Daily writing prompt
How would you design the city of the future?

I have difficulty letting bygones be bygones.

I grew up in a city where a power-mad planner cut through vast swaths of the city with expressways and parkways that dissected multiple neighborhoods. Later, in another city, I lived on the edge of an enormous clearance area that had once been a vibrant neighborhood. It was bulldozed because some considered it a slum.

Later, I worked in a community that decided not to allow state and federal agencies to bulldoze a path through the middle of their city to enable another interstate to intersect with a meaningless cloverleaf. The stub end of this still exists – An express way to nowhere. 

By now, you are confident that I entertain very few fantasies about city planning. I agree that it may be needed, but I do not quiver in delight thinking of all the wonders it brings to the residents. I tend to cringe if a planner gets a glow in their eyes about an elaborate new highway design or a great new skyscraper amid four-story buildings.

Much gets made of community involvement in these processes. But let me introduce you to a term popular in development circles – it’s “sandbox.” A sandbox is when you promise to give voice to community concerns, provide them with funding to plan, hold hearings, and discuss with planners and developers what will happen, but then pay little heed to what they tell you. Like children, you gave them a sandbox to play in, and like children, you applaud their sand castle but ignore it at the end of the day. If the deal lacks teeth, it’s no deal.

The city development department in the community where I worked as an applied anthropologist tried something different. They gathered a task force of residents and planners to create a zoning master plan. They began by presenting mini-classes on zoning and the permitting processes to the residents. These gave the residents actual knowledge of what was possible, and with the aid of the planners, they hammered out a new zoning plan for the neighborhood that the city accepted. The city had actually committed to seriously acting on community needs.

So, I tend to be cautious of “city of the future” plans. They often deal with vehicles, concrete, steel, and brick without actually considering the soft, squishy creatures they are supposedly designed to be homes to. However, I am hesitantly aware that it can be approached mindfully if a knowledgeable community can work with respectful agencies.

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