Planners + Atlantic Yards: Community Advocates or Development Cheerleaders?

“The planning debate of the decade: Atlantic Yards, Brooklyn. The argument isn’t just about Atlantic Yards, however: it’s about what we want our country to look like next.”

Over the past couple weeks, the Penn School of Design and Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts have teamed up to get the Philadelphia intelligentsia talking about, of all things, an out-of-town city planning dispute. Not just any planning dispute, of course, the planning dispute. You know one: Brooklyn, the Nets, Russian oligarchy and organized crime, Jay-Z. Atlantic Yards.

You’ll notice that the words “Atlantic Yards” aren’t linked to anything. That’s deliberate: Given the heated debate those two words frequently give rise to, I’m avoiding taking anything that even looks like a position on the issue. Because this particular post isn’t actually about Atlantic Yards. At this point, “Atlantic Yards” (the cause it’s become, not the physical space) isn’t actually about Atlantic Yards anymore. It’s about a country emerging, e-v-e-r–s-o–s-l-o-w-l-y, from a long and deep recession, and what we want the country that emerges to look like.

First things first: In mid-January, The Civilians commenced a sixteen-show Philadelphia run of their “docu-musical” In the Footprint: The Battle over Atlantic Yards. PennDesign marked the show’s opening with the first of two community forums on the subject of Megaprojects, asking “Can we balance individual and social good?” (Philadelphia readers may be interested in attending the second of these forums this Tuesday at the Annenberg Center; details here.)

Both panel and performance were effective, albeit in distinctly different ways. Neither resolved the issue of balancing the individual and collective goods, naturally, but two weeks of discussion in Philadelphia were never likely to settle a question that’s dogged humankind for centuries (if not millennia). Nor was the question of “Atlantic Yards: Thumbs up or thumbs down?” definitively answered. This blog post won’t do any of those things, either—if that’s what you’re looking for, set aside five or six hours, google “Atlantic Yards controversy,” and take a ramble across the Moral High Ground.

“If planners aren’t willing to serve as either blindly-devoted community advocates or development cheerleaders, what role are they supposed to play in the debate over something like the Atlantic Yards project?”

But check in again when you get back, because there’s a much more interesting question to consider—namely, if planners aren’t willing to serve as either blindly-devoted community advocates or development cheerleaders, what role are they supposed to play in the debate over something like the Atlantic Yards project?

Over vociferous community opposition and fervent community support both, construction at Atlantic Yards is underway. Wherever you stand on the issue, it’s clear that “more planning” wouldn’t have been a bad idea.

The argument that economists don’t understand design, designers don’t understand economics, and activists don’t know the first thing about either is unnecessarily uncharitable all around; and yet, there’s a ring of truth to it nevertheless.

Indeed, that “ring of truth” is perhaps the reason why the planning profession exists in the first place. Economists and designers (and as someone closer to the former than the latter, I’m using the blanket term “designer” to perhaps inappropriately gather under one heading all the various architects, landscape architects, urban designers, and landscape urbanists who’ve tried their hands throughout history at making the City X look, work, or simply be better) receive years of highly specialized training which equips them to do highly specialized work. So do successful activists, albeit in a different and generally less “professional” fashion.

Good planning, on the other hand, doesn’t necessarily require specialized training of any kind; instead, it calls for an almost cynical pragmatism, and enough background knowledge to bridge the yawning gaps that inevitably spring up between everyone else who thinks they know what City X really needs. When the [insert preferred urban design professional title here] brings in a beautiful, visionary, and forward-thinking design that the economist assures you the city can’t afford and the neighborhood activist insists steamrolls over the concerns of community members, the planner’s the one who’s left to sort everything out. Not to send everyone home happy, certainly; rather, to arrive at the best possible decision given the available resources.

“Believe it or not, America today is a county suffering from a housing shortage—or, perhaps more accurately, a mismatch of people and housing. If and when we get our groove back, we’re going to have a lot of building to do.”

A friend and colleague—a relatively young and fairly successful planner working at a large design firm—told me recently that “a lot of good planning is just being able to tell a decent story.” Certainly—but it’s also a bit more than that. It falls to the planner to weave distinct, competing storylines together into something that resembles a coherent whole. Not easy, yet very important.

Whether America’s 2.8% rate of economic growth in quarter four of 2011 means we’re out of the economic woods is well beyond my powers of prediction. One of these days, however, we should be able to point to a real economic recovery. And if we’re not prepared for it when it comes, the recovery may raise contentious questions that’ll make the furor over Atlantic Yards resemble a tempest in a teacup by comparison.

The fight over Atlantic Yards is about much more than a few acres in Brooklyn—Howard’s Endaside, local planning disputes tend not to inspire artistic performance, let alone send such performances to other cities entirely uninvolved in the original dispute. There’s much more at stake here.

In the years directly preceding the Long Recession, America’s “decaying industrial cities” finally stopped decaying. Places like Brooklyn and Philadelphia—some of the Rust Belt’s rustiest—became destinations of choice. Philadelphia started from a significantly lower baseline, and indeed there’s still plenty of vacant property sitting around the city, ready to absorb the next wave of young, professional migrants. In Brooklyn, on the other hand, more people and more money were chasing not-enough-housing; thus, Atlantic Yards.

Believe it or not, America today is a county suffering from a housing shortage—or, perhaps more accurately, a mismatch of people and housing. For every college student renting a McMansion outside of Houston, there are three aspiring church organists-cum-performance artists holing up together in a studio apartment somewhere in Southeast Portland. If and when we get our groove back, we’re going to have a lot of building to do. And if the urban renaissance we’ve been watching slowly unfold continues to do so, a lot of that building will take place in densely populated urban areas. In other words, get ready for more megaprojects.

