Light and Shadow in the Strategies of a Consultant on Strategies

by Carlos B. Vainer
Professor at the Institute for Urban and Regional Planning and
Research, Federal University of Rio de Janeiro — IPPUR/UFRJ

“In the criticisms from Brazil against strategic planning and the influence of urban planning from Barcelona, which include valid elements, this practice of using loose terminology has become habitual. I refer to the writings of, for example, Carlos Vainer, Otilia Arantes, etc.” (Jordi Borja, “Shedding Light on the Shades of Strategic Planning”, Planners Network, No. 143, September/October 2000)

At first sight, Jordi Borja’s pretension of shedding light on strategic planning seems useless: Borja is one of the most celebrated international consultants on urban planning, and occupies high positions at the main international and Latin American forums, there is no reason to believe that he or his planning model are hidden in shadows. To the contrary, urban strategic planning is in vogue. It is proclaimed and sold as the panacea to our urban diseases, able to provide cities with the capability to face the contemporary challenges of globalization and postmodernity.

One could hope that Borja would use his rich experience to help us deepen “valid elements” of criticism against Barcelona’s model or to identify other problems that have not been properly perceived by the critics. Borja could shed light on the secrets of countless agreements by which multilateral agencies finance local governments that agree to employ strategic planning. Or, he could tell us about the agreements by which many Latin American cities, known for their misery and inequality, spend millions of dollars on foreign consultants, planners and architects. In addition, Borja could help us understand how the competitive market of international urban consulting works and help us to unveil a market, one that plays such an important role in the diffusion of models, languages, values and concepts.

Far from shedding light on urban strategic planning, Borja obscures the reality, by offering well known but worn-out incantations about the neutrality of techniques. One expects more from someone who is able to manipulate with the same aisance the classics of Marxism and tool kits on planning from the Harvard Business School (e.g., SWOT), from someone who does not hesitate to quote Gramsci, while at the same time asking cities to compete to attract transnational capital.

Borja offers no evidence to demonstrate the neutrality of strategic planning. In fact, he merely lists his very impressive Latin American portfolio, giving examples in which his model has been successful and in which it has failed. For someone like Borja, who once affirmed that Fujimori’s government was efficient, it is impossible to avoid the question: what values are used to qualify success and failure? 2

In the case of Rio de Janeiro, Borja’s report is absolutely insufficient, or, to be precise, completely inaccurate. After having eloquently praised in public the Strategic Plan of Rio de Janeiro, Borja now affirms that “in Rio the political leadership of the Plan was monopolized by the city government and business institutions..” 3 Did he not know about this monopoly in the beginning of the process? Did he not know that when he was working for the business consortium headed by the Industry Federation and the Commercial Association of Rio de Janeiro? Did Borja believe in the democratic commitment of the bourgeoisie of Rio de Janeiro? Was this knowledgeable international consultant ignorant of the compromised and corrupt nature of the city’s elite?

Borja writes that “other social and cultural sectors… did not demand” political participation in the Strategic Plan. In fact, the Executive Secretary of the Plan resisted pressures from groups in civil society to discuss a timeline that would have provided an effective participatory process.

Borja goes further: “Nevertheless, the list of proposals in the Plan and the projects that were implemented, such as Rio Cidade and Favela Barrio, have generally been well received.” Well received by whom? By those whose monopoly of the political control he only remembers to question now? Well received by the IDB, that supports the program and intends to make it a symbol of its “social commitment”? In fact, these activities are objects of criticism from various sectors of the city. Furthermore, these activities can hardly be associated with the Strategic Plan, since they existed before Borja landed in Rio. Finally, all these activities of urban improvement and transformation of favelas in Brazil are the result of years and years of the struggle of Brazilian urban social movements.

Borja’s claim is false. Urban planners cannot operate with neutrality. The claim that they can turns out to be nothing more than a strategic move to keep politics far from discussions about the city and urban planning. Supposedly neutral, post-modern, neo-technocratic planners merely mimic their declared enemies, the old, supposedly neutral, modern technocratic planners.

Those in Brazil who criticize “strategic urban planning” believe there are other ways of reinventing the city, ways that many cities are experiencing. We invite participants in this debate to step out of the shadows of strategic planning and examine the many good examples of resistance, participation, and democratic planning with which residents and their representatives fight for more equality, better living conditions, and more popular power.

By shedding light on those who are not invited to sit at the globalization banquet table — where our cities’ strategic destinies are being decided — we will also better view the ambiguous game of light and shadow played by international planning consultants. With better vision, to include more participants, we can more effectively take charge of our own destiny.


    1. The author express his gratitude to William W. Goldsmith, without whom this text would never be presentable in an acceptable English. Of course, the author is fully responsable for all the ideas and judgements and arguments developed.


    1. “Peru, whose economy was in free fall during the 80’s, was in 1994 the country with the most high rate of GDP growth in the world, in 13%, even though in absolute value the 1994 GDP was lower than that in 1987. The economic growth was essentially determined by the sale of Peruvian assets, and in particular the sale of public companies, by low prices, and in a political atmosphere of relative stability and repression of the guerrilla activity, under the controversial but efficient government of Fujimori.” (Jordi Borja y Manuel Castells, Local y global: la gestión de las ciudades en la era da la información; United Nations for Settlements (Habitat)/Taurus/Pensamiento, 1997, p. 64 — our emphasis).


  1. In another report about the Strategic Plan of Rio de Janeiro, Mr. Borja did not mention the political monopoly and wrote: “The General Council is composed by more than 340 members that represent all the economic and social actors of the city” (Jordi Borja y Manuel Castells, op. cit., p. 178 — our emphasis)