I am a geographer at heart.
During long road trips, I was the kind of kid who preferred a Rand McNally atlas over a coloring book. Even now, the way I “kill time” on the internet usually involves a combination of Google Maps and Wikipedia tabs on my internet browser.
Anyone who wants to turn their passion for geography into a meaningful career must find their niche. Aside from teaching middle school geography, the world typically has no use for generic geographic knowledge. So we specialize.
When I started working toward my bachelor’s in geography, I was clueless as to which concentration I should pursue; all I knew was that I wanted to do something involving problem-solving and big ideas. Thus, once I stumbled upon the “urban and regional planning” track, it took all of about five minutes before I went the registrar’s office to officially declare. Discovering the field of planning has kindled my existing passion for geography and exposed me to a much broader range of the social sciences.
Plunging into the realm of urban planning—along with counterparts such as urban studies, urban geography, urban design, and urban affairs—can be intimidating. As with nearly all academic disciplines, students of the modern city must familiarize themselves with the history of the field, classic works of theory, and the prevailing trends and ideas from contemporary scholars. However, cities often also act as ideological battlefields upon which these theories and concepts are fought over in real time.
In other words, the principles of urban planning cannot be learned in a vacuum. Students learning about cities will inevitably be shaped by the urban landscape around them, which is a good thing. However, this type of learning requires students to be vigilant, as the positivist “What is happening?” and the normative “What should be happening?” can be hard to discern.
In a field where the voices of scholars and advocates often blend as one, there instances when issues require a deeper, more nuanced dive.
At last we arrive at the answer to this post’s titular question: Why write a blog about regions?
Over the last decade or so, the “urban renaissance” has brought positive attention and optimism to cities unlike the era of mass suburbanization and urban decline before. As ideas from great “urban thinkers” like Edward Glaeser or Bruce Katz make their way into the mainstream, it is my worry that such ideas will be eagerly applied to Boston and Seattle but will be neglected for places like Lowell and Tacoma.
Consider the following three maps:
The ease of using these maps comes from our familiarity with the geographic unit they employ. By focusing on the city, the state, or the entire country as our unit of analysis, we are able to frame an issue or phenomenon within a recognizable and comfortable spatial context.
Now, consider the following three maps:
The latter three maps are nowhere near as common or intuitive as the original three. However, there are certain situations and problems for which the familiar set of spatial contexts—city, state, country—are simply not the optimal choice when seeking understand or solve these issues.
It is understandable for spatially-oriented conversations to be dominated by salient issues like affordable housing, racial tension, bike lanes, and sprawl. The venue for most of these issues is…appropriately…the city. It isn’t my intention to share clicks and page-views away with excellent outlets like CityLab, Planetizen, and NextCity. They do a fantastic job at shedding light on critical urban problems and discussing sensible solutions. They “zoom” inward from the broader national perspective and concentrate on what is affecting today’s cities.
The value that I hope to add with this blog is a priority on “zooming out” from prominent and uniquely-urban phenomena while steering clear of national and state politics. In so doing, I hope to start meaningful conversations about how governing bodies deal with one another in the face of global change and how the decision to cooperate or compete affects local economic, social, and political fortunes.
This blog isn’t about what transpires in cities or states. Rather, the goal of “Thinking Regionally” is to address the exchanges and interactions that take place between neighboring cities, suburbs, counties, jurisdictions, cultures, voting blocs, states, port authorities, small towns, chambers of commerce, farm bureaus, and even college football fanbases.
Let’s dive in!