Note: I started writing this piece earlier this summer. I’ve since resolved much of my angst and committed myself to a variation on the plan sighted near the end. I just came back across this in my drafts folder though and thought it too interesting to delete. I offer it here as a glimpse into an earlier thought.
A good deal of travel this summer, and a better deal of reading from various philosophers and sociologists, has lead me to an angsty point. Angstier than usual that is.
My various attempts to criticize, I hope constructively, both SORTA and TANK over the last couple years, seem at SORTA at least, to have got me little more than a bad reputation around their Main St offices. I’ve known this for a while, and was reminded of it today1. Since I published the frequency map, I’ve known that the people whom I would love to employ me see me as no more than a potentially dangerous meddler, a niggling threat to their cautious and carefully laid plans. Inevitably, my criticisms come after plans are made, things purchased, contracts signed: the worst possible time. They come out of the dark. They are ill-informed. They are ignorant of all the work that has gone on behind the scenes. But how else could I possibly operate when there is a behind-the-scenes?
The problem is this: I do not work for SORTA.
The only thing I can do as someone who wants to be a major part of the big ongoing discussion Cincinnati needs to have about it’s transportation system is to shout at the institutional walls. To launch critical, perhaps political, attacks, hoping that I can strike deep enough or precisely enough to make some change in ‘the system’.
Must we either be inside the fort or assaulting it? This seems like an absurd dichotomy. Here is the problem: I have been too inclusive in my framing of the question up to now. For ‘we’ don’t care that much about the fort. I do. We are largely content to accept the work of planners, and should be. I am not.
The problem is this: I have become an expert, yet I do not work as one.
The ‘public feedback’ processes that planners design are grossly inadequate for people like me. For those without deep understanding, the planner’s leading questions are fine: Do you want more of this or that?(We’ll take care of the balance). Imagine a doctor describing his symptoms to another doctor and being required to accept the diagnosis without question or discussion.
I am much too qualified to engage in established ‘public feedback’ processes. Yet this is precisely what my peers and I are relegated to. Neither SORTA nor any other public organization (The City of Cincinnati is another example) has experience dealing with people like me: Experts Without Borders.
Normal, and local, employment seems impossible. There are too many planners graduating from DAAP and seemingly no hope for the growth of city administrative budgets.
Planners Without Borders…
We are left, this handful of un(der)employed planners and I, to attempt something that hasn’t really been done before, those of us wishing still to be planners: freelance urban planning, which sounds more like a Monty Python sketch than a viable career plan.
What is freelance urban planning? To my mind, it is NOT consulting for governments. If governments had the inclination, they would do better to hire staff. In any case, governments are sleeping with the big contractors and are generally not flexible enough to try working with small freelancers.2 Freelance urban planning could be a responsive, community/client driven urban planning process. It will be a challenge to established structures. Freelance urban planning can be a challenge to city institutions, from private organizations that lack expert planning knowledge, but whose goals are clearly stifled by planning institutions or administrative neglect. I want to be a hired gun in the same way lawyers are: you don’t jump into a legal environment without a (typically freelance) consultant do you? Neither should one attempt to reshape their city without a hired expert at their side.
I need the financial resources to build a really substantial challenge to stagnant institutions. And I DO want to challenge them, not kick the other contractors out of bed and climb in myself. By competition and challenge are we made stronger.