Creating the Future Community with Visual Communication in the Urban Planning Profession


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Presented at the 2011 Conference on College Communication and Composition, Louisville, KY, USA

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Creating the Future Community with Visual Communication in the Urban Planning Profession

  1. 1. Torres 1Creating the Future Community with Visual Communication in the Urban Planning Profession Alissa Barber Torres, Ph.D. Candidate, University of Central Florida Presented at the 2011 Conference on College Communication and Composition, Louisville, KY, USAIntroduction Technical communication research offers many insightful assessments ofprofessional communication that identify their rhetorics, discourses, and conventions. Inher assessment of this research, Blakeslee recommends cross-disciplinary work andcommunity involvement as strategies to bring the field higher visibility (149). Rudeadvocates community partnerships as providing insights to the work of educators andresources for practice (269), and Grabills significant work in this area asks technicalcommunicators to bring their skills to the community and to diverse professions (125). In this light, I hope to bring urban planners to your attention as eminently worthyof similar study in the context of technical communicators who have started thisdialogue, such as Grabill. In speaking with you today, I first will introduce the planningprofession and the field’s particular challenge of representing both place and the future,then discuss my initial research investigating visual practices using a regional visioningproject in Central Florida called “How Shall We Grow?” I have examples here of theprimary scenario-based text produced during this process, which are the same artifactsI am investigating with planners during this research. To conclude, I offer thoughts andpossibilities on the voice of the public as stakeholders in these processes for technicalcommunicators to consider.
  2. 2. Torres 2Introducing the Field of Planning Planning is a diverse field focused on improving communities, whether orientedto land use, transportation, housing, land development, or other elements. In planningliterature, James Throgmorton characterizes planners as consensus builders engagedin rhetorical activities with environmentalists, neighborhood residents, business owners,developers, and other stakeholders (Throgmorton, Persuasive 367). These diverseinterests create and interpret meaning in different ways, some of which Throgmortonnotes rely on forecasts, scenarios, and other tools (Persuasive 370). Grabill identifies asignificant literature in planning’s rhetorical practices, citing Throgmorton, Healey, andForester as major theorists (125). Urban planners may be of interest to technical communicators for severalreasons. Their communications often incorporate community-generated content, suchas values statements and preferences expressed in collaborative public meetings,which must direct or be integrated into professional technical recommendations. Thisdiffers from the practices of engineers and architects as allied professions nowrepresented in technical communication research. Also, the nature of their occupationinvolves the long-term development and evolution of a geographical place, and theirwork may involve time horizons of anywhere from ten to thirty years. Their professionalcommunications must be technical in nature, yet immediately accessible to a variety ofprofessional and community audiences and designed to be understood by futureaudiences in a similar manner. The planning profession continues to rely on a wide variety of visual forms, likemaps, photography, aerial photography, and design graphics, for community
  3. 3. Torres 3development or revitalization. This inherently visual practice offers a wealth ofpossibilities for investigation of visual language, but those possibilities are not exploredin their own professional literature. While planning is a visual practice, the notedplanning theorist John Friedmann expresses concern that planners undergo diverseprofessional training that may be situated in schools of architecture, social science, orpublic policy, which results in particularity and difference in both approaches and visualskills within the profession (251). Perhaps as an outcome, Reid Ewing has identified alimited visual assessment literature in planning, comprised only of four books andseveral studies, dating only from the late 1980’s (269-270). This echoes Kostelnick andHassett’s assertion that the study of genre and discourse communities within disciplinesprimarily is limited to verbal language (3). From a cultural perspective, planners are about the future and how it is realizedthrough decisions that are made today. There is a rich discourse and a translation thattakes place between these diverse interests and that carries a wide spectrum ofinterests and disagreements, reaching toward consensus. I argue this chaos andcomplexity offers technical communicators rich possibilities for research that serves theneeds of the profession, while contributing to community needs. For at the end of theday or the decade, that is what this knowledge work produces---a community that isbetter or worse than we found it, but likely is not unaffected.Research Description and Findings As an example of potential technical communication research into thisprofession, my dissertation research examines the visual communication used inCentral Florida’s “How Shall We Grow?” regional visioning project. My research
