Interboro on Ghostwriting

02-09-2008

Yesterday, Interboro gave a lecture at UMBC’s Center for Urban Environmental Research and Education (CUERE). CUERE is a wonderful place, and Interboro was very happy to have an opportunity to talk to students and faculty about what it does. Special thanks to Bernadette Hanlon and Claire Welty for the invitation. Interboro’s talk was called “Ghostwriting the City.” Pasted below is some text from the introduction, which starts to outline Interboro’s notion of urban planning as ghostwriting. My talk today is called “Ghostwriting the City,” which sounds a bit corny, but let me explain. Everyone knows what a ghostwriter is: someone who helps famous people author autobiographies. Famous people are too busy doing their thing to stop and write about it. Either that, or they’re not good storytellers, or can’t write, or whatever. So first, the job of ghostwriters is to make their subjects sound interesting and important. Ghostwriters have to make compelling cases that people like, say, Shaquille O’Neal are people other people should care about. That, in a nutshell, is what ghostwriters do. They are advocates. Well, it dawned on me somewhat suddenly that this is what Interboro had been doing as urban planners: identifying some progressive practice out there in the city, then doing our best to advocate for it. Today, by looking at some Interboro projects, I want to show you what I mean. I also want to make the case that “urban planning as ghostwriting” presents an alternate (and potentially very lucrative) approach to planning. Urban planning as ghostwriting owes an intellectual debt to Hernando DeSoto. DeSoto is best known for insisting that in the developing world, the lack of a formal property system that protects property rights by clearly recording property ownership and transactions is the primary impediment to economic growth, and that, consequntially, the best thing governments in developing countries can do is formalize the informal, so that the poor can leverage their informal holdings (i.e., in informal, squatted land, in informal goods, and in informal jobs) for fiancial gain. As we mentioned earlier, there are certainly parallels between DeSoto’s analysis of the lengthy, over-buracracized process of purchasing and titling land in developing countries and our own analysis of the same process in Detroit, but what we’d like to single out here is something a bit broader, namely, DeSoto’s method of “listening to the excluded.” One of DeSoto’s rhetorical techniques is to point out that language, perception, and, most importantly, law often lag behind reality, behind “what [is] going on in our streets and fields,” and that as such, we often have to update our perceptions about, say, the degree to which most Peruvians are proletarians ready to rise up against their bosses, or our laws about say, where and when a street vendor can vend. For example, in the preface to the 2002 edition of The Other Path, DeSoto, writing about the “importance of good class analysis,” writes about how his Institute for Liberty and Democracy “had pointed out with facts and figures that the millions of people whom elite Peruvians viewed as unruly squatters and urban pests were actually enterprising citizens who were carrying the nation’s economy on their backs.” DeSoto argued that since the majority of Peruvians worked outside the law, “the inescapable conclusion was that the nation’s people viewed the law, and the government that was trying to enforce it, as hostile to their interests.” DeSoto writes that: “For too long, the Peruvian government had been acting on the basis of outdated theories and prejudices and with little access to hard facts. We needed to really know what was going on in our streets and fields if we were to discover how to put the official law in line with how people actually lived and worked. And to find that out, we had to enable government to do what few governments in history have ever done: listen to the excluded.” We don’t have sufficient time here to review the various policy recommendations DeSoto has made over the years aimed at “putting the official law in line with how people actually lived and worked.” Suffice it to say that these recommendations have something in common with Mayor Kilpatrick’s side-lot program, in that they all attempt to make it easier for (mostly poor) individuals to do what they are already doing. But DeSoto does more than even perhaps he is given credit for. In works like The Other Path, DeSoto devotes as much time to the task of defining, describing, and telling seductive stories about his constituency (in this case, the “emerging entrepreneurs working outside the [Peruvian] legal system”) as he devotes to the policies he proposes in their interest. This is exactly the sort of thing we think advocacy planners need to spend more time doing. While the model we’re beginning to define here owes a few intellectual debts to Paul Davidoff, the larger debt is to DeSoto. While we’re certainly with Davidoff in insisting on the importance of attitudes and values in planning (the planner as ghostwriter would agree, for example, that “appropriate planning action cannot be prescribed from a position of value neutrality,” that “values are inescapable elements of any rational decision-making process,” and that the planner should “be