Problem of Modernist Legacies in Urban Planning

The question of multi-scalar or cross-scale implications of decisions taken at the supranational and international levels is seldom ever a topic of discussion or concern in planning practice or, at least in the classes I’ve taken. For instance, it is hard to find an objective debate pertaining to Transnational Trade Partnership (TPP) and its implication for the urban society, particularly among practicing planners–well, at least the ones I know. This isn’t a consequence of choice that planners have consciously exercised, to select an urban issue or aspect to be involved with, but I think its a failure of the profession which essentially relegates its activities to a single-scale of analysis–the ‘urban’.

The other aspect is lack of integration of intra-urban aspects; impact of water use on carbon emissions? impact of spatial structure on social cohesion? I’m sure these topics are of consequence and I wonder why they’re relegated to academic communities. One reason could be that planning as a profession originates from modernist tendencies of reductionism and fragmentation of the urban (read Splintering Urbanism by Stephen Graham and Simon Marvin).

The modernist legacy in planning profession continues to be questioned and debated; how legitimate is it when the fall of modernist projects like the Pruitt-Igoe have long indicated modernism’s demise within planning? There are of course differing and often valid opinions on this argument, but in either case, the question of the profession’s validity remains unconvincingly answered, especially in practice, where the underlying models or ‘ways to do things‘ haven’t changed much. I think my answer to a question on this subject on Quora explains why planning might still remind us of its modernist origins. Interconnected urban problems are resolved through piecemeal projects, their efficacy being predicated on cost-benefit measurements, while discounting the social and environmental externalities that may arise in the future. One would argue that these aspects have been covered within planning decisions, especially after the social and environmental movements of the 70’s. But the substance that these value-laden aspects contribute to urban affairs gets consumed within the fragmented framework. Previously, a transportation project wouldn’t have involve environmental or social impact assessments, now it does. But the entire exercise still has a neatly ‘contained’ characted with components of social and environmental analyses simply added