Goodbye Golden Boy

Baby Boomers and Block E. Preservation and parks. Urban history and virtual reality. Outgoing city planning director Paul Farmer on the politics and passions that got him fired.

After the interview, Farmer leads the way down the street, surveying the cityscape once again with a gaze that seems to take in everything at once, like a panoramic lens. Finally he studies the heavy scaffolding snaking up the side of his soon-to-be-former headquarters and asks, with a tinge of irony, "City Hall is never finished, is it?"

Mark Wojahn


Paul Farmer's reputation as a visionary planner is what first caused Minneapolis officials to seek out and court him in 1994. Farmer had already served 14 years as deputy planning director in Pittsburgh when he accepted the Minneapolis post. He'd worked as a planning consultant in Canada, India, and Germany. He'd taught urban planning at several universities. In Pittsburgh, Farmer led the charge to redevelop 35 miles of waterfront, install busways and a light-rail transit system, and transform contaminated land into parks, businesses, and residential neighborhoods--all projects that city leaders have long been anxious to see happen in Minneapolis.

CITY PAGES: In addition to teaching at four universities, your credentials include more than three decades as a city planner and planning consultant. What inspired your interest in cities?

PAUL FARMER: Well, I grew up in a city of about 170,000 people in Shreveport, Louisiana. I went to a Jesuit high school where we put on a play every spring, usually Shakespearean. We practiced in one of those old derelict warehouses down on the riverfront. Riding home from practice one night I noticed, in the back of my friend's dad's car, the master plan for metropolitan Shreveport. I was intrigued by it. The kid's dad said, "Oh, somebody gave me that a couple of weeks ago. You can have it." So I took it home. Then during Latin class I was always redesigning the downtown and the riverfront. I thought, "It looks like people actually get paid to do it!" The name on the cover was Arch R. Winter, from Mobile, Alabama. The next time he was in town we talked about this profession called city planning. He told me the very best planning school in the country then was Cornell University. Six years later there I was there getting my master's degree. Since then I've been doing what I set out to do.

You taught planning at the University of Wisconsin from 1971 to 1979, and also at Carnegie-Mellon University, the Georgia Institute of Technology, and the University of Pittsburgh. What did you tell your students about urban planning?

Cities are always changing. We talk a lot about managing change, guiding change. You need to understand the basic forces that are at work so you understand how we got to where we are, and what more change means for the future. One of the exciting things we face is that the basic demographics are changing throughout the country; certainly here in the Twin Cities it's the case. Baby boomers who fled to a lot of suburban growth are now moving into their 50s. Certainly some will be looking for the excitement and the proximity one finds not just in downtowns but in city neighborhoods.

Jim Niland, who alone with the mayor voted to reappoint you, calls you a "visionary." Even those who voted against you, Steve Minn and Joan Campbell among them, admit that you're a man of vision when it comes to planning. How do you react to that?

I'd take that as a compliment. I still remember one Council member's questions when I was interviewing for this job three and a half years ago. They said, "I hope you're not just one of those visionaries who can't get anything done." My response was, "Well, I hope that after working with me you would either call me a pragmatic visionary or a visionary pragmatist. Because in good, solid, effective planning you try to do both."

You've also been described as a "New Urbanist." That sounds like a term planners thought up. What does it mean in plain English?

A lot of folks feel that New Urbanism means the good old neighborhoods we used to take for granted. Minneapolis spent the '60s and into the '80s trying to out-suburb the suburbs, building ever larger lots and inward-looking development not facing the streets. We thought, "Well, if folks are fleeing to the suburbs for those kinds of things, then if we copy them we'll be competitive." But we're never going to copy the suburbs so that we do it as well. When you look around the country at the New Urbanist architects, it's ironic that much of their work is in high-end suburbs. They're trying to say that the long-term success there will be related to how well they, in fact, copy the old neighborhoods of cities--where houses have front porches, and not just meaningless lawns and driveways where the major physical features are three garage doors, and all the activity takes place in back. Also, that there ought to be civic space--places for people to come together that isn't on private property, where you feel welcome and can meet your neighbors.


When Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton announced Farmer's nomination in November 1994, she credited him with helping to resuscitate downtown Pittsburgh after the loss of 200,000 jobs during downsizing by the steel industry. As downtowns go, Minneapolis hasn't done badly. True, the city didn't enjoy the booms that Seattle and Denver did, but it has been spared the busts that inevitably follow. As an industrial center rooted in milling, railroads, and timber, however, Minneapolis has aged--not always gracefully. When Farmer arrived in early 1995, everyone agreed his office should set its sights on a downtown face-lift. The new Mall of America was drawing shoppers away from Nicollet Mall. Block E had been paved into a parking lot--a huge black hole in the Warehouse District's burgeoning nightlife. During his tenure as director, Farmer made good on his promise in the form of the Downtown 2010 plan--a blueprint for development--which the City Council adopted in October 1996.

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