The Work and Role of Urban Planners in Local Development – Some Critical Remarks

Ivan Tosics

By Ivan Tosics, on August 5th, 2013

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Recently, I attended the joint congress of two large associations of planners, the Association of European Schools of Planning (AESOP) and the Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning (ACSP) took place on 15th-19th July at the University College Dublin.

Of the approximately 1200 participants only 500 were European, the rest came mainly from the United States (over 300) and from Asian countries (260). This unique mix of planners from almost all parts of the world gave a good basis for discussions on planning theories and for exchange of concrete planning experiences.

Here I list some of the most interesting impressions I gathered. All these were linked to the work and role of planners in local development.

1. Contradiction between What Planners Learn and What They Do: The Example of Gated Communities

A Brazilian planner, Julianna Zanotto, discussed the dilemma of planners on the example of gated communities. Planners learn at the planning school that gated communities lead to social problems but then approve each day such plans… and in fact it is the developers who understand best the realities and the rules of the game.

2. Physical and Social Mix in Neighbourhoods: Confronting the Ideas of Planners with the Views of Other Stakeholders

A Canadian planner, Leah Perrinn discussed the results of a research about housing and social mix in various owner-occupation dominated parts of Canada. The interviews with different stakeholders have shown, that

  • Planners believe that mix and proximity brings co-existence and interactions;
  • Elected officials argue that mix may imply instability or problems;
  • Developers and builders claim that allowing rental in a single family area does not work; mix only leads to social problems; 
  • Residents think that mix does not work well and may not be welcomed as it might undermine neighbourhood stability (both in social and fiscal sense). 

These results show that the official multi-culturalism policy of Canada and the basically favourable opinion of people about mixed housing is only effective at a superficial level of interaction. Benefits are seen in a general way, while problems are very specific and concrete. This explains that developers produce mix in a coarse grain. The physical pattern responds to social context: on the smallest scale it is not mixed but street by street it is, separated by green areas.

3. The Role of Planners in Coping with Severe Income Disparities

In one of the workshops a new book with this title (edited by Fainstein, S – Carmon, N) was introduced. The different chapters of the book raise some interesting suggestions to achieve more justice in urban development, such as

  • Improved acessibility instead of improved mobility could better serve the interests of all
  • Affordable housing: as far as possible, avoid demolition and prefer renovation of existing housing projects (in user-controlled way)
  • Variety of small scale solutions (instead of large projects) make the city more resilient and probably more just.

What can planners do?

The authors of each chapter of the book gave different answers.

According to Susan Fainstein planners can not restructure society but can show solutions which would reduce inequality on the local level.

Heather Campbell argued that economic development should not be left for economists – planners have important role to work on deprived areas but also on middle class strata and deliver information on these.

According to Rachel Bratt the role of planners is to help the residents to get control and power in the decision making process. The outcome should be the „Negotiated settlement”.

Karen Chapple has shown that even if planners do not hate the poor, certainly they do not like them… thus planners should meet more poor people to better understand them.

Georg Galster emphasized that planners have to understand the rules of the game which create inequalities in metropolitan areas, making some places full with opportunities while leaving others behind with none. From the geography of high hills (opportunities) and flat plain (desert of opportunities) planners should strive for a more equal-level plain, with less height differences, i.e. more justice.

I have shown on the example of post-socialist cities how unsuccessful the efforts of planners were to create more equal society – both in socialism and in capitalism. Even so, planners should continue their job in the belief that the society can be made more just. Not less importantly, planners have to search for those decision making levels which are open to such ideas…

An interesting contribution to the workshop was the statement of Peter Marcuse: there is a large difference between what planners can do and what they should do. What planners can do as bureaucrats is very limited. On the other hand planners have the knowledge to change the rules, and they have to cooperate in this with the social movements.

4. Critical Remarks about Resilience Approaches

The recently very fashionable concept of resilience was in the center of debates during the congress.

Susan Fainstein quoted a publication: forget sustainabiity, today it is about resilience.

But, as Simin Davoudi asks: is resilience a bridging concept or dead end? Is it a useful term or only an empty signifier?

According to Fainstein resilience (and the connected complexity theories) tend to talk about the impact of everything on everyting, with the danger not to talk about anything. The importance is on the trade-offs when we make planning. She analysed positively the concept of evolutionary resilience (C S Holling): continuous adaptation and change rather than return to previous equilibrum; and the concept of socio-ecological resilience (Cathie Wilkinson) addressing matters of power, conflict, contradiction and culture. She quoted David Harvey saying that public and private urban leaders have neither the technical expertise nor the financial resources to create and execute resilience strategies that address the need of the poor or vulnerable people. However, quoting the opinion of Bruce Katz, if coalitions of mayors, civic leaders, labor leaders, business leaders all come along and show that change can really happen, this will be a powerful sign for national policies to introduce real changes.

The need for real changes was also expressed by Michael Neuman (Sydney). In his opinion the concept of resilience, which was very much favoured in this conference, is in reality hindering the society to become more sustainable. The capitalist societies are fundamentally unsustainable and resilience could give them a further mandate instead of aiming for fundamental change. The real problem is the resilience of the capitalist model in its unsustainable processes…

During the congress the new results of URBACT capitalization (the six thematic papers Cities of Tommorrow: Action Today) could widely be distributed. Also discussions have started about the potentials for future collaboration between the two organizations. It seems to be likely that URBACT can contribute in the future to the yearly conferences of AESOP with a workshop on practice-based examples of urban development. On the other hand AESOP, involving the most important European planing institutes, could contribute to the expertise base of URBACT with methodological support which is not business oriented.

Furthermore, links could be developed between URBACT networks and the AESOP Thematic Groups, some of which might have direct relevance for URBACT work: Transnational and cross-border planning; Urban design in planning; Transportation planning and policy; Resilience and risk mitigation strategies; Evaluation in planning; Sustainable food planning; Urban cultures and public spaces; Planning and conflict.

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To sum up: the joint congress of AESOP and ACSL was a large an interesting gathering of planners all over the world, representing different theoretical views and concrete experiences. URBACT should in the future contribute to these discussions while listening to the accumulated theoretical and practical knowledge.

Soon we will be back in Dublin for the URBACT Summer University. Looking forward to it.



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