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Theorizing while a Neighborhood is on Fire: The Planner’s Role in Un-development

Authors: Kevin Keenan*, Rowan University, Mahbubur Meenar, Rowan University
Topics: Urban and Regional Planning, Urban Geography, Communication
Keywords: planning theory, place ontology, community engagement, visioning, inclusion
Session Type: Paper
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How do you theorize neighborhood revitalization when that neighborhood is “on fire” via the concomitant forces of escalating capital investment and social deprivation? This paper presents a study of the change currently underway in Kensington, Philadelphia, and our efforts to understand the community’s voice in this process. Drawing on in-depth interviews with 14 leaders of this exceptionally poor and environmentally distressed community, we explore the implications and limitations of theorizing neighborhood revitalization when that community is, in the words of one leader, metaphorically “still on fire.” By bringing together theories of the planner’s role in communication and the role of the institutional structures of planning itself, a Deleuzian theory of place ethics, and an understanding of ontologies of place, we explain why a disempowered community facing the latest round of capital investment could not effectively chart its own direction. As the community articulated its voice through a set of alternative plans for development, more powerful developers articulated their vision for these sites as the real estate market heated up. The community members were acutely aware of what planners could do to be more effective in implementing the community’s vision. This awareness was rooted in communication strategies informed by the residents’ own ontology of what makes the neighborhood a place. The results of this project outline a theory of place ontologies for understanding a community that is “in between” rapid development and community visioning, as well how planning structures and personnel might better respond to hel

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