Review: Richard K. Norton “Knowing and Valuing both Private and Public: What Role for Public Policy, Design, and Planning in the 21st Century?”

University of Michigan Taubman College, like many other architecture schools, has a seasonal lecture series. Their Winter 2012 Series, which focuses on construction, is posted and archived on their website. The lecture above was given by Richard K. Norton, an associate professor in the urban and regional planning program at the University of Michigan Taubman College. Faculty coordinator for land use and environmental planning, Dr. Norton holds a Ph.D in city and regional planning and masters degrees in public policy studies and environmental management. He teaches and conducts research within the areas of sustainable development, land and environment planning, and planning law. His multi-faceted breadth of knowledge and experience is valuable to the issues which he addresses in his lecture “Knowing and Valuing both Private and Public: What Role for Public Policy, Design, and Planning in the 21st Century?“, presented on January 9th at Taubman College.

Read on for more about this lecture.

Dr. Norton immediately acknowledges that his lecture deviates from the “Construction” theme set out by the 2012 Lecture Series, but argues that the subject of his talk is defined by the “social construction of knowledge”. Dr. Norton lays out the circumstances of our world view and goes on to discuss the value systems that we live by, the differences between public and private interests, the role of government and the influence of its policies and the highly problematic philosophical question of “what is good?”.

Within the first five minutes of the lecture, Norton admits that in the current state of public policy, “there does not seem to exist a role for public oriented design”, or policy, or interest. Frankly, he states, that the current world view is based on four concrete, yet highly complex, circumstances of the 20th and 21st centuries that frame a private-interest-driven design policy: 1 – “the failues of communism in the 20th century” (and by default, the dominance of capitalism), 2 – the ongoing “economic and ecological crises”, 3 – “dogmatic political rhetoric” that responds to (1) and (2), and 4 – “the obsession with the unfettered market”.

What frames these circumstances and potentially stands in the way of determining a policy for the public realm? Dr. Norton notes that differences in values, perceptions, dogmas and the question of whose opinions are more valuable problematizes the question that he eventually arrives at: “what is right?”- as in “what is good?” – as in “what is for the best?” – and for whose best? In this worldview, “there is no public interest, only the accumulation of seperate private interests,” and the only public policy that exists, according to Dr. Norton, is that which protects people from one another in the pursuit of their respective private interests; one in which the private interest is above the public interest.

If we look at an historic example in the United States that set out to promote a public interest in the name of capitalism we arrive in the post-World War II building boom that creates the sprawling suburbs – a manifestation of the values of capitalism in a prosperous economy, that promoted consumerism, materialism, valued luxury and amplified the need and desire for personal space afforded by a house with a yard outside of the city instead of a crowded room in a tenement in the city center. We see it in the web of highways – which became a necessity when residents of the suburbs needed to drive back into the city for work – within the Tri-State area and specifically in the urban centers of NYC where the “public-interest policies” that drove these projects turn grim.

Whole neighborhoods and landscapes are cut off or made dangerous by highways and boulevards that cut through populated urban centers: Port Morris in the Bronx, south of the Bruckner Expressway; the East River along most of the FDR in Manhattan; the neighborhoods on either side of Queens Boulevard in Queens – just to name a few. Jane Jacobs, a big defender of public space and an activist in public policy, opposed the logic of many of these projects that were led by urban planner Robert Moses, who deemed the urban environment as unfit for his worldview, and succeeded in stopping several that would continue to cut New York City up into isolated neighborhoods, inspiring flight to the suburbs.

So whose interests were met? Whose good did these projects serve? The projects, all “public”, benefited some and disenfranchised many others. The repercussions of these urban projects are felt for generations; “The End of Suburbia” addresses the flaws and shortsightedness of some of these designs. So despite what Dr. Norton says about there being no room for public-oriented design, if we look at the history of urban planning during the Great Depression (ie. the Public Works Projects) and post-World War II (ie. the interstate highway system and Levittowns outside of every urban center), we see a history of public-oriented design that in many ways was short-sighted and overly optimistic about the circumstances of the time. In terms of today’s worldview and circumstances, Dr. Norton’s criticism that there does not seem to be room for government run public policy undervalues the numerous start-ups, non-profits, community boards, and community organizations that have to fight for rights within public policies set out by the government to better the lifestyles of their constituents.

Dr. Norton’s lecture makes the viewer want to know more about where the possibilities of the scalability of the public policies are – how many people can it affect?, what kind of issues can be addressed on a global scale?, on a national scale?, on a city scale?, and how do we handle conflicting interests when it comes to our natural resources?

Cite: Vinnitskaya, Irina. "Review: Richard K. Norton “Knowing and Valuing both Private and Public: What Role for Public Policy, Design, and Planning in the 21st Century?”" 04 Mar 2012. ArchDaily. Accessed 19 Apr 2014. <http://www.archdaily.com/?p=208742>

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