Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

A further note on the lack of support for critical analysis within communities

Applying the theories of "positive illusions" and "optimistic bias" to local political and economic elites:  Besides the piece I wrote yesterday about "the failure of the Coast Guard headquarters to spur economic revitalization 'East of the River'," which is something I predicted 8 years ago when it was first touted, while doing some filing this morning and re-reading/skimming of stuff I've clipped as I go along, I came across a mention of "positive illusions" and "optimistic bias" theories, spurred by an article in the Chronicle of Philanthropy about how top officials of foundations don't have a lot of experience being criticized since they're handing out money, and people don't want to limit their chances of being recipients.
"Positive illusions" are unrealistically favorable attitudes that people have towards themselves or to people that are close to them. Positive illusions are a form of self-deception or self-enhancement that feel good, maintain self-esteem or stave off discomfort at least in the short term. There are three broad kinds: inflated assessment of one's own abilities, unrealistic optimism about the future and an illusion of control. 
"Optimistic bias is commonly defined as the mistaken belief that one's chances of experiencing a negative event are lower (or a positive event higher) than that of one's peers."
While most of the work on these theories focuses on individual behavior and action, I would argue that there is opportunity within the field to apply these theories to institutions, which are comprised of individuals applying their personal view to external settings and situations, and community action.

Although you could argue that's what Growth Machine and Urban Regime theories do, and maybe positive illusions theory is a good underpinning theory for insight into why local political and economic elites act in the ways that they do.

There is at least one book, Overconfidence and War: The Havoc and Glory of Positive Illusions, that applies positive illusions theories at the scale of nations.  The author argues that:
states are no more rational than people, who are susceptible to exaggerated ideas of their own virtue, of their ability to control events, and of the future. By looking at this bias--called "positive illusions"--as it figures in evolutionary biology, psychology, and the politics of international conflict, this book offers compelling insights into why states wage war
I think it's fair to say that individual political and economic actors believe that they are more able and more successful and more correct than their peers and citizens.

In fact, even before I wrote the other piece, as I was coming home from the Metro yesterday morning, a neighbor stopped me on the street to discuss a recent agency action affecting the little one block commercial district in our neighborhood.  Among other things,concerning the matter he described past interactions with our Councilmember, who is running for mayor, as "like many people who work for government who don't really listen but after you say something, they instruct you on 'how things really work or are.'"

It's that kind of thinking, but to be fair to her, it's gone on along time.

E.g., I remember being shocked during the Bush Administration reading something in the New York Times Magazine about how the people running government create their own reality. From Ron Suskind, “Without a Doubt,” New York Times, 17 October 2004:
In the summer of 2002, after I had written an article in Esquire that the White House didn't like about Bush's former communications director, Karen Hughes, I had a meeting with a senior adviser to Bush. He expressed the White House's displeasure, and then he told me something that at the time I didn't fully comprehend -- but which I now believe gets to the very heart of the Bush presidency. 
The aide said that guys like me were ''in what we call the reality-based community,'' which he defined as people who ''believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.'' I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. 
He cut me off. ''That's not the way the world really works anymore,'' he continued. ''We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.''
This kind of thinking and belief is what is going on at all levels of government, and like Aaron Renn discusses in his piece in Urbanophile, communities keep the faith by not scanning externally all that much or by having circumscribed understandings of what is happening elsewhere.

For example, I went to a great conference on housing matters (I will be writing it up), and I was talking with a low level person from HUD manning their information booth, and when I mentioned that I work on "urban revitalization" she told me about a report that HUD recently did with the Urban Institute called Retail in Underserved Communities,.

It happens that I am familiar with that report, and more importantly, have on the ground experience with two of the three case studies in the report (one from Pittsburgh and the other from DC).

I told her that the cases are outliers and for the most part the situations are un-extendable to weak market distressed communities elsewhere as both are more about highly successful urban neighborhoods running out of land to develop and therefore moving on to immediately adjacent land that happens to be available and located in a "distressed area" (not unlike the "One Over Neighborhood" approach of the Live Baltimore urban residential recruitment organization, see "In search of the next hot neighborhood").

In fact they are classic examples of older ideas of urban redevelopment when the only value possessed by distressed communities is land able to be assembled and redeveloped for another another purpose.

Manifest destiny or "reproduction of space" by highly resourced economic elites is not ground up urban revitalization helping the impoverished.

And unless distressed neighborhoods are immediately proximate to some of the most successful neighborhoods in their region, they aren't going to be able to make the case to Whole Foods, Trader Joe's, and others, using the examples presented.


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At 2:24 PM, Anonymous ndw_dc said...

"We're and empire now," and "We make our own reality" would be tremendously funny if not for the fact they they actually believed it, and were responsible for historic tragic on a grand scale (Iraq War II, non-response to Katrina, birthing the financial crisis, etc.).

