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Democratizing Energy Systems: An Opportunity for Planners as Cities Renew Commitment to Paris Climate Accord?

Posted By Administration, Monday, June 19, 2017

Ali Mohammed Adil, PhD Student
University of Texas at Arlington

The absence of a national climate policy and the politics of denying anthropocentric climate change in the US have resulted in a number of states and cities stepping in to fill this ‘federal leadership vacuum’ (Byrne, Hughes, Rickerson, & Kurdgelashvili, 2007). Increasing number of states and cities are now encouraging distributed energy generation through on-site residential solar PV systems, not only by promoting the use of state and federal funds (tax rebates, tax credits and subsidies etc.), but also by overriding neighborhood restrictions on road-facing solar PV installations and especially by legislating net-metering policies. As such, with cities becoming the venues for celebrating the benefits of decentralized energy systems (DES) (Adil & Ko, 2016), the social and material changes accompanying their widespread adoption by energy consumers across cities, especially through solar PV and thermal technologies, presents unique challenges and opportunities for planners and local policymakers. Not only can planners help resolve land use conflicts — space limitations and siting issues (see Kaza & Curtis, 2014), they can also help democratize the energy sector by facilitating greater social capital and community cohesion around socio-technical issues pertaining to localizing energy systems (Hoffman & High-Pippert, 2005). 

However, inasmuch as the outcome of promoting adoption of DES is economically and environmentally progressive, the rise of grid-tied energy producing consumers in a market-oriented sector has unintended socially regressive consequences. As more energy customers either reduce their consumption of retail electricity partially or curtail it altogether in what is referred to as ‘grid defection’ (Bronski et al., 2014), the utility serving them faces revenue losses. Where such losses are rendered unrecoverable, the cost burden to the utility is shifted to the remainder of its customers, in a classic move of ‘rent shifting’ i.e. shifting of unrecoverable cost burden onto the consumer (Borenstein & Bushnell, 2015). In this way, as retail electricity rates climb, solar PV technology reaches cost parity (Rickerson, 2014), but — and here is the catch — only for those utility customers who can afford it. In industry parlance, this is ominously called ‘utility death spiral’ (Kind, 2013) or ‘spiral of rate death’ (Blackburn, Magee, & Rai, 2014), which creates a victim of another, more vulnerable group besides electric power utilities — low and middle income energy consumers.

Contrasting this with the social position electric utilities had acquired in the early days of the energy sector — i.e. as regulated entities providing a public good (Hirsh, 2002) — presents an unfortunate and unintended outcome. However, the extent to which such an outcome is in fact unintended is also questionable given that ‘rent shifting’ is something that the utilities are already accused of pursuing (Borenstein & Bushnell, 2015; Boyd, 1996). In light of these contexts and concerns, the choices facing local governments and planners in terms of who to side with — utilities or consumers — constitutes the crux of local and state-level energy politics.

Emerging against this state of affairs, are communities of energy consumers that are advocating for a paradigm shift in order to reclaim electricity as a public good (ILSR, 2016). There are however no simple or standard answers here because of the disparate and overlapping impact of local, state and federal policies for any given community and the different set of local environmental conditions influencing their technology choices. In my research, I look at grassroots responses from energy communities which aim to affect outcomes ranging from energy independence for single homeowners to energy democracy for whole communities. Whereas the former draws on the ideals of national energy security put forward in response to the energy crisis of the 70s, the latter is a new civic movement that draws on a broad set of principles which promote socially just and inclusive wellbeing across class and racial divides, encourage environmental protection through context-appropriate use of emerging technologies and more critically, pursue a more democratic and equitable model of economy (New Economy Coalition, 2015).

Therefore, a transition from incumbent to emergent energy systems based on renewable energy technologies (RET) is bound to unfold along varying modes of governance and social organization models — from the ones benefiting individual consumers to those empowering entire communities. The fate of a truly democratic energy sector, where everyone benefits — i.e. an energy sector which is equitable and just as it is sustainable — is decidedly predicated upon the cumulative interactions between diverse community grassroots initiatives and the top-down socio-technical, regulatory and political contexts facing them.

As RET take a firmer hold of local retail energy markets with efficient storage systems and interoperable electric vehicles, urban energy planning ought to be concerned with who benefits and who loses in the ongoing pursuit for alternate energy systems (Miller & Richter, 2014; Shove & Walker, 2007, 2008). Since the take-off of residential solar PV in urban locations across the country, several investor-owned utilities have filed for rate changes with their respective State Utility Commissions citing the undue burden to customers who have not or cannot install solar PV. As fair and equitable as this sounds, with utilities claiming to remedy ‘rent shifting’ to non-solar PV customers by requiring solar PV owners to pay more under the revised rates, siding with utilities would be an egregious error (Pentland, 2017). While there is no doubt that once resolved, most likely in favor energy consumers — solar and non-solar, the question of planning for local energy projects in coordination with other infrastructure systems like transport, water and build environment will at least partially land in planners’ list of things to do. Yet, most planning programs across the US continue to graduate planners who remain untrained in key technical aspects as well as social issues surrounding ongoing energy systems transitions. Despite Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris Climate Accord, much to the world’s dismay, there may still be light at the end of the tunnel with several mayors committing to the accord anyway (Domonske, 2017; Walker, 2017). The question that I seek to raise, as cities continue to combat the climate challenge, is: are planners equipped enough to tackle to the socio-technical challenges that new technologies and accompanying regulatory and intuitional contexts? or will the professional planner continue to remain subordinate to the electrical/civil/mechanical/environmental engineer?

