So, one of things I am required to do to graduate from the Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP) is write a thesis. Typically the thesis research takes up some of your 3rd semester and almost all of your final semester. Finished papers are between 50-150pg and the finished product is intended to be a complete work carried out on a fairly high level. The first thing you have to do is pick the topic and for me that time has come. I have been keeping track of thesis ideas for the past year and have a nice little list from which to choose. Here they are with my thoughts on each.
MY THESIS TOPIC IDEAS
1. Distributed urban college education
Basically I am curious what opportunities there are for higher-education to be distributed across residual space in urban setting, utilizing the facilities and expertise of existing firms to enhance the education, while providing a cheap and enthusiastic labor force. Still interested in this, but decided that it was not the best option.
2. Effects of 21st century retail on urban form
What is urban form affected by new types of retail (i.e. internet)? This topic is already receiving quite a bit of attention and is difficult to study.
3. Examine impact of agricultural idling incentives on city form
So we pay the carrying costs on land even as it accrues value for later development? Surely this policy has a dramatic impact on urban form, especially in cities like OKC – I will have to wait to find out, because this topic is a little too boring to study for an entire semester.
4. Analyze potential for handheld gps enabled phones to measure pedestrian movement in a city
New cell phones – like the GPS enabled 3G iPhone – provide a new opportunity to understand the ways pedestrians move through cities. Obviously there are privacy issues, but certainly a system could be anonymized. This is a relatively new area of research and something I think would be really cool to study. The SenseABLE City Lab here at MIT has done some similar work with cell phone data, but the new embedded GPS systems provide an extra level of detail that makes the system work at the pedestrian movement level. I remain intrigued by this, but ended up deciding against it.
5. Power and politics of urban design in Oklahoma City
Hmm…this would be really interesting! BUT, I decided for various reasons (e.g. my future job prospects) to leave this one alone.
6. Assess public places not by design, but focus especially on the surrounding urban design that supports the public place (i.e. library, retail, density of residents, density of office, density of lunch places, etc)
I love public spaces and this seemed like an area that hadn’t been looked at. Interesting questions like, what are the best uses to have around a park? Is a library good, like Bryant Park? What about office buildings? Concrete convention centers? Fun stuff, maybe later.
7. Value based property taxes – taxing a property based on the building allowed by zoning; should combat land speculators that blight urban landscape.
Do you ever get tired of seeing surface parking lots in the middle of downtown? Part of the problem is that our tax system enables these lots to be profitable, even though they often do not provide the same level of benefit to society as a developed project. There have been other tax systems utilized that tax property relative to the residual land value sans improvements. So an office building and a parking lot taking up the same amount of land would be taxed the same. This was an idea pushed by Henry George, an economist and NYC mayoral candidate in the late 1800s. Ultimately, this idea was politically infeasible and probably still is…which is why I am not doing it.
[correction 11/6 – Joshua (see comments) enlightened me to the fact that land value taxation, or LVT, is being successfully implemented in a number of communities throughout the United State; you can find out more at urbantools.org]
8. City organizational structure and its impact on urban form – Vienna has a combined planning & public works department, whereas Oklahoma City has separated the planning and implementation functions.
I am curious what the pros/cons are to having planning & public works combined into a single department versus the system currently in place in Oklahoma City. In reality, street projects have an as great or greater affect on the form of our city than planning. Not sure what the benefits of the current configuration are, but I will have to wait to find out.
9. Studying the ideas of Hans Mondermann on naked streets
The late Hans Monderman has shown how streets with fewer signs, fewer road lines, etc are actually safer. Seems unintuitive, but has been proven true under a variety of conditions. Obviously, highways are not a good candidate for such a system – as Kramer showed us:
10. Assessing the environmental impact of transportation infrastructure in a world of cheap, pollution free cars!
Even if we get to pollution free cars, we still have to look at the sustainability of the built form we use to support an auto-dominated transportation system. I think we can probably do a better job in planning for a future that continues to see cars as the predominate mode of transportation.
THE WINNING TOPIC
Ultimately I decided that I wanted to write a thesis on something I enjoy studying, and I really enjoy studying Oklahoma City. Some of the possibilities above have to do with OKC either directly or indirectly, but with any OKC related question I always come back to my lack of understanding – and the lack of available research – on the history of planning and development that created the city we see today. Steve and others have done some good stuff on the post 1960 period and on various isolated elements of the early 20th century, but this early period has not received much attention through a purely planning, urban design, and development related focus. So my thesis topic is:
The early planning tradition and development forces that shaped Oklahoma City
I am starting pre-landrun and will study as far as I can, but probably won’t get past 1950 – which thankfully will allow me to avoid the Pei Plan and the gloominess it brings.
NEED YOUR HELP
Well, if you have anything that you think will give me some insight into the early planning history of Oklahoma City, please let me know. I, in return, will try to post some of the resources I come across and share what I find out. In fact, I have already found some cool stuff that I will try to get posted later this week.