Posted January 25th 2012 at 2:23 pm by
in Featured Contributor

A Conversation with Ruth Miller


Why do you make media about city planning issues?

I can’t get over the idea that by putting my thoughts online, some stranger across the world can respond. I love feeling like part of such a tight (if geographically dispersed) community of wonks.

On an afternoon walk, I can wonder to myself about something truly dorky, such as the influence of U.S. normative concepts of public space. Just talking to myself in the woods, I might come up with some interesting ideas and examples, but it ends there.

With blogs, tweets, and videos, I can give some structure to my observations and put them in front of a wondrous group of like-minded people that are dorky about similar things. We can exchange ideas, respond to one another, and add our own takes.  With the barriers to media production getting lower every year, this is becoming less a one-way process and more of a dialogue  – we can put our own thoughts out there and see what sticks.

What city planning blogs or sites do you find yourself reading most?

Streetsblog is definitely my favorite. It’s written with enough density and wit to be the Economist of transportation.

The Atlantic Cities, Transport Politic, Next American City, and Planetizen always have something pleasantly surprising. Those keep me occupied for my entire bus commute, usually with a few flagged articles to read in more depth later.

I’ve also curated a healthy Twitter feed to stay abreast of transportation news and transportation-related social justice: @plannerthon, @tomvanderbilt, @patterncities, @PPS_Placemaking, @parkingday, @SPUR_Urbanist, @ProPublica, @DonaldShoup, @transportdata, @StreetsblogNet, @enf, @velobry, @fkh, and @susanmernit.

On CoLab Radio you’ve written a lot about your hometown in Newton County, Georgia.  Do you think urban planners planners are missing out on great ideas coming from smaller cities and towns?  

I think planners miss a lot of ideas, but also opportunities, by focusing too exclusively on urban areas.  I completely understand how someone that’s drawn to the study of buildings and transportation would prefer living in an urbanized place (I do live in downtown Oakland), but I feel like there’s an entire parallel field developing under our coastal elitist noses. Planning staffs in small towns and rural areas aren’t waiting around for the big-city urbanists to discover them – they’re moving forward with the resources and expertise they have, and some of them are doing exceptional work.

As a student at both MIT and Cal, I’ve been struck by the myopic focus on the same handful of U.S. cities. Boston. New York. San Francisco. Maybe Houston, if you want to talk about sprawl and their zoning thing. There might be two or three more, but that’s it. It’s a big country. I want to talk about the Missoulas and the Mansfields. What are they doing or not doing, and why?

If you want to make a serious difference in greenhouse gas reductions, it seems silly to bother ratcheting down the City of Berkeley’s auto emissions another tenth of a point.  Berkeley, and many of these large, progressive cities, is on its way. The challenge lies with the rest of the country. Figure out how to make responsible travel behavior even a tiny bit more politically palatable, cost-effective, and attractive, and you can multiply that change across 10,000 cities. That’s worth working for.

2 responses to “A Conversation with Ruth Miller”

  1. Thanks for the mention, Ruth! As I said on Twitter, the inspiration is mutual; a network of planning folks is truly helpful.

    I do agree that looking throughout the country is important to find the best practices for our profession. I learn a great deal not only from places I’ve lived (New Mexico, Michigan, North Carolina) but also with fast-growing places like Utah and “fast-shrinking” places like some neighborhoods in Flint.

  2. Hey! I’m so excited to hear you mention small cities and towns, Ruth. I’m not a city planner, but, I’ve grown especially interested in the role rural urbanism has in sustainability, and, how entrepreneurs can find lots of opportunity revitalizing these otherwise forgotten urban cores. (I myself own a neighborhood grocery/cafe in the downtown of 22,000.)

    As you say, it’s so cool to collect your thoughts and then connect with others who are interested in similar topics/themes. On that note, here’s my “Micropolitan Manifesto”!