Planning needs to be political, more than ever

Along with many others, I am deeply troubled by the development trajectory nations and cities seem still firmly to be on. The dangers of the ever growing claims that our mode of development make on the limited resources of the planet get lip service at best. The same fate applies to the increasing gap it digs between those having more than they need and those having much less than enough. Against this backdrop, planning needs to be political, more than ever. But how?

One less Car

My first claim is that planning is, above all and foremost, about shaping spatial conditions for the everyday life of people. It may do so directly, by designing and implementing alterations of the physical environment. These, by definition, will result in spatial possibilities and constraints to individual practices: facilitating some lives, making other lives more difficult, or even impossible. Planning may shape conditions for the everyday also in more indirect and subtle, but no less influential ways by regulating the use of the physical environment. Even more indirectly and subtly, planning can shape the physical environment by selectively directing public attention towards some issues instead of others, by involving in the ensuing debates some instead of others, and by framing the process through which those involved can identify problems and explore solutions. This shaping of the physical environment involves a huge responsibility, with overwhelming political implications. Spatial constraints to everyday individual practices amount to an implicit, but nevertheless extremely powerful message. More and less possible practices also become more and less desirable practices. Desirable practices are, in fact, also legitimate practices, others are not, or not as much. Using a designated commercial space as a shop and a residential space as a home is made possible, and thus desirable and legitimate. Sleeping in a grocery store and running a restaurant from a home is not. Travelling miles to access a job or a retail outlet is made possible, and thus implicitly desirable and legitimate, whatever the environmental or social costs. Working and shopping in one’s own residential neighborhood is made impossible for many, and thus implicitly undesirable and illegitimate, even if it might be environmentally more efficient and socially more inclusive.

My second claim is that the political implications of planning constraints to the everyday are today deeper than ever. Few would contest that the present patterns of everyday life in developed countries and cities are in the long term not compatible with the limited resources of the planet. And yet, the fact that they are facilitated embodies the message that they are also desirable and legitimate. Furthermore, it makes them de facto a possible desirable and legitimate aspiration in developing countries and cities. Similarly, we know that making the everyday life of developed countries and cities possible – or, for that matter, bringing the everyday life of at least some in developing countries and cities to similar levels  – translates in a widening of the gap between the privileged and the unprivileged, those enjoying and those suffering the everyday. There is also increasing evidence that, at least beyond a certain level, there is no relationship between well-being and the material wealth which often seems the only measure of the quality of the everyday.  And yet, the physical environment keeps sending the message that the everyday life of developed countries and cities is possible, thus desirable, thus legitimate.

My third claim is that only engaging with the everyday, and engaging politically, can planning be relevant.  Planning and related disciplines have developed an impressive body of knowledge about how a spatial order may be constructed, and about how it may affect everyday practices. it is also knowledge that, when effectively shared, can empower not only planners, but also all others, to be more political in their own, everyday choices. Three main responsibilities seem to derive from this. First, planning has to help create more room for individual choice in the physical environment, so that more people can choose their own everyday. Second, it has to help raise the awareness that individual everyday choices might have implications for the everyday of others, in different places or in different times. Third, planning has to help find concrete ways to make individual freedom and the freedom of others spatially compatible. Not doing so might give planners immediate gratification and apparent consensus. It would, however, not get planners closer to addressing the issues that society urgently needs to deal with.  And, I am afraid, this negligence would, sooner or later, turn on them by making planning redundant.

Luca Bertolini

Note: this is a revised and shortened version of an editorial originally published in the journal Planning Theory and Practice, Vol. 14, No. 2.

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3 responses to “Planning needs to be political, more than ever

  1. I am definitely not saying the planning should be centrally controlled! Actually, I tend to agree with your interpretation of planning processes. HOWEVER, I do think that we as planners have power, and are influencing these processes, whether we like it or not. And this requires that we take our responsibilities. For instance, with reference to your last point: being open to the knowledge of locals is a choice, including the choice of which knowledge to be open to (there are many, and often conflicting ‘locals’!), helping that knowledge get through the planning process is hard work, and along the way there are many opportunities for planners to steer the process in one or the other direction (whether we acknowledge it or not). Planning is NEVER neutral!

  2. If I understand it correctly, you are arguing that planning outcomes are implicitly legitimate and desirable because they are being realised. Secondly, you seem to imply that planning is something that can be centrally controlled: “we should change it”.
    I wholly disagree with both, in my view planning is completely impossible to direct in any other way than a haphazard response to local circumstances. Planning in practice is a process of trial and error and attempts to copy successful ideas. Planning outcomes therefore are by no means definitely legitimate nor desirable.
    I think that planning already is deeply political. Planning is under constant pressure of individual behaviour. Wherever things are being planned, the planners have to deal with the individual responses when the planned area or object is used. A planning outcome only becomes legitimate when individuals give it meaning through the way they use it. This is the politics of planning: an individual that implicitly starts a political debate because he or she creates a shortcut through a park, cycles on the buslane, chooses certain areas to do shopping, starts a vegetable garden in public space, etc. etc. These are the kind of outcomes that planning did not consider, and that might even be undesirable from a public management point of view, and that at the same time indicate that reconsideration, political debate is needed of what is legitimate and desirable.
    I thus think that planners should not empower locals with knowledge on how the planning system works. I think that locals should empower planners with knowledge to adapt to locally legitimate and desirable behaviour.

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