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  • Jepranshu Aganivanshi

    Being a keen observer is one of the very important tool for the urban planners. They should be aware of the ground realities, inter-relation and inter-dependence of the systems forming the urban ecosystem. And yes, a healthy formation of society can't be taught as such, it has to be observed and analysed.

  • Jepranshu Aganivanshi

    Interesting Post. The process of Urbanism is a wider phenomenon than perceived in contemporary planning exercise. The healthy society formation is of up-most significance in enhancing and maintaining the efficiency of urban settlements. Observation - very well pointed out, it may be an important tool for the planners.

    • Patrick McDonnell

      Thanks. Yes, I think we all have the capacity to be urbanist/urbanologists. As a matter of fact, I've learned more about planning by just going out, observing, documenting and then working towards solutions than I did when I worked a a city planner.

  • Daviz

    Even if I've already replied some posts, I'd like first of all to express you my complete admiration by your very first decision about leaving your "typical" job and going beyond. It's kind of refreshing to hear this stuff from north-american people, which is hard to admit, are too absorbed by car culture.
    I'm writing you from Spain (that's why my english is so awful) and I'm very frustrated and a little bit upset after my recent trip to the USA. I've made a long trip from Chicago to L.A. (yeah, I put my kicks on route 66), and that was the kind of trip I wanted to do to know more about american cities. I've seen, as you may know, severeal cities which includes from the "great architectonical city of Chicago", until the smallest town of Texas (I'd really loved the route down there), and I have to say that something has impressed to me, even if I knew it in advance: the massive use of the car.
    I know fuel is cheaper than anywhere else. I know houses are far away from jobs places, but for god sake, each and everyone of the cities I've visited are completely flat!. What about bike? a bike in a flat city is the best choice!, what about public transportation?. What about people in the street?. The first person we met in a zebra crossing after Chicago, was in Miami (Missouri) after 4 days!!. That explain a little bit what I'm talking about. Most of people in the cities I've visited, don't know what a sidewalk is..and that's so sad.

    So that's why I really love what you and your fellows are doing (or trying to do) in Dallas (I'd really love to know more about it), because man, you're kind of visionary in your homeland. Keep fighting and keep us informed.

    • Patrick McDonnell

      Daviz, thanks for the words of encouragement. It means a lot! My decision to leave has a lot to do with breaking free from the hegemony.

      I realized that it's very hard to change something from within. It's like trying to fix your own problems with someone else's tools, no matter how hard you try those tools will always belong to someone else and at any given moment they can tell you how to use them. Buckminster Fuller said, "You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete."

      I'm glad you got to travel Route 66! I've traveled across the country a few times myself. There's nothing like the open road. Isn't it weird how in between cities everything looks the same? For trips like this cars make total sense. But I agree with your sentiment about cars in the city. There's really no point, especially in Chicago, one of my favorite cities. You can get anywhere on public transit.

      I think the common thread between the folks in Dallas that are practicing DIY urbanism is that we've all traveled to countries like Spain and Sweden and Denmark etc, so we all know what it could be like and are trying to implement that in our own city. Of course there's way more to it, but I think that's a big part.

      If you ever want to keep talking you can reach me at patrickm02L [at] gmail [dot] com.

  • kyle pierson

    In the 1950s and 1960s St. Petersburg, FL installed benches close together on the Central Ave. sidewalks, in the shopping district. They were very popular gathering places for the elderly. So popular, in fact, soon the city earned the nickname, "God's waiting room." Homeless people also like the benches in the nearby park. St. Petersburg's Central Ave. green benches were removed in the 1970s. How can cities encourage people of all ages and economic means to use the benches? Will people who live in hot climates such as St. Petersburg use outdoor benches as gathering places?

  • cecile andrews

    Why don't they put benches close together in parks, maybe in a little circle so people talk to each other.
    Cecile Andrews, Living Room Revolution

  • Erik Tilkemeier


    No FB or Twitter, but would love to have you participate in our LinkedIn group, Social Ecology: The Science of Community.

  • Nancy Bruning

    Please don't hate me--I live in NYC, the most walkable city in the world, except perhaps for Paris, which I will be visiting next month. Boy, can we learn from these cities!

    • Daviz

      If you think so, then you're not traveling so much around the world. Both of them are absolutely "unwalkable cities. Several exemples come to my head like Lyon, Copenhagen, Barcelona, Marseille or any other city under 1 million inhabitants...but first of all take my advice: keep away from USA, forget the car, the limitations of american urbanism, and travel around europe, Africa and Asia. You'll became early astonish about what a walkable city is. Come on! take your backpack and get started!