an advocate for what he deems proper”) we don’t think Davidoff puts enough emphasis on defining, describing, and telling seductive stories about the client. This early work, which we’re arguing is vital, is not represented in Davidoff’s seminal 1965 essay. Another way to put this would be to say that the planner might do well to think of herself as a “ghostwriter.” The ghostwriter, who strictly speaking is someone who helps famous people author autobiographies, is an apt analogy for the advocacy model we’re beginning to define here for a few reasons. First of all, the job of ghostwriters is to make their subjects sound interesting and important. Ghostwriters have to make compelling cases that people like Shaquille O’Neal are people people should care about. In the same way, the planner as ghostwriter would try to make the case that the New Suburbanism is crucial to the future of Detroit, and that Detroit would be a lot worse off without Victor Toral, Michael Anderanin, Wanda Cohen, and the thousands of other Detroit homeowners who are “improving their lot.” How would the planner as ghostwriter do that? By doing more or less what we’re doing here, namely, identifying these adjacent lot accumulations as a phenomenon, giving a name to the phenomenon, presenting case studies of the phenomenon, and then employing pictures and text to tell a story that gets people excited about the phenomenon (good ghostwriting should make use of arguments, but it should also appeal to individuals’ emotions). Second, the planner as ghostwriter, like the ghostwriter, has to create (as opposed to relate) her subject’s legacy. Mike Ditka certainly has the raw material for one amazing story, but had his ghostwriter not cooked it up into a book, we might not see it as such. Similarly, though people like Victor Toral, Michael Anderanin, and Wanda Cohen have been busy making blots for years, had someone not come along and attempted to ghostwrite their autobiographies, the New Suburbanism simply wouldn’t exist. Third, let’s remember why ghostwriters exist in the first place: famous people are too busy living famous lives to stop and think about the ways in which their lives are important. Without entering into a Lipmannesque debate about a crisis in democracy, and with all due respect to Arnstein’s model of citizen participation, we believe that Victor Toral, Michael Anderanin, and Wanda Cohen are like celebrities who opt not to take the time out of their busy schedules to participate in any kind of formal process. They’re leading by doing, and it should be up to us to follow their lead and make it easier for them to do what they are doing. What we’re suggesting here is that this starts with a new kind of advocacy that emphasizes the importance of identifying, and documenting progressive practices that already exist, but that are underappreciated and have little legitimacy. We’re suggesting is that there is an entire phase of planning that should happen before we start talking about policies. We think policies like the land bank and the Mayor’s side-lot program are on the right track, in that they will facilitate the New Suburbanism, but we also think that these programs would be much more effective if they were part of a compelling story. We think this would help drum up support for the programs, but it would also encourage us to think up new advocacy tools. What might these new advocacy tools look like? We have admittedly only begun to speculate. This past February, we organized a roundtable in Detroit entitled “Improve Your Lot! New Responses to Vacant Land ” and brought together stakeholders and interested parties to discuss the challenges and opportunities of purchasing and improving vacant land. The roundtable participants included me and my partners from Interboro, Margaret Dewar (Professor of Urban and Regional Planning, University of Michigan), Ashley Atkinson from the Greening of Detroit, and Katie Locker, Director of the Coalition for a Detroit Land Bank. In the roundtable, many audience members spoke of their desire to buy vacant property adjacent to their homes, but spoke also about the many obstacles they faced in attempting to do so (for example a lack of information, or conflicting information from the city about how to make these vacant land purchases). We realized that in doing our research, we had connected with a number of remarkable individuals– such as Michael Anderanin, Jr.–who are “blot” experts who know ways around all of the legal and bureaucratic hurdles one encounters when making blots. It was at this point that we came up with the idea of a “Blot Blog,” where Detroit blot-makers can swap expertise, relate their stories, and also ask for advice on blot-making. The Blot Blog is currently in development. We also think there’s a role for the architect here to influence and shape formal outcomes. Another project that is currently in development is a Blot Book that could guide homeowners, designers, and developers in mining the possibilities of blot-making. The book would explore the architectural possibilities that are suggested in many of the blots we observed, and could be used in future building projects (for example, opening the house to the landscape, increasing natural ventilation, creating more desirable spaces, and so on).

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