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Posted by on Dec 22, 2014 in Blog | 0 comments

The Kids’ Table – Urban Planning’s new generation

Every family faces this horrible situation this time of year.  The Adult’s Table for the big holiday feast is either full or not about to make room for relatives of the rambunctious sort.  Seating arrangements hinge on a delicate classification question: who is serious and who is likely to start a food fight? As it turns out, the city planning family is facing the same kind of heartburn.

City (or urban or community) planning is a noble profession.  Planners shape peoples’ lives – literally.  We affect private property and the rights bestowed upon said property in our Constitution.  Planning literature is chock full of big, serious names: Jane Jacobs, Robert Moses, Pierre L’Enfant, a bunch of Greeks and Romans.

Trouble is, serious planning is part of the problem. Part of this is based on a poor track record: urban renewal, freeways plowed into city landscapes for the benefits of everyone except said city, crumbling infrastructure.  Another factor is the rise of Gov 2.0, where technology + public access has created windows revealing the inner workings of local governance.  While Gov 1.0, with its gatekeeping, risk aversion and fealty to standards, has not gone away, the new paradigm demands open source access to the same files, data and information once reserved for the serious professionals. This is a core tenet of Gov 2.0.

Which leaves Gov 1.0 and Gov 2.0 duking it out.  I’ve seen local governments selectively release email discussions under the comical banner of open government.  Citizens show up to meetings with “best practices” from around the globe, only to be shunned in the name of bogus-sounding legal constraints. Even with extreme (and unpopular) risk reduction tactics, cities and counties still make mistakes, only magnifying the appearance of incompetence.

But citizens also need to be taken to task.  We can’t demand new practices, but embrace zero tolerance for risks, mistakes and the financial premiums that come with trying something new. We can’t give lip service to participatory planning and then manipulate public input to favor the usual voices resistant to change and new ideas.  Above all, we cannot demand a bigger say, but refuse to contribute.

Which brings us to the Kids’ Table. Like its holiday counterpart, the urban planning kids are part of the festivities, but they bring a tolerance for irreverence and open talk of uncomfortable truths & dysfunction.  The Kids Table welcomes the entire family in a sanity-saving kind of way. If Timmy only wants stuffing, fine. If Janet (the adult) wants to sit at the Kids’ Table to escape the confines of the adult table, fine. If Caitlin needs to experiment with green vegetables, fine. The twins can launch a best pie contest and tumble the crust onto the table to judge the merits, fine. If Uncle Jack wants to savor his pie alone in the den, fine. If Caleb wants to literally use smear tactics with mashed potatoes  – OK – not fine. Replace mashed potatoes with blog comment sections and the Kids Table describes a lot of  local governance.

Who are the new kids?  First, there are the trailblazers – the Project for Public Spaces and the Congress for the New Urbanism’s Kids’ Table of Tactical Urbanism.  These groups continue to set new standards for engaging entire communities.

kids table

But there are new groups challenging status quo, larger organizations.  The Emerging Local Government Leaders Network and Strong Towns offer $30 membership that act less like an accrediting body and more like a subscription to a new urban planning movement.  Younger Millennials are bringing their well known viewpoints – a Libertarian, tactical, and startup mentality to making and remaking cities.  Games, innuendo, even mild cursing are new tools of the trade.

The Kids’ Table doesn’t embrace social media as an obligation, but rather as powerful tools. The Kids’ Table is also not an age thing.  It’s a nod to serious and binding traditions.  But it’s also a nod to creating something fun and memorable.  Families and neighborhoods are built on many of the same maddening ingredients.

So as you negotiate seating arrangements this holiday season, remember our larger family. We are going to need each other in 2015.

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