School Work

The context of cities

“It would be one thing—perhaps a much simpler thing—if cities, and therefore urban planning, really were all about streets, buildings,parks, and the timing of traffic signals. But they’re not,” I write. “Rather, cities, and therefore urban planning, are all about people. A city wouldn’t be a city without people, and urban planning wouldn’t be a profession unless it considered first and foremost the human inhabitants of the cities it shapes.” This was a reflection on our study of Bent Flyvberg’s Rationality and Power. Drawing on all of the book’s 20 chapters, I responded to the following: “Suppose you are to advise a close friend about the professional practice of urban planning. What would you say about the context of urban planning? About the central challenges and responsibilities? About the various roles planners play? About the tools, tactics and strategies planners use? About the moral and political hazards … of choices regarding roles and strategies? What would you say if asked, ‘Why bother with such an encumbered challenge?’ Once embarked upon this course, where or how (existentially) does one find refuge during those inevitable periods when one is not up to the challenges and responsibilities?” My response follows this rough outline: Context: Politics · History · Humanity Challenges and Responsibilities: Maintaining personal responsibility and accountability · Overcoming years of destructive urban planning · Formulating a new approach Roles: Interdependence · Complexity Tools, Tactics, and Strategies Moral and Political Hazards Why Bother? Conclusion: Finding Refuge University of Utah Salt Lake City, Utah, USA URBPL 5240 Planning Theory & Ethics (Spring 2005) 23 March 2005
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   M ODULE  T  WO |   D USTIN  T YLER  J OYCE |   1 MODULE TWO S A COLLEGE STUDENT , a frequent icebreaker in conversations with others is, “So, what are you majoring in?” People don’t seem to know how to react when I answer, “Urban planning and French.” I suppose that’s for a couple of reasons. First, people seem to think that that’s an odd combination of majors; I explain to them, however, that it makes sense to me, hence the reason I’m pursuing both, and that usually keeps them quiet on the issue. The second is that people don’t really know what “urban planning” is. I’ve been surprised to see how many people ask me, “Is that something like civil engineering?” I explain that while civil engineering is an important part of building cities, urban planning—at least my interest in urban planning—is different. I’ll often rephrase it as  city  planning, and that sometimes clarifies a little, but I still usually have to use some familiar example in Salt Lake to explain what I mean—anything from the reconstruction of the malls downtown to the expansion of the TRAX system. It’s perhaps not the best explanation of the profession, but it seems to work, at least well enough for people to give up on the subject and move on to the next with, “Oh. Well, that’s interesting. So….” Occasionally, however, I have the delight of finding someone who wants to pursue the issue even deeper. I am impressed by how many people seem to have a genuine interest in cities, how they’re built, and the issues facing them. With friends and complete strangers alike I have discussed, in depth, particular projects going on in Salt Lake City, problems we have inherited from the past, and issues facing us in the future. We have considered the issues surrounding urban planning in the United States as a whole, the direction of the field from the postwar era through the twenty-first century, and broader, though related, issues ranging from pollution and environment protection to traffic and transportation to social problems and crime. And though I am in the major, others’ “unprofessional” but still qualified experience with cities often teaches me a lot on  what cities really are all about and what their actual inhabitants really expect of them.  These are complex and important issues because they are  human  issues. It would be one thing—perhaps a much simpler thing—if cities, and therefore urban planning, really were all about streets, buildings, parks, and the timing of traffic signals. But they’re not. Rather, cities, and therefore urban planning, are all about people. A city wouldn’t be a city without people, and urban planning wouldn’t be a profession unless it considered first and foremost the human inhabitants of the cities it shapes. Context  The context of urban planning is the context of cities. While many things can be said about the context of cities, ranging from their physical and social structures to their economic and financial standing, the following three areas of context appear to be the foundation for these other characteristics: By Dustin Tyler Joyce URBPL 5240 | WEDNESDAY, 23 MARCH 2005   M ODULE  T  WO |   D USTIN  T YLER  J OYCE |   2  Politics.  It would be hard to imagine anyone who is familiar with any city in any way denying that one of its major contexts is politics. Walking through almost any city in the world one will see that the centers of political power—the  Rathaus  in a German city or the Gemeindehaus  in a Swiss village, the  hôtels de ville  and  palais de justice  of France, or the city halls and government centers of American cities and towns—are almost always at the geographic heart of a place. In time, one will see that they are at the heart, directly or indirectly, of almost all other aspects of city life, too. Tune into the six o’clock local news in almost any American city on almost any given day and one will receive an update on the latest actions (or inactions) of the city council, the planning commission, or the transportation department—maybe even all three. A federal system, such as that of the United States, makes the importance of local government and politics even more pronounced. While local municipalities are creations of the states—it is the legislatures’ power to carve new counties, create new cities and towns and grant them charters, and approve certain actions of local governments 1 —they and their residents are, nevertheless, granted a great deal of autonomy in determining how services will be provided,  what local priorities and issues are, and the direction the municipality will take in the future. The business of building and running a city is politics. It is in this context that urban planners work. Aalborg, Denmark, the subject of Bent Flyvberg’s  Rational and Power   is no exception; in fact, its story as told in the book is a particularly good case in point of the political context of cities. For example, the Technical Department, the city agency charged with the responsibility of creating and implementing the Aalborg Plan, was overseen by an alderman, essentially a city councilman publicly elected through the political process. In fact, the process was already highly politicized from its inception because it was directed by the city’s political leaders; the process further politicized through input, feedback, and opposition from the Chamber of Industry and Commerce, the Stiftstidende  newspaper and other media, and the public. In short, politics were not merely the context of the Aalborg Plan. The  Aalborg Plan itself became politics incarnate. One can draw the conclusion both from  Rationality and Power   and from experience with cities that politics are so much a part of the context of cities and urban planning that it moves from being contextual to integral—in other words, politics are part of the inherent nature of cities and the profession and hence become part of the context of everything that is done in them.  History.  In today’s world, cities and towns are rarely built from scratch. There are notable historical 1. Another example of this is the fact that, with the exception of granting Congress the power to establish and govern a federal capital city, the Constitution makes no mention of local forms of government. In fact, it delegates all powers not specifically given to the federal government to  the states. The states have created local governments for two reasons. One would appear to be history and tradition—the fact humans have always settled that way; this ancient form of government was brought by immigrants from the Old World and cities, towns, and counties already existed prior to independence and the ratification of the Constitution; and as America’s frontier stretched further westward, it was a form that continued to be established across the continent. The other reason is the fact that local governments are the best suited to administering certain functions of government such as police and fire protection, business licensing, education, parks and recreation, planning, and transportation,  whereas states cover too large a geographic area to administer these functions efficiently and effectively.   M ODULE  T  WO |   D USTIN  T YLER  J OYCE |   3 examples such as Washington, D.C., and Canberra, Australia. Some may also point to Paris in the late nineteenth century, but that was merely a wholesale reconstruction of an existing city. 2  Twentieth-century examples are fewer, though major ones include Brasilia, Brazil, and Chandigarh, India.  3  Because of the simple fact that most of the cities urban planners work with are old, history is a major component of the context of cities and urban planning. Urban planners must work with what is already there, both physically and culturally. Streets are rarely closed, moved, and/or rerouted, while buildings meet their fate with a wrecking ball a little more frequently, yet both of these and other physical structures of a city provide a context within which cities and their urban planners must work. In turn, there are other intangible historical features, such as tradition, custom, culture, and taste urban planners must deal with. As a city grows, the past not only shows where the city has been but  where the city is going.  Aalborg, once again, is an excellent example of this historical context. It is an old city, with settlement in the area dating to the Middle Ages, if not even earlier. Initially concerns were raised both in and out of city government over the protection of some of the city’s historical fabric and older structures. (Remember the debate over the placement of the bus terminal?) In his postscript, Flyvberg informs us that one of the reasons the Aalborg Plan was finally disbanded in the early 1990s is because both “city officials and the public had  viewed the Aalborg Project as being incapable of…preserving the city’s key aesthetic aspects”—in other words, project directors and city planners had an historical context in which they had to work. In fact, the city and the public wanted this historical context to be preserved, and when the current course of action wasn’t performing that job well enough, another course of action was chosen. Such are the implications of the historical context of our cities.  Humanity.  The fact that it is humans who create cities cannot be overemphasized. Cities must be designed and created for people’s sake, not for the sake of buildings, roads, and other physical elements. Cities must be built as people would really live in them. The failure to do so has been among the chief failures of cities both in the United States and abroad in the twentieth century. In our country there are the vacuous, cataclysmic, and sterile—in short, inhuman—public housing projects constructed throughout the nation during the period of Urban Renewal. Internationally, Brasilia and Chandigarh both are generally regarded as failures in part because of their failure to address the human needs of their inhabitants. Brasilia and Chandigarh each have excellent examples of architecture in the international and brutalist styles, yet these 2. Not only was Baron Haussman’s plan for Paris merely a reconstruction of an existing city, it was also undertaken by a visionary (though some  would say illusionary) emperor, Napoleon III, who had delusions of grandeur for his French empire and for himself walking in his uncle’s footsteps earlier in the century. 3. Other twentieth-century American examples of planned cities include Columbia, Maryland; Reston, Virginia; and Seaside and Celebration, Florida. Other twentieth-century examples can be found around the world, including the garden cities and new towns of England and others  throughout Europe and other continents.   M ODULE  T  WO |   D USTIN  T YLER  J OYCE |   4 styles emphasize the use of “cold” concrete, glass, and steel, a combination that creates buildings void of the  warmth and comfort people expect from the buildings they inhabit on a daily basis. Brasilia also has an odd physical arrangement where everything is cordoned off into “sectors”: a government sector, a church sector, a bank sector, and even a monument sector. Neither city represents how we really live our lives (do we really sector our lives into separate categories like Brasilia does?), and hence both in the last ten to fifteen years has undergone extensive reconstruction to make them, in a sense, inhabitable. In Aalborg, this context of humanity found its fruition in the contest between rationality and power that Flyvberg’s study is all about. Rationality instructs the urban planner and politician alike to construct cities in a manner hospitable to their human inhabitants—and, at that, as many of their human inhabitants as possible, not just a select few. Power will focus on the unique needs of the select few who have it, or disregard human necessities altogether in exchange for the most sweeping display of power’s authority. The irony is that  while rationality is what focuses on human needs, human desires often tilt toward power—a self-destructive course, as was seen in the Aalborg Project’s eventual demise. Of these three areas of context—politics, history, and humanity—the most important of these is humanity. First, it truly is the context and foundation for the other two. But more importantly, we don’t build cities because we like to play politician and historian, though that’s what we do. Just as birds build nests because they’re birds and that’s what birds do, 4  we build cities because we’re humans and that’s what humans do. In the end, humanity is the only real reason cities exist and is, therefore, the most important aspect of their context. Challenges and Responsibilities Because the task of designing, building, and maintaining cities is so important, so vast, and so complex, the challenges and responsibilities of the task are manifold. Working within the context of cities.  Perhaps the foremost challenge of urban planning is working  within the political, historical, and human contexts of cities as discussed above. While these aspects frequently present roadblocks to urban planners and attempts to improve cities, an effective urban planner can take these and mold them into the tools through which the impetus and mechanism to create change will come. In  Aalborg, these contexts dragged down the plan for nearly two decades; in the early ’90s, however, a changed plan utilized these correctly as guiding principles and led to the city’s reception of the EU’s European Planning Prize.  Maintaining personal responsibility and accountability.  The design and construction of cities, especially large cities, involves a considerable amount of power. All too often humans are wont to take the smallest bit of 4. The same can be said of ants and ant hills, beavers and dams, prairie dogs and burrows…the list goes on and on.
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