Viewpoint: Re-Evaluating the Place of Urban Planning History

By Adams, David; Larkham, Peter et al. | The Town Planning Review, July 1, 2015 | Go to article overview

Viewpoint: Re-Evaluating the Place of Urban Planning History


Adams, David, Larkham, Peter, Pain, Kathy, The Town Planning Review


This commentary seeks to prompt new discussion about the place of urban planning history in the era of contemporary globalisation. Given the deep historic engagement of urban planning thought and practice with 'place' shaping and thus with the constitution of society, culture and politics, we ask how relevant is planning's legacy to the shaping of present day cities. Late twentieth century urban sociology, cultural and economic geography have demonstrated the increasing significance of intercity relations and the functional porosity of metropolitan boundaries in the network society, however statutory urban planning systems remain tied to the administrative geographies of states. This 'territorial fixing' of practice constrains the operational space of planning and, we argue, also limits its vision to geopolitical scales and agendas that have receding relevance for emerging urban relations. We propose that a re-evaluation of planning history could have an important part to play in addressing this spatial conundrum.

Durable and progressive planning

Planning is resilient, or so it would seem: in the relatively recent past, it has survived mid-twentieth century intellectual assaults by the likes of Jane Jacobs, and her broad criticism that planners hold 'deep disrespect [of the] irrationality or chaos of cities' and misunderstand the 'relationship of cities [...] with the rest of nature' (Jacobs, 1961, 579). Despite these and other attacks, British planning during the mid-twentieth century rapidly became consolidated as part of state functioning, elevating the role of the discipline as a powerful, institutionalised force to guide future societal change distinct from its parent professions of engineering and architecture. Despite planning's more recent market-led emphasis, planning theory and practice has maintained its engagement with concerns for society and more recently with sustainable development priorities for environmental protection and climate change mitigation.

Planning theory also recognises the role, function and importance of 'world' cities as seats of major political, financial, institutional, cultural and educational power (Pain, 2015). This is most clearly expressed in the relatively recent invocation of 'spatial planning' - a focus on large-scale spatial structures, typically trans-jurisdictional and cross-sectoral in proactive ways that look to shape future social, economic and environmental policy needs (see Hall and Pain, 2006; Allmendinger and Haughton, 2013; Scott et al., 2013). But whilst planning theory recognises the importance of the routine practices of 'network economic players' such as in the media, finance, logistics and information industries, in shaping cities of the future (for example, Newman and Thornley, 2012), public sector planning - in England, at least - remains focused on producing development plans operating within fixed geographical boundaries.

This territorial focus of statutory planning stands in contrast to the broad acceptance - at least across parts of the social sciences - that capital, goods, ideas and people 'flow' within a myriad of transnational relations which defy planners' efforts to constrain them (Healey and Upton, 2010), leading some commentators to call for a new planning focus on the relational forms of place making (Allmendinger and Haughton, 2013). In spite of seemingly innumerable government attempts to reform land-use planning in England, statutory planning remains a forward-looking function of state activity but with a constrained capacity to act beyond local administrative borders (Harrison and Pain, 2012). Whereas strategy for England's economic development has recently been restructured to focus on 'functional economic areas', with the demise of a regional focus, 'spatial' planning is restricted to the local scale. Ideas of the 'Big Society', invoked as part of the UK Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition's (2010 - 2015) ongoing public service reform agenda also emphasise 'a return to the local scale' through the devolution of power from central government to neighbourhoods, encouraging communities to take an active role in shaping and planning their local areas (for a recent review of these issues, see Williams et al. …

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