Works Cited

Adil, A. M., & Ko, Y. (2016). Socio-technical evolution of Decentralized Energy Systems: A critical review and implications for urban planning and policy. Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, 57.

Blackburn, G., Magee, C., & Rai, V. (2014). Solar Valuation and the Modern Utility’s Expansion into Distributed Generation. Electricity Journal, 27(1), 18–32.

Borenstein, S., & Bushnell, J. (2015). The U.S. Electricity Industry after 20 Years of Restructuring (No. 252R).

Boyd, J. (1996). The “regulatory compact” and implicit contracts: should stranded costs be recoverable? Energy Journal, 19(3), 69–83.

Bronski, P., Creyts, J., Guccione, L., Madrazo, M., Mandel, J., Rader, B., & Seif, D. (2014). The Economics of Grid Defection.

Byrne, J., Hughes, K., Rickerson, W., & Kurdgelashvili, L. (2007). American policy conflict in the greenhouse: Divergent trends in federal, regional, state, and local green energy and climate change policy. Energy Policy, 35(9), 4555–4573.

Domonske, C. (2017). Mayors, Companies Vow To Act On Climate, Even As U.S. Leaves Paris Accord. Retrieved June 6, 2017, from

Hirsh, R. F. (2002). Power Loss: The Origins of Deregulation and Restructuring in the American Electric Utility System. MIT Press. Retrieved from

Hoffman, S. M., & High-Pippert, A. (2005). Community Energy: A Social Architecture for an Alternative Energy Future. Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society, 25(5), 387–401.

ILSR. (2016). Introducing the Community Power Map | Institute for Local Self-Reliance. Retrieved January 15, 2017, from

Kaza, N., & Curtis, M. P. (2014). The Land Use Energy Connection. Journal of Planning Literature, 29(4), 1–16.

Kind, P. (2013). Disruptive Challenges: Financial Implications and Strategic Responses to a Changing Retail Electric Business. Retrieved from

Miller, C. A., & Richter, J. (2014). Social Planning for Energy Transitions. Current Sustainable/Renewable Energy Reports, (September), 77–84.

New Economy Coalition. (2015). What is Energy Democracy and Why Does It Matter? - YouTube. New Economy Coalition. Retrieved from

Pentland, W. (2017). Why the net metering fight is a red herring for utilities | Utility Dive. Retrieved June 6, 2017, from

Rickerson, W. (2014). Residential prosumers - drivers and policy options (re-prosumers).

Shove, E., & Walker, G. (2007). Caution! Transition ahead: policies, practice, and sustainable transition management. Environment and Planning A, 39, 763–770.

Shove, E., & Walker, G. (2008). Transition management and the politics of shape shifting. Environment and Planning A, 40(4), 1012–1014.

Walker, A. (2017). 246 mayors adopt Paris climate accord after U.S. pulls out (updated). Retrieved June 6, 2017, from

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President Trump: The Hustler 2.0

Posted By Administration, Monday, May 8, 2017

Alvaro Huerta, Ph.D.
Dr. Huerta is an assistant professor of urban & regional planning and ethnic & women’s studies at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. He is the author of Reframing the Latino Immigration Debate: Towards a Humanistic Paradigm (San Diego State University Press, 2013) and other publications.

On September 15, 2016, in an essay titled “The Hustler: Trump and the Mean Streets of East Los Angeles,” I argued that then-presidential candidate Donald J. Trump was hustling the American public. Now, thanks to the support of the FBI’s James Comey, Russia’s Vladimir Putin and WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange, Trump—as President of the United States—has continued to hustle the American public. Given his mastery, his next book should be titled “The Art of the American Hustle.”

In a nutshell, a hustler represents an individual who will say and do anything—without remorse or guilt—to serve his or her self-interest. While critics have labeled Trump many applicable terms, such as liar, erratic, narcissistic and thin-skinned, etc., I find that “hustler” best describes his twisted rhetoric and immoral actions.

When they speak or act, hustlers can’t be believed or trusted. I should know, since I grew up on the mean streets of East Los Angeles, where I encountered many of them. Also, as a long time political activist and analyst, I’ve observed and studied hustlers at the local, state and national level. This includes politicians (Republicans and Democrats alike), government officials, private developers, cops and other powerful individuals who hustle the American public to serve themselves.

Apart from Trump, Congressman D. Ryan (R-Wis.) is an excellent example of a hustler. While Ryan portrays himself as a “sensible” policy wonk who “cares” about the American people, his sinister obsession to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act (ACA) or Obamacare represents an atrocious and inhumane political agenda. For example, as House Speaker, Ryan led the GOP’s successful efforts to rush a so-called health plan that will wreak havoc on millions of Americans.

While Ryan’s previously failed “health plan” would’ve left 24 million Americans without healthcare, according to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), the negative impacts of his recently passed “health plan,” named the American Health Care Act (AHCA), appears to have similar catastrophic results for millions of Americans.

If this is such a “great plan,” as Trump claims, why not allow for the CBO to conduct a thorough analysis and provide a score?

