Challenges of designing cities today

– Amrita Maitra

What has changed in our way of thinking?

The decentralisation of urban management that imparts greater power to urban local bodies in shaping cities often brings up the question of who the “true initiators” of urban projects are. Globalisation puts pressure on cities to compete for economic investments, increasingly having to raise their own resources for urban projects. Urban development, globally, over the past three decades has been an output of a “multi actor – multilevel interplay of private investments, public subsidies and incentives for development, government regulations, public participation and public protest.”3 With increased privatisation of public infrastructure and services along with dependency on IoT and smart solutions, there is a whole new set of actors at the table of urban discussion. Do the urbanists still play a significant role in the decision-making process or do we remain limited to simply reacting to these forces? What challenges do urbanists face in meeting with the demands of these forces?

All urban projects have three underlying components that respond to this competitiveness: environmental sensibility, desirable public realm, strong social interaction. This brings forward three major political constituencies that urbanists respond to: environmentalists who shape developments to conserve the natural world and preserve its systems; civic promoters who seek to distinguish their city from its competition by providing higher-quality urban and civic life; community activists who preserve and restore the place where they live and who want new development to have the good qualities of traditional neighbourhoods.3

Steering the conversation of city design

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“Urban design is to the city as advertising is to commodities”

– Henry Lefebvre

Globalisation propelled the proliferation of gated communities funded by private investments that stand as a visual testament to the increasing inequality that divide the marginalised (those who are increasingly fighting for limited public resources) from those who can afford the premium to exclude themselves from the struggle. Increasingly, the fabric of cities resembles each other in architectural character and local policies that support regulations to standardise spaces, thereby allowing these investments to become tradable products. Services and governance that are the framework of spatial competitiveness are more and more based on information that necessitates systems specialists to cater to this process of financialization. Saskia Sassan presents astounding proof of this cyclic process in several of her written works and lectures.

Another quintessential discussion in the initiation of urban projects is the motivation to create new spaces in the conceited assumption – “if you build it, they will come.” This promotes the vision to obtain the sweet spot of urban density that holds public interest over a period of time and renders a place successful. A strong public realm generates the density integral to the attractiveness of a place but the challenges of creating the new “public realm” in places that have no legacy public attractiveness stems from the loose definition of what is public and where the public space may occur.

Further, financial speculation in real estate and poor implementation of planning regulation and policies generate the culture of urban development- “project by project” with a superficial contextualisation of the “metropolis vision” in the design of these projects. It influences urbanists to approach projects either as “a small-town planning proposal” branching off from the metropolis as a sub-urban sprawl or as “architectural projects that adopt the metropolis concept artificially by challenging its very definition” that we see in the hybrid hyper-blocks sprouting in highly competitive cities. The latter often is a proposal by the “star architect” who Richard Sommer accuses of advancing the cause of architecture more than the city, citing the example of Rem Koolhaas and his “Derive +happening + container = urbanism. Even when he raised the prospect of “big” urbanism and helped increase the interest in empirical investigation of everyday forms of architecture” –

Follow a post 1968 penchant to eschew any political authority to plan except what can be achieved through ostensibly subversive action, fins instead a way to attract the urban subject to some seemingly transgressive object of desire, script an unlikely mix of characters and props, and wrap a frame around the whole ensemble. Add irony liberally.

Democratisation of the city building process

Town meetings are to liberty what primary schools are to science: they bring it within the people’s reach, and they teach me how to use it and how to enjoy it.

-Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Vol 1

Participative planning or specifically public consultation in urban projects and planning processes has been instrumental in the political struggle for inclusive planning. It has proved to be a key tool that is said to minimise marginalisation of vulnerable citizens through the power of democracy. Public participation in most democracies is now integral to town planning and urban development. Unfortunately, giving power to the people has not really been the magic solution to ensure equitable distribution of public goods even in places where innovative social and political practices have been central to policy making. Despite revolutionary advancements in the capacity to register public input (with the popularity of telecommunication and social media), a large proportion of people do not participate in this process. There is no standardised qualification for either the means of public participation or the methodology in which it is carried out, thereby often rendering it a gimmick that legitimises power and stimulating inequality contrary to its fundamental goal. Therefore, it is often difficult to comparatively identify the direct impact of such policy tools as their objectives and political and social contexts vary across geography.

Despite the challenges of being too “idealistic to be realised”5, democratisation of the planning process has often helped in bringing about policy change and on-ground mobilisation towards difficult issues such as climate sensibility that is impossible to address through classical institutional policy planning. It is therefore in this regard that the role of planners and designers must be redefined in the hope to attain a bigger say at the table of urban discussion, beyond the reactionary effort to meet market and political demands. They must hence be instrumental in framing the public participation process not simply analysing the collected information and responding to contestations in planning and design, thereby enriching the participatory process through their inherent expertise in envisioning “a customised evolution of the urban landscape”.

References et Bibliography:

  1. Les dynamiques politiques de l’innovation urbaine : (Re) Penser les politiques urbaines, retour sur vingt ans d’action publiques dans les villes françaises (1995-2015), Maxime Huré, Max Rousseau, Vincent Béal, Sabastien Gardon, Maire- Clotilde Meillerand – PUCA
  2. Urban Design Alex Krieger and William S. Saunders, Editors, University of Minnesota Press 2009
  3. Beyond urban fabrics and cultures of congestion: urban design as a metropolitan enterprise, Richard Sommer
  4. Democracy Takes Command: New Community Planning and the Challenge to Urban Design, John Kaliski Essay, No.22/ Urban Planning now: What works and what doesn’t, Harvard Design Magazine.
  5. Everyday Urbanism, edited by John Chase, Margaret Crawford, and John Kaliski, The Monacelli Press, 1999
  6. The global city: Introducing a concept, Saskia Sassen Professor of Sociology, University of Chocago, Brown Journal of World Affairs, 2005

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