This second half of my World View Timeline for planning globally over the past century covers the period 1964-2013. The first part, 1914-1963, was covered in an earlier blog. It highlighted the ideas and practices that shaped 50 years of planning – from Patrick Geddes’ “Cities in Evolution” to Jane Jacobs’ “The Death and Life of Great American Cities”. Again I will choose one item from each decade that seems to signify what the period was about.
This was when I came into planning, doing the post-graduate Diploma course at Manchester University from 1966-68. However, that event is NOT the highlight of the decade! In orthodox town planning, this was still the age of New Town building. Brasilia was taking shape, while here in the UK architects and planners made pilgrimages to see Cumbernauld, with its megalithic town centre piled atop a bleak Scottish hill. However, the real problems were in the cities. In the USA, suburbs spread as the cities burned. Urban riots prompted the War on Poverty and the Model Cities Program, heralding two decades of failed urban experiments to tackle the social and economic decay of neighbourhoods. This is my keynote entry.
The oil crises of the 1970s prompted questioning in the West of the idea that planners had to design cities for the car. De-industrialisation was leaving extensive areas of cities frighteningly derelict. Many thought that the counter-urban trends were a natural evolutionary closing chapter to the story that had begun with the industrial revolution. This was the period that saw the invention of urban regeneration and public-private partnerships in an attempt to revive the operation of urban property markets and return the middle classes (or at least young professionals) to the cities.
However, a new, more global perspective was also being forged. There had been a major UN summit on the environment in 1972. Now in Vancouver in 1976 came the Habitat conference, my definitive event for this decade. For the first time there was recognition that human settlements (the term adopted) posed a global challenge. The Declaration called on “Governments to prepare spatial strategy plans and adopt human settlement policies.” What a pity that over 40 years later, so few governments have followed this path.
Few would have anticipated the spectacular, market-driven redevelopment of urban waterfronts that characterised this period. However, the defining event of this decade has to be the publication of the Brundtland Report, “Our Common Future”. This established the concept of sustainable development, which for all its ambiguities has been a focus for planners and many other professionals internationally ever since. After the disasters at Chernobyl and Bhopal, trust in technology was low. Confidence in the future was tarnished. The earth would never again be a comfortable place to live.
Across much of the world, planning was out of favour during these ten years. In Eastern Europe, the collapse of the ideology of the planned economy ushered in a period of largely unregulated urban sprawl. In the rapidly urbanising world plans simply took too long to prepare and were instantly outdated. The hang-overs from a top-down master-planning style did much to discredit the idea of planning in the eyes of politicians and NGOs.
Oblivious to much of this, planners in the rich countries set about connecting their practices to sustainable development. In particular in North America, the Congress of the New Urbanism, set up in 1993,became influential with its Charter that declared “neighborhoods should be diverse in use and population; communities should be designed for the pedestrian and transit as well as the car; cities and towns should be shaped by physically defined and universally accessible public spaces and community institutions; urban places should be framed by architecture and landscape design that celebrate local history, climate, ecology, and building practice.” The photo above shows Seaside, Florida, one of the early and best known New Urbanist developments.
Meanwhile in Europe there began to develop a set of ideas and practices that culminated in the European Spatial Development Perspective. For a short while it seemed that the idea of spatial planning might have some currency.
However, my timeline entry has to be the development of Pudong as the financial hub of China. The east bank of the Huangpu River, across from the traditional Shanghai waterfront, had remained largely undeveloped until it became a Special Economic Zone in 1993. The scale and pace of development that followed announced the Chinese urban development model to the world.
So far there has been little engagement of professional planners with the rapid developments in ICT which are changing places and the way we use them. Thus ICT has to remain in the background when discussing this decade, though arguably it will become centre stage.
The nadir of town planning during these years was in 2005 when the Zimbabwe government used planning legislation, the Regional Town and Country Planning Act of 1996, to justify “Operation Murambatsvina/Restore Order” (OM/RO). The result of this order—and in the name of cleaning up “filth”—was the forced eviction of some 700,000 poor people. An investigation into the evictions was undertaken by the executive director of UNHabitat. Her report included the observation: “There is the Regional Town and Country Planning Act, and attendant municipal by-laws emanating from the colonial era, meant to keep Africans out of the cities by setting very high housing and development standards beyond the reach of the majority of the people.”
On a more positive note, these years have also seen new international alliances being built to advance thinking and practice for a post-colonialist planning approach to planning. The formation of the African Association of Planning Schools and the African Association of Planners are steps forward. However, my definitive timeline entry is the ghost estates of Ireland and Mediterranean Europe, monuments to permissive planning regimes and the idea that planning gets in the way of “growth”.
My timeline is unashamedly subjective. What stands out for me from this last 50 years is the disengagement of planners in the developed countries from the issues posed by urbanisation – economic, social, environmental, political and professional. “Sustainable development” has become the overarching paradigm, guiding the thinking of many planners today and opening up new concerns with climate change mitigation and low carbon cities. I have no problem with that. However, our abiding concern should be to connect sustainable development with the processes of urbanisation. If planners do not see urbanisation as a definitive global challenge, we cannot expect anybody else to do so, or to pay much attention to the discourses of planners.
This blog was first posted on the Planning Resource website on 26 November 2013.