This one’s for the urbanists. So, let me ask you. What in the world is wrong with Streetsblog? Let’s start there. A mobility-oriented news blog that has made a name for itself over the past decade by covering transit, cycling, and sustainable development policy in major cities across America. Good thing. Whose writers are often gratuitously obnoxious towards officials, nonprofits, reporters, and even entire communities who dare not to share their same opinions, and who equally gratuitously rarely do just research to report fairly on the history and background of the issues they cover. Bad thing.
Bad thing, bad thing, bad thing.
It happens on other prominent urbanist blogs as well. I’ve encountered it on sites like CityLab, NextCity, and Planetizen, among others. Thing is, it’s usually a blogger-by-blogger thing on other sites. Some urban bloggers are more gracious than others. But Streetsblog on any given day is so often the worst, and it’s a consistent worst, too. What is it about the contemporary planning movement that generates such self-damaging hubris among some of our most-needed urban observers?
It’s not like Jane Jacobs ever shied away from a planning fight. (Or me either, for that matter.) But if you’re trying to achieve beneficial policy change, it helps to know the background of what you’re covering–and it really helps not to completely piss off and insult the local policy makers, planning organizations, and news media you’re allegedly trying to win over to your way of thinking.
I wish I had a nickeI for every such bridge-burning blog post I’ve read on Streetsblog Chicago, in particular. Boy, they’d add up quickly. Over the past several years, I’ve watched that site angrily attempt to take down the local Metropolitan Planning Organization, the Chicago Transit Authority, Metra, numerous aldermen, Congressional representatives, local nonprofits, national planning officials, and big media outlets (much bigger than their own) in one blog-long screed at the injustice of Chicagoland not being a perfect place for cyclists, pedestrians, and transit riders, with perfect officials, perfect politics, and a perfect planning process.
I can only imagine many of the people Streetsblog Chicago has gone to war with shun it–our have their organizations shun it. When I worked for the Chicago Central Area Committee, every contact it attempted with our organizational leaders came with a very pointed warning from our staff about the piss and vinegar of the tone of its coverage. That piss and vinegar is a thing I was cautioned away from at the start of my planning career in New York City, when I had a penchant for pissing off the head of MTA planning. It wasn’t a useful thing then. It’s not a useful thing now.
It’s a tone that can be easily recognized on Streetsblog’s other sites, too. Just an unnecessary and wide net of bitchiness that often ensnares rank-and-file citizens of the regions being covered, with Streetsblog having no shyness about telling the people for whom they are writing in the regions they cover that they, essentially, suck as much as anyone else sucks if they don’t march in lockstep with their planning policy pronouncements.
An amazing comorbid diagnosis with the above bitchiness is the equally often appearing millennial malady of “nothing happened worth happening until I was hatched out of my egg,” or as I like to call it, Fuck the Context. Just when all those burning bridges start boring you to sleep, anyone over 30 reading Streetsblog is woken right up by the left-and-right gaps in the grind-an-axe storytelling. As if every single planning policy, transit project, roadway plan, or bikeway system in the nation isn’t an outgrowth–in fact, a product of–years if not decades of planning activity, political jostling, public input, and occasionally socially just outcomes, in which those very policies, projects, plans, and systems are inextricably embedded.
Unless a 20-something blogger fresh out of (or still in–or never went to) planning school is covering the issue. In which case, it often seems like they think it all just happened now. Those planning news items really were just born yesterday, weren’t they? They weren’t? You don’t mind if I don’t actually look into that, do you? Googling can be so tiresome, and I have a dry-hopped sour tasting to bike to, mkay thanks.
I bitch about Streetsblog because they pull this crap in my backyard and nationally, yet they’re an important mobility blog network that covers policy issues with the potential to make beneficial change happen via their coverage. Except for all that bridge burning.
You know what? It’s not hard to be both fierce and fair when you blog about place and mobility. One doesn’t need to preclude the other. Many interesting and influential urbanist bloggers nail that balance every day. Kristen Jeffers’ The Black Urbanist. Aaron Renn’s Urbanophile. Curbed’s Alissa Walker. Benjamin Kabak’s Second Avenue Sagas. Yonah Freemark’s The Transport Politic. L.A. Metro’s surprisingly real The Source, led by Steve Hymon. All amazingly thoughtful people who seem to share the unifying refusal to believe that moving progressive planning policy forward necessitates playing wordsmith whack-a-mole with the very people and organizations whose buy-in and support is needed to actually move that policy forward.
Because no matter how bitchy a planning blog you want to be, you can’t force the change you want to make happen on your own. We need each other and we need to work with each other. That’s how these complex, crazy, interlinked, interwoven, intersected things we call cities operate. So what is the point of constantly chasing some of the very people you need most away from the table?
That’s not a rhetorical question. The answer is that it’s pointless. It is in truth a phenomenally shitty, entirely ego-driven, astoundingly selfish, and totally unnecessary us-versus-them game that Streetsblog so often engages in. (Is it really any wonder why every year their Chicago outlet has to beg for money just to stay in business?) Some of their most prominent bloggers clearly get off on going off on others. But their collective, mean-spirited, metaphorical woody can’t be doing their brand any favors. Given the baseline spitefulness of so much of their writing, there is no reasonable way to believe that my modest former organization was the only one in Chicago or in any other city Streetsblog covers that shies away from them.
And really, all that repetitive spite get old very quickly. How many Streetsblog readers have the same thought I often end up with when I read them regularly. Right in the middle of an interesting article, suddenly you’re launched right out of it when they lower the boom on someone once more, and all you’re left with at that point is the unfortunately familiar sinking feeling of, “Oh God, here we go again.” Like Gawker for mobility geeks.
Why? Why? Why?
Planning thrives when planners embrace real public involvement and include divergent policy perspectives in fair and respectful debates. Making a career out of ad hominem attacks and invalidating the perspectives of the people who don’t yet agree with you is the mark of a shitty planner.
And shitty planning blogging, too.
Michael Thaddeus Doyle
I'm a NYC-native, Latino, Jew-by-choice, hardcore WDW fan in Chicago with an Irish last name. I believe in social justice, big cities, and public transit. I do nonprofit development. I've written this blog since 2005. Believe in the world you want to live in.