Friday, September 21, 2007

My argument against Pragmatism

I just got in a fight (okay, heated discussion . . . okay, not even really a discussion) with my favorite professor this semester. Not just this semester I guess, but someone I hold in high regard, someone that has opened new opportunity and knowledge to me and someone who has shaped what my future plans are (at least what my future plans are presently =).
I was in Environmental Justice and my professor, Boris Ricks, was discussing planners' responsibilities in making ethical decisions in regards to the siting of waste disposal plants and other environmental hazards. Which I was totally in line with until he then proceeded to say that we had to be aware that planners and developers are the same in the fact that all they saw was '$' (he drew it on the board). Wherein I interjected, quite passionately - I might add, that planners are not developers. Then, the enviable Professor Ricks resorted to telling me that he is an expert on urban politics, is highly lauded in his research, blah bity blah blah, and that we can just agree to disagree.
I have to start this out by saying I have a grossly out of whack distaste and mistrust of real estate developers. I've never walked away from meeting one, or reading about one or hearing one speak and thought, 'wow - they're really out to do something for the community.' Some of them do really great, cool, wonderful things for the community - but it's just a side effect of their project, or a reflection of its profitability.
I got interested in planning because it blended many of my passions together . . . design, math, community, people, sustainability, and politics. The product of a planners project is a city block, a living community, a neighborhood improvement district, a park, a mixed use development, a thriving downtown. That's what they do - they create it, they make it feasible, they model it, they measure it, they map it.
The product of a developers project is a pro forma, a successful tax credit application, agreeable debt service coverage, positive cash flow. That's what they do - they envision it, they schmooze the banks, they create the spreadsheets, they screw the neighbors, and they HIRE it out.
It's the difference between Raymond Braswell and Kevin Klinkenberg, the difference between profitability and responsibility, the difference between redevelopment and renewal, the difference between condominiums and affordable housing, the difference between community and company; hard to separate fully, but there are choices and outcomes and purpose that act as hard distinctions between the two. Neither one better than the other - but definitely different.
Or maybe I'm just green and naively optimistic that you can put doing good over doing well - and still come out on top.

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