Van Eesteren Fellowship Lecture Series 2021

Towards a grounded, just and unapologetically ethical planning practice.

Wednesdays 12.45 – 13.45

Barbara Lipietz, UCL, London

How can you plan for future just cities? 


With the formulation of the New Urban Agenda (NUA) the UN has acknowledged the critical role of planning as key in building future integrated and just societies. The anti-urban bias of the last 50 years in the development debate has finally been countered. The urban tipping point (over 50% live in urban areas and 75% of the urban dwellers live in the global south) and a renewed urban interest whereby cities are seen as “growth engines” in the global economy and as vehicles for achieving global sustainable development are vital for understanding this change. Although we can applaud the recognition of the role of planning, we should also tread carefully.

Rudolf Perold, Cape Peninsula University of Technology, Cape Town

The formal – informal interface and its relevance for promoting spatial justice


Informality is still a central challenge to contemporary architecture and urbanism (Perold, 2018, p. 75; Revell, 2010, p. 5). The dichotomy of the formal and the informal is a reductionist epistemological demarcation which is disconnected from the interweaving of the formal and informal in everyday life. There is a need for a critical theoretical position that can understand and address the formal and informal as a continuum, beyond stigmatization and that reveals the complex effects and action of these practices. Perold stresses that we need this redefinition of “in[formal]ity as a dialectic whole to replace the dichotomy of formal vs. Informal” (2018, p. 11), allowing us to better understand the continuous production of urban space through both formal and informal practices, through top-down planning and every day appropriations by different actors (Milgrom, 2008, p. 265; Perold, 2018, p. 80).

Witee Wisuthumporn, Community Architects Network, Bangkok

Let people be the solution!


Resilience is the buzzword today. Planners, designers, but also politicians and policy makers are looking for solutions and developments that are robust, that are able to cope with the challenges, changes and transformations. If we look at the current condition in regions and cities globally we see a wide range of challenges and issues, such as climate change, migration, increased segregation and uneven development. These crises have been often used as a justification for certain planning interventions that eventually increase the uneven development of cities and regions. The rational behind numerous of these interventions is to make the area future-proof or robust, but in doing so they fail to incorporate the intrinsic characteristic of our human fragility. In essence we are all social animals and we are all physically vulnerable. 

The work of the community Architects Network values the strength, knowledge and capacities of people and seeks to mobilise these in and through the participatory development of housing.

Unapologetically inclusive transitions 


We are at a crucial moment in time, the global crises such as climate change or migration, but also the increasing inequality and the realization that our earth is a finite resource are all triggers that could abruptly alter the status quo. Unfortunately, as argued by Giddens (2009, p. 2), most of these challenges “aren’t tangible, immediate or visible in the course of day-to-day life” that is why for most people actions to address these challenges are not high on the agenda. However, not addressing them today ultimately leads to their insolvability in the long run. Already today, we observe globally how the rising levels of uncertainty give way to increased turmoil, protest and fear. Crises offer a chance for change, existing institutions and ways of doing can and should be, questioned. The search for new value systems becomes increasingly apparent (Grin, Rotmans, & Schot, 2010, p. 1). 

Current challenges and problems are so deeply rooted in our societal structure and consequently in our day to day practices so that any change towards new systems will require both new (daily) practices and profound structural change (Grin et al., 2010). Grin et al. (2010, pp. 1, 11) define transitions as “profound processes of change”, as “shifts from one socio-technical system to another”. Transitions are long term processes, whereby multiple actors are working through different levels in order to achieve “the reconfiguration of the institutional and organisational structures and systems of society” (Grin et al., 2010, pp. 11–13; Swilling & Annecke, 2012, p. xvi).

Today the focus of envisaged transitions is mostly on sustainability, whereby climate change and related ecological process are the centres of attention. Technical innovations are often seen as possible solutions. However, and despite acknowledging the fact that technological innovation is crucial, a successful transition can only happen when attention is paid to the social, economic and cultural context and change. More importantly, and reinforcing Swilling and Annecke’s (2012, p. viii) argument, the imagined transition does not only result in “a mode of production and consumption that is not dependent on resource depletion and environmental degradation”, but is also a just transition, thus one that addresses the socio-economical inequalities and (global) poverty.

Towards a grounded, just and unapologetically ethical planning practice

Inequalities have always been inherently linked to the geography of space. Cities originated on rivers or crossroads, not in the midst of deserted forests and deserts. Certain characteristics associated with the geography of a place ensure that those places have more or less development potential. From the outset our world has been a canvas of inequality so from the outset unequal social relationships arose (Soja, 2010, p. 71). As Soja has argued (2010, p. 73) being differently located in space can have ”deeply oppressive and exploitative effects, especially when maintained over long time periods and rooted in persistent divisions in society such as those based on race, class, and gender”. 

The Habitat III agenda has acknowledged a global political commitment to the sustainable development of cities, towns and human settlements. With the formulation of the New Urban Agenda (NUA) the UN has acknowledged the important role of planning as key in building future integrated and just societies. But planning and design are no autonomous disciplines, they depend on, and are intertwined with, other fields. The local knowledge of stakeholders and (urban) dwellers is an additional factor that has received the necessary attention over the recent years. Participating and co-creating with local voices is often still considered as an obstruction and a delaying factor. Participation is also too often confined to the local level. We urgently need to develop approaches that allow the inclusion of the concerns and the voices of people on different planning levels. If we want to realise, as prescribed by the NUA, “just, safe, healthy, accessible, affordable, resilient, and sustainable cities for all inhabitants, of present and future generations, without discrimination of any kind” then we need a kind of planning that is both strategic and ethical. 

What we need is a strategic approach that is grounded in a strong and positive vision, that is unapologetically ethical. An approach that engages with the urban reality, with its messiness and complexity, that acknowledges that urban spaces are those spaces where all people can and need to make a life, where they can flourish and thrive. It is a practice that engages with this reality, without falling into the trap of understanding this reality merely as a problem that needs to be solved. On the contrary it sees the seeds of possible better futures and acts on these using projective design. 

Urban designers, strategic planners and spatial practitioners, are called on to speak out, to be explicit about the (normative) position to take in the needed future transitions. Crucially this requires a renewed engagement of urban professionals and of the coming back of advocacy at the forefront of planning and spatial practices. Through a strategic planning approach that is a critical and engaged practice we can develop planning strategies as acts of resistance, as enablers of alternative spatial scenarios and imaginations.

In this seminar series we are embarking on a journey that will bring ideas, theories, every day stories to the table to illustrate how this new engaged planning practice is slowly taking form. It will inspire and it will push us to reflection. Every two months a guest will shed her or his light on this challenge we have ahead of us. 

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