Why are 20th century utopias important for planning?

Why are 20th century utopias important for planning?

One of the first ‘fun’ books I’ve read during my BA education was a book published in 1516, Thomas More’s ‘Utopia’, which was suggested by my urban economics professor as an extra reading to understand the idea of property rights and principles of ideal social order in cities. As a first response, I thought that it had nothing to do with urban planning. Later on, same semester, I see the link when analysing ‘communal apartmentsin an assignment to understand how spatial utopias were linked to political ideologies, which were spatialised in cities of socialist Russia through urban planning tools. Utopias of the early 20th century urbanism did not survive long, but they inspired diverse projects and ideas all over the world, and their unknown little histories influenced theories of planning today.

Zyrardow, a 19th century industrial era factory town, which contains excellent examples of modernist era planning, communism, and neoliberal transformation all together!

Modernity brought the innovative ideas of architects and designers to the surface, which became to be known as urban utopia’s during the early 20th century. Although they all appear to be quite unique, I have always been sceptical on their designers for disregarding the perspective of people who would live in the areas, houses, cities or neighbourhoods created by them. As I argued elsewhere modernist planning and urban development created a lot of residential space without consulting the people who would live in it. However, one cannot deny that utopias are quite important for cities because they worked as ‘living urban labs’ at the time, which are quite fancy experimental spaces in contemporary urban planning research today. One can even argue that the areas created by the utopians during the early 20th century helped urban planners to understand what does not work. The utopians were usually architects with broader interest in developing neighbourhoods or cities, with strong social principles about how urban space can be organise to provide a better living environment. The first ‘urban planner’ identity emerged out of these urban design-oriented architects. They strongly believed that spatial interventions, designed by an expert, can provide better conditions for urban neighbourhoods. They had ideas for traffic circulation, commuting and public transportation, kind of buildings people should live in, or kind of public spaces people should use. They thought they could create the ‘ideal city’, as Zef Hemel very colorfully illustrated in his lecture of last week at Introduction to Urban Planning. In order to understand the conditions under which the utopias for ideal city are created, one needs to understand the late 19th century urban dynamics a little.

Last week I discussed the importance of theory in planning practice in my Introduction to Urban Planning class, where I illustrated the role of theory in understanding the processes that shape the urban space. I underlined that analysing the history, conditions of capital accumulation, and needs for new economic functions in the city can help planning practitioner to understand the future consequences of spatial interventions. In other words, I displayed that practitioners can predict the future if they have the ability to analyse the processes defined by theoretical arguments (such as how industrial revolution speeded up the capital accumulation processes in cities). As Fainstein and DeFillipis put it in the introductory chapter in their “Readings in Planning Theory” book in reference to Peter Hall (2002) planning emerges as the twentieth-century response to the nineteenth-century industrial city. However, Fainstein and DeFillipis criticise the reading of the history through famous urban utopians’ actions, as they argue that there is a great deal of ‘exclusion’ in this way of historical analysis, just based on the influence of the special designer or the state, which disregard the influence of marginalised and oppressed actors at that period. In other words, they tell us to read the alternative histories, parallel realities and marginalised processes and actors when we try to understand a historical process. Jane Jacobs, as David Evers’s lecture at Introduction to Urban Planning on ‘(Anti)modernity and planning’ illustrated last week, was one of those figures who was inviting planners to hear the voices of the marginalised groups and include the substandardised spaces into plan making processes. In that respect, looking at 20th century utopians such as Ebenezer Howard, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Le Corbusier as analysed by Robert Fishman we can actually follow how theories that are accommodated by planning scholars today found their roots in early utopian thinkers that are connected to the modern times. From Fainstein and DeFillipis’s point of view, history of planning should not only contain the utopians and their work as the reality of urban development is accommodated (perhaps even dominated in some of the cases) by unknown ‘plural and indigenous’ histories. I think of Jane Jacobs as one of those brave thinkers of the era, who was trying to put the attention on these histories. It is fun to imagine how ideal cities would have looked like if her ideas were accommodated at the time.

