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By Aseem Inam

As always, Peter Marcuse offers the kind of thought-provoking clarity we need to question the fundamental nature of planning. His thinking is refreshing in an insular field, in which many mainstream urban planners and scholars seem to believe that the response to almost any challenge at the local level should be more or different planning, as conducted by professional planners. In reality, planning is carried on by many different actors at different scales: in tax policies or infrastructure decisions made at the federal and state levels, who often have far greater influence than those with planning training or titles like traffic engineers or fire departments, who determine the width of streets. Fortunately, planning has been shedding its insular nature and engaging with issues and actors beyond mainstream planning, especially in academia. Still, many practicing planners tend to be either oblivious to, or struggle to engage with, the political challenges they face and the continuing rise of social movements, both of which are absolutely critical to fundamental change in cities, or what I call urban transformation. Urban transformation consists of radical shifts and fundamental improvements in how we conceive of, “plan” and build cities, such that they have a positive impact on the everyday lives of citizens.

Marcuse makes an excellent point about how current trends in mainstream planning – use of new technologies or promoting live-work spaces – in fact conceal deeper and more critical societal challenges. Though urban transformation requires more complex strategies and long-term efforts, these design and planning strategies are welcome at one level as short-term ameliorations of everyday city life. There is much to be gained from such action-oriented thinking. This action orientation is a shift from the supposedly detached observer, the long-cherished perspective of conventional social science, to the engaged practitioner, who must rely on serious ways of understanding the world in order to try to change it. So, planning continues to rely on a variety of creative yet rigorous research methods intertwined with creative and critical ways of acting. Where does deeper thinking about transforming cities and societies come from? Theory. At its best, theory is about thinking about thinking in systematic ways. Theory provides a deeper way of thinking than planners are accustomed to.

A critical aspect of planning that Marcuse brings up is the actors in the city and the values they prioritize. Kevin Lynch discussed this in his brilliant book, Good City Form, reminding us that cities are not simply produced and reproduced spatially; human beings create them, albeit in contested ways with outcomes that may not fully satisfy any particular actor. Revealing and examining those values is crucial to planning. For example, what does it say about our priorities as a society that we have devoted so much of our urban land to cars in the form of streets, highways, surface parking lots, parking garages, not to mention the ancillary facilities such as factories, car dealerships, auto repair shops and junk yards? Automobiles can be not only an exclusionary form of transportation because of their costs, but can also contribute to environmental degradation. In many parts of the world, these continue to dominate the material city, although people have become so used to this that they take it for granted. Urban transformation is about examining and nurturing the values that foster a more democratic, equitable and just society.


"What does it say about our priorities as a society that we have devoted so much of our urban land to cars in the form of streets, highways, surface parking lots, parking garages, not to mention the ancillary facilities such as factories, car dealerships, auto repair shops and junk yards?"


Urban transformation gets to the root causes of the current conditions of uneven urban geographies, uneven urban development and most of all, uneven power relations. The problem with much of “good planning” (and even some “progressive planning”) is that it takes as given the existing system of political-economy, including the system of governance and policy that legitimates planning practice. There are two problems with this thinking: one is that no system is a given, but rather is a social construction that evolves over time and thus can be changed; the other is that in order to get to root causes, one has to ask deeper and tougher questions.

For example, why is there a serious problem of a lack of affordable housing in virtually every city in the world? The reason is systemic, in which housing is largely seen as a private good whose main goal is not necessarily the provision of a basic need but the collection of profit or revenue. Admittedly, government provision of housing also has a lackluster history of offering the kind of housing that citizens deserve. A fundamental shift in a planning approach to affordable housing would do both: reject the current profit-driven system as unacceptable and reject the poor quality and bureaucratic morass of much of government-built housing in the past. Rather, it would look at creative solutions, including learning from cities like Vienna and Singapore, but also at forms of collective ownership and management of housing and land. In these collective models, planners have a critical role to play as partners and collaborators with communities: to conduct critical analyses of what works, what doesn’t and why, to propose multiple housing models for consideration and to offer their knowledge and experience as part of broader public discourse. But in the end communities have the final say in how their spaces might look and work.

The Orangi Pilot Project in Karachi, Pakistan began as the design of a low-cost community-based sanitation system in an informal settlement. Both the process and the outcomes have been remarkably transformative. The process is an extraordinary collaboration between a non-governmental organization and residents of one of the poorest parts of Karachi. The outcomes include not only radically improved sanitation and health conditions for over one million people, but also community mobilization that evolved from sanitation into housing, education and women’s empowerment, such as this resident who is now able to earn an independent income by making and selling incense sticks. Source: Zofeen Ebrahim / IPS.

Planners do not, in fact, possess the kind of power needed to truly shape cities and regions. As I mentioned at the outset, there are other actors who have greater influence. In this context, there a number of ways in which planners can be "effective.” One is to embrace and understand the fact that planning is ultimately about place, which is essential because it is through place that citizens relate to, experience and absorb the everyday world. A far more deep-rooted and sophisticated understanding of place would lead to more effective actions. Second, and perhaps more importantly, planners need to be more ambitious in the kinds of urban transformations that are needed for a more just and equitable city. These include being more strategic about the types of interventions that are required, which are beyond the common tools of land use regulations and master planning. And all of this is immensely political, particularly in terms of the everyday relational politics of the city. Being politically savvy must be a vital skill for planners, especially for engaging with the kinds of power structures and political decision-making processes that truly influence the future of our cities.

An approach that deserves great consideration is the design approach. By design, I don’t just mean the passive creation of spaces and structures, but rather an approach that is critical, transdisciplinary and engaged. One example of this design approach is developing thinking that is both critical and creative, such as creating a much more democratic public realm and designing new systems of governance. Another example of this approach is to design processes as much as places by learning to collaborate in much more substantive ways with communities. A third example is — whenever appropriate — to develop open-ended projects that lead to more effective solutions, such as designing transportation infrastructure that prioritizes providing cost-effective choices rather than simply getting from point A to point B. Such a creative and critical design approach to urban transformation is relevant because it not only encourages the grounding of crucial issues in the specific contexts of place, but it also encourages exploratory and experimental strategies that eschew linear and formulaic ones. This creates room for more democratic means, broader political coalitions and multiple paths to transformation.


"The point is not simply to replace one fully formulated type of planning with another ready-made formula; rather, the point is learn from current efforts to create new ones and ultimately, to engage in the moral struggle that is necessary for moral progress."


Ultimately, urban transformation is about moral progress. Moral progress demands political engagement in addition to technical skills. As Peter Marcuse reminds us, the present paradigm of planning as a field dominated by professional practice belies the myth that it is somehow apolitical. Nor is the conventional opposition of technocratic versus political approaches adequate. We need new paradigms, many of which are already in practice, such as social movements, political coalitions and informal strategies. Informal strategies are particularly common in the Global South and can serve as an inspiration for the Global North. Even in a city like Las Vegas, it is labor unions — not planners that are helping create and preserve well-paying service jobs, with housing and health benefits and programs in citizenship. In fact, the formidable Culinary Union is an organization that generates wealth for both members and non-members, while being extremely effective in mobilizing workers around public policy and political issues. The point is not simply to replace one fully formulated type of planning with another ready-made formula; rather, the point is learn from current efforts to create new ones and ultimately, to engage in the moral struggle that is necessary for moral progress. For that, we need approaches that are far more radical than our current understanding of “good planning” and “progressive planning.”



We feature stories on inclusive urban planning practices, grassroots organizing, and civic action. Our contributors and readers are activists, reporters, practitioners, academics, and community members.


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