    • Patrick McDonnell

      I don't hate you. I love New York and Paris. I have learned tons from both cities, and tons from cities all over the world.

      Part of the point of my article was to talk about the action side of Urbanism. How to get out of the office, be in the city, observe, meet people, collaborate, then hold events to magnify those observations and shine a light on the folks who are out doing cool stuff in the city.

      Thanks for your comment. Have an awesome day!

  • Kagehi

    Bah.. We have small, inaccessible parks, with no sitting area, a mall that is 5 miles outside of town, and no real effective public transportation, nothing other than bars, and a gold course, for people to "do", and all our seating is in places with no actual walk ways, no shade, and 120+ degree weather. There is a problem with this? lol

    Yeah, reasonable people have been pointing out the absurdity of how cities get built, never mind "grow", once they are, for decades. Only.. the people selling houses are **not** in the business of selling parks, or public works, or jobs, or the ability to get to any of these places. They are in the business of putting up 50 new houses, in some place they can buy land cheap, and then letting everyone else worry about the "small" details.

    Meanwhile, "city planners" are too busy misplacing money, ignoring their own charters, and/or protecting their own lands and businesses (nope, no conflict of interest here..), or paying some twit a million dollars for two rusty iron cages, filled with rocks (sculptures, you see..) than actually "planning" anything.

  • Daniel McCarthy

    Urban planners tend to live in downtown residential developments devoid of life. Their work reflects this polarization.

    • Daviz

      I can't be more agree with you. It's hard to se how we, urban planners, are most of time looking to an "apple" instead of an apple (you know what I mean)

  • Frankle

    yep - heard this on a podcast the other day - Plato's rationalist ideal was a world where we all made rational decisions - except that we are emotional beings, so forget that.

    architecture creates behaviour - put out cheap stackable plastic chairs in a public square and people will stop, gather and linger - enjoying the ebb and flow of humanity - viz NYC Times Square now - brutalist commercial buildings that present a blank inhuman face to the street are being replaced with walkable Japanese-style shopfronts - live above, linger below

    and considering retirement I've read - before retirement most expect to miss the steady income - after retirement most say they miss the social connections !

    provide a 'perfect' urban design and people will drive their cars to get away from it

    provide an interesting social mix - like NYC - and people will travel the world to come and participate - enjoy, tell their friends, meet, and invite other friends - creating art and energy and the synergistic buzz that only cities can provide

    my neighbourhood is about to undergo at $2.5b redevelopment - initial plans suggested our walkway/bridge to the city would be cut off - I protested strongly, discussions are underway with multiple stakeholders, and it looks like we're going to get a good solution - get involved and you can understand and enjoy the process - fail to plan and your future becomes part of someone else's plan ...

    • Patrick McDonnell

      "Fail to plan and your future becomes part of someone else's plan" Poignant!

  • abtuser

    So why did you leave the City Planning office? You make it sound like this is exactly what they need. Police walk a city beat. Why can't city officials too? You've made the case for it.

    • Patrick McDonnell

      Oh man, there's so many reasons why I left. Harsh top-down structure, bad leadership, extremely long processes, entrenchment, low morale, jaded mindsets it was just not a conductive environment for creativity and a lot of the stuff I was prosing was getting shot down. It just wasn't a good fit for me.

      Now all my projects are self-directed and based on city problems that my friends and I have experienced and want to solve. I'm not fulfilling my responsibilities as a planner because I see it as my job, I'm fulfilling them because I see it as my role in the community.

      I think city officials can definitely follow this model that I'm operating. But I'm not going to wait around and hope that they try it out because there's just way too much red tape. Instead, I'm just going to go out and do it and make it a standard.

      • abtuser

        All good reasons. I think you're on to something, with the observational style. Let's hope cities take the cue.

  • parentsontherun

    Hi Guys,

    Would love for you to visit East Harlem

  • Erik Tilkemeier


    What you refer to as 'flava', we call culture, 'observation' is the Discovery Process, and the science is Social Ecology. We have been observing for 40+ years, check out some of our strategies @ Test them in your field work, I think you'll be surprised. We also have a bunch of theory on our publications page that backs up the science of community.

    Love Holly Whyte's work!

    • Patrick McDonnell

      Yeah man, cool. I took a look at your website. Do you have a facebook or twitter I can follow to get a day-to-day? Flava and culture!