When we look at ‘modern planning’ today as David Evers presented in his lecture of last week at Introduction to Urban Planning, we can see that the idea that ‘everything should fit perfectly well together (alles moet netjes passen)’, which requires perfect hierarchy of the state, the province and the municipalities, has roots in modernity. The reality is never that perfect and pieces do not always very easily match each other. Contemporary research in urban governance shows that there is a great variety of actors and diversity within them in decision making from private sector to civil society to public sector. This diversity draws a rather hectic, chaotic and substandardised picture, which yet contains a certain structure, regulation and order in it. Planning today takes place within this multi-actor decision making structure that we simplify as ‘governance’, which is quite different than expert-centric approach of the utopians. Yet, I think the 20th century utopias serve us as learning tools in planning schools, though we need to look through the cracks and ‘read’ them in special ways to understand ‘other’ processes in the era to have a comprehensive point of view.

Encounter with a young planning practitioner…

Encounter with a young planning practitioner…

I invited planning practitioner Jimme Zoete to my class of yesterday within the framework of a course that I coordinate (Introduction to Urban Planning) to talk simply about what he does as an urban planner who works in the private sector. Jimme works for a consultancy firm (Witteween+Bos) as a Team Leader of Spatial Planning, and he is specialized in environmental topics mainly, which is also his field of expertise. I interviewed him a few years back within the framework of a book project on young planning practitioners. Jimme was also one of the authors of the Interface collection (Float Like a Butterfly, Sting Like a Bee) I’ve coordinated for the Journal of Planning Theory & Practice. He is a very enthusiastic planner who loves what he does. I want to share that kind of enthusiasm with first year BA students and also give them enough platform to have encounters with practitioners so that they can ask questions they have in mind directly to them. Couple of days ago students interviewed practitioners from all over Amsterdam as an assignment to have their very first encounter with planners. Jimme’s lecture gave them another opportunity to have a conversation with a practitioner in the classroom environment while he shared his daily agenda as an urban planner.

Jimme’s role in the class was to show students role of a planner in real life. I asked the students to keep the previous reading material in mind while listening him. They’ve read Marcuse’s “The three historic currents of city planning” and also Fainstein and DeFillipis’s introduction to the textbook, where they emphasize the importance of planning theory in practice of planning. Having these in mind, the students could pinpoint several links between what they’ve read and heard in previous classes, and what they heard from him. I asked Jimme before he started his lecture whether theory is important for him in his daily practice. He said that it is very important and also he gave an example from a situation he was in last week where he had a disagreement with a more experienced professional who argued that in order to make companies follow the rules there must be more norms enforced by the planning regulations. Jimme said, knowing the context of planning during the modernist era, he could see that top-down measures are not the solution. He was then referring to the companies who played with norms to get away with polluting activities.

Another link the students could have made with the previous lectures is how Jimme emphasized the importance of ‘context’. In my previous lecture, for instance, I mentioned why ‘context dependent interpretations’ are important for planning theory. Within the framework of explaining why social sciences are different from exact sciences, I told them that because of different contexts, same kind of causes may have different results, and that’s why our ‘facts’ may differ in social sciences. Jimme summarized what he does in his practice under 3 kinds of analysis: (1) Environmental impact studies; (2) Location (area) analysis; (3) Stakeholder analysis. While he illustrated with interactive exercises what analytical tools he used (risk analysis, mapping, zoning plan analysis, stakeholder analysis) he also underlined for each type of analysis the context made a difference. Students could also observe the link between the skills of planners I mentioned in my class and skills Jimme presented in relation to how he makes analysis.