Speaking of the orange elephant in the room, as “The Hustler 2.0,” Trump has argued that pre-existing conditions will be covered in the GOP’s efforts to repeal and replace Obamacare. However, according to many analysts and reporters, like Michael Hiltzik of the Los Angeles Times (05/04/17), AHCA “allows states to opt out of ACA rules prohibiting insurers from charging sick people higher premiums.” This is like the GOP passing a law that allows states to opt out of federal minimum wage standards, child labor protections and anti-racist measures in public and private spheres (e.g., no white-only lunch counters in the South). That is, according to the GOP, the federal government shouldn’t interfere if states want to deprive their residents from basic services and protections that all people deserve as rights, not privileges.

Also, let’s not forget about the border wall. First, Trump told us that Mexico was going to pay for it. Now, as the leader of the most powerful country in the world, he wants American taxpayers to pay for it, where Mexico will magically reimburse us in the future.

In terms of NAFTA (or the North American North American Free Trade Agreement), originally, Trump called it “the worst trade deal in the history of this country” (speech in Pennsylvania, 06/28/17) and vowed to reverse it. Now, after phone calls with the leaders of Mexico and Canada, Trump will negotiate NAFTA with his trading partners. If that’s not a huuuge hustle, I don’t know what is?

I can go on and on about China, Russia, NATO and North Korea, but what’s the point?

Trying to keep up with “The Hustler 2.0” will only make “your head spin,” as Trump says when he’s boasting about something that he’s clearly clueless about!

Actually, apart from “The Hustler 2.0,” there’s a term that Mexicans—on both sides of the border—use for shameless individuals (or those who lack shame) that applies to Trump: sinvergüenza.

Sinvergüenza also applies to Ryan and the Republicans who publicly rejoiced about taking away healthcare from millions of Americans, if successful in the Senate.

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Observing Place: Creativity & Experiment in Planning

Posted By Administration, Thursday, May 4, 2017

Ashlee Tziganuk, PhD Student
Arizona State University

“It is through creative movement back and forth among experience, reflection upon it, experimental observation, reflexive awareness of such experiments, and the cautious application of specific techniques to individuals and groups that the most promising and dangerous possibilities emerge” (Connolly 2006).

It is sometimes easy to forget about our creativity in academia – in many ways it is discouraged. From the expected publications, research, and practice, the pressures of academia often subdue the ideas that may have the most creative potential. Since beginning graduate school four years ago, I no longer have the energy and mental capacity to engage with my own personal creative hobbies, nor do I feel as though I am allowed to be creative within the confines of academia. For the first time in my career, I’m asking myself what happens when I drop expectations (real or imagined) and allow creativity to seep into the work I spend so much of my time engrossed in. The answer comes in the form of a thought experiment unique to urban planning. The purpose of the experiment is simple – taking time to observe, feel, and experience a place that was interfered with, manipulated, and planned for.

Why undertake such an experiment? In many ways it is to better understand whom or what we are planning for. So often we enter into places with an outcome already in mind. Single-family homes here, mixed use over there – when does the place speak for itself? When do we listen to the people, objects, and non-humans of place? Creative thought experiments bring out the nuances of place, evolving planners from passive to active participants. It is my hope that my own creative experiment sheds light on the benefits of thought experiments in academia and in practice, showing that pushing our typical, restrictive boundaries can result in our growth as planners and in the communities we help develop.

Rather than overthinking the location of my thought experiment, I let the exceptionally nice weather pull me outside into Civic Space Park in downtown Phoenix. The moment I arrive at the park, my eyes are pulled toward the sidewalk. A young black man is embarking on a joy ride in an old person’s scooter – the mood is playful. At the same time, a cop lurches in on a Segway, eyeing the man on the scooter, his presence emanating a cartoonish dominance. Yet even through the seemingly comedic actions of both parties, their interaction reveals a power dynamic at play. In a moment of suspension, I wait for the cop to reveal his imposed authority. The moment is quickly shattered as the cop moves on to survey the rest of the park, leaving this open public space feeling constricted and unwelcoming. Lesson number one: experimentation has the potential to reveal subtle issues of place that could go unnoticed otherwise.

Photo Credit: Ashlee Tziganuk

A few minutes later, a man who appears to be transient comes up to me laughing: “You think I could trade my agave water for a sandwich at the café? It is called fair trade”. I laugh along with him, painfully aware that I do not know how to interact with him beyond this level. As he walks away, I begin to pay close attention to the transient population in the park. How are people without a home using a place that was never designed for them? Is it naïve of me to assume this is not their home? I think back to Stewart (2010) and the “sensory labor of attuning as a homeless person” (450). Lesson number two: part of creativity in planning includes moving beyond the conventional academic and practical approach, involving perspectives beyond the researcher or planner.

Photo Credit: Ashlee Tziganuk

I ponder the history of Civic Space Park with an emphasis on the evolution of the place over time. Interestingly, the place’s prominent changes in function relate to the park’s adjoining A.E. England building. What was once a local car dealership in 1926 eventually became an electrical equipment company. The building is listed on the Phoenix Historical Property Register and was renovated in 2008 (A.E. England Building 2017). Today, the building houses a café, art galleries, and events, but physical traces of the past do not appear evident. Is this the beginning of a new Phoenician identity, or is it an “inscription of memory on space” that is “caught up in regulatory regimes which determine where and how things, activities, and people should be placed” (Edensor 2005, 833)? Lesson number three: though planning is a progressively oriented field, remnants of a place’s past, including its history and people, are vital in securing a sustainable future for place.

