The Death and Life of American City-Planning Journalism

The American Planning Association put its journalism awards on hiatus because not enough people cared. Has urban-planning journalism disappeared, or just migrated online?

Chicago grid

 

Michael Miner has a short post today about how the Chicago-based American Planning Association—an excellent resource—has put its journalism awards on hiatus because entries fell from 60-70 a year to almost none. Miner and APA director of publications Sylvia Lewis surmise that it’s for two reasons: cutbacks have led not just to a decline in big-picture urban-planning investigative series, but also to newspapers submitting entries to only the most prominent awards, like the Pulitzers. And I have to admit I didn’t know the APA had journalism awards, despite the fact that I read quite a bit about urban planning.

But assume the former is also true, that there are fewer series like the Sun-Times’s APA award-winning 2003 series on the Plan for Transformation. That might be true, just judging from my own personal reading habits. But also judging from those, I read much more about urban and regional planning than I did when the APA was ostensibly getting much more work from newspapers. Some of that may be a shift in interests, but we also seem to be going through a period of increasing, and increasingly good, coverage of urban planning from online-only sources, provided by both established institutions and interested observers.

* The Atlantic recently launched an entire site dedicated, broadly speaking, to urban planning, The Atlantic Cities. And it’s very broad: a tiny art project in Memphis that hides a brownfield; the cost of walkable neighborhoods; slum evictions in Nairobi; gentrification in D.C. in its recessionary boom; a community garden in a parking garage.

* Scale is a curious aspect of urban-planning blogging. As an example, Peopling Places, a blog run by Lynn Stevens, an McHenry County urban planner living in Logan Square, focused attention on the “pedestrian street” designation of a stretch of Milwaukee Avenue in the wake of a planned update to the McDonald’s in the neighborhood, which generated further, extensive discussion. It’s an extraordinarly small-bore issue—the zoning of one tiny stretch of the city—but it contains a whole world of urbanism.

* Major cities support an extensive network of urban-planning bloggers. One of the best is Greater Greater Washington, about D.C. and its suburbs. It’s a big group blog founded by a former Google project manager, with several posts a day on a variety of topics: a crack-house “abandonminium,” bus rapid transit,  urban planning and public health.

* Chicago has Grid Chicago, about transportation writ large. Sometimes the posts are tightly focused, like an examination of the new Halsted bridge or the redesign of the Milwaukee-Wood-Wolcott intersection; others are extensively researched coverage of major city issues, like their excellent coverage of the speed-camera ordinance.

* StreetsBlog is a vast, two-tiered network of urban-planning coverage: dispatches from Capitol Hill, New York, L.A., and San Francisco, along with an nationwide network of affiliated blogs.

From my—again, anecdotal and personal—observations, the extensive, big-picture coverage of the newspapers the APA used to honor has given way to fine-grained, ongoing coverage, the forest for the trees. It’s a significant tradeoff: investigation for analytics, neighborhood for city, breadth for depth. There are advantages and disadvantages to both. I’m more conscious of urban planning in my daily life, like traffic calming, bad intersections, and the like, thanks to the immersive consistency of urban-planning writers and bloggers. On the flip side, it’s so detailed and focused that I fear it doesn’t reach a broad audience.

But there’s a role for both. In The Power Broker, Robert Caro’s history of urban planner Robert Moses and his footprint on the city, Caro details how Moses’s works were far too extensive for a single reporter or series, so competing reporters actually divided the reporting up amongst themselves. That grew into more extensive reporting, and later Caro’s masterpiece. There’s a lot to lament about the decline of large-scale urban-planning reporting, but the urban-planning blogosphere is still young, and encouragingly robust.

Update: How could have I forgotten The Urbanophile and The Transport Politic?

 

Photograph: akasped (CC by 2.0)

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