Inhabiting the planner’s imagination…

What is the Where is a space for books, movies, songs and other forms of popular culture that have something to offer urban planners, architects, community leaders, and other connoisseurs of place. These selections may be directly related to the jobs we do, or they may revolve more broadly around planning themes, evoking a strong sense of place. Either way, it is hoped they will offer illumination and inspiration.

I imagine that, if you’re like me, you were originally drawn to the planning field in hope of making better places—the kinds of places in which we’d like to live. We’ve studied the great planning successes and failures of the past. And we’re coming to realize that great places are more than the sum of their bike lanes, historic buildings, and transit-friendly streetscapes. A great city has a spirit that’s hard to define. But we know it when we see it. It’s an essence I call “What is the Where.”

As planners, we work with data, lots and lots of data. We look at demographics and statistics and trends. We sum it all up and attempt to predict the future and what to do about it. That’s all good and necessary. But sometimes it doesn’t add up, because planning is, at its core, about people. And people are not numbers. They’re fickle and unpredictable. Perhaps, there are other sources that can provide a backdrop to our understanding of how people respond to place.

Pablo Picasso once said something like: “Art is a lie that tells the truth.” This resonates with me because I’ve always felt that if I want facts, I’ll find them in nonfiction, but if I want the truth, I look to fiction. Art reveals the truth and prepares us for worst-case scenarios. It helps us to imagine new possibilities.

If I asked you about your greatest influence as a planner, most of you would probably say Jane Jacobs. That would be the easy answer. No doubt The Death and Life of Great American Cities is still our planning North Star. But if I had to really reach down, I’d have to say my influences came to me before I’d ever heard of Jane Jacobs. I was profoundly influenced by John Gorka’s song about gentrification, “Where the Bottles Break.” Terry Pindell’s book, A Good Place to Live introduced me to the concept of the third place and started me on a road trip to visit Asheville, North Carolina. Although not actually filmed there, Northern Exposure insisted I move to Alaska. The documentary, Waste Land pointed out to me the possibility that even a garbage dump can be beautiful.

This blog recognizes the fact that life happens when you’re not measuring the setbacks from a property line, or counting bicycles rolling over a bridge, or being yelled at by a concerned citizen. It offers a more gut level, heuristic look at our world, the people in it, and how people and place work together, or not.

I’ll offer my reviews and short synopsis and I ask for your recommendations. What have you read, or heard, or seen lately? What speaks to you as a planner? What would you offer to other planners?

These recommendations are intended to pique our curiosity, to give context, to understand our impacts, and to inspire. This blog is intended to help us to remember why we’ve gotten into this world of urban planning in the first place.


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