The lessons drawn from these observations are captured within the park’s defining sculpture, entitled Her Secret is Patience. The mammoth, suspended sculpture resembles the shape of a cylinder, illuminated at night with cool colored lights in the summer and warmer colors in the winter. Inspired by Arizona monsoon clouds and desert plants, artist Janet Echelman sought to provide a piece representative of place (Her Secret is Patience 2017). One Arizona editorial writer proclaims: “Yes. This is just what Phoenix needs: a distinctive feature that helps create a real sense of place” (Park’s details 2009). Looking back on my observational lessons, I find this statement questionable. Who is this $2.5 million sculpture really providing a sense of place for? Does it accurately reflect the people, objects, and non-humans of Phoenix? Perhaps the commonly overheard descriptions of the sculpture as a jellyfish and tornado hint at the answers to these questions.

Photo Credit: Ashlee Tziganuk

This creative thought experiment shows there is so much a planner can learn from taking the time to observe places they may plan for. It is only when we turn ourselves into active participants of place that we can begin to make informed decisions about its future. This is not to say, however, that the planner’s observation is law. I have tried my best to remain self-aware of my status and position as an academic and future planner holding potential positions of power. When am I the cop and when am I the man on the scooter? How can we continue to push the boundaries of academia, adopting more creative approaches to ensure we’re planning for our communities to the best of our ability?

Works Cited
A. E. England Building. (2017). Retrieved April 17, 2017, from

DeSilvey, C. (2017). When Story Meets the Storm. In Curated decay: heritage
beyond saving
, 47-72. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Edensor, T. (2005). The Ghosts of Industrial Ruins: Ordering and Disordering
Memory in Excessive Space. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 23(6), 829-849.

Her Secret Is Patience. (2017). Retrieved April 17, 2017, from

Park's details, sculpture a nod to city's future. (2009).

Stewart, K. (2010). Atmospheric attunements. Environment and Planning D:
Society and Space
, 29(3), 445-453.

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Electronic Retail as a Force in Freight Transportation & Regional Development

Posted By Administration, Monday, April 24, 2017

Peter Hylton, PhD Candidate
School of City & Regional Planning
Georgia Institute of Technology

Whether they followed this particular story or are just hearing about it, planners have reason to notice Amazon’s decision to create a cargo airline called Prime Air, currently operating six aircraft with another 40 on order. It is not that Amazon itself is all that important—one company rarely is—even though it employs 300,000 people and ships goods to hundreds of millions of customers. Rather, Prime Air illustrates how the fast-growing electronic retail (e-retail) logistics industry is reshaping not just personal shopping trips and residential package delivery, but also freight transportation and the profile of economic opportunities in metro areas.

Amazon’s first ‘Prime Air’-painted aircraft
Photo credit: Scott Eklund / Red Box Pictures via GeekWire

E-retail has for several decades allowed customers to buy from anywhere through the internet and receive their goods through delivery. Planners quickly recognized e-retail’s potential to reduce personal shopping trips, displace commercial real estate, and increase truck frequency near homes (for example, Mokhtarian 2004; Rotem-Mindali and Weltevreden 2013; and Zhang, Zhu and Ye 2016). Yet, these important customer-facing impacts are just the tip of e-retail logistics’ effects.

From the retailer’s perspective, we see that e-retail logistics responds to a different set of transportation and fulfillment demands compared to traditional brick-and-mortar (B&M) retail. While B&M retail has fairly regular, predictable, and leisurely paced deliveries from suppliers or warehouses to a relatively small number of stores, e-retailers must make deliveries much faster and with shorter notice to many more final destinations, normally the customers’ address. Faced with such a complex optimization problem, e-retailers are investing millions of dollars in physical fulfillment centers to hold inventory and ship out orders. The requirements are different from the B&M warehouses that they replace, and their location and transportation modes often are too.

My studies show some of the regions that will have to adjust to the pros (e.g., jobs and tax revenues) and cons (e.g., high truck volumes) of e-retail logistics, and many are near airports. Out of a sample of the 28 of the largest e-retailers whose facility locations are shown below, 22% of their total fulfillment capacity in the contiguous U.S. is within 10 km of just 13 airports. In other words, airport regions containing 0.016% of the land are attracting 22% of fulfillment capacity. What makes this small fraction of American airport regions different than the rest, and what does it mean for our cities?

Fulfillment center locations overlaid with selected airport regions
Source: Created by author

This question brings us back to Prime Air. Early this year, Amazon announced an agreement with Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport (CVG) to build a massive package sorting and air cargo hub at the airport, employing nearly 3,000 people. Is it any coincidence that the airport region already has a large and growing e-retail logistics industry, along with regions like Indianapolis, IN; Louisville, KY; Dallas-Ft Worth, TX; and Atlanta, GA? Anecdotal evidence and professional publications have highlighted characteristics of regions and airports that can make them propitious for e-retail logistics, factors like air cargo hubs, sufficient airport capacity, good highway coverage, existing logistics clusters, and proximity to customers. These are among the factors I am currently analyzing.

