Support Activists, Question Capitalism

By Dick Platkin

First, PN should be a source of analysis and technical resources for community struggles, especially those involving public budgets. For the past generation public investment in most urban programs has shrunk. This trend was already obvious in the 1970s and has since gotten steadily worse. This is clearly bad news for most communities. But there is also some good news. These cutbacks have spawned pockets of organized resistance, in local communities and at work places. Sometimes this resistance is minimized by purely individual actions or symbolic protests, but enough slips through to inspire us and frazzle those with something to lose.

These struggles need assistance, and we should be there with our expertise. Whether these movements need information, analysis, or help in organizing, PNers should offer help, especially when communities make demands on local officials. We need to let local activists know who has authority among the dozens of agencies and departments in charge of municipal programs such as capital projects, litter and graffiti abatement, garbage pick-up, building code enforcement, pollution control, project permits, and pot holes. We need to let local residents know which officials are responsible for their communities becoming so dilapidated, and we need to explain to them the crackpot rationality of urban decay. For example, if the money which should have been spent on affordable housing programs has been shunted away to buy new police cars or build jails, then we ought to say it and explain the “rationale” for this dismal choice. If public resources have been deflected from long overdue maintenance on a city’s basic infrastructure to provide fee waivers and subsidies for new private sector projects – as is now happening in Los Angeles – we need to spill the beans. Furthermore, when culpability rests with fair-weather friends, such as liberal politicians who shake down unions for handouts while they decimate local communities, we especially need to say it.

Secondly, PN should be a home for those voices that say, however hesitatingly, that capitalism so subverts city planning, that we must ultimately choose: we can have unlivable cities with capitalism or livable cities without capitalism. Even if our voices never rise above a whisper, this is one message which should emanate from PN. Although this is a minority position within PN, if the organization can offer its members and friends an open and sustained debate on this topic, it would be an extraordinary service to city planning and allied fields. Furthermore, if this outlook can be communicated to planning students and young planners, it would hopefully transform both their understanding of the world and the roles they could play. Coming of age in a period of dismal job and political prospects, few newcomers to the field get past personal solutions for themselves or incremental improvements through the non-profits who still offer McJobs to planners. We could offer this generation of planners a modest amount of hope, some lucid explanations on why things seem so bleak, and concrete suggestions about what they can do in the short- and long-term.

For those who are curious, my comments originate in a combination of personal and professional experiences. I have taught planning and worked in the private and non-profit planning sectors, and I am now a career employee of a large public planning agency. In this position I have learned that the actions of the public sector are – ironically – necessary for but inimical to good planning. This is where most planning actually takes place, because local government has massive political and budgetary authority over the services and infrastructure at the heart of most planning discussions. Also, my formative years were the 1960s and early 1970s, when the power and optimism of class analysis reached its post-Depression high point. There is no doubt that cynicism has multiplied in the intervening years, but I have never thought that the Left’s intellectual underpinning in Marxism should be discarded, nor should its difficult struggles be abandoned. If the correctness of ideas were strictly determined by popularity, then we should analyze the current economic crisis with astrology, not political economy. Finally, I have lived and worked in an incredible planning laboratory for the past two decades – Southern California. This region is powerful testimony to the pernicious effects of capitalism on the built environment and the dubious prospects of small, incremental reforms to produce substantial improvements in the quality of life.

Dick Platkin rplatkin(at)aol(dot)com is a member of the PN Steering Committee.

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