Shedding Light on the Shades of Strategic Planning

by Jordi Borja

[In the last issue of PN, Fabricio Leal de Oliveira criticized the theory and practice of strategic planning in Latin America, in his article “Strategic Planning and Urban Competition: The Agenda of Multilateral Agencies in Brazil.” Leal specifically cited the role there of technical advisors from Barcelona, Spain, including Jordi Borja. The following response from Borja refers to Leal’s article.]

Give me a few written words by somebody and I’ll take them to court,” a phrase attributed to Richelieu, is unfortunately still relevant in many intellectual debates.

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. [Editor’s note: See A Cidade do Pensamento ­nico: Desmanchando Consensos by Otùlia Arantes, Carlos Vainer and Ermùnia Maricato, Editora Vozes, 2000]. The article by Leal de Oliveira in the last Planners Network is more objective but leads to conceptual and factual confusion.

Strategic planning as a technique cannot be considered to be dependent on a single way of thinking. Some plans emphasize competition among cities, others emphasize cooperation. Consensus can be passive, in Gramscian terms, or active and the result of a contradictory process, a technique to air conflict. Public events, large-scale communications infrastructure, the redevelopment of central cities, the creation of areas devoted to the new economy, may or may not form part of a strategic plan. They can be separate products that either divide the city, or integrated and strategic projects. At the same time plans may incorporate other kinds of objectives or actions, of a social, cultural or environmental character, or democratic reforms in urban planning and citizen participation. And a public-private partnership can be either a trap to promote privatization or a public effort that places new and better conditions on private initiatives.

There are examples to cover every case of urban and regional planning. In the case of Barcelona, which is often cited with more prejudice than concrete knowledge, strategic planning has been limited to creating an environment of civic debate in which the economic actors, public entities, social and labor organizations, and professional and academic sectors are equal. It has served to promote or legitimize public and mixed projects and programs, contribute to their coherence, and reflect on the future. This policy is measurable and indicates to us that social inequality has declined, low-income neighborhoods have improved, employment has been generated, and the economic base of the city has been modernized.

It is true that in other cases the method and results are questionable. In Rio the political leadership of the Plan was monopolized by the city government and business institutions, who had no interest in sharing it with other social and cultural sectors, which did not demand it. 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. In Bogotš, the Plan was much more participatory, a meritorious achievement in the context of Colombia, but was hardly implemented because of the change in political leadership. Some of its ideas, such as the importance of a policy for public spaces, have been put into practice by the mayors elected after the Plan was finished. There are other more participatory experiences, such as Porto Alegre (Proyecto Capital) and Montevideo (a strategic plan linked to neighborhood decentralization), which nonetheless suffer from an insufficient prioritization of large-scale projects.

In different measures I have collaborated with and followed these and similar experiences, and I am aware of their limits. But I think they have all served to advance citizen participation and legitimize objectives and projects in the general public interest. The best strategic plan is undoubtedly one that promotes some large strategic projects that can transform the urban reality, such as the recent proposals, in which I took part, for the Eje Tamanduatehy in the ABC area of Sao Paulo, the civic center project in Santiago, and the Plan Urbano in Buenos Aires which gives priority to the Southern project and conversion of the rail axes to urban axes. The plans aren’t always feasible nor is the result always what one wishes, as occurred in the case of Puerto Madero (Buenos Aires). In other cases a democratic and radical political reform is needed, as I proposed and participated in, in Mexico City. Clearly the rhetoric against strategic planning and the demonization of globalization as the cause of all evils is as useless as the opposite rhetoric practiced by many consultants who appear to make strategic plans with a copy machine. They use the Barcelona example because it seems to be a good publicity device, and they justify the comment of Brecht that “if cities that have followed a plan are horrible it’s not because they followed the plan but because the plan was horrible.”

A final note of clarification. The connection between Manuel de Forn and I and TUBSA lasted until 1994. This public research institute from Barcelona provided assistance with the strategic plans of Rio and Bogota. After that TUBSA was privatized and I have been independent of its new trajectory. My reflections are published in the books Barcelona: A Model for Urban Transformation (1996) and Local and Global (with Manuel Castells, 1997), both available in English. Also see Los Desafùos del Territorio (Barcelona 1999) and Espacio PÒblico y Ciudadanùa (Barcelona 2000).

Jordi Borja is a planning consultant in Barcelona, Spain