This historical photograph from the National Archives (ARC Identifier 549976)captures the Lower Schuylkill in its halcyon days. With technological advances rendering Philadelphia’s many refineries economically inefficient, it’s become essential that the city re-envision a new future for the district.

In Philadelphia, the impending departure of Sunoco—a local institution of long standing—from its Schuylkill River refineries has led the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation (PIDC), the economic development arm of the city, to commission a master plan for the Lower Schuylkill Industrial District from architecture and urban design firm Chan Krieger NBBJ. Though it doesn’t deserve “megaproject” status yet (and may never), master planning processes like this one have to balance the same kinds of needs that were so poorly planned for in advance of the Atlantic Yards debacle. Across the US, cities in situations like that of Philadelphia will need planners to help construct narratives tying their industrial pasts to some new and perhaps somewhat frightening future. They’ll need balance the visionary work of design firms commissioned to imagine the possibilities of a space like the Atlantic Yards site or Lower Schuylkill District with very real fiscal constraints, and the needs and concerns of neighborhood and community groups.

“Across the US, cities in situations like that of Philadelphia will need planners to help construct narratives tying their industrial pasts to some new and perhaps somewhat frightening future.”

“The Lower Schuylkill District was deeply affected by the decline in Philadelphia’s historic industrial base,” writes Penn planning professor and Megaprojects panel member Laura Wolf-Powers in the forthcoming issue of Progressive Planning.  “Strategic planning can now poise the area for incorporation into a larger strategy for a city rebounding from a difficult half-century.”

Strategic planning is indeed what’s needed—here in Philadelphia, in Boston, Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, Oakland, and all of America’s other “rebounding” cities. The rusting industrial infrastructure that characterizes many of these cities might send designers into flights of fancy, economists into paroxysms of actuarial panic, and neighborhood groups into angry efforts to preserve-community-character-at-all-costs, but in the end all of these cities will need to choose between pragmatic planning, Atlantic Yards-style chaos, or a return to decay. Planners need not only weave these storylines together; they must also write their own, hopefully happy, ending.

Editors’ Note: A reference to the location of the Atlantic Yards was corrected from “downtown Brooklyn” to “Brooklyn,” and a reference to the project as a railroad yard has now been omitted.

  • Discussion: (3 comments)
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  1. Planners + Atlantic Yards: Community Advocates or Development Cheerleaders?

    It’s an worthy piece, so forgive me for bone-picking, but… I know you didn’t want to write about Atlantic Yards, but in a small but not unimportant way you have, as you’ve made a couple of mistaken assumptions in passing.

    Your suggested that the Atlantic Yards project was going to be at “a space like the Atlantic rail yards.” It’s not. The MTA’s Vanderbilt Yard is less than 40% of the project site. The rest: private property (much purchased under the threat of eminent domain and the anticipation of a zoning override) and even city streets.

    One of the reasons Atlantic Yards has been so controversial has been the developer’s ability to muddy the discourse. There’s never been a place called “Atlantic Yards.” There still isn’t. (The developer still doesn’t control all the property.) It’s a marketing term for a project.

    Nor, actually, is the site in “downtown Brooklyn.” It’s nearby. That’s another contested fact. Downtown Brooklyn was rezoned. The Atlantic Yards site wasn’t. More here:

    By the way, In the Footprint, though a worthy effort, is already outpaced by events. The results of the much-promised Community Benefits Agreement, as portrayed in the play? Housing promises abandoned, and not even the Independent Compliance Monitor that was promised. BUILD? It’s been sued by people who went through its training program.

    Norman Oder
    Atlantic Yards Report

    • Planners + Atlantic Yards: Community Advocates or Development Cheerleaders?


      Thanks for reading, responding, and providing relevant updates for those of our readers familiar with In the Footprint. CBA enforceability and political linguistics are unfortunately a bit far afield for a blog ostensibly focusing on landscape urbanism, and I think I already tend to stretch the bounds of that topic a bit more than I should. Alas… perhaps some other time, on some other blog.

      Beyond all those specifics, however, thanks for the work you’ve done surrounding the whole Atlantic Yards brouhaha. While I’m going to stick to my promise not to wade too far into the controversy (barring a few corrections to the principal text – thanks again), I think it’s worth pointing out that something like the Atlantic Yards Report is significant beyond this particular project in its demonstration that “soliciting community involvement and input” needn’t be a sly way to describe slowing development to a standstill. We live in an era of unprecedented access to genuine public opinion, and politicians, developers, and planners should recognize and take advantage of that fact to ensure more transparent, participatory planning processes, rather than doubling down on opacity.

      Thanks again,

  2. Planners + Atlantic Yards: Community Advocates or Development Cheerleaders?

    As a trained architect, urban designer, and planner I fall very easily into different professional built environment roles. I agree that this is a very well-written article, but I want to caution against stereotyping or pigeonholing the roles of the economist, designer, and planner. The truth is that in urban design school I studied the economic importance of projects, and in planning school I studied the importance of design. Many (well, the best at least) economists, designers, and planners are very aware of the importance of all three in achieving a socially, economically, and environmentally sustainable project. And until all built environment professionals learn to work as a team, instead of thinking their role is the most important, we will continue to develop projects that fail to reach their full potential as a catalyst in the city and the local neighborhood. (

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