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.