Friday, 17 July 2015 20:13

Values or illusions? Planners in difficult times

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In opening the congress Karel Maier reminded us of the high value that Jan Hus, the Czech priest and philosopher, placed on truth. Hus urged us to seek truth, speak truth and defend truth. His influence is evident in the title of a collection of Vaclav Havel's essays, "Living in Truth".  These are high ideals to live up to. In our age, truth is seen as relative, rather than absolute, so we may need to see truth in different ways.

EU Regional Policy and The Theatre of the Absurd

Havel the playwrite was part of the Theatre of the Absurd. In difficult times living in truth requires us to engage with the absurd. As the living standards of Greeks are set to be further reduced, is the EU Treaty aim of Territorial Cohesion a truth being spoken, an absurdist way of living with an untruth, or a joke to delude the gullible?

The EU’s Stability and Growth Pact has delivered instability and negative growth. Luxembourg provides EU leadership while operating as a tax haven, enabling companies to avoid making fair contributions to sustaining essential public services in other parts of Europe. These policies and practices have overridden solidarity and democracy. This matters to planners, because these values have underpinned our profession and discipline. Were they just illusions?

Spatial coordination of infrastructure investment is another defining aim of European spatial planning, as are aspirations to make places inclusive and environmentally sustainable. Are these still credible when the European social model is being demolished? Once there were welfare states; today states prioritise corporate welfare.

There is a spatial dimension to this revolution. Agglomeration economies draw private investment to the major urban areas, especially capital cities. Increasingly governments also invest in those same successful places to redress the diseconomies of agglomeration and sustain competitiveness.

Rather than investing for regional equality and to restore jobs, austerity is taking money out of the pockets of the poorest and withdrawing universal public services. These financial transfers impact adversely on smaller settlements and peripheral regions, further fuelling the out-migration of the young and able.

Vales or illusions?

A character in Milan Kundera's The Joke observes  “A value debased and an illusion unmasked have the same pitiful shell. They are identical. There is nothing easier than to take one for the other.”

"Fuzzy responsibilities" has been a theme of this congress. The demise of the welfare state model of planning leaves us unsure just what planning is for, and what difference it might make. Are the values of planning being debased, or are illusions being unmasked by Europe's new political economy?

Why does planning promise so much but deliver so little?

My chapter in the Encounters in Planning Thought book asks why planning promises so much but delivers so little? I came into planning in the 1960s with a sense of idealism. I saw planning as a way to rebuild cities, to create better housing and living conditions for the working class, as part of the welfare state. It was a force for regional economic development and balance. Such assumptions were mainstream in much of Europe in the 1960s.

After a century of modern planning there are widening differences in living conditions within and between cities.  In Europe we have shrinking cities, homeless people, regions left to rot. Globally, over a billion people are living in slums.

Where do these truths leave our illusions and how should they shape our practices? If we hold true to our values, what should we be doing? We need transformative planning practices. Through my career I have sought and advocated such practices, and experienced how they are contested and contained.

Planning education 

In the UK in the 1960s and 70s planning education shunned research, and especially critical research. The studio pedagogy reproduced a top-down, technocratic practice. If, as a student, you spoke out against this, you risked being thrown off the course for not having a "professional" attitude. As a planning school seeking to subvert the orthodoxy, and to give students a critical perspective, we risked losing RTPI accreditation and being closed by the university.

Since those distant days planning education has been restructured massively. In the business that is planning education today, are you enabling transformative practices? Are students consumers, or are they encouraged to create new relations to each other, to learning, and to their profession? Does any European planning school run an inter-professional project equivalent to working with residents on slum upgrading in an informal settlement, as does a South African school which I know?

Professional institutes

With colleagues in the 1970s I formed the Radical Institute Group, which achieved some significant change in the RTPI. Are our professional institutes today prepared to “live in truth”? They do a good job in putting together claims for the benefits that planning can bring. But if they do not also take a stand on the oppressive use of planning then they are creating an illusion, rather than living by our values.    

Planning practice

In the late 1960s I worked as planner for Glasgow city council and saw the inside of the redevelopment machine – bureaucratic, defensive, unresponsive to evidence. Challenge it and your career would not progress.

Today local council planners are less poweful. Austerity makes public planning agencies risk averse. It strips out expertise and capacity. It makes responsibilities fuzzy, not just casually or accidentally, but as part of the process of shifting resources from incomes to capital.

With scant investment in public sector innovation (other than in accountancy or IT), low cost initiatives become the main source of a counter-narrative. Temporary uses, pop-ups and urban learning labs are potential avenues to explore, but they also contain illusion, e.g. they can be elitist, and drivers of gentrification.

Advocacy and insurgent urbanism

I did advocacy planning in a public housing scheme in Edinburgh for 15 years. Our efforts to create new forms of participatory governance were ended by cuts in public spending triggered by the IMF.  

Erik Swyngedouw in the opening address was excited about urban insurgency. However, the research needs to be clearer about what are the urban dimensions and practical implications of the diverse actions that he celebrates. Urban riots are nothing new in the UK or USA, nor unique to Europe today.

In reinvigorating our egalitarianism, we need to face up to its internal contradictions. Researchers from Central and Eastern Europe such as Ivan Tosics and István Szelény draw on valuable experience. Critique is necessary but not sufficient. Critical research needs to connect with practice too.

During the last 20 years I have mainly worked internationally. It focused me on the need to get governments and international agencies to understand that there can be no sustainable development without sustainable urbanisation, and no sustainable urbanisation without pro-poor planning. We have made some progress on this front. We will have a human settlements UN Sustinable Development Goal to make places "safe, inclusive, resiient and sustainable. Let’s teach it and hold our governments to it.

Paths for planners in difficult times

Seek the truth – do research to understand what lies beneath the surface: don’t just tell us what the puppets are doing, look for the puppet masters.

Speak the truth – don’t just prepare your students for practice; prepare them to question and lead practice.

Defend the truth – even if that means saying “not in my name” to things being done by planners, planning institutions or in the name of “smart, sustainable and inclusive growth”.

Live the truth – in the way you work with your students, your colleagues, the other professions and disciplines, this European network and in global solidarity with the poor and marginalised. Remember Havel's idea of "the power of the powerless".


In speaking the truth, know that you might be wrong;

In defending the truth, respect the rights of others to disagree;

In living the truth, recognise how privileged you are to be paid to teach and research about places and planning; embrace humour and absurdity; but know that you might lose your job.


Some hard 'truths' for us planning folk... calling for a redoubling of our efforts to mix in some goodness and beauty. Patrick Geddes suggested we all might want to put G.T.B. after our names, in anything we offer (Good True Beautiful).
Ian Wight, University of Manitoba.
Read 4305 times Last modified on Tuesday, 21 July 2015 17:02

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