Blogging for America

What I Learned from Urban Planners

APA’s 2011 National Planning Conference drew more than 5,000 planners, officials, and citizens to Boston from April 9 – 12, 2011. The four-day conference addressed the many challenges cities across the United States are faced with today as well as looking forward covering topics such as: bus rapid transit, urban agriculture, economic development and shrinking cities.

But what was Code for America doing at a planning convention you ask? Many conference attendees were equally confused, asking us how you could have zoning codes for America. We clarified that while our type of code was different, we shared a passion for improving our communities and our civic spaces. And conversation after conversation, we came to realize that we were surrounded by people whos interests where aligned with ours, in more ways than one.

The traditional purpose of a GIS specialist is to look at a map and see all the data inputs — from aerial photos and satellites to surveys and reports. But talking to urban planners we heard about something more, analyses. Analyses typically support the decision-making of policy makers by contextualizing that data with the needs of a city, and the concerns of a citizen. It reminded of what Bill Schrier called on civic hackers to do: to “turn data into information.” In this way, the planners I met are much like the developers I work with: they are both looking to make a change in peoples lives through the technologies they know. Who knows maybe one of next years fellows will be an urban planner who wants to give back too.

At the conference, I was also fortunate enough to catch a glimpse of Professor Michael Sandels’ keynote speech. A political philosopher, Sandel challenged planners at APA’s National Planning Conference to create cities that are hospitable to civic virtue and democratic citizenship. Here’s a piece from his keynote:

“There is another important way to address justice and morality — through the teachings of Aristotle, who believed that justice, the right thing to do, is not just adding up preferences or seeking the greatest happiness. Neither is it about respecting individual rights. Justice is the way we should govern ourselves … what policies … what laws will make us better citizens and cultivate civic virtue. We need to shape, cultivate and improve preferences and opportunities that are introduced to public life.”

A growing threat to public life, according to Sandel, is the increasing atomization of our society. As different demographic and socioeconomic groups sequester themselves into their own spaces — their own neighborhoods, restaurants, and clubs — they secede from public places. And why should we worry about this? “Because public services deteriorate when this happens,” Sandel suggested. “And there is a deep civic loss. Public institutions (such as libraries, museums and parks) cease to be places where people from different walk of life encounter each other.” And, there are no longer any opportunities for “informal schools of citizenship and virtue.”

He concluded then with a charge to the conference attendees to end this cycle of erosion and to rebuild our civic institutions that uphold public life. Even though I am not an urban planner all this resonated with me. If planners can successfully build something tangible that will make society, community, and culture thrive, then why not — as a Code for America fellow — use that same mind set and translate it into the technologies that we are building? We can all be better planners.

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