Conservatives often like to claim that they are evidence-based, non-ideological, "in-activists," etc. But - at least so far as the main philosophical underpinnings of the movement are concerned, as embodied most recently by the Bush administration - they are by far the most rigidly ideological of the major parties. (I am not an expert by any means, but I would guess that particular apparatchik was evoking Leo Strauss, the favorite philosopher of the neoconservative, Weekly Standard set.)

All of this is to say that we should be ever proud of our tradition of criticizing elected officials and others in positions of power. We literally have no idea what crazy ideas they could really believe, and have every reason to assume that what they espouse in public are mostly lies. I hate to sound like a pure cynic, but you are so right Richard that the decisions of governments, larger corporations and other powerful institutions are ultimately made by human beings - as fallible and bias-prone as anyone - but also under a very perverse and different set of incentives than the rest of us. Their continued hold on elected office or space on the corporate board aren't necessarily predicated on what the objectively best outcome would be.

At 2:52 PM, Anonymous Richard Layman said...

I have not yet read this book,but it's on my long term reading list...

Charlie has rightfully criticized some of my past writings that imply that "professional planners" should be in charge.

I was reading a book review of a book about Walter Lippman, and it made the point that Lippman's book _Public Opinion_ while interpreted as calling for top down decision making out of a sense of expertness, instead Lippman's intention was that the spread of knowledge and expertise strengthened self-government and the ability of citizens to make better decisions.

The truth is somewhere in the middle...

At 2:54 PM, Anonymous Richard Layman said...

that's my intent too, with planning, but with what I call "action planning" which is more citizen and design centric and dynamic.

OTOH, the majority of citizens aren't interested, are too busy, have other obligations, etc., which leads then to the expertness thing...

At 3:11 PM, Anonymous charlie said...

Well, any political grouping has a tendancy to get in a bubble. The key question is getting rid of them.

For example, in DC, the marion barry era generation has largely been washed away. Anita Bonds? Barry himself -- and he is vastly changed. As much as I dislike Mayor Muriel, she isn't really part of that deep state.

And the idea that some 20 term congressman from south carolina is in charge of the distrist seems like ancient history.

Now, again, in DC case it wasn't the power of voters that got rid of them. Pretty clear it was a combination of Congressional power and "rule of law".

This may belong more in your musuem post, but learning history is about seeing and understanding the differences in the past. And the similarities.

At 3:32 PM, Anonymous Richard Layman said...

well, I am gonna write a piece about why I am not voting for MB, based on my and neighbors interactions with her, which I think are generalizable.

But, then I was thinking about it, and I think it's fair to say that DC has the same blinders, based on his approach to stuff.

Generally, as I have been writing, these blinders seem to be endemic to most elected officials.

And the Post doesn't help, because it doesn't really push the discourse forward towards innovation and vision.

2. In a piece I wrote in 2005, I argued that K. Brown, H. Thomas Jr. and Vincent Gray were merely next generation Barry.

you'll remember it probably, because I've reprinted it.

I think you can argue that MB is a better govt. focused type, but her definition of what progress is and what elected officials are supposed to do in order to foster it, is similarly unsophisticated, so to me she is 3G Barry... just way better packaged.

At 8:22 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

Well perhaps I erred by bringing current politics into this.

I was trying to say it isn't the bubble think -- it is regime change.

(I doubt many members of the DC growth machine are around from 1980. or even 1990?)

And if we go to 1950?

Contra to that, in NYC large elements of the growth machine have been around since ww2.

Or Cleveland with Forest City and the Ratners.

Regionally, a lot more stability. Van Metre, lehners, etc. Charles E Smith.

But the benchmark of democratic achivement isn't always better planning. It is the ability to replace your leadership at some point.

At 10:42 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

I think the benchmark of democratic achievement is a better community. Planning can help, but it's also about leadership, civic identity, etc.

e.g., years ago you mentioned _Distracted_ by Bruce Sterling, which I happened to have read a couple years before, and its discussion of Boston and civic identity.

The thing about "regime change" is something I wrote in 2010 when people were talking about "ABF" anyone but Fenty.

At the root, and this is the growth machine argument, local political and economic elites are unified on a pro real estate development agenda.

People change, but the "regime" (especially in the context of urban regime theory) doesn't really change.

All that changes is who gets the spoils.

The reality of black rage against Fenty is that the people who expected to benefit from his election didn't. Instead it was people he trained with, some W4 people, and Sinclair Skinner et al.

That's what I wrote about in the Uncivil War piece.

Jeffrey Thompson's fear of contract losses is just a visible example.

That's why the people took up Gray. Gray is a smart guy, but he "grew up" in the same growth machine milieu, with a lot of self-interested folk, and the same kind of milieu that supported Barry originally.

At 10:49 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

The growth machine here is reasonably stable. Some come out of working for City Council, and others started by working for other people. E.g., John Akridge worked for a big firm originally (I can't remember who). JBG has been around reasonably long.

It is interesting that a couple firms, like Charles E. Smith and JBG in a big way, the Lerners in a smaller way, cross state lines, but a lot of firms stay within their specific DC, MD, or VA bailiwick. (Part of it is the expertise they develop dealing with local zoning and development approvals).


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