The answers matter for planning. As a 2015 report by the Airport Cooperative Research Program (ACRP) stated, e-retail is one of the major influencers of air cargo demand. Airport planning departments must understand how attractive they can be to the e-retail logistics industry to accurately forecast how much (if any) of the e-retail cargo growth they may gain.

Surface transportation departments should also care about e-retail since only a small fraction of goods move by air, typically the most valuable or time-sensitive. The rest move by truck, and e-retail logistics’ spatial concentration means that a few small regions are likely to disproportionately bear the burden of providing the roads.

Finally and perhaps most importantly, e-retail affects communities’ economic vibrancy. E-retail tends to be labor-intensive, and the most automated fulfillment centers hire laborers and engineers while the least automated can hire well over a thousand blue-collar workers. Even highly automated fulfillment centers provide tax revenue usable for local services. That is why some regions have economic development programs consisting of conferences, incentives, or special district plans to attract logistics in general or e-retail in particular.

So, next time you receive a package from Amazon, Zappos, 1-800 Contacts, or another e-retailer, look at the shipping label and notice where your items came from. It’s not just a supply chain question; e-retail is acting on our cities.

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Making Street Network Analysis Easy for Planners with OpenStreetMap

Posted By Administration, Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Geoff Boeing, PhD Candidate
Department of City & Regional Planning
University of California, Berkeley

OpenStreetMap – a collaborative worldwide mapping project inspired by Wikipedia – has emerged in recent years as a major player both for mapping and acquiring urban spatial data. Though coverage varies somewhat worldwide, its data are of high quality and compare favorably to CIA World Factbook estimates and US Census TIGER/Line data. OpenStreetMap imported the TIGER/Line roads in 2007 and since then its community has made numerous corrections and improvements. In fact, many of these additions go beyond TIGER/Line’s scope, including for example passageways between buildings, footpaths through parks, bike routes, and detailed feature attributes such as finer-grained street classifiers, speed limits, etc.

This presents a fantastic data source to help answer urban planning questions, but OpenStreetMap’s data has been somewhat difficult to work with due to its Byzantine query language and coarse-grained bulk extracts provided by third parties. As part of my dissertation, I developed a tool called OSMnx that allows researchers to download street networks and building footprints for any city name, address, or polygon in the world, then analyze and visualize them. OSMnx democratizes these data and methods to help technical and non-technical planners and researchers use OpenStreetMap data to study urban form, circulation networks, accessibility, and resilience.

Consider a common transportation planning research question: what role do land use and urban design play in reducing automobile reliance or increasing active travel? We might build a regression model to predict VMT in different places as a function of their D variables: density, land use diversity, street network and streetscape design, distance to transit, destination accessibility, and demographics. OpenStreetMap can help us quickly acquire those design variables – such as intersection density, block size, and the proportions of four-way intersections, dead-ends, etc. For example, with OSMnx we can download then analyze a street network in two lines of simple, readable Python code:

G = osmnx.graph_from_place(‘Berkeley, CA’, network_type=‘drive’)
stats = osmnx.basic_stats(G)

And just like that, we have Berkeley’s intersection density, average block size, street circuity, distribution of intersection types, and dozens more variables. Instead of a city name, we could pass in a list of polygons such as neighborhood shapes, addresses and buffer distances, etc. Or we could pass in a list of 100 (or 100,000) city names or polygons to automatically download all of their street networks, analyze them, and give us a table of variables to study. Finally, we’re not limited to driving networks: we can instead get walkable, bikeable, or everything all together.

Given OpenStreetMap’s vast repository of walking paths and bike routes, we can easily model how trip distances and times, routing options, and accessibility change from one network type to another. OSMnx has built-in shortest path calculators to find the network distance between any two addresses or points. Beyond the basic network stats common in urban morphology and design, we can just as easily calculate advanced topological measures such as betweenness centralities, clustering coefficients, PageRanks, etc. Such measures have arisen recently from the study of complex networks in statistical physics, and provide insight into a network’s structure, performance, and resilience. Consider three small network subsets in different neighborhoods of Portland, Oregon:

Each image shows half a square kilometer. Downtown has an orthogonal grid with compact blocks, Laurelhurst shows its early 20th century Olmstead-influenced roots, and Northwest Heights has a winding, sprawling late-20th century suburban street network. OSMnx tells us over 90% of Downtown’s nodes (i.e., intersections and dead-ends) are 4-way intersections (note that OSMnx correctly recognizes that 4-way intersections at the periphery of these network subsets are indeed 4-way intersections, even though they may appear to be 3-way because a street was cut off by the bounding box). 55% of Laurelhurst’s and only 5% of Northwest Heights are 4-way intersections.

Now if we look at resilience by way of node betweenness centrality, we see that 7% of all shortest paths pass through an average node in Downtown, 8% in Laurelhurst, and 14% in Northwest Heights. More importantly, Northwest Heights’ two most important nodes are critical chokepoints connecting the network’s east and west sides. The most important node in Northwest Heights has 43% of all shortest paths running through it. By contrast, the most important node in Downtown has only 15%. The former’s street network may be more prone to disruption if its most important node fails (due to a traffic jam, flood, earthquake, etc.) than the latter’s.

