Resurrecting the Dodo: The Death and Life of Urban Planning

Sitting in the Burger King in the center of Almere – the Dutch New Town built on land reclaimed from the North Sea – it suddenly struck me that this might be the culmination of the entire history of urbanism. Chewing on a Bacon Double Swiss I looked out of the burger joint onto the neighboring multiplex, the empty public square, the parking garage, the shops that lead up to the station and out towards the houses where tree lined roads lead out to fields where expanses of sand are marked with coloured flags ready for foundations for new estates to be laid. This whole landscape has been transformed from sea bed, dredged up into city and given form and structure by the imaginative force of urban planning.

Almere is a synthetic city that forms the full stop at the end of the end of the history of urban planning. Its direct conceptual heritage springs from post WWII New Towns built in an era of optimism that allied a technocratic, top down form of planning in association with a belief in social democracy. It and they are laced with DNA from visionary high modernist plans such as the Ville Radieuse which in turn inherit the heritage of the Garden Cities of Ebenezer Howard. Almere, whose first house was completed in 1976, might be the only surviving relative of this family tree – the last Dodo in a lineage of urban planning stretching back like a biblical dynasty in which x begat y and y begat z and z begat and so on back through time. Soon after Almeres founding, however, the entire conception of urban planning changed.

At the end of the 20th century, the idea of urban design as a method of making the world a better place collapsed. Firstly, it came under a sustained attack from an unholy alliance from both left and right, from radicals and royalty. An orgy of strange bedfellows whose cast included Jane Jacobs and Prince Charles, New Urbanists and anarchists and so on who added their voices to an atonal chorus attacking the principles of top-down Modernist planning. These multiple and contradictory agendas formed not a coherent argument but an unanswerable force which cracked the structure of the discipline. Guilt and failure took the place of utopian positivism. The ideologies, methodologies, internal momentum, ambitions that had sustained a hundred years of progressive planning suddenly evaporated.

Disciplinary crisis is one thing (and not necessarily a bad thing). But the real change in urban planning wasn’t precipitated by public debate, by arguments around the role or nature of urban planning. It was a shift in the conditions of planning itself. Urban planning as a public project conceived and implemented by government intended for the public good vanished. It became a project undertaken by private enterprise whose motivation remains first and foremost profit. From the Eighties onwards, the bodies that undertook planning became those of deregulated government. Private and quango-ised public/private institutions became the mechanisms of planning and development. And under these conditions, the entire conception of planning changed.

At its core, the Modernist project could be characterised by the desire to emancipate. This was the Mojo of 20th century urban planning, the thing which animated its actions. In the Reganite/Thatherite landscape and beyond, cities would no longer be conceived as mechanisms of social democracy, but solely as instruments of the market. We should regard the dismantling of this Mojo as a highly politicised act of ideology.

The famous photograph of Le Corbusier’s hand, disembodied, hovering over a model of the Ville Radiese is an image that encapsulates a particular power relationship between the creator and the city, setting the architect as a powerful visionary forming the cities physical shape.  The hand reached down from above, creating a city and a society in the manner of a sculptor shaping clay.

In our deregulated, neo-liberal context, there is another kind of hand looming over us. But it’s not the hand of a visionary designer, nor the hand of an explicit ideology. It is the ‘invisible hand’ of Adam Smith, the hand of the market. This hand shapes our landscapes through its own kind of mojo: self-interest, competition, supply and demand.

Modernist planning was characterised by a totalised approach which seamlessly combined a vision of society with the means by which it might be manifested. Neoliberal, free market urban planning is a much more diffuse, slippery entity. This might explain characteristics of architecture and urban planning projects of the last decades. In the absence of a Modernist mojo we see heightened formalism – as though form has ballooned to fill the space vacated by ideology.