At the end of the class I was discussing with some students who wanted to understand how to locate this lecture in their learning process and in relation to the reading material. I told them that this is just an exercise to make small observations about concepts they have learned and reality. They didn’t have to do too much to locate this lecture in their learning experience other than making these small observations such as how ‘technical skills’ mattered for a young practitioner, how some of these skills (like stakeholder analysis) can be used for social transformation or social justice purposes; how he searched for his field of interest during his education and also find a job in the same field he is enthusiastic about; or why theories in planning mattered for him. They could also observed that enthusiasm in professional choices start at the university level. Jimme is one of the founding members of Ekistics, which is a Groningen based association established by planning graduates of the University of Groningen. G.D.P. (Groninger Society of Planners) Ekistics is a Dutch association of Urban Planners that studied or are studying Planning at the University of Groningen. The association was founded in 2008 by three master students. It was named after the concept coined by Doxiadis in 1940 defining a universal language for the size of human settlements. In 8 years Ekistics has grown to 30 members all working or studying in Planning. Its members, called Ekistici, are on average 25 years old and work in diverse fields such as infrastructure, environmental, energy, urban and tourism planning. They work at governments, universities, consultancy firms, contractors etc. Enthusiastic academics, students and practitioners with a range of expertises, make Ekistics a learning and sharing platform. This alone shows how theory matters for planning practitioners as these young professionals still get together to read, discuss and make connections between their daily practice and what they learned in the planning school.

All in all, it was a fantastic opportunity for first year planning students to meet a motivated planner, who loves what he does, and to be able to ask him questions they had in mind. And that was the whole idea of this class, making connections based on this encounter…

Why is theory important for planning?

Why is theory important for planning?

In today’s class I explained my first year BA students what theory is, what the place of planning discipline is within social theory, and why theory is important for planning practitioners. Tough job to simplify all these in 90 minutes, considering most of the students hear all these for the first time. It’s a lot to take in ! But of course, they will realise it soon that there are recurring themes and ideas, which will fall into place through time. My approach was to illustrate the link between theory and practice by focusing on a real life case, Het Hem, a brownfield regeneration project located in Hembrugterrein in Zaandam. I used what Fainstein & DeFillipis (2016)* said in the text book in reference to theory as a starting point: “Planning must be predictive, and predicting the future impacts of planning interventions requires theoretical understanding of the processes that shape the making of spaces and places. Thus, planners need theory and, while they may be relying on theory that is internalized, implicit and unexamined, it is present nonetheless” (Fainstein & DeFillipis, 2016: p.3). I concentrated on transferring the idea of how understanding of the processes that shape the making of urban spaces may help the practice of planning.

Het Hem is a regeneration project initiated by a private sector investor (Amerbough) targeting to accommodate creative industries (ateliers, workshops, etc), a hotel, a large restaurant and cafes, roof terrace, film theater and rental offices, as well as short stay apartments. It was covered by Het Parool, Amsterdam’s really cool newspaper this week and I thought using it as an illustrative case may help them to built a bridge between theory and practice.

My idea to explain the role of theory in predicting the future was to show them step by step how we can establish some ‘facts’ to predict the future. Earlier in the lecture I shared a small video where the role of ‘facts’ in making of theories was explained in the case of exact sciences. I did explain them, however, that our facts in social sciences may not be the same kind of ‘facts’ as in exact sciences due to the context-dependent nature of our interpretations in social sciences. Here, by using Het Hem as an illustrative case my aim was to show students what a practitioner, who may sit in a position to decide on the future of Hembrugterrein, has to keep in mind in his/her decision process. A planner, I simplified, should analyse or understand the past and the present conditions that brought the context in which a project as Het Hem is created while deciding on the future of this area. I’ve talked about ‘public interest’ as one of the focus points that theories in planning cover in my previous class and here, in the case of Het Hem, it is an important focal point to keep in mind as a general, principle target. I started with a question: How do we understand the processes that shape urban space ? I explained that understanding the processes that shape the urban space requires theoretical understandings as an important step in predicting it’s future.

I displayed my analysis with 3 elements: historical context, current capital accumulation processes in the city that supports brownfield regeneration, and new economic functions in the city. In other words, by understanding the characteristics of the historical context in which this particular urban space emerged as a 19th century ammunition factory; then linking these characteristics to the today’s tendency of property-driven regeneration projects where municipalities hope to realize socio-spatial transformations through private sector involvement; and then, finally, linking these to the new (popular) urban functions like ‘creative industries’, ‘food and beverages’, ‘temporary/shared office spaces’, or short-stay apartments, would help a planner in his/her decision on what to do with this urban space. The input for the planner’s decision should come from knowing how the past conditions (industrial history of the factory) resulted in the situation of today, how the present (derelict brownfield zone waiting for a new investment) conditions shape the capital accummulation processes, and how the future (new urban functions) is shaped by the private sector’s involvement, when deciding on how to deal with this project. Although I will explore in later classes in detail, I also introduced the importance of property market dynamics in contemporary planning practice today due to the market dependency of municipalities. By doing that I was hoping to make them see that a practitioner has to juggle with decisions like this to balance greater public interest and market dependency as private sector investments play a great role in urban development today.