This sort of street network data can be useful for communicating urban design. Allan Jacobs’ classic book Great Streets featured dozens of hand-drawn figure-ground diagrams depicting one square mile of cities’ street networks. Holding these cities at the same scale provides a revealing spatial objectivity in comparing their street networks and urban forms. We can automatically re-create these with OpenStreetMap data for any city in the world, using OSMnx:

Each image was created with a single line of code. Adding in building footprints, we can see the texture, grain, and percolation of formal circulation networks in cities around the world, including informal settlements:

Or how about modernism’s inversion of traditional urban spatial order, neatly illustrated in central Brasília:

These are still all one square-mile, held at the same scale. However, a single square mile cannot be taken as representative of broader scales or other locations within the city. Portland’s suburban east and west sides look very different than its downtown, and Sacramento’s compact, grid-like downtown looks very different than its residential suburbs. These visualizations, rather, show us how different urbanization patterns and paradigms compare at the same scale. This can serve both as a tool for comprehending the physical outcomes of planning and informal urbanization, as well as a tool for communicating urban planning and design in a clear and immediate manner to laymen.

OpenStreetMap offers a useful new data repository for walkability studies, urban form modeling, and computational urban design. Even if you’re new to Python, OSMnx offers an easy way to get started working with this rich urban dataset. For more info, check out the paper about OSMnx or the empirical study of 27,000 U.S. street networks.

Tags:  engineering  GIS  OpenStreetMap  street networks  urban design  urban form  urban planning  urban studies 

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Housing Policy in Zoning Free Houston, Texas

Posted By Administration, Monday, April 3, 2017

Juan Antonio Sorto, Doctoral Candidate
Urban Planning & Environmental Policy Department
Texas Southern University

Houston, Texas, which does not have city-wide zoning ordinance, prides itself in being one of the most diverse cities in the United States. It is a theme that even the current mayor, Sylvester Turner, enthusiastically acknowledged throughout the Super Bowl Festivities in February, which the city played host to. Yet, on January 11, 2017, the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) found the City of Houston’s selection process of affordable housing to be in noncompliance with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This led me to ask the following questions as it pertains to the City of Houston’s planning practices and the field of planning, what does this say about zoning, or the lack thereof, and the way affordable housing policies are implemented? What role does citizen participation play in determining these factors?

Zoning is often criticized for exacerbating land-use discrimination practice, but the City of Houston lacks the former, and yet they were found to be in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. I believe that part of the issue within the City of Houston has to do with the way policies are formulated and implemented at City Hall, which follow a top-down approach. The mayor has sole discretion on deciding if, and when, he or she will bring a proposed policy before City Council for a vote of approval.

Furthermore, according to HUD, which based their results after the mayor in 2016 refused to bring an affordable housing project before city council for approval, the city lacks a clear policy and procedures on how the mayor and city officials should vote on a proposed affordable housing project. Once the mayor brings a proposed policy before city council for a vote of approval, most Council Members tend to vote along the lines of the elected official that was voted to represent a particular neighborhood where a project is being proposed. I believe that this shows that public participation by community stakeholders is specific issue driven and limited at City Hall, which leads to unintended discrimination practices. For example, Fountain View residences, where the affordable housing complex is being proposed, opposed the project based on school overcrowding, even though a similar project in 2015 was approved by the city a half a mile away from the current proposed site, both of which share the same school zone. Ultimately, the mayor decided not to bring the project before city council citing financial cost, even though the entire project was going to be federally funded.

While I do agree with the mayor that Houston is one of the most diverse cities in the United States, the concentration of most affordable housing complexes are located in predominately low-income minority communities. I believe that affordable housing and the way the City of Houston implements these policies represent many opportunities for Urban Planners. I believe that the very nature of not having a city-wide zoning ordinance creates an opportunity to encourage full public participation that will benefit community stakeholders in determining how to properly implement land-use models, which is the heart of affordable housing policies.

I end this blog with the following research questions, what role can the lack of a zoning ordinance play on the creation and implementation of affordable housing policies? What role does citizen participation play in determining these factors will not violate existing federal laws?

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Promote Global Dimensions of Planning Education at Portland State University

Posted By Yiping Fang, Friday, March 24, 2017

In 2012, the Planning Accreditation Board added “Global Dimensions of Planning” (GDOP) to the list of required knowledge, skills and values for PAB-accredited urban planning programs. Portland State University’s (PSU) Masters of Urban and Regional Planning (MURP) program was among the first schools reviewed under these new standards. The site visit team noted that the GDOP knowledge area was not being adequately covered in the existing MURP core curriculum. PSU, as an urban-serving university, has historically focused more on regional engagement than on global issues and engagement, and the MURP program has historically had a relatively low share (approximately 5-10%) of international students. Both of these help to explain why international and comparative perspectives have been less prominent in the program.  

Since then, the MURP Executive Committee has explored options for addressing this deficiency. In 2015-16, the committee looked at how other PAB-accredited programs were addressing GDOP, and explored alternative approaches, including creating a GDOP course in the core curriculum, and incorporating GDOP themes into existing core courses. We received a grant from PSU's Internationalization Council, and have created a task force on “Internationalizing the MURP curriculum” with eight faculty members teaching MURP core courses.   

