Alexa Mills, MIT Community Innovators Lab
Five years ago, as a master’s student in city planning at MIT, I took the course “Gateway to Planning,” MIT’s version of City Planning 101. The only reading I remember today is an essay called “Listening: The Social Policy of Every Day Life” by John Forester, included within Chapter 7 of Planning in the Face of Power. Forester outlines a fundamental difference between listening and hearing:
Listening, we understand the meaning of what is said in the context of the speaker’s life. When we only hear, we later find ourselves needing to say, “Well, that may be what they meant, but what they said was…” And we know this is usually a feeble excuse, hardly justifying our failure to understand.
Over the past 18 months I have tried to build a multi-contributor urban planning blog that facilitates listening. CoLab Radio is a blog website where people who are committed to improving cities and communities can express their ideas and share their projects. And so, almost by accident, I created a space where people can speak about their communities and the communities in which they work, but I cannot guarantee that anyone but me, the editor, will listen.
Like listening, speaking is no small task. There are a hundred ways to speak: yelling, crying, voting, and then something else – a kind of speaking that involves searching one’s soul for a truth that takes a measure of courage to verbalize.
I prefer that latter form of speaking. This winter, CoLab Radio blogger Christina Ruhfel wrote an essay (http://colabradio.mit.edu/melt-your-snow-anger-sit-down-with-the-enemy/) about the aftermath of Boston’s fifth major snowstorm in five weeks.
A neighbor from two houses down the street had come over demanding to know who had shoveled a small amount of snow into the street. My husband had done it to clear space for our car and our neighbor’s car, there had been nowhere else to put it. Plus, the middle of street would be plowed again soon. An ugly exchange ensued and the next thing we knew our neighbor began shoveling snow onto the roof of our neighbor’s car. More ugliness followed.
She went on to admit that her family’s shoveling strategy was flawed, but well-intentioned. She described the kind of stranger-to-stranger politeness she grew up with in Michigan, and how that contrasts with what she sees as neighbor-to-neighbor rudeness in Boston. In sum, she exposed herself. The result was a dialogue about regional cultural differences and morals.
My favorite example of speaking is an interview between Studs Terkel and C.P. Ellis, former Exalted Cyclops of the Durham, North Carolina Chapter of the Ku Klux Klan from American Dreams: Lost and Found. With unadorned honesty, Ellis describes how and why he became a Klan member, how he changed, and what it all means to him.
Sometimes I think that the world could listen its problems away if it really wanted to.
The relationship between urban planning and technology is robust. The number of planning publications and twitter accounts feels unquantifiable. Cell phones and other technologies enable tremendous projects collecting and aggregating data on human behavior in cities that could impact our ability to plan better transit, better systems, better everything (they say).
Therein lies the trouble with urban planning and the Internet: information may flow, but neither listening nor speaking is guaranteed. As Forester feared, we might only hear the words and the data. We might not speak with the intention of telling a truth.
The author can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.