Wednesday, March 4

Where are the academic planning blogs?

I've been looking for a while, and as far as I can tell the number of Urban Planning university faculty with regularly updated blogs is very slim.

Randall Crane from UCLA operates a good Urban Planning Research blog, but there has not been any activity there for the last few months. The Transportationist, a blog by David Levinson of University of Minnesota, has some overlap with planning but it's primarily a transportation engineering blog. Michael Lewyn of Florida Coastal School of Law is an occasional contributor to the Planetizen Interchange blog. Ann Forsyth of Cornell, also a Planetizen contributor, and Martin Krieger of University of Southern California blog mostly about administrative academic matters (graduate admissions, the tenure system, etc.).

If I've missed anyone, please let me know in the comments.

Other disciplines have several high-profile scholars who have taken on the role of the public intellectual. Harvard economist Greg Mankiw, Law professor Eugene Volokh, and the group philosophy blog Crooked Timber come immediately to mind. And there are many, many more from across the academic spectrum. Why is there so little online public conversation happening within academic planning circles? (Or maybe it's happening and I'm not privy to it).

I find this particularly surprising, given the intrinsic nature of planning. Public engagement and the everyday shifting reality of the built environment are central to planning theory. From the beginning, planning theorist have had an activist bent. They have reached beyond the internal circles of research and applied their ideas to make a tangible difference in the world. I can understand why quantum physics may not lend itself to being hashed out online (although it is), but urban planning was made for it. Blogs are certainly not the only way to make this happen, but they are one important avenue of communication.

Back in the early days of blogging, there was an understandable hesitation to descend into the cacophony of the masses. Online discussion was considered less a marketplace of ideas and more of a sounding room for half-baked opinions from the most shrill, extreme voices. Blogs contributed to the celebrated information glut of contemporary society, which led to more distraction and less clarity of focus. There were supposedly millions of individuals blogging about their cat, in their pajamas nonetheless. Self-respecting academics would do better to remain in the structured world of peer-reviewed journals.

English Professor Alan Jacobs provided many of these reasons in 2006 for why he was giving up on blogging, but I notice that within a year he was up and running again at the collaborative blog American Scene. Something must have given him cause for reconsideration.

A shift happened that many observers did not expect: the chaos started to be ordered. Blogs did not stay radically egalitarian and irreducibly complex. New institutions emerged as gatekeepers, and the vast wilderness of information began to organize itself into meaningful categories along the basis of selective criteria. These new hierarchies did not subvert older accreditation schemes, but instead they subsumed them into the selection criteria. Having a PhD does not automatically mean people will pay attention, but it certainly gives a huge advantage in the darwinian struggle for readership.

Sure, guys are still blogging about their cats and extremists are ranting louder than ever, but there are mechanisms that allow us to sift through content we have no use for. Academics have found plenty of room for productive dialogue online, and they are genuinely respected for their hard-earned expertise in their particular discipline. The field of planning would greatly benefit from a few more talented scholars who take the risk of sharing their ideas publicly.


Eric Orozco said...

Superb post Daniel. It is rather curious why it seems that practitioners are leading the most dynamic blogs. Richard Florida is the one in academe who seems to take blogging seriously. Rare are the moments when academic discussions spill outside the ivory towers. I think it takes a different kind of mentality, and since most in academe are boomers, they are just not acculturated enough to engage the new media situation we are in. A blogger is also a kind of journalist...and insider who shares morsels from the cage. Practitioners, who are used to engaging laity, have an understanding of what it takes to create community engagement.

UrbanCycleJockey said...

You have a very good point Daniel. It also amazese me that there are so many transportation blogs but the number of true planning blogs is very small. Economics is a subject that has many great academic blogs, all with there different points of view.

I think that the practitioners and activists within planning and transportation are used to the idea of using new media as an asset for organizing. It also amazes me that given the role that vocal and very publicly engaged people (such as James Howard Kunstler and Duany) played in the rise of New Urbanism that a newer generation of people have not risen to the same levels that the original proponents of the new paradigm achieved.

Case in point is, its growth has been large and the network that is being created is something to be admired and only possible with all these newer form of communication. But when you really get down to it, a lot of what that organization is still narrowly focused on is the city of New York.

I think that you have to realize that you might be an acedemic, Daniel. Being in a masters program isn't the same as being a professor, but here at the UM, our geography graduate students still help teach many classes, and are highly engaged in the research that the department produces.

Your blog might not be the 'acedemic' type of blog that you wrote about, but as far as I'm concerned, its one of the better planning blogs out there. Keep up the good work.

randall crane said...

I only just came across this post, which asks the right questions. The answers are partly obvious, partly not.

#1 it is hard to find the time as this is not an officially rewarded activity. My days and nights are full of deadlines that have real consequences. I liked that this one lacked deadlines, so I can ignore it for months if that fits my work pattern. (Though I have a number of drafts that may see light soon.) And no one at work raises a fuss or pays attention either way.

#2 the value outside the workplace is almost as unclear. Certainly people visit the site but it rarely generated the kind of dialogue or debate that justifies the time. So I used it to blow off steam or think out loud. Academic bloggers with substantial followings, or who provoke useful conversations, such as some economists, have different incentives and motivations.

#3 in my case the focus was on research, if practice-oriented. Indeed planning activists and I often clash if I don't appear to share their particular advocacy. (That I usually do doesn't keep me from being honest about what we do and don't know. I could literally spend all my time responding to unchallenged nonsense on Planetizen, for example -- only to be labeled pro-sprawl or anti-environment purely out of spite and ignorance.) Whereas my blog tried to be all about the search for truth (no kidding!), a lot of the planning blogosphere is more about spreading a particular truth, rather something else entirely.

That's fine but it's not my thing, as we used to say. I write little accessible essays about the state of scholarship on specific questions, which I hope are important and useful questions. Who knows?

Still, I also am surprised that academic planning is so blog-free, even if it doesn't count at work and is hardly read. Perhaps that will change with another generation of scholars/teachers.

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