The task force has begun by reviewing the existing syllabi of all the MURP core courses and a graduate research assistant has been hired to assist faculty members in exploring ways to revise these courses to include more GDOP components.  I would like to share with everyone a few notes on the task force's progress on this issue so far. 

First, we determined that the dearth of international planning topics in the MURP core courses has allowed student interest in the global dimensions of planning to wither.  Elective courses with a more international focus have not been popular and there have been complaints from students about the relatively narrow focus of these courses.  

We interpret the "global dimensions of planning" as covering two interconnected but distinct aspects: 

  • understanding the effects of global processes on local outcomes, and 
  • appreciating planning practices outside the US and planning at the global scale. 

To make clearer to students and faculty how tightly connected the global is to the local, we invited Professor Faranak Miraftab, from the University of Illinois-Urbana, to give a lecture on her new book, Global Heartland: Displaced Labor, Transnational Lives, and Local Placemaking.  Professor Miraftab's work makes a great illustration of how in our globalized world, local planning decisions have significant global implications, and vice-versa.  Clips of her lecture in Portland can be viewed here (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3).  The lecture was well attended, and we hope that, as Professor Miraftab put it, "Never again will a student tell me that their work is on local development planning and no need to take classes in the international global stream." 

Second, the task force agreed to focus on supporting faculty members to incorporate more global dimensions and international perspectives into their existing MURP core courses.  This is a challenge, because most of our faculty do not have experience with international research.  So one idea the task force has discussed is the possibility of drawing on the large pool of existing case-studies, as resources which could potentially be brought into our MURP classes, to address the GDOP deficiency.  The International Planning Case Studies (IPCS) project offers many great examples of such case-studies.  In early February, we contacted two of the scholars who had initiated the IPCS project, Professor Lesli Hoey from the University of Michigan and Professor Andrew Rumbach from the University of Colorado at Denver.  On February 23rd, when Professor Miraftab was in Portland, we organized a workshop in which she joined the eight MURP core course faculty members and professors Hoey and Rumbach (by Skype), to discuss this idea.  We had a great conversation about the challenges our planning schools are facing around the GDOP issue, and about teaching with case-studies. 

Third, during the February 23 workshop, we also discussed the role international planning should play in a general planning education.  Internationalization is not simply a matter of adding a case-study or two to a course, or offering some information about how planning is practiced in other countries.  Rather, an exposure to the international aspects of planning can help students better understand the dynamics of planning when social, economic, cultural and political contexts change -- as they do all the time and in increasingly significant ways, even in our local contexts.  By getting our students to look outside of their known contexts and their comfort zones, we are helping them to develop more critical and relational ways of thinking and equipping them to ask broader questions about who wins and who loses in a world in which the local and the global are now inextricably entwined.  

In this blog we give a brief report on what the GDOP task force has achieved so far, and hope it will generate further discussion on how the GDOP knowledge area can be incorporated into the planning curriculum of schools like ours, which may lack the resources of international-focused faculty members or plenty of course offerings which cover global dimensions of planning.  Our project to bolster the GDOP area in the MURP core curriculum will end this Fall, and all courses involved in this curriculum revision should be ready for teaching by Fall 2017.  However these efforts to internationalize the MURP curriculum will not stop there.  We will continue to explore opportunities for faculty members to jointly offer study-abroad programs, so that more international research opportunities can be created. 

We hope to hear from all of you with comments and suggestions, and look forward to hearing about how this GDOP knowledge area is being discussed and incorporated in your universities.

Yiping Fang (, Assistant Professor, Portland State University

Tags:  International  MURP  Portland State University 

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The Whys & Hows of Academic Blogging

Posted By Administration, Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Lisa Schweitzer, Associate Professor
University of Southern California

I was asked to write a little something about academic blogging by the communications committee at ACSP for their new blog. The content appears here and over there. Please do check them out. It looks like they are going to have a good lineup of students and scholars writing for them.

To me, my blog is a digital seminar that I can use to float out my ideas, make connections, and hear objections and criticisms from other smart people out in the Interwebs. We have departmental seminars at USC, and they can be tremendously helpful, but one can’t go demanding one’s colleagues read everything one is thinking about at every stage.

But blog readers can skip and skim, and they might even enjoy the ride. Thus blogging is simply something I do for two reasons: 1) to try out new ideas and start conversations in a quicker way than via traditional publication, for both new research ideas and current issues; and 2) to keep my writing muscles loose when I am stumped on my writing for publication.

Read Full Post on Lisa's Blog

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One Year Later: Thoughts on PLANET & Planners 2040

Posted By Administration, Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Mai Thi Nguyen, Associate Professor
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

It’s been a year since the closure of the beloved PLANET listserv and in this essay published in Planning Theory & Practice, “When a joke represents so much more: the end of PLANET and the rise of planners 2040 Planning Theory & Practice” (Vol. 18 , Iss. 1, 2017) we give our perspective on the events surrounding the closure of PLANET and the creation of an alternative professional discussion platform, Planners 2040. We argue that a generational shift is occurring within the field of urban planning and the existing structure of privilege and power should be dismantled so that we have a more inclusive planning academy. The way planning faculty and students communicate and interact with each other creates an environment of inclusivity or exclusivity and the PLANET listserv evolved over time to become unwelcoming and exclusive.

