Reading for the Job Search and the Soul Search: Capital City & Prophetic City

By Evan King

People who go into the planning profession are inclined to like walkable, human-scale environments, effective public transit, vibrant cultural life, diverse culture and job opportunities, and other such things. One irony of planning is that the job often brings people to places that do not have these factors or are maybe at the beginning stages of incorporating them. 

Even a job of trying to change things is an optimistic and unlikely outcome. As with any profession intent on improving the world, disappointment in this regard can generate quite a lot of cynicism and hopelessness. Despite drawbacks, I still want to do this job. There are two books that have done wonders for me in rectifying the ideals of the planning profession with its realities. What an aspiring planner may need is a good hard look at the cities of New York and Houston, through the fresh and subversive voices of authors Samuel Stein and Stephen Klineberg.

Samuel Stein: Capital City

In a similar manner to Howard Zinn’s telling of US history in A People’s History of the United States, Stein’s Capital City, Gentrification and the Real Estate State is very much a “People’s History” of American planning, serving as a counterweight to Jane Jacobs’ Death and Life and other sacred texts. Urban renewal was indeed a crime against humanity, as is continuing suburban sprawl, but what about the coinciding de-funding of public housing? Can we really say design is the sole problem when federal, state, and local governments have done all they possibly could to subsidize white homeowners and impoverish (and increasingly force everyone to become) renters? Stein’s book is not an outright repudiation of Jacobs, like A People’s History is of other accounts of US history, but rather an affirmation with a profound shift in the implications. Jacobs said success can breed self-destruction in a city. You could say that is happening in New York now, but are design elements solely culpable? What else is going on here?  

Stein provides a vivid and intricate picture of gentrification in New York, a city so commoditized that any improvement in urban form seems to hurt more people than it helps. Developers, egged on by city and state tax giveaways, build towers designed to be expensive and largely unoccupied. Buildings and properties get passed off at higher and higher prices to other large owners in a scheme that pointlessly raises rents across the city and seems destined for a disastrous collapse for all parties.

Stein enumerates actions that planners, governments, and organizers can take to fight the injustices of urban life as run by real estate. The message is stridently socialist, which is no problem for me. To me, however, the takeaway is a (probably unintended) confirmation of my growing dislike for the glamorous side of urbanism: the modern trend of re-urbanization as a change in fashion, usually at the expense of the most vulnerable people. Even the word “urbanism” seems to embody how pretentious the whole thing is. Doing the work of making good urban environments possible in “unfashionable” places feels a lot more righteous and even more appealing after reading Stein’s book. Sure, there is justice to be done in New York and much to enjoy, but New York does not need me.

Stephen Klineberg: Prophetic City

Stephen Klineberg’s Prophetic City tells the economic and demographic story of Houston, a contender for the world’s least glamorous city and something of an urban horror story that is nonetheless a gem in other ways. The book is an exercise in seeing beauty and potential. Metropolitan Houston is the most culturally diverse region in the country. The city’s anathema to planning, resistance to regulation, and reliance on toxic industry have led to eclectic business and social environments more inclined to fight for social justice and environmental causes. In the recent presidential and senate elections, Georgia demonstrated the phenomenon of a voter-suppressed state; there is every indication that Texas is similar. Houston has a population overwhelmingly progressive in political, social and economic views, but the city is under the thumb of strategically malapportioned political representation. Houston area residents want greater racial integration, better city services, and better urban environments, but the state does not necessarily represent them in these interests.

At times, Klineberg writes with infuriating optimism, and without the socialist conscience Stein has about what “economic revitalization” usually means for most people. However, he consistently reminds us of political realities after exhaustively outlining demographic and economic trends. The overall picture according to Klineberg and other authors is that, Texas, and especially Houston, is the future. Booming cities like Houston are places where there is work to be done, and where the most work probably should be done.

In recent conversations about jobs with my classmates, people have been frustrated and often cynical. I count myself as one of the most guilty. Some have understandably realized they do not want to be planners. However, if you still want to be an urban planner, I pose a question: what are you really trying to do with this degree? You’re probably not in it just for the money. Are you trying to live in a wonderful vibrant place or create one? There is nothing wrong with the former. It’s a great thing in fact. The latter is naïve to be sure, but if you’re open to my suggestion, I say have an open mind. Go to that sprawling boomtown or struggling backwater. Maybe you won’t really accomplish anything, but maybe you will! 

I am a born and bred northerner; I need my cold, snowy winters and their miraculous springs, and I like not having my political voice gerrymandered away. Yet a substantial portion of the planning work is in the south, and one thing I’ve noticed is that almost every planning job interview I have had so far has involved a panel member saying they never wanted to live in the south, but they have loved the past 10 to 15 years and are here to stay. Klineberg’s book presents statistically significant proportions of transplants saying this about Houston. Maybe I’ve just spent enough time idle and made a decision I am rightly or wrongly sticking with, but I still want to do planning. Personally, I am having a hard time being picky about where. People move to follow opportunities, and in my limited experience, it pays to be open-minded on the various forms opportunities might take. 

Author Bio: Evan King is a second-year master’s student in city and regional planning. His interests include transportation policy in the developing world, light rail, and freight movement on inland waterways. He can found in his free time trying to kayak long distances and making hand-drawn maps. Evan hails from central Connecticut and completed an undergraduate degree in Maryland. Opinions are his own.

Featured Image courtesy of iStockphoto. Other images show the covers of the recommended books: Capital City, Gentrification and the Real Estate State by Samuel Stein and Prophetic City: Houston on the Cusp of a Changing America by Stephen L. Klineberg.

Edited by: Ruby Brinkerhoff