Austin Maitland is a graduate student of urban planning at Rutgers University concentrating in design and development. Today, he shares a guest article regarding the role of media narratives in shaping the debate surrounding planning practices.

It’s no secret that the media influences public opinion. Whether it’s a new tax bill, immigration policy or healthcare reform, we are bombarded with a dizzying array of media coverage filled with explosive language and crass headlines that shape our thoughts in one way or another. But media narratives are not only relevant to hot-button political topics; for local movements promoting stronger towns, they can be every bit as important.

Media narratives are not only relevant to hot-button political topics; for local movements promoting stronger towns, they can be every bit as important.

Over the holiday season, a local newspaper from Rochester, NY ran two articles headlined: “Owners need $1.3 million by Nov. 30 or the Rhinos are extinct for 2018 season”, and “Liberty Pole lighting captures spirit of the season”. The first article explores looming doubt over the future of the Rochester Rhinos, a professional soccer team, and why the city may soon find itself with a vacant stadium. The second article describes a more cheery subject, the annual lighting of the Liberty Pole, a prominent sculpture downtown. While seemingly unrelated, the two articles push a similar anti-urban narrative.

The piece about the Rochester Rhinos documents an unfortunate story, albeit one that any Strong Towns enthusiast will find all too familiar. In 2005, Rochester welcomed a new soccer stadium, built on speculations of growth in attendance and economic redevelopment in the surrounding neighborhood. As the article points out, the heavily-subsidized stadium failed to result in any such thing, and the city finds itself with a massive vacant venue going into 2018.

What’s notable here is not the failure of another taxpayer-subsidized white elephant (or rhino, as the case may be); it is the underlying narrative presented to explain why the stadium failed. Jeff DiVeronica explains, “Saddled in part by the perception that the stadium is in a troubled neighborhood and lacks sufficient parking, the Rhinos have never drawn crowds there like they did at Frontier [Field].” So why did the stadium fail? While lots of factors may have contributed, the neighborhood and lack of parking apparently make the top two.

On a much lighter note, the second article highlights the great success of the lighting of the Liberty Pole in downtown Rochester. Steve Orr captures the spirit of the event beautifully: “Everyone, seemingly, was smiling, nodding at each other, dancing a step or two to the music that came from the stage by the base of the pole. Costumed mascots roamed the crowd. Santa Claus gave children high-fives.” It’s wonderful to see any event getting people outside to enjoy the city’s recovering downtown.

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However, all was not perfect. An estimated 1,000 people attended the event, far lower than the 3,000 that attended another holiday celebration a day earlier at the nearby Genesee Brewery. Why the discrepancy in turnout? The paper felt compelled to report that “Lisa Belodoff figures it's the parking. While the St. Paul Street brewery has plenty of easily seen free spots, downtown is more of a mystery... Belodoff is an exception to that rule, however. She lives in a Temple Building apartment that overlooks the Liberty Pole.”

Setting aside the fact that the Liberty Pole is within a five-minute walk of no fewer than six major parking garages, the implications of this statement are worthy of examination. The rule, according to local reporting, is that the success of a community event in the core of the city is a function of parking availability. In contrast, those who happen to actually live in the community are some sort of peculiar exception to this rule.

According to local reporting, the success of a community event in the core of the city is a function of parking availability.

Contrasting these articles reveals a clear narrative: parking availability is an essential measure of success in Rochester. In the case of the soccer stadium, failure may have been avoided if only there was enough parking. As for the holiday celebration, attendance could have been that much higher if people had a more convenient spot to put their cars. If parking is the rule and residents the exception, we no longer have a city; instead, we have a sort of glorified office park that holds events sometimes. This type of reporting does a tremendous disservice to a city that’s actually experiencing explosive residential growth in its core.

The persistence of such narratives is not limited to Rochester. In January 2017, an outlet in central New Jersey ran a piece titled “Why Rutgers just eliminated College Avenue parking spaces” in which the author breathlessly lamented the tragic loss of “50 coveted parking spaces.” The lengthy obituary is broken up with a few mentions of a project to add bus and bike lanes to a bustling street in the heart of Rutgers University’s New Brunswick campus. It is not until the final sentence, after two paragraphs dedicated to a student who found loss of parking “annoying,” that the reader is presented with someone looking forward to the proposed changes making it easier to bicycle around campus. Apparently none of the many thousands of students who take the bus and may appreciate more timely service were available for comment.

As cities begin to realize that transportation options outside of driving will benefit their local financial success and their residents, it is essential to recognize the auto-centric narratives that continue to pervade our communities. From Rochester to New Jersey, the auto-oriented culture is reinforced by reporting that treats parking availability as both a cause of failure and a hindrance to success. Identifying and challenging such narratives is essential for shifting the debate away from creating great places for our cars, and towards building great places for people.

(Top photo source: Johnny Sanphillippo)