Planning’s Radical Project What’s the Pedagogy?

By Leonie Sandercock

Twenty something years ago I wrote a book (my first) called Cities for Sale, which opened with the following statement: “This book is about failure. City planning in Australia this century has failed to improve the welfare of our city dwellers and unless we understand why, our urban planners will continue to devise counter-productive land use plans and our urban policy makers will perpetuate the series of income transfers from the poor to the rich which have accompanied the urban planning process in the past.”

I have not been alone in assessing the past hundred years of planning practice as a major disappointment, in terms of the radical projects which have been proclaimed in this period. Nevertheless, eleven years of teaching planning at UCLA has reassured me that the radical spirit is alive and well among our students, many of whom bring with them to graduate school valuable knowledge of alternative practices which are worthy of inclusion in our curricula.

I have tried in recent work (Towards Cosmopolis: Planning for Multicultural Cities, Wiley, 1998) to delineate a radical planning project for the twenty-first century, which takes into account the failures of the modernist project of the twentieth century, and which is based on an acknowledgement of the socio-cultural as well as economic dimensions of globalization and of the more culturally diverse urban and regional landscapes that are being produced as a result of these processes. The debate about planning’s radical project has necessarily expanded to include notions of environmental and cultural as well as economic justice. But this debate now takes place in a context in which the state, whether in rich or poor countries, is for the most part no longer supporting the sort of progressive interventionist planning that has been supported for some of the last half-century.

In so far as planning, as a professional practice, has sought to address and represent the needs of that part of civil society which is most vulnerable, it has traditionally done so through the agencies of the state (the results of which have not been without criticism from the intended beneficiaries). This option of a top-down, progressive planning, empowered by the state, seems at this moment in history to be increasingly unavailable to planners. It would seem that contemporary planning must define its role in a world where national governments almost everywhere are in retreat, fiscally stressed, and out-maneuvered by the transnational investors whom they court.

From this very context, new forms of progressive planning have begun to emerge, a bottom-up style of planning which we might call insurgent because it is operating in the interstices, and even in the face of power. If planning’s constituency is to continue to be, at least in part, those groups who are most vulnerable, whether from economic or political disadvantage or from cultural and/or ethnic/racial/religious discrimination and oppression, then these new forms of planning will be increasingly important. If we want to achieve greater social justice, less polluted environments, and broader cross-cultural tolerance, and if planning is to contribute to those goals, then we need a broader and more politicized definition of planning’s domain and practices. Part of this broadening is to acknowledge that planning is not only that professional domain that constitutes the field of city-building, but is also that form of collective action which we might call community-building.

My own attempt to redefine planning’s radical project has been inspired by existing radical practices. In Towards Cosmopolis, and in a forthcoming issue of a new journal (Plurimondi, no.2, Summer 1999) which I have guest edited, I tell the stories of “a thousand tiny empowerments,” stories of people and organizations who are practicing a radical, democratic, and culturally pluralist planning sometimes in the face of power, sometimes in the interstices, and occasionally from positions of state power. These stories illustrate an emerging planning paradigm which is grounded in the rise of civil society and embodies a new definition of social justice for cities and regions, a definition which includes, but goes well beyond, economic concerns, engaging with problems of marginalization, disempowerment, cultural imperialism, and violence.

Two of these stories focus on individual activists (Mel King in Boston, Gilda Haas in Los Angeles), not because I seek to revive the idea of the heroic planner of the modernist era but rather to point to a new breed of activist/practitioner/teacher with a very different philosophy from that which inspired Hausmann, Burnham, Moses, Le Corbusier. Each of these new mobilizers works as part of one or more social movements, and each stands out as a teacher of new ways to forward social transformation, striving to build more inclusive organizations and to create better cities and healthier communities by fostering multi-racial and multi-ethnic coalitions (moving beyond the narrower goals of identity politics). Each has taught in prominent US planning programs.

My other examples come from different parts of the world: the Wik people of Cape York Peninsula in northern Australia and their struggle for Native Title to land that was appropriated in the act of white settlement; the creation of a Municipal Department of Multicultural Affairs in Frankfurt by the victorious Red-Green political coalition between 1989 and 1996 to address the political invisibility of migrant workers; the Mothers of East Los Angeles and their campaign for environmental justice; popular participation in the Brasilian city of Porto Alegre around the municipal budget; community-building in a twenty-year-old squatter settlement on the banks of the river in Yogyakarta, and so on. There are many more stories that could have been told. PNers will all know of such stories, and will have worked with folks like Mel King and Gilda Haas in their own neighborhoods and cities.

But what is the role of the planner in these insurgent practices? Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of roles, which appear very different but may in fact draw on similar sets of skills. In situations such as Porto Alegre or Frankfurt, where progressive political forces occupy (for however long) some niche of state power, the task is to use that power to bring about change that is in the interest of, as well as in collaboration with, those who have hitherto been excluded, victimized, or oppressed. Professionals committed to social change will work within and through the state, using their knowledge of institutions, legislation, policy formulation and implementation, and so on. Along the way they will need skills of communication, argument, persuasion, negotiation, mediation – in other words, the tools of both rational comprehensive planning and of the communicative action approach. And there is another task for radical planners working through the state, when that opportunity presents itself, and that is to consciously work to democratize the planning process itself. Once engaged in genuinely participatory processes, professionals must be able to work with diverse communities, in face-to-face dealings with those who are culturally different. This involves the development of other ways of knowing – other, that is, than the scientific and technical knowledge at the heart of the modernist paradigm. (I’ve called this an epistemology of multiplicity).

But if there is no progressive regime through which to work, radical planners may opt to work for mobilized communities, in which case, paradoxically, the community is the planner, and the professional is the hired gun, the technician, “the plumber,” and cannot impose his/her values on the community. The ends and means of this kind of community-driven planning should be determined by the community, and the task of the planner is to help that community to ensure that the state’s plans and policies, which structure the way land and resources are allocated, are modified, impeded, or undermined so as to ensure that the particular community is better able to defend and secure its rights and interests. This oppositional, or insurgent, planning practice will draw again on a wide range of skills, sometimes involving knowledge of institutional and legislative processes, sometimes drawing on substantive technical knowledge of, say, financial or ecological systems, other times requiring interpersonal and intercultural skills and an understanding of group dynamics.

Radical planning discourse, such as it is, has tended to concentrate either on normative visions of the Good City, or on theorizing from practice, recounting success stories just as I have done in the publications mentioned above. While both of these are essential in providing us with a politics of hope, perhaps we need more discussion of the pedagogy of radical planning. Is the task of educating radical planners the same as, or very different from the task of educating planners for the mainstream? I have my own views on this. What do PNers think? What do you think are the crucial issues we should be debating?

Leonie Sandercock teaches in the Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning at the University of Melbourne, Australia.

You May Also Like