In place of ideology comes lifestyle, most obviously articulated in Richard Floridas “The Rise of the Creative Class”. Florida imagines a demographic termed ‘the creative class’ composed of high-tech workers, artists, musicians, lesbians and gay men. He argues that high concentrations of these “high bohemians” “correlate with a higher level of economic development and form an open, dynamic, personal and professional urban environment”. Thus prosperity (the neo-liberal reinvention of emancipation) is not a function of the physicality of traditional urban planning – infrastructure and so on – but is created out of hip-ville gentrification. Urban planning’s mojo is reinvented as a form of diffuse hype or vague vibe that somehow remakes our cities. Architects are part of Floridas ‘solution’ – not because of their professionalism, or their intellectual or design ability, but because of their membership of the Creative Class: their taste in music, the way they dress and where they hang out. Florida remakes the sensation of Modernism’s totalised vision of the city. Except here the conceptual glue is not emancipation, but a high bohemian lifestyle.

Under the conditions of neo-liberal urban planning we can no longer engage in Modernism’s utopian programme of social emancipation. But that doesn’t mean we don’t want to make a better world. We might argue that this desire for good-doing has been replaced with environmental concern as a means by which architects and planners might address the public good. The Green agenda argues that by understanding the environmental impact of architecture and the city and then developing energy-efficient and environmentally responsible ways of building we not only address issues of resources and climate change but also fulfill sentiments that we expect architecture (or architects) to exhibit.

Our current approach to sustainability, however, is characterised as a technological issue that can be ‘solved’ through engineering. And – like engineering – sustainability as an idea in urban planning presents itself as ideologically transparent. In other words, it does not declare a position beyond its technical remit. In this, it echoes neoliberalism’s apparent ideological disengagement. But it’s this appearance of benign practicality that makes neo-liberalism lethal, like a colourless, odourless anaesthetising gas. Equally, sustainability used as a justification for architecture and urban planning is disingenuous. Even if projects lived up to their zero carbon billing (without recourse to smudging the books by offsetting) their only achievement would be not making the world any worse. By isolating sustainability as a purely technical issue, it becomes a degraded echo of Modernism’s totalising ambition that synthesised the technological with social and political ideologies.

These are just a number of characteristics of mojo-less urban design. On the one hand it is politically and ideologically disengaged. On the other, it must be fragmented so that the relationship between cause and effect – or rather what it does and why it does it – are divorced. We might well wonder if there is anything urban designers can do except illustrate neoliberal Floridian visions of hip-ville urbanism with a small carbon footprint?

The pressing concern is how we might respond to the terms under which contemporary urban planning is carried out. How might we make sense and develop tactics which resurrect a relevant and progressive practice?  The first point of resistance to neoliberalism might well be history – a way to counter its end-of-history philosophy. If neoliberalism argues that we occupy a post-historical moment and a post-ideological condition, then collapsing the entire weight of history into our present circumstance might form the basis of escape. Not history in its received form but reevaluated and cut loose from its usual theoretical and artistic significance. This brewing cocktail of utopias, ideologies, solutions and tactics could suggest hybrid trajectories that might help us evade the fate neoliberalism delivers us up to.

Such a practical yet culturally rich toolkit might help in reformulating and reanimating the discipline of planning and at the same time inform detailed decisions in design work. What, for example, if the figures suggested by Paolo Soleri’s Mesa City coincidently chimed with planning policy in Milton Keynes and thus began to suggest the most unlikely of hybrids? Could you fuse disparate elements together to create, for example, floating, linear, garden-Ville Radieus’s? Might the non-judgemental re-assessment of these projects allow us to recompose the languages of urban planning outside of the traditional partisan arguments? And in doing this might we forge solutions that address present concerns that learn from histories real and fictional, ancient and modern?

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  1. ana maria says:

    i’m very interested in your argument of history as resistance to neoliberalism–particularly in that hinge moment when capital was about to take over, and modernism still believed in itself as proposal and not as pure utopia. there are narratives that break apart and have been put aside, alternate histories that we have forgotten.

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