  4. 4. Torres 4investigates how practices of visual representation convey policy information andcommunity values to planners, with values defined by an independent study of CentralFlorida residents conducted during the visioning. I am using focus groups, interviews,and rhetorical analysis to explore the mental context for the planners’ interpretationsand the function of visual conventions in this profession. My research incorporates themes from Kevin Lynch’s seminal work The Image ofthe City to see how planners situate themselves within the scenario, how place andimageability are communicated, and how the scenarios are embedded with informationconveying corresponding community values. Lynch’s work involved focus groupinterviews and the creation and review of mapping products to investigate theimageability of Boston, Los Angeles, and Jersey City (Lynch 140-145). Lynch defined“imageability” as qualities in the physical environment, such as “shape, color, andarrangement” that create “identity and structure in the mental image” (9). My researchalso reviews how the concept of place may be established, using examples of the GreatPlains’ Buffalo Commons, Garreau’s Nine Nations of North America, and others.However, I will focus less on my own research here and more on the regional visioningconcept and practice as an area with both wide accessibility and potential for technicalcommunication research. In regional visioning as it practiced across the country over the past few decades,community residents and other stakeholders work with planners to develop and depict aregional-scale “future place” that represents the ideal articulation of community goalsthrough the arrangement of future land development, transportation, housing,conservation, and other areas. Often, participants place dot stickers, Legos, or other
  5. 5. Torres 5tactile objects on a map of the community to indicate their preferences and values.These artifacts are filtered through Geographic Information Systems or Adobe CreativeSuite software to create a map of the future place that embodies these intentions. Forthe “How Shall We Grow?” process, after consideration of several scenarios by thepublic, organizers created a final scenario called “4Cs”, based on four themes identifiedas Corridors, Centers, Conservation, and Countryside. At the end of a regional visioning project, a community’s preferred scenario isselected that best represents the community participants’ goals and preferences asdeveloped and articulated by visioning project components, and the expectation is thatlocal planning efforts will be reconciled with this larger regional vision. Thisimplementation of regional/spatial planning at different scales throughout the regionover time invests the community’s preferred land use scenario with rhetorical functions.It is a visual product and “keeper” of this vision, but the specific meanings andinterpretations attributed to these scenarios by multiple stakeholders are not well-understood. In this context, the scenario embodies a set of community directives andvalues, while simultaneously being situated in and furthering a mental image of theplace represented. As John Friedmann writes, “planners face the almost impossible task ofrepresenting the city or region in two-dimensional space that can be visualized at asingle glance. Every map is a model, and every model is a radical simplification—anabstraction—of reality” (251). Planners and other project participants must decide whatinformation is sacrificed in simplification and what is featured, constructing an apparatusand corresponding perspective. These have implications for community participation
  6. 6. Torres 6and intention and are often mediated by technologies in ways that are not transparent.The creation of scenarios, invested with the weight of community consensus andexpectations, create an obligation for urban planners as a profession to meetchallenging technical and visual communication needs. Without formalizing and articulating visual conventions within the planningprofession, scenarios are dependent on textual reinforcement and communicativeactivity over time to form interpretations and create meaning within communities ofpractice. Kostelnick and Hassett warn that visual conventions may be fleeting and canonly be assessed as a particular moment in time (190). Several implications forscenarios are apparent, including the probability that the local discourse community ofplanners may not sustain conventions needed to interpret the scenario