Planning and Ethnography: what looking out my window says about our methods

My partner and I often joke that our respective interests have gotten closer and closer over time, to the point that we have begun to wonder when they will simply merge. She is an urban anthropologist, interested in how people experience space and their sense(s) of the city (literally speaking… she’s interested in taste, smell, sight, touch and sound) while I am an urban planner and designer who is especially interested in culture, social networks and the everyday uses of space. Yet, while our interests overlap, our methods are, obviously, fairly different. While the norm for anthropologists is to spend a year (or more) on site to complete a project, most planning projects (at least in the private sector) will be completed within six to nine months, will overlap with several other projects, and, perhaps the biggest difference, will be completed mostly in the studio/office, not on site.

At least since the publication of The Death and Life of Great American Cities (which is turning 50 this year) and the slow death of technocratic planning, planners have, at the very least, talked up the importance of prolonged engagement within communities. Yet, unless you happen to be doing a planning or design project in your own neighborhood, something that happens only once or twice in a lifetime, if you’re lucky, the type of profound, long-term ethnographic engagement that is at the core of Jane Jacobs writing is next to impossible. Instead, we collect data, much of which is turned into maps, with which we attempt to understand the complex social, economic and natural interactions that make up urban space.

Back in February, my firm moved into a new office space in Houston’s Sixth Ward. It’s the sort of neighborhood that you’ll find in most post-industrial areas where old warehouses, industrial sites and abandoned buildings rub shoulders with bars and galleries. Our studio space is on the second floor of an old warehouse and my desk has a view of downtown on one side and vast vacant lots on the other. On a land use map, the parcel that I look out on would be a solid grey: Vacant or Undeveloped.

Looking out my window 9 hours a day has taught me otherwise. This seemingly unused space, just like any number of others in the city, is, in fact, a hopping social space.

It is residential:

It’s a stage for video shoots:

Fairly often:

Occasionally it even gets a little risque:

(those barrels are marked hazardous waste, by the way).

As a designer, I’m often careful about not using the same computer program for everything I do. The reason is that each program has a certain logic that steers you towards certain solution. Our methodologies are the same… and looking out my window, I wonder how the logic of what we do as planners shapes the results. Would an ethnographic planning practice be less harsh in regulating standardized outcomes? Can we plan for diverse social situations or are we limited to designating just one use to a space? Do we have the technology (or even the expertise) to incorporate more ethnographic research into our planning studies (time-lapse video, social media, ect)?