  • Nancy Bruning

    Patrick, this is one of those insights that are ridiculously intuitive, but not acknowledged until someone actually articulates them. Then it is so blindingly obvious, you think... what took us so long to realize this? Yes, getting out into the world is good. My favorite thing in the world is walking around, and bike riding --moving through space. I've even incorporated this notion into my fitness plan--walking through parks, using benches and walls and so on as my exercise equipment, like Parkour, only for regular people.

    • Patrick McDonnell

      Yeah, go out see what you can see, and then get together with your friends and come up with solutions - that's all I do.

  • brandon.kovnat

    Could you explain what a "Freelance Urbanist" is and who pays you? I I would love to actually observe more, but don't know how to make a living doing it.

    • Patrick McDonnell

      Urbanism is my passion. I study cities and their systems. I figure out where the holes are from a social interaction/connectivity standpoint and work to make them better. I grew up in the Dallas area so it has a particular importance to me, and my motivation to help solve problems here.

      As a freelancer, I do lots of things like writing or photography, and the things I don't know I teach myself how to do them. I had to learn how to make movies, website building, social media, marketing, all the things that come with running a business.

      I have several revenue streams like some of the things listed above or I'll find grants or get consulting work where people will pay me to apply my knowledge. I just taught a 5-week summer course on urbanism to kids ages 5-15. I'm putting together weekend skillshare urbanism courses. I crowdfund projects sometimes.

      It took me 6-months before I started getting paid for what I do now, which is a lot of community engagement, activating public spaces, documentation, writing, and more recently instruction.

      In the beginning, I had a lot of financial support from my parents and I had saved up a little money. After showing up over and over to other people's events and hosting my own people started to recognize me, I started to get known for my work in the community which led to revenue streams and more opportunities. Now the paid stuff is starting to come easier, I know what I'm doing and I've learned how to valuate my work. I cobble my income together each month. Or will get substantial work that will sustain me for a few months.

      I'm always meeting with people and staying involved because that usually leads to more projects which can be 2, 3, 6 month out. There are even some things that I'm working on now that won't happen for another year.

      Another thing that I've learned is being around like minded people. There's a growing group of entrepreneurial urbanist here in Dallas and we help each other out with all kinds of projects from public spaces to markets to working at each other's shops to finding grants, etc.

      There will always be something to work on in the city. It's always changing and evolving so I'll always be busy trying to solve problems. I'm still figuring out how to make a living at it, but I've learned that if you want to do something there's no waiting for somebody to invent what you need. You have to do it or invent it or learn the skills to make what you want happen. What I want to happen, is to make Dallas into a Creative City where people want to come to get inspired, and where they want to come to live.

  • robbiefeld

    Great article. I was in Dallas for a three month internship with only my bike and the DART for transportation. It was a completely different world compared to Boston or San Francisco. The car culture in Dallas was appalling, and I'm excited to see your ideas for change.

  • spedro1

    Patrick, I'm so inspired by your article and work in Dallas! I am a relatively new Dallasite from Louisiana, and I can see the revolution that Dallas is going through by talking to others from Dallas and those that have lived here for several years. We should have coffee sometime. There's a great new coffee shop downtown called Stupid Good Coffee. They have chemex!

    • spedro1

      I should also mention that I am a AICP planner, although I am doing market studies and environmental site assessments for the housing industry currently. I wish urban planners were more valued!

      • Patrick McDonnell

        I think urbanist and urbanism is freakin cool man! Being out in the field, meeting people, becoming friends, and utilizing using your skills to help your friends there's a lot of value there. You gotta make planning personal. I realized, when there's a problem that affects you directly and you go out and solve it with your planning skills that when's things become meaningful.

  • Sheryl Leigh-Davault

    I really enjoyed your article and am impressed by your change. Good job!

    • Patrick McDonnell

      Thanks, I'm much happier and having so much fun!

  • John Wynn

    Awesome article Patrick..."People produce the unexpected, the spontaneity, the flava..." A 21st century interpretation of Whyte's original observation indeed!

    • Patrick McDonnell

      Thanks John! Holly Whyte has some strong ties in Dallas.

  • Hannah Kim

    So interesting! I never realized how restricted we are by a city's design. I always took a city's design for granted but it's so interesting to think that certain people have the power to affect how I carry on my daily life.

    • Patrick McDonnell

      That's just it, a lot of city design ignores how people actually use the city. Observing promotes seeing those connections and then magnifying use around them to create interactive conditions.

      • Sheryl Leigh-Davault

        Some designers never go to the places they're about to design. I've always thought that was nuts.

        • BD3

          There was a really a landscape architect profiled in Sunset magazine who built an office in a small moving trailer. He brings his office to his work. Very cool. Sadly I couldn't find it online.