal information based on who is in power. This is why participation among community members is so important. The knowledge that The Citizen holds can be profound. It is not enough to rationally come to a technical conclusion. What does the technical analysis mean? How is it impacting people? The best logical or technical approach is not necessarily the best approach for a community. In other words, planning “cannot be prescribed” (Davidoff, 1966, p. 402). Citizens offer a unique perspective on current community conditions and “without them, planning is a barren externalism” (Mumford, 1938, p. 386). If we are shaped by our environment and our community, then it would be prudent to understand the people who are shaped by the community (Habermas, 1984).
What do we need? In order to answer this question we must analyze the land supply and future demand of our community. A technical understanding is invaluable, but it is not enough. A community’s involvement and participation play an integral role. Developing a vision and creating goals and objectives should be created with citizens’ participation. Having gathered the technical data, a planner can act as a teacher or facilitator, bringing quantitative data and best practices to The Citizen. It must be approached through “mutual learning” and a “transitive relationship” (Friedman, 1987, p. 185).
How do we get it? We can work toward the future needs in our community by creating polices which reflect the community’s vision. Through comprehensive plans, zoning maps, and land regulations and ordinances, we can address the spatial concerns in our community. Again, the planner can help guide the community, but ultimately the decisions should come from the community itself. The more people that participate, the more informed the planning process. We cannot understand the complexities of a community unless The Citizen plays a role.

The Growth of The Citizen: Part 2

The City Planner:
Planners should, instead, be The Great Communicator (Gawande, 2009). The role of the planner is to support The Citizen. As outlined by Innes and Booher, first a planner should be able to listen and understand the people’s desires (2004). Effective communication requires verbal skills as well as listening skills. When a person listens a transitive relationship emerges, trust is acquired, and true collaboration and knowledge is developed (Friedman, 1987).
Second, the value of local knowledge can be communicated (Innes & Booher, 2004). The role of the planner is not to tell people what should be important to them (Beatley, 1984). Neither should the planner administer some form of “therapy” to help bring powerless people to a better place (Arnstein, 1969). If we, as planners, assume that we have all the answers, we have grossly oversimplified the situation. Instead, we must have “an appreciation for the complexity of urban life” (Teaford, 2000, p. 463). When we embrace the diversity of people and thoughts and encourage redundancy of ideas and discussion, we can begin to truly transform a community.
Third, a planner should seek justice (Innes & Booher, 2004) (Rawls, 1971). Rawls argues convincingly that the success of individuals is oftentimes not deserved, but is based on a social hierarchy (Rawls, 1971). It is the job of the planner to try to combat these inequities. For instance, “primary goods”—such as choice of housing, access to transportation, and access to recreation—are not evenly distributed throughout space (Beatley, 1984) (Rawls, 1971). Seeking justice for under-served populations, specifically ethnic minorities, builds a community’s adaptive capacity (Lebel, et al., 2006). As a planner we don’t have to be value-neutral and we can inject ethical practice by seeking fairness and justice through the distribution of land uses.
Fourth, emancipatory knowledge from equal players should yield a legitimate community decision, as seen in Figure 1 (Innes & Booher, 2004). When there is participation and consensus building, decisions are not made by a single individual, but by the community. Because they are made by the community, there is ownership. No one single person is responsible for a decision, because there is consensus in the process.
Fifth, a planner should build civil society (Innes & Booher, 2004). Oftentimes there is lack of participation because there is apathy in the process. As planners, we should encourage the participation of all and empower people to see their own capacity. An output of the planning process should be to build civic capacity so people believe they can make a difference (see Figure 1) (Innes & Booher, 2004). When people realize their own impact, more participation and more community action takes place.
Sixth, a planner should create an adaptive and self-organizing community (Innes & Booher, 2004). If we are promoting the objectives above we will foster a self-organizing community. To be adaptive, a community must strive to learn. There must be flexibility in solutions and continual education of the community, which will heed a finely tuned awareness. In the planning and decision-making process, individuals and interests must be independent and empowered and must interact as equals (Walker & Salt, 2006). In order for adaptive learning to take place, decisions must also be independent and interacting (Walker & Salt, 2006). There must also be a process for making such decisions (Walker & Salt, 2006). Finally, there must be frequent injection of new and diverse ideas (Walker & Salt, 2006).