“Planning must be predictive, and predicting the future impacts of planning interventions requires theoretical understanding of the processes that shape the making of spaces and places” (Fainstein and DeFillipis, 2016)… In the case of Het Hem project I illustrated how the industrial history has put this place on the map by manufacturing capital accumulated in this very space, and then how it became derelict because the industrial functions were not needed anymore, and hence the capital could accumulate elsewhere. However, then, how this urban space became one of the many opportunity zones in the city to accommodate new investments and picked up by an investor. The decision that (the imaginary) the planner has to take at this point is about how to deal with this decision. Is the planner going to leave the decisions on the new functions entirely to the investor’s wishes, or is s/he going to enforce his/her agenda for safeguarding wider public interest in this process? An urban planner should know that urban functions, such as creative industries, like previously popular functions such as manufacturing, may not be the target investment for new generation capital accumulation processes in the future. There will always be more popular investment channels in this growth-oriented, market dependent world. It means that, some principle decisions have to be taken, considering long term functions for such brownfield areas, especially considering the needs of urban residents. I asked students what they thought the most important problem of Amsterdam is. “Housing…affordable housing” they said. They are first year BA students. They are the future of planning. They will use their knowledge, skills and principles to bring substance back to planning again, I believe…

* Fainstein, S.S. and DeFilippis, J. eds., 2015. Readings in planning theory. John Wiley & Sons.

Modernist planning: What  went wrong?

Modernist planning: What went wrong?

Street view from Jane-Finch (Photo: Tuna Tasan-Kok)

“What went wrong with Bijlmer?” A student asked from the back of the class during the lecture on planning history in the Introduction to Urban Planning course that I’m coordinating at our Bachelor programme in UvA. We were discussing “city scientific”, a period of planning defined by Peter Marcuse (2016) referring to the products of modernity. Amsterdam’s Bijlmermeer project was one of those ‘scientific outputs’ of the era. This made me think of my own experience during a field trip for DIVERCITIES research in Toronto. While driving for the first time through the streets of Jane-Finch neighbourhood, another experimental product of modernist planning, I could immediately understand ‘what went wrong’. Forgotten human scale, disconnected spaces through high-way like infrastructure and borderless/meaningless empty “green” spaces, no shops or places to meet….feeling of loneliness and emptiness, feeling lost and out of place…kind of a feeling that makes you think something terribly wrong has happened. As elaborated elsewhere obsession with creating the ‘perfectly functioning space’ constricted modernist architects’ (like Le Corbusier) view of the people for whom they designed the city in the first place. This was the era where architects were envisioning and designing cities for people. This was before “planning” emerged as a discipline with its roots in diverse social sciences fields. Jane-Finch neighborhood in Toronto was developed as a modernist suburb during the 1960s, based on principles of large green space, wide avenues and high-rise apartment buildings. Today it is one of the most stigmatised neighbourhoods in the city with the largest concentrations of criminal gangs of any area in Canada. Jane-Finch is also one of the most diverse neighbourhoods in Toronto, although this does not get as much media coverage as the crime rates. Jane- Finch, houses a large immigrant population and diverse groups, but thanks to its community-planning tradition, some social transformations are taking place there and turning a stigmatised rundown area into a community hub. People of Jane-Finch find their own ways to make connections and create a very strong
feeling of “community”. Read more

Diverse Urbanization Dynamics Blog

Diverse Urbanization Dynamics Blog

As part of the Urban Geography: Urbanization and Cities of the Advanced Economies course at Utrecht University, Roosevelt Academy, I created a blog to engage with students. The course focused on the diverse urbanization dynamics and periods characterized by significant social and spatial change. Students were expected to conduct comparative case studies using team blogs so that we could all follow their progress online! Find out what happened throughout the course here.

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