PLANNERS EXPLAIN THINGS TO ME


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.

To read the rest of this post, which was originally published on CityLimits, please see the article titled, “CityView: As They Rally Around Rezonings, Planners Often ‘Plansplain’”.

Samuel Stein is a PhD student at the CUNY Graduate Center and a professor of Urban Studies at Hunter College.

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