Urbanism, Practice and Power

Aseem Inam:  When it comes to transforming cities in profound ways, architects, landscape architects, urban designers and city planners can be often impotent.  We lack the power, in general, to make a profound difference to society and more specifically, to shape cities.  We rarely matter in the world of urban power relations and urban exclusion.

Cities are shaped by a sometimes-bewildering variety of actors and institutions:  families, politicians, companies, local government, national agencies, utilities, private investors and real estate developers.  For example, in the United States, the dominant private sector actors tend to be financial institutions, which set the terms for urban investment;  major corporations, which influence urban growth through decisions about location and productivity;  and large developers, who build extensive pieces of cities.  In the U.S. public sector, the major players are the federal government, which sets tax, subsidy and regulatory policies; and the large state agencies that create highways, airports, and other regional infrastructure.  These actors tend to have relatively singular purposes:  to make profits, or to generate tax revenues, or to promote efficient transportation.

A close examination of the shaping of cities throughout history provides further evidence of influential actors who were neither architects, nor urban designers, nor city planners.  Cities have been shaped by military engineers, such as those who laid out the early British port cities of India;  by administrators, such as the medieval lords of England, France and Spain, who planted hundreds of new towns in their territories;  by religious orders, such as the Franciscan missionaries in Spanish Mexico;  and by paternalistic industrialists and social reformers.  Today, city-design-and-building processes are marked by conflict, cross purposes, and negotiation.  Paradoxically, those who often have the greatest ability to adopt a forward-looking comprehensive view of a city—i.e. urbanists—are those who in practice tend to have little actual influence in this processes.

One understanding of power is to act effectively and to influence outcomes.  Is the presentation of stunning architectural drawings enough to act effectively?  What difference do radical new three-dimensional forms, in-and-of-themselves, make to a city?  Is the preparation of sustainable neighborhood plan persuasive?  Does designating various land uses, such as residential, industrial or mixed-use, strengthen community?  What power do these types of practices possess, not just in the often self-referential and self-congratulatory realms of architecture, urban design and city planning, but in the invisible structures and long-term processes that actually shape cities?

As urbanists, one of the first steps in becoming far more effective is to realize how little power we actually have to shape cities.  A critical and questioning eye for the nature of power relations, institutional structures, and decision-making processes in cities is essential.  Another step is to understand history in broader and deeper ways.  For example, a study of the legal abolition of slavery under President Abraham Lincoln in the 19th century is a study of the use of political savvy in extremely challenging and complicated sets of circumstances.  Yet another step, is to draw inspiration from philosophical movements such as Pragmatism, which helps us ask questions about consequences as much as about intentions:  What actual impact will our proposals have on the city?  Finally, as urbanists, we also have to act as citizens and human beings who actively engage with cities on a daily basis, whether it is through constant activism, political advocacy, or even small acts of volunteerism.

The questions that all urbanists must struggle with are these:  Do we have the types of knowledge and skills to truly make a difference in cities, and perhaps even more importantly, do we have the kind of courage and sacrifice it takes to make those differences?  AI.

The recent protests calling for radical reform around the world are examples of courageous citizen initiatives and grassroots movements that can lead to fundamental change in cities.  Source:  Time magazine, December 11, 2011.

The recent protests calling for radical reform around the world are examples of courageous citizen initiatives and grassroots movements that can lead to fundamental change in cities.  Source:  Time magazine, December 11, 2011.