CityView: As They Rally Around Rezonings, Planners Often ‘Plansplain’

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New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection, Library of Congress,

'Jane Jacobs' classic 1961 book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, was an attack on both mansplaining and plansplaining: a masculinist regime that was telling city residents their way of life was backward, and had to be destroyed in order to be saved.'

On May 2, City Limits published an opinion piece by long-term New York City planner Sandy Hornick about Mayor de Blasio’s housing plan titled “Misconceptions Drive Opposition to de Blasio’s Housing Plan.” The essay argued that protesters at recent zoning hearings fundamentally misunderstand not only the mayor’s plan, but the very idea of planning itself. Rezonings don’t cause gentrification, Hornick argued, and the best way to bring down rents it is to allow developers to keep building more.

This, of course, flies in the face of everything the plan’s opponents know about their neighborhoods and their city. There’s a reason working class New Yorkers get nervous when planners show up and promise big benefits from new development. For years, planners have been telling residents that stoking the market will somehow benefit them too—that allowing developers to build big, expensive, private buildings will translate into lower rents and higher quality of life. It never happens, and instead leads to gentrification and displacement. That’s why communities all over this city—the South Bronx, Chinatown, Long Island City, East New York, Staten Island’s North Shore and beyond—are up in arms about rezonings.

From libertarian “market urbanist” types, we hear that that increasing the housing supply will drive down costs for everyone. From liberal “smart growth” advocates, we hear that including small numbers of quasi-affordable apartments in large scale developments is the best path towards integration and equity. Both sides, however, are telling residents: shut up. We’ve got this.

This is “plansplaining,” or the way planners talk down to residents as if they simply don’t understand the facts, when in reality those “facts” constitute their very lives. It’s the way some planners use their professional expertise as a cudgel against other forms of knowledge when those other perspectives go against prevailing orthodoxy, the politics of the day, or, most importantly, real estate profits.

Plansplainers love to cite personal experience when it confirms their biases, but shut it out when it doesn’t. To demonstrate that gentrification is independent of zoning, Hornick cites a recent anecdote from the New York Times. In a real-estate feature titled “Finding Washington Heights”—which was illustrated with a White woman holding a coffee amidst immigrants pealing fruit and playing dominoes—a new neighborhood resident describes his journey:

My house in Westchester County had become too large for me, and the taxes were high. One of my sons had settled in Brooklyn and another was contemplating a move back East from Colorado; moving into New York City made sense for me. I had rented an apartment on the upper end of Central Park West, but was priced out of that neighborhood when I wanted to buy. I rented in Harlem, but prices there were climbing fast, too. I wanted enough space to put up guests, to say nothing of books, my piano and a home office.

In the plansplainer’s playbook, the life experience of a Westchester empty-nester Columbusing his way to the Heights is considered solid evidence for the proposition that rational consumer choice is the driving factor behind gentrification. When their opponents cite their own standpoint or experience, they are pilloried as parochial and overly personal. Hornick starts his essay with a quote from Bronx activists at a rezoning hearing: “Whose Bronx? Our Bronx!” This simple statement is used to portray the plan’s opponents as passionate but stupid, and maybe a little scary.

Plansplainers talk over the people they are planning for, and ignore the fact that those people are, in many ways, experts in their own neighborhoods’ inner workings. These planners behave like the offending men in Rebecca Solnit’s classic essay, “Men Explain Things to Me”: stubbornly, sometimes angrily and often inaccurately waxing on about the very things the people they are talking to are far more knowledgeable about.

I’m a planner, and it happens to me, too. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been told that the only way to solve the housing problem is to dramatically increase supply through private development. When I try to counter with my own understanding, which is informed by years of experience as a tenant organizer and planning scholar, these planners interrupt to explain some combination of the laws of supply and demand (which always manage to leave out governments’ role in managing both) and the importance of change in the urban experience (which confuses involuntary displacement with freedom to move). They usually close with a personal anecdote about a younger relative who just moved to the city and had no choice but to live in Crown Heights, Harlem or some other gentrifying neighborhood. Nothing I say can stand in the way of their overconfident assertions.

In a recent issue of Poverty & Race, former New York City Housing Preservation and Development commissioner Vicki Been plansplained de Blasio’s housing plan to Tom Angotti, himself a veteran of the Department of City Planning and longtime professor and practitioner of community-based planning. Angotti, along with me and others, has been arguing that de Blasio’s so-called “affordable housing” plan is essentially a gentrification scheme, and that we can’t build our way out of the affordable housing crisis. For this heresy, Been accused Angotti of engaging in “the housing world’s equivalent of climate change denial.”

Often plansplaining and mansplaining happen in tandem. In 2014, the leftist urban theorist Neil Brenner gathered a collection of essays for a book called Implosions/Explosions, which argued that the world is experiencing “planetary urbanism.” As critics like geographer Cindi Katz have pointed out, however, a) this lengthy compendium includes just one woman; and b) it imposes a single explanation on all urban phenomena. This is a form of plansplaining from the left—or, as Katz called it in a recent lecture, “Splanetary Urbanization.”

