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.


Mark Wojahn

Ron McKinley, president and 12-year veteran of the city's Planning Commission, is one of the many worried that neighborhood residents will lose an ally in the Planning office when Farmer leaves. "We needed someone with a vision for citizen participation in the planning process," he said recently. "Paul gave us that." Perhaps most surprised by Farmer's dismissal are residents who teamed up with him in inner-city neighborhoods. They describe a man utterly dedicated to making their neighborhoods more "livable"--restoring historic homes, cutting traffic, adding public space on corners and empty lots, reducing crime through better lighting, advocating for schools and mass-transit routes. What it comes down to, McKinley says, is that Farmer relied on citizens in the planning process. If that meant Council members' pet projects in their wards got trumped, so be it. "Everybody in the city knows the stories," he says of certain Council members' demands on the Planning Department, "but no one will stand up and say that this is why Paul is getting fired."

CP: You've been credited with spearheading Pittsburgh's Mon Wharf project to reclaim the city's riverfront for pedestrians and recreation. How important is public space in a city, and where should it be located?

FARMER: It distinguishes cities from other areas. In Minneapolis we have this incredibly special model of the lakes, the parkways, and the river. With that on our doorstep, I'm amazed that most of our lakes have been privatized and too many of our wetlands filled--that the regional model we chose over the last 40 years was the freeway, and the water and sewer infrastructure that went with it. We should have learned from the chain of lakes and the creek, and developed an amenity-rich environmental system. I'm astounded that folks took the Los Angeles route instead. When we go around the neighborhoods, we find they are all trying to figure out how to tie into a regional, open-space system.

How's that? Could we connect every neighborhood through planning around lakes and parks?

First of all, once upon a time every neighborhood was connected by what's called a "grid." Another tenet of the New Urbanism is that cities work because the grid works. It moves people around the city. It's easy to understand. It's legible. People can travel without fear of getting lost. Originally, the grid served the needs of streetcars and wagons, not motorized traffic. But as that has changed, we've been faced with the issue of traffic. Commercial areas like traffic, residential areas don't. We've ended up with a number of streets on the Minneapolis grid that carry increasing traffic, but continue to be residential in nature. That creates problems for property values.

From an urban-design standpoint, what's interesting is that as cities developed--like ours, or Denver, Milwaukee, or Chicago--you see that when the grid was interrupted it was because something very special was happening. There was a lake there, or a creek, or a diagonal movement system like Hiawatha Avenue. In terms of problems in the Minneapolis grid, there are places where we've disrupted it with things like the freeway system, where we had an option of putting most of the grid back and didn't. When you start cutting off the grid like that, you create a system of winners and losers. It's very clear which streets are the losers: If you have to walk 12 blocks out of your way to cross a freeway, when there used to be a connection from your house to the house a block away, rarely are you going to make that trip. So the connections are lost. People who live on those streets end up without incentives to invest and keep the area strong. People are also going to seek out the winning locations and avoid the losers. Whereas the grid, when it's allowed to remain or is restored, is very forgiving.

Neighborhood leaders have said you provided a vision for citizen participation in planning that was sorely missing in this city. How important is citizen participation in planning?

In one sense, you can never have enough citizen participation. In another, it's very time-consuming to do right. You can't let it bog things down. People need to know that you're treating everyone fairly, and development ought to take into account public interests. At the same time, developers make money developing, not meeting. If you can't provide a process that takes things through in a expeditious fashion, then you're going to hinder investment. You're going to send it elsewhere. And that's not good for anybody.

One of your top priorities has been to put together a formal, comprehensive blueprint for development in the city--called the Minneapolis Plan. When it was first published last year, your office subtitled this plan a "Workbook for Citizen Comment."

That was the way we issued it for the first time last summer. We were trying to convey that it's not set in stone. We wanted people to take that workbook and scribble all over it, to treat it almost like an artist's sketch book. At public meetings, we put some big maps up and said, "Go to work and tell us what we ought to change and what ideas you have." The Minneapolis Plan covers every square inch of the city. It ought to be at a somewhat general level in terms of a direction. It ought to have a story line. It ought to be readable. We've gotten a lot of compliments about the fact that it's a plan people can understand.

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