over its intendedlife, the year 2050. My interviews with local planners reviewing the scenarios havefound that the meanings they interpret vary, often by their own specializations within thefield or their own value systems. Also, two of the five community values defined duringthe process have not been identified within the scenario by any reviewer. Theirresponses highlight the challenge of defining a region, as their own boundaryconceptions vary and a regional sense of place does not appear to be emerging. The planning profession requires improved methods of visual training andenculturation within this professional community for enhanced dialogue and pedagogicalmethods. These methods only become more necessary with increasing use ofaccessible digital technologies for visualization of cities, such as Google Earth andGoogleSketchUp. There is an important role for communication studies in illuminatingthat transition for planners as a discourse community, in part to allow scenarios to
  7. 7. Torres 7perform their roles as information artifacts appropriately over time and to realize thefuture community.Planning and the Public as an Opportunity for Inquiry In doing research about planning communication and processes, it is clear thatcitizens as a public have an established and important role in that space. Conceptionsand experiences with the public in research may vary and may find them less informedand participatory within their situated history or experiences. My claim is that theircontributions are diverse, have varying degrees of power in the manner envisioned bySherry Arnstein’s ladder of public participation (217-222), and exhibit rhetorical andperformance-based strategies. This claim is based on my situated experience inpractice in Florida, a state that may differ from other communities across the country. Florida has had land use regulation since the 1970’s that requires publicparticipation, with the public taking a larger role since that time in Florida’s growthmanagement process. This role encompasses required public hearings, eveningmeetings in community settings about proposed policies or land development projects,large-scale visioning and plan development processes, citizen-organized forums, directcommunications, presentations, and other strategies. In the context of these histories,the citizens can be powerful, with well-articulated voices and very strategic rhetoricaldisplays, which I can illustrate through stories from my practice and events seenthroughout Florida. In the interests of time, I will note only that this year, Florida will voteon a constitutional amendment that would subject all comprehensive plan changes andchanges to land use to public referenda, an expression of Arnstein’s citizen control.
  8. 8. Torres 8 This more complex conception of the public should inform our research, as werecognize citizens’ rhetorical powers and influence. This has been expanded throughtheir use of online technical information and new Geographic Information Systems-based web mapping tools for citizen-based research. While my local experience to datehas not included examples of taking those community-based strategies to social mediaand locative media spaces, such as Twitter, Ning, or BlockChalk, we are certainly at apoint where that may emerge as part of a larger societal turn. My hope is that theseexpressions, both through their experience and new platforms, also may develop to thepoint where their power moves to the poetic, which may encourage that regional imageto be created and developed. To illustrate this possibility, Abbott and Margheim note that a regional sense ofplace is found in Portland, Oregon, in part, due to its Urban Growth Boundary (UGB)regulation that strictly defines which areas may be urban or rural, becoming a focus ofpublic attention (197). Abbott and Margheim note the UGB has captured a unique placein the public imagination, as in their words, “this modernist land use regulation hasexperienced a postmodern apotheosis: It has become a text! People read complexmeanings into the UGB that go beyond its simple legal function. They try to capture andclaim its essence through metaphors, depict it in paintings and photography, writepoems about it (texts about a text), and interpret it through performance” (199). With this emphasis on the visual and metaphorical, this approach to regionalplace echoes Ulmer’s urging to use poetics and assemblage as a lens for inquiry andagency in solving applied community problems (Ulmer 81). The recent New Media/NewMethods collection on the influence of Ulmer and the Florida School highlight for us the