The authors of this essay founded Planners 2040 to help facilitate and cultivate an online planning community that promotes civil discourse, productive exchanges, positive interactions, and connects a diverse set of faculty members, students, and practitioners with shared intellectual interests. The discussion group is moderated by five faculty members, has a set of official guidelines, and members can be removed if they do not abide by the guidelines. Planners 2040 has over 1700+ members (and growing daily) and has generated considerable activity, with substantive dialogue and engagement on a wide variety of topics, many of which were never discussed on PLANET. There is a much greater diversity of individuals engaging with one another as evidenced by “likes” – a quick, standardized show of support with no easy equivalent on an email listserv – and comments on postings. As shown in the infographic, 52% of Planners 2040’s members participating by liking posts, 26% of members commented on other posts, and 18% of members created original posts. The ability to post links to newspaper/magazine articles, journal articles, or other references promotes richer engagement and discussion in a way that is impossible on an email listserv. The diversity of topics and contributors has also expanded from what was represented on PLANET.

Thus far, the tone and culture on Planners 2040 has been supportive and respectful, with few, if any, personal or ad hominem attacks. Some have not chosen to join Planners 2040, especially more senior members, because they are not Facebook users and do not wish to join the site. We respect and echo the concerns of those reluctant to join Facebook and acknowledge the new “digital divide” that may be opening up in academia with the loss of those voices not participating in Planners 2040. It reveals an evolving communications challenge for the discipline, given that many younger planning scholars appear to be more comfortable using these social media tools. We continue to advocate for a permanent platform that would seek broad engagement in a simple to use format. ACSP is currently working towards this goal with UNIverse. In the meantime, Planners 2040 has demonstrated that resetting expectations can result in healthy and active professional dialogue.

Now that a year has passed, perhaps it is time to reflect on what we lost when PLANET was dissolved. What has been gained with the creation of Planners 2040? In addition, how can Planners 2040 and UNIverse serve the planning community better?

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Reflections on IV World Planning Schools Congress in Rio, 2016

Posted By Administration, Friday, February 10, 2017

The reflections below are offered by students who received support from travel to the 2016 World Planning Schools Congress for the Global Planning Education Association Network.


Jennifer A. Williams, Ph.D., MPP
University of Michigan

I had the wonderful opportunity to attend the IV World Planning Schools Congress, “Global Crisis, Planning Challenges to Spatial Justice in the North and in the South,” held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil from July 3-8, 2016.

During the Congress, I presented a paper entitled: "The breakdown of community: An examination of the social effects of low-income housing developments in Johannesburg and Cape Town." My paper points to an erosion of elements of social trust among residents in government subsidized housing. It is part of my dissertation research on low-income residents' sense of community in South Africa.

Throughout the Congress, I enjoyed networking with other students and faculty and gathering their feedback on my work. The mobile tour to the Vila Autódromo community was one highlight of the Congress for me. There, we learned about how the favela was struggling to maintain its presence amidst the impending Olympic Village construction in the weeks leading up to the Olympics. Hearing residents' experiences and challenges shed light on the influence that mega sport events have on both a city's economic development and residents' survival and community existence. During my field work in South Africa, I listened to similar narratives of residents displaced due to the World Cup.

I wish to thank ACSP as well as The University of Michigan's Rackham Graduate School and the African Studies Center for conference funding that allowed me to travel and attend the World Planning Schools Congress. The experience in Rio enriched my studies and prepared me for what would be a successful final defense of my dissertation at University of Michigan.

1. View of construction of temporary housing in Vila Autódromo.

2. Temporary housing in Vila Autódromo amidst the rubble of the vibrant community.

3. Rio's city center and Sugarloaf Mountain in the distance from atop Corcovado Mountain.


Germano Johannson, MPL, MSCE
University of Southern California

After two years in my Master’s program at the University of Southern California, I returned to Brazil. During my time at USC, I received financial support from the Brazilian Ministry of Education. At the time, I pursued two degrees: Master of Planning with a Certificate in Public Policy, and Master of Transportation Engineering. As a Civil Engineer, it was a great opportunity for me to leave the binary problem solving formulas and explore the possibilities of policy-making and planning.

When preparing to return back to Brazil, Professor Tridib Banerjee encouraged me to submit to the Rio conference, a project that I completed for his Comparative of International Planning class. My submission was about the Tri-Border Area in South America, where the Iguazu River meets the giant Parana River in Brazil, Paraguay, and Argentina. At the time, I had founded the Institute for Collaborative Urbanism (COURB with five other Brazilian planners. We also submitted a paper about a project that COURB finished a few months earlier. Both papers were accepted for the conference.

Professor Eric Heikkila encouraged me to apply for a Grant offered by GPEAN for the conference. I was awarded the grant, and it helped me to present for the first time at an International Conference in my home country. This was also the first time that a COURB project was presented at a conference.
WPSC was a large conference full of professionals from all over the world. Both presentations were a success! We met people who would later become actively involved in COURB, and now have become Directors and Coordinators at the Institute. These connections thus helped strengthen COURB.
I am extremely grateful for the opportunity supported by the Brazilian Ministry of Education, GPEAN, ACSP and USC. WPSC was an important milestone in my professional development. If you are interested in COURB, send me an email and I would love to chat. Our international organization is expanding and already has professionals in Latin America, Europe and in North America.

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