(January 2010) The Memphis Action Research Center: Amplifying the Voice of the Poor in the Bluff City

The Memphis Action Research Center:
Amplifying the Voice of the Poor in the Bluff City
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Early city and regional planning theory was strongly influenced by the Enlightenment whose thinkers suggested the possibility for improving daily life through the application of scientific methods. Professional planners produced comprehensive plans, based on the collection and analysis of significant amounts of data, to address the environmental, economic, and social problems confronting urbanizing communities. In the early 1960s, two powerful critiques of the rational model emerged. Citing serious data and analytical limitations, Charles Lindblom declared an end to the era of the "comprehensive plan/rational model" calling for a strategically-oriented approach to practice that he described as incrementalism (1959). A second major critique of the rational model was offered by Paul Davidoff (1965), who argued that planners were producing plans that were irrelevant to the needs of the poor who were often inadequately represented within local planning processes. In the early 1980s, John Forester addressed these two critiques of the rational model by drawing upon Habermas' notion of "ideal communication" (Forester 1989). A number of North American planning theorists influenced by Forester and Innes argued that the knowledge/analytical shortcomings of the rational model highlighted by Lindblom and the class bias problems identified by Davidoff could be addressed through the design of more inclusive planning processes.

In recent years, a growing body of communicative planning theory has emerged as one of the most important discourses within planning scholarship. While communicative theory has become extremely popular within the academy (Innes 1995), it has had little impact upon professional practice. Huxley and Yiftachel have attempted to explain this contradiction by noting the, "tendency in some of the communicative literature to privilege communication at the expense of its wider social and economic contexts" (2000). They have given specific attention to the extent to which communicative planning theory has failed to address the degree how power determines who gets to participate and whose interests are considered within planning processes (Yiftachel et al. 2001).

Drawing upon Lefebvre's work on the social production of space (1970), my paper will examine how a specific space-based approach to community planning emerging in the United States, called empowerment planning (Reardon 2000), is assisting poor and working class families in transforming their neighbourhoods into what Thompson called "unsteepled places" (1968). Socially created spaces that are free from the domination of elite interests where marginalized groups can come together to formulate visions for more just communities and establish broad bases of political support needed to overcome the resistance of powerful interests to redistributive policies and participatory planning.

This paper will present the results of a yearlong study of the Memphis Action Research Center's (MARC) South of the Forum project. This ethnographic research project will feature archival research, participant observation, and informal and formal interviews with local stakeholders. All research findings, interpretations, and recommendations will be reviewed and verified by a small but highly diverse group of long time local leaders who will function as "key informants" to ensure that the paper benefits from a combination of local and expert knowledge.