  9. 9. Torres 9possibilities of that poetic turn, but as Barry Mauer has suggested, “training in metaphorand image making are required.” Within technical communication theory, Jeff Riceillustrates this process of creating meaning from cultural and personal experiences withhis treatment of Detroit’s Woodward Avenue, in which he applies meanings to a“rhetoric that moves meanings for purposes of exploration, a rhetoric that understandsWoodward’s topology as not a fixed topos, but instead as a series of meanings mergingin unestablished ways “(239-240). Within planning theory in “Inventing the Greatest:Crafting Louisville’s Future Out of Story and Clay”, James Throgmorton simultaneouslyweaves the story of Louisville’s urban transformation with his own narrative and that ofMuhammed Ali, both as natives of this community. In doing so, Throgmorton notes “tomake any city-region more sustainable, the people of that place need to begin telling apersuasive story that makes narrative and physical space for diverse locally groundedcommon urban narratives” (Inventing 239). Rice and Throgmorton’s experiments create a loose, inventive narrative, whileaccessing the rich tradition of spatial practices that ranges from the practical outlook ofJane Jacobs and William H. Whyte to the poetic nature of deCerteau. Again, we areconfronted with the possibilities of the local and the tension of extrapolating them to theregional, as well as the need for training and methods to make that possible. In planningtheory, Patsy Healey links mental and material states to larger relationships that shapeactions on a regional level, using “particular values and histories” to create attitudes andvalues that become “systems of meaning” (113). However, Healey finds thesemeanings rely on mental models that are challenged by the different “spatial range andtemporal reach of the relations that transact the space of a place” (115) and that may
  10. 10. Torres 10not be shared. Without a visible regional identity or established visual conventions, theregional scenario is in the difficult role of creating meaning without these contexts andcommonplaces that could help bring the future community to light.Conclusions As noted by William J. Mitchell, communities of the future involve “balances andcombinations of interaction modes…at particular times and places…within the neweconomy of presence” (144), creating enormous uncertainty in the process. Regionalvisioning processes are implemented over time with a visual image based in land usescenarios and thousands of “mental maps” created in the minds of communityresidents. More particularly, scenarios may be characterized as Lefebvre’srepresentations of space that may not allow for spaces of representation (Soja 66-68).From the perspective of each individual resident, to the 20,000 participants in the “HowShall We Grow?” process, to over three million residents living in the 9,000-square mileregion today, the sense of this regional place and its possibilities is unique, particular,and not easily represented, with regional scenarios charged with containing bothinformation and aspiration.Works CitedAbbott, Carl and Joy Margheim. “Imagining Portland’s Urban Growth Boundary: Planning Regulation as Cultural Icon.” Journal of the American Planning Association 74.2 (2008): 196-208. Print.Arnstein, Sherry R. "A Ladder of Citizen Participation." Journal of the American Institute of Planners. 35:4: 216-224. July 1969. Print.Blakeslee, Ann. “The Technical Communication Research Landscape.” Journal of Business and Technical Communication. 23.2: 129-173. April 2009. Print.
  11. 11. Torres 11Ewing, Reid, Michael R. King, Stephen Raudenbush, and Otto Jose Clemente. “Turning Highways into Main Streets: Two Innovations in Planning Methodology.” Journal of the American Planning Association 71.3 (2005): 269-282. Print.Friedmann, John. “The Uses of Planning Theory: A Bibliographic Essay.” Journal of Planning Education and Research 28 (2008): 247-257. Print.Grabill, Jeffrey T. Writing Community Change: Designing Technologies for Community Action. Cresskill: Hampton Press, 2007. Print.Healey, Patsy. “Institutionalist Analysis, Communicative Planning, and Shaping Places”. Journal of Planning Education and Research 19 (1999):111-121. Print.Kostelnick, Charles and Michael Hassett. Shaping Information: the Rhetoric of Visual Conventions. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2003. Print.Lynch, Kevin. The Image of the City. Cambridge and London: The MIT Press, 1950. Print.Mauer, Barry. “Re: dissertation committee.” Message to the author. 12 Dec. 2009. E- mail.Mitchell, William J. e-topia: Urban Life, Jim, But Not As We Know It. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2000. Print.Rice, Jeff. “Woodward Paths: Motorizing Space”. Technical Communication Quarterly 18.3 (2009): 224-241. Print.Rude, Carolyn D. “Introduction to the Special Issue on Business and Technical Communication in the Public Sphere: Learning to Have Impact.” Journal of Business and Technical Communication 22.3 (2008): 267-271. Print.Soja, Edward W. Thirdspace. Cambridge and Oxford: Blackwell. 1996. Print.Throgmorton, James A. “Inventing the Greatest: Crafting Louisville’s Future Out of Story and Clay.” Planning Theory 6.3 (2007): 237-262. Print.Throgmorton, James A. “Planning as Persuasive Storytelling in a Global Scale Web of Relationships.” Planning Theory 2.2 (2003): 125-151. Print.Ulmer, Gregory L. Internet Invention: From Literacy to Electracy. New York: Longman, 2003. Print.