Academic journal article Theoretical and Empirical Researches in Urban Management

Risk, Uncertainty, and Spatial Distinction: A Study of Urban Planning in Stockholm

Academic journal article Theoretical and Empirical Researches in Urban Management

Risk, Uncertainty, and Spatial Distinction: A Study of Urban Planning in Stockholm

Article excerpt


The concept of progress is central to modern society. Progress implies that, using human reason and activity, we can mould and change society and nature, and furthermore, that the society of the future will be better than that of the present. This concept is built into urban planning, not least in its various visions and planning ideals. The concept of progress corresponds to that of risk, which has become central to our understanding of misfortunes as events that are calculable and predictable in probabilistic terms. Concepts such as luck, fate, and God separate events from controllable causes, while the concept of risk indicates the possibility of forecasting and controlling future events (Green, 1997). Although recurrent regulatory failures and disasters challenge this understanding, highlighting flaws in the belief that we can exert control over future events, organizations seem to have no option but to act as though it were valid. This "act as if" ethos manifests itself in a plethora of rules and devices for managing risk. Power (2007: 5) writes: "Central to this response imperative is the production of visionary documents and designs in the form of standards and guidelines for individuals and organizations". Furthermore, risk management, as an endeavour to control future events, alludes to values of science, expertise, and rationality and frames uncertainty as current "gaps in knowledge" or "not-yet-knowns" (Lidskog, Soneryd and Uggla, 2009). Risk management thus often treats uncertainty as a curable state.

In terms of risk management, social and urban planning initially focused on issues such as safety, security, and health as related to urbanization and industrialization (Breheny, 1996; Johansson, Svedung and Andersson, 2006). A recent analysis of local planning in Sweden, however, indicates that risk assessment in planning is primarily related to calamitous events. The analysis also demonstrates that planning documents are supposed to fulfil several functions, presenting visions and serving as implementation instruments, political guidelines for the built environment and land use, and tools for dialogue and information on future development (Johansson, Svedung and Andersson, 2006). Planning thus emerges from the tension between ideas of rationality, expertise, and science-based decisionmaking and dreams and visions of a better future.

This paper examines urban planning in Stockholm, focusing on the proposal for a new comprehensive plan. The paper explores the problems urban planning has set out to solve and whether--and if so, how--the concepts of risk and uncertainty form part of the planning discourse. A departure point is that both urban planning ideals and the problems these ideals claim to address are constructed: they are co-produced and gain meaning from each other (Jasanoff, 2006). In this sense, urban planning involves drawing boundaries and distinguishing between, for example, centre and periphery and humans and nature, separating places spatially or with regard to their purpose and to ideas of their proper use (Lidskog, Soneryd and Uggla, 2009). Accordingly, another issue discussed here is how such distinctions are made.


Discussion of the meaning and implications of urban form is not new. Planning history manifests an ongoing debate that can roughly be described as polarized between "centrists" favouring the compact city and "decentrists" pleading for urban decentralization. The former "believe in the virtues of high density cities and decry urban sprawl" (Breheny, 1996), whereas the latter have mainly promoted decentralization as a way to deal with the problems of industrial cities. Neither position necessarily invokes environmental concerns.

In contemporary debate, the problems of urbanization and industrialization have been reframed in terms of sustainable development (Breheny, 1996), and in recent decades, the relationship between urban form and sustainability has become a planning issue. …

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