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The Political Nature of Urban Planning

Most of us in design education are taught to focus on design and its effective communication - impressive drawings, convincing pitches in juries, innovative ideas. And yet, in the real world, there are few examples of really brilliant urban planning and design solutions. And why is that?

Because we are technical folk. And land is political.

Spatial planning involves having a broad vision about the city and its people. Before the profession formalized, planning decisions were taken by politicians (and their supporters) as means to leave their mark on a city, such as Hausmann did with the city of Paris. In fact, a lot of urban planning's history and concepts come from other domains. Ebenezer Howard, the creator of garden city concept, wasn't a planner. Neither was Jane Jacobs. Yet their concepts have been adapted and interpreted by planners to benefit the common people. But then too, their concepts would not have been greatly accepted until it was implemented as a test project with some political support.

Creating Chandigarh and Bhubaneswar was a political decision. The design of Central Vista, both now and back when the Britishers made Lutyens Delhi, is a political decision. Brasilia's masterplan materialized due to political support extended to Niemeyer. Smart City projects are also political projects.

Why do some controversial planning decisions find funding? Political support.

Dealing with bureaucracy and convincing politicians for support to a project is part and parcel of a planning practice, simply because these projects require government funding and political willpower to materialize. To implement large-scaled projects means to inconvenience locals for a period of time while new ideas are constructed. Land has to be acquired, services have to be diverted, taxpayer money has to be sunk in. And which politician will risk angering their voters?

Many bold designs and plans that we hear of, be in from Curitiba, or of Pontevedra, or lately even Ghent's pedestrianisation, came from sheer political will, even in the face of strong opposition and death threats. Mayor James Lerner, who recently passed away, was an architect, and saw merit in pedestrianizing parts of the city. Pontevedra's municipal council followed their Mayor's initiative to pedestrianize a whole small city. Ghent's mayor and transportation head faced death threats when the new Circulation Plan was proposed in 2017. All of these projects materialized, and, after implementation, most of the opposition melted away as they saw the merits of the plan. So does that mean this is the fault of poor communication to the citizens? Maybe. But would these projects have happened without the presence of political will in the face of public hesitation? Absolutely not.

There is a concept used in economics and planning, of Arrow's Impossibility Theorem. It states that one cannot find the clear order of preference by following fair voting principles. When democratic procedures are followed, everyone votes for their own personal good, and the sum of these disaggregate preferences cannot be termed as common good. Sometimes, there is a need for a top-down approach to achieve something on ground, and that is possible with political support.

Using the promise of development and infrastructure as a political manifesto is not new in India. And the policies and then directed to be geared towards this. Projects start before voting. They stop when the new government steps in and the funding is then diverted. Thus the job of a planner becomes two-fold - to not only convince the direct stakeholders of civilians, but also the politicians who bring in the institutional support to manifest the project.

Design has been taught as if it is neutral. In real life, it does not have the luxury to be neutral and apolitical. Plans do support political agendas of development, and in return, political agendas push for more policies and plans to effectively use taxpayer money to show development. Land is linked to livelihood, identity, quality of living and aspirations, and all of these are political in nature. And lastly, 'political' is not a bad word. As an adult, it is your right and duty to be political and understand how it affects the society as well as the individual.


A/N - Images used for representational purpose only. Credits to original photographer and artist.

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