Jane Jacobs’ classic 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities was an attack on both mansplaining and plansplaining: a masculinist regime that was telling city residents their way of life was backward, and had to be destroyed in order to be saved. She was taking on her nemesis, “master builder” Robert Moses, but also the “great men” of planning history: Ebenezer Howard, Daniel Burnham, Le Corbusier and others. Her work was panned by the most famous planning critic of the day, Lewis Mumford, who titled his review in The New Yorker “Mother Jacobs’ Home Remedies.” History has provided some corrective here—over 50 years later, everyone knows who Jacobs was, but few remember Mumford.

The meaning of Jacobs’ work, however, is highly contested, with some powerful people attempting to plansplain her legacy to her contemporary political heirs. Three days after Hornick’s op-ed was published, the “Friends of the BQX”—a developer-led lobbying group pushing the city to build a streetcar along a route that maps closely with their real estate holdings—held a walking tour called “Connecting Brooklyn and Queens.” This event was part of the Municipal Arts Society’s annual “Jane’s Walk,” a series of walking tours held around the world in honor of Jane Jacobs. In response, groups like UPROSE, Queens Is Not For Sale and the Queens Anti-Gentrification Project protested the event, calling it “Robert Moses’ walk.” In this case, the plansplainers lost—the protests garnered far more attention than the project, and the walk turned into a depressed “happy hour” instead.

Not all planners are plansplainers, but like men and mansplaining, there is a tendency. As Solnit wrote in her essay on the subject, “Yes, people of both genders pop up at events to hold forth on irrelevant things and conspiracy theories, but the out-and-out confrontational confidence of the totally ignorant is, in my experience, gendered.” There are planners who take their cues from the public and social movements, but they sadly are in the minority.

Planners should not respond to this critique by trapping themselves a cycle of self-doubt and self-pity, worrying constantly whether they should share their technical expertise or keep their mouths shut. The problem with plansplaining is not that it’s impolite, but that it’s reactionary. For too long, planners have tapped their social power to shut down popular movements for alternative futures, arguing that they, as planners, know better than everyone else. If planners have knowledge that serves to the movements against capitalism, patriarchy, racism and environmental destruction, then they’d better share it—and fast! But they must drop the presumption that they can explain the city to those who know it intimately.

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Samuel Stein is a Ph.D. student at the CUNY Graduate Center who teaches Urban Studies at Hunter College. His book on urban planning and real estate will be published in 2018 by Verso Press.

12 thoughts on “CityView: As They Rally Around Rezonings, Planners Often ‘Plansplain’

  1. Sam — Thank you for explaining what was behind the Westchester empty-nester reference. It seemed totally gratuitous when I first read it, or maybe I just could not accept that a retiree from Westchester with all kinds of options for where to reside could be a driving rationale for displacement of people with few to no choices when it comes to housing.
    Thank you for the well written and well thought out article as well.

  2. Beware inclusionary affordable housing. In San Francisco, the cohort of predominantly city funded nonprofit developers has latched onto inclusionary in-lieu fees as a potential revenue source for their operations. Thus, the city funded nonprofits run interference for gentrifying upzonings against any demands for equity and justice from below and to the left.

    At the risk of white mansplaining, When the stated project of community stabilization is closely bound with gentrifying displacement of luxury condos, that is a sign of negotiating the terms of surrender. This is the perfection of neoliberal cooptation of activist inclinations into paid staffer advocates which clears the way for augmented accumulation.

    • Marcos – are you involved at all in any of the community groups or part of the larger discussion of housing in SF? I’m interested in following any of your published work or social media in support/opposition to proposed projects in the city. Thanks!

  3. If you Google NewGeography.com they can find many articles which explain the fallacies of the planners and why Smart Planning itself drive UP prices while they build MORE. People have trouble understanding how prices can continue to increase while more apartments are constructed.

    The story for LA, however, may be different from the story for NYC. My area is Los Angeles, but I suggest that New Yorkers consult NewGeography.com and other websites which explain how these Planner are using false data and other misinformation to make developers wealthy while everyone else is suffering one way or another.

  4. Great article..you will never see the likes of in any Los Angeles paper. As inept non planners and lieing developers and politicians all get rich on the backs of Angelenos, destroying neighborhoods, ignoring all who reside in them..the pay to play/politico/developer corruption in L.A. has got to be the worst in the country. The city green lights and busts zoning, breaks laws, that many times are laws and area plans that protect the communities, to give some sense of certainty of how their communities will be redeveloped. A city being rebuilt badly, on campaign contributions..developers run L.A. with help from the mayor. Overbuilding illegal projects areas that do not and never will have the infrastructure to withstand Garcetti’s sell out for campaign contributions rubber stamping seas of skyscrapers everywhere, even on small side streets, zone busting, law breaking, unleashing them into quiet low rise residential neighborhoods (great ‘planning’..not!), as he lives in the mayor’s mansion in the most developer restricted area of the city. As he over builds his ‘desperately needed 100,000 residential units’ , all luxury housing no one can afford, projects that displace residents, price them out of their neighborhoods and homes, causing displacement and gentrification. His sell out to developers includes destroying Historic Resources, allowing demolition of good housing stock, the loss of 22,000 rent stabilized units the last few years, destroying residential buildings and communities to make way for massive illegal zone busting luxury projects and hotels. A Mayor and councilmembers who are all developer puppets, developer PAC’s keep getting him elected. Voter turnout is low because they know he’s going to win no matter what. He doesn’t even have to show up at one candidate debate. This article explains so clearly and honestly what is going on in L.A. too. But the stranglehold the mayor has on the media and press here no one in L.A. will write about it honestly. L.A Times tried to with some ‘pay to play’ developer corruption investigative reporting..but got shut down. The Garcetti PR machine misrepresents him as being a future hopeful for the Democratic party. He destroyed Hollywood, ignoring constituents for years his ten years as councilmember ..and still is destroying it.. now he’s destroying the rest of L.A. and prefers having unqualified inept non planners, making it easier to give his developer bosses whatever they want, yes men and women who will push every obscene project through no matter the public outcry, danger warnings from state geologists about people will die if projects are green lit on active EQ fault lines, danger warnings from Caltrans, impacts on and destruction of communities, and Judges wind up shutting many projects down that he pushed through,thumbing his nose at communities, zoning, laws..making life in Los Angeles a total nightmare.

  5. Except all those neighborhoods you mentioned are already gentrifird the coalition of the rockaways wants my neighborhood fixed up without the shelters and prisons that come with this rezoning hard working people of color suffer becausevof forced rezoning the politicians our councilman sells out farrockaway for the west side and jamica he doesnt care about our neighborhood we are not peoperly represented the coalition of the rockaways bruce jacobs fought to getferry buses they the rich white of the west neighborhood want it for a private club and than dump hotel shelters and prisons in our neighborhood edjmere and far rockaway foght against rezoning wr could fix our neighborhood without the citys bull the coalition of the rockaways will be there to fight for the people bruce jacobs

  6. The goal of the plansplainers is to de-root people from place, to ensure that people as workers and “consumers” as well as places are interchangeable moving parts. This requires a grinding down of regional differences in favor of a bland homogeny. This severing of connection between people and place denies stability to families when it is most needed and this economic disruption of people from place fuels so much of our social problems and anxieties.

    Vive La Différence shall be no more, this is the end of cultural geography, we must throw people and places on the bonfire of neoliberal capitalism because the scripture promises that we shall be rewarded with efficiencies.

  7. I see some association fallacies here.

    I have an intimate understanding of every light switch in my house – where they are, their precise placement on the wall, which ones are loose, which ones are paired with another switch. Which ones get used often, which ones don’t. Wall outlets that really need a switch.

    It doesn’t make me an electrician.

    • Not an electrician, perhaps. But it also doesn’t follow that a electrician could/would do a better job of locating switches and outlets in your home than you would. Analogy is that an electrician will follow code, for example, with one outlet no more than 12 feet wall/linear from another in a room. That’s functional at one level, but not desireable or suitable for designer or end-user needs.

  8. I went to a Planning school and one of my professors was Angotti. All Planners are not like those portray in this article. I am a Systems Planner that believes in understanding the ecosystem and the socioeconomic system to plan Urban environment. It is difficult for me and some other community planners to get planning jobs because of how we think and our strong belief not to always rely on zoning to make planning decisions. Planning is not always about zoning. Planning is about people and urban environments.
    Some planners do not want to deal with social issues because they think it is messy or because it is difficult to build concesnsus. To some of us, we believe that this understanding of perspectives is required to formulate plans that help communities.

    Cities required energy world and they are human dominated ecosystem. We can use our expertise to identify an Urban System that is healthy for the environment and for humans as well. We have to use planning principles but also be innovators to add and expand the discipline because if not it will be taken over by the design and public administration fields, to name a few.

  9. I love it when PhD candidates in Planning demonstrate how utterly incompetent they are at economics. Its especially fun when their point of reference is a cranky mid-century NIMBY journalist who had absolutely no academic background in any relevant field of study – whether economics or planning. But she sure knew how to tickle the urbanist nostalgia bone.

    Jane Jacobs – ruining American cities – one gentrified brownstone at a time.

    • The Death and Life of American Cities by Jane Jacobs and Silent Spring by Rachel Carson are two books written by women who were ridiculed because they were not thought as members of the profession. Rachel Carson’s work, to most people, led to the current environmental movement. Jane Jacobs saw the importance of people and land use. Because someone is not in the field doesn’t make their truthfulness untruthful. Urban Planning should be done for people but neoclassical economics takes over when you are not seen as a person but a means of exchange.

      It is difficult to plan for neighborhoods because it is difficult to have a general consensus of what should be done. But it doesn’t help when planners just design instead of plan.

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