Liveable cities and urban futures

In this article I discuss some critical perspectives on the democratic condition of western cities and the challenges the field of urban planning is facing in this regard. I point to some openings for possible future planning practices that engage with and stimulate the interpretative flexibility of the city.

The livable city

An increasing interest for creativity and innovation can be identified in contemporary western society. New bonds has been developed between culture and economy during the last few decades, not least because of the crisis of western industries in a post-industrialized economy – a consequence of econom­ic crises, energy crises, technological development, institutional changes and globalization in general. The so called “crea­tive industry” has generally been marked as the new engine of western economy.

A central figure in the promotion of the creative economy is the American professor Richard Florida, who has addressed the importance for cit­ies to attract “the creative class”, the people that can develop or attract business environments. Florida stresses the importance of creating a “people cli­mate” by facilitating a diversity of cultures and public spaces in the city. (Florida 2002). Other researchers also target urban creativity, such as Charles Landry (Landry 2008) who focuses on concrete perspec­tives of cities facilitating innovative culture and Klaus Overmeyer (Overmeyer 2007) who works with the temporary use of urban space as a tool to develop creative environments in cities.

Florida’s idea of “the creative class” has become a signpost in the strategic planning of the 21st century, not only in the private sector, but also in public organ­izations and many cities. Creativity as a concept has become a central point of focus in public administra­tion and business in general. As the idea of the “creative city” is gaining momentum, the conceptualization of cities are changing. The quest to create the right “people climate” is increasingly seen as a prerogative for growth in post-industrialized cit­ies and is adding new perspectives to the controversy of use and ownership of urban space.

Concurrently with the development of a creativity agenda a shift from traditional hierarchies towards more open and networked organizations can be identified. The end of the millennium brought a shift in public admin­istration from “government” to “governance”. Soft issues of tolerance, diversity, participation, in­formal cultures and public spaces has become in­creasingly important in the pursuit of creativity in organizations – not least in two of the big symbols of creative businesses – Google and IDEO (Turner 2009). The same points of focus can be identified in the pur­suit of “the creative city” and might point towards a more people-centred vision of urban development and more open and agile public institutions with less regulated, active innovation cultures.

“Pacification by cappuchino”

Many cities have today joined the competition for liveable metropolitan environments and unique urban life, but defining the “liveable” often seems to be a quite elusive phenomenon. Harvey (2008) claims that the effects of the great injustices of global capitalism can be seen physically in cities. That they are etched into the spatial form of cities increasingly consisting of gated communities, privatized urban spaces and surveillance in public space.

“Surplus absorption through urban transformation has an even darker aspect. It has entailed repeated bouts of urban restructuring through ‘creative destruction’, which nearly always has a class dimension since it is the poor, the underprivileged and those marginalized from political power that suffer first and foremost from this process. Violence is required to build the new urban world on the wreckage of the old. Haussmann tore through the old Parisian slums, using powers of expropriation in the name of civic improvement and renovation. He deliberately engineered the removal of much of the working class and other unruly elements from the city centre, where they constituted a threat to public order and political power.”
– Harvey 2008

Similarly Zygmunt Bauman views the city as a mirror of the general social development. Liquid modernity is a central term in the works of Bauman and characterizes the move away from an idea of a solid and predictable city, based on utopian ideas of the good society, but yet not replaced by new visions. Bauman claims that these ideas of a structured and well organized urban practice are still very present in contemporary cities, but that the former trust that reality will fit into the intricate models of experts, are no longer present. Bauman’s proposals for (re)humanizing the urban space is connected to developing meetings with the unexpected, spaces characterized by ambivalence and unpredictability rather than or¬der and control.

“The city is the dumping side for anxieties and apprehensions generated by globally induced uncertainty and insecurity; but the city is as well the training ground where the means to placate and disperse that uncertainty and insecurity can be experimented with, tried out and eventually learned and adopted. It is in the city that the strangers who in the global space confront each other as hostile states, inimical civilizations or military adversaries, meet as individual human beings, watch each other at close quarters, talk to each other, learn each other’s ways, negotiate the rules of life in common, cooperate and, sooner or later, get used to each other’s presence and, on an increasing number of occasions, find pleasure in sharing company.”
– Bauman 2003

The focus on liveability in modern western cities is embedded in a discussion of the use of and access to urban space. On one hand the development of new spaces, where meetings can happen, could point towards new democratic potentials in the city. On the other, the liveability agenda is clearly connected to the stimulation of growth and business environments, which in many ways can be seen as hindering for the central discussions about the urban future as the heavy focus on entrepeneurialism are overshadowing the discussions of access and right to the city.

“Shopping malls, multiplexes and box stores proliferate, as do fast-food and artisanal market-places. We now have, as urban sociologist Sharon Zukin puts it, ‘pacification by cappuccino’”.
– Harvey 2008

When looking at the contemporary developments in cities it seems reasonable to ask what and who is included and excluded in the vision of liveability. Which lives are to be lived in the “environmental metropolis”? Who should be allowed access to and privilege over urban space?


Democracy and planning practices

How do we talk about the future of our cities? A core challenge for the democratization of cities is how planning practices can be transformed to create space for controversy about what the city can become. This is important as the inability of publics to form seems not to be grounded in a lack of issues, but rather be¬cause the issues resist identification and articulation. With a reference to Dewey, DiSalvo claims that:

“At present, many consequences are felt rather than perceived; they are suffered, but they cannot be said to be known, for they are not, by those who experience them, referred to their origins”.
– DiSalvo 2009:51

The reach and effects of technology are so pervasive and complex that is an almost impossible task to untangle the source. The same goes for public management. Thus, a fundamental challenge in the formation of publics is making conditions and consequences of issues apparent and known. What is needed is planning processes which support the exploration of possible worlds. Bruno Latour opens this perspective with a reference to pragmatism:

“The radical departure pragmatism is proposing is that “political” is not an adjective that defines a profession, a sphere, an activity, a calling a site or a procedure, but it is what qualifies as a type of situation”
– Latour 2007:815

In this perspective politics is defined by the topics that generate a public around them. This is different from trying to define politics in the absence of an issue, in which case it becomes a procedure or an authority. Rather the city is made political when it is questioned and opened for controversy. Planning and administrative practices are clearly linked to the exercise of influence and power by configuring the characteristics or urban space, but can also be thought as a central factor in introducing controversy and creating publics.

New competences are increasingly expected by planners, including the ability to cooperate with citizens and other external partners, while working proactively with development of the city. This poses new challenges to municipal work practices and is changing the relationships between planners and citizens. As the focus increases on the ability of professionals, in this case municipal planners and managers, to see beyond their professional competences by introducing user perspectives in urban planning, it becomes central to think in terms of emergent developments in the city.

“…recognition of the need to encourage innovation in a context of dynamic complexity suggests a mode of governance which allows experimentation and understands that experiments fail as well as succeed.” – Healey 2004

This is very well in line with Jean Hillier who argues that cities should start to work more with emergent developments in society, thus thinking less in terms of what we already know, but more in terms of what we do not yet know. The perspective is a multiplanar practice of spatial planning, working with:

“a broad trajectory of possible scenarios, devel¬oped and debated democratically, inclusively and deliberatively, to “rehearse” possible futures and their perceived advantages and disadvantages to actants”.
– Hillier 2008

Making the urban future controversial

Pragmatist ideas have influenced what Healey calls “relational” approaches to planning. These ideas can be seen as connected to the increased interest in complexity and the “wicked problems” that urban planning is increasingly called on to address and point towards new understandings of what planning can become.

“This understanding of practice suggests a distinctively counterhegemonic or democratising role for planning and administrative actors: the exposure of issues that political–economic structures otherwise would bury from public view, the opening and raising of questions that otherwise would be kept out of public discussion, the nurturance of hope rather than the perpetuation of a modern cynicism under conditions of great complexity and interdependency.”
– Forester 1993:6 paraphrased in Healey 2009:284

Planning is a central element in the practice of democracy and the performances of planning practices in the city are significant for the lives that can be led. Intervening in urban space through 1:1 urban experiments is one way of opening space for new articulations of possible urban futures. Citizens gain awareness of their ability to co-develop urban space and their role in the municipal system by participating in open ended urban development processes where controversies are made visible – processes in which it is possible to start questioning what is taken for granted in the city.

This line of thought has parallels to the Situationist movement, working with creating situations that lead people to places and thoughts that they would not otherwise visit, a perspective which is also reflected in contemporary design research and practice.

“We think of a design thing being made ‘public’ when it is handed over to users, as it then becomes a matter of concern to them with its new possibilities of interaction.”
– Binder, De Michelis et al. 2012

Prototypical interventions and experiments make the socio-material decisions and the development of the city visible, public and open for controversy. As the black boxes of urban development are opened for the scrutinizing of publics, citizens gain voice and new imaginations and performances of urban futures are made possible.

Local politicians and planners play a vital role in creating publics, but it is not necessarily easy to allow for controversy in planning practices. In an urban world of increasing complexity and insecurity, creating provisional, acceptable and accepted orders is all we can hope for and it is therefore important that professional and democratic practices which can handle uncertainty exists. Uncertainties can be seen as either threats to be eliminated and reduced or as potential starting points into an exploration of how society can be transformed and thus tools to enrich the emerging world.

“Either we should despair of politics and abandon the hope of providing public proofs altogether, or we should abandon the worn-out cliché of incontrovertible matters of fact.”
– Latour, Weibel 2005:19

Controversies are everywhere, but generally they are hidden and only become visible when it is too late to give them space. In planning practice it doesn’t make sense to wait for controversies to break out in the open, rather controversy should be encouraged and stimulated by planners who can assist in their emergence.

Moving from matters of fact to matters of concern subtracts power from those who have had claims to the truth and makes planning much more difficult and complex. Things in the city are made public when they are opened for controversy and urban planners have a central role to play in opening up the interpretative flexibility of urban futures. The construction of democratic publics are within the domain of urban planners, who can open the city up for discussion and (re)imagination of desirable futures and in this way take active part in a democratization of cities.

A central question is how processes which create controversy can be performed on a larger scale in cities. It is one thing to develop a local square co-creatively, but something different completely to develop a new urban district. How can experimental urban development practices be applied at a larger scale – for developing new neighborhoods and new forms of urbanity?


About the author
Peter Munthe-Kaas is a Copenhagen based researcher and designer. He works in the Borderland between research, activism, LARP, performance and urban development. Peter wants to develop new ways of living together in the cities of the future.

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