Urban Planning in a Changing World: The Twentieth-Century Experience

By Larkham, Peter J. | The Town Planning Review, September 2002 | Go to article overview

Urban Planning in a Changing World: The Twentieth-Century Experience


Larkham, Peter J., The Town Planning Review


Urban Planning in a Changing World: The Twentieth-Century Experience, Robert Freestone (ed.), London, Spon, 2000, 293 pp., £45.00

We no longer have to justify the study of planning history. The International Planning History Society (IPHS) has secured its place in academic curricula and demonstrated its relevance to planning education and practice. What must be done, however, is to focus on the nature of the planning histories being told, as Leonie Sandercock in particular has emphasised. Some critical evaluation of planning activity-practice, theory and relevance-is necessary, and the end of the millennium provides an obvious point in time to do this.

Freestone's edited volume manages to do both jobs. It provides a `small but purposeful sample' of the 200 or more papers presented at the Sydney IPHS Conference in 1998. Its 15 chapters aim to present `an integrated set of diverse interpretative essays cutting across time, space and culture to explore a number of major themes in the twentieth century urban planning experience' (p. 11). Urban Planning in a Changing World does not aim to be comprehensive, and the authors `were under no strict editorial instructions' (p. 11) to produce monolithic, unified history. This very diversity could be a strength or a fatal weakness.

All histories are, in effect, period pieces, rePecting the concerns of their time in the choice and treatment of the historical subject. Early in the century,

the first rite of passage for learning to plan anew was . . . to see how it had been done before, although the contemporary relevance of fourth century Alexandria or thirteenth century Monpazier was not always apparent. (p. 2)

New planning histories arose from the critiques of practice in the 1960s and 1970s and the interdisciplinary interests of scholars. Most recently we are becoming more aware of the `sins of omission and commission' in planning history through the work of Krueckeberg and Sandercock-critical of the familiar, tired `male-stream' narrative of the `great planners' and their `great plans'. This book reects, indeed emphasises, these developments in historical thought. It seeks to review a momentous century, one of rapid change in planning, technology, techniques, social concerns, and the rise and decline of modernism and post-modernism as the lenses through which we view and interpret these activities.

Following Freestone's all-too-brief contextsetting introduction, three chapters give contrasting global-scale overviews. Peter Hall, in his usual lucid and literate style, explores the `global narrative' by constructing a periodisation of planning, drawing in the great majority of strands later developed by other contributors. It is dangerously easy to read this quickly but superRcially, feeling that this is an old style of writing planning history, containing nothing new. Yet, after Freestone's provocative introduction, this is a timely taster of the very scope of planning activity in the century, and forms an effective overview. The international theme is developed through Ward's review of the diffusion of planning ideasDthrough borrowing or impositionDand thus of the explicit and implicit power relationships between the `exporter' and `importer'. Again this could be read as a traditional planning history as it focuses on some key individuals such as CerdaA , but it is important to recognise the roles of individuals rather than some monolithic and inevitable notion of `progress'. Contemporary implications are touched upon, and would be worthy of elaborationDthe imposition of planning through aid programmes (Africa), military power (the Balkans) or trans-national organisations (the EU). Hardy's chapter is interesting not only for its international exploration of utopian thought, emphasising the importance of utopian process over mere form, but also in his exploration of his 1992 suggestion that

the role of the planning historian might be to provide historical evidence and an understanding both of the strengths and of the weaknesses of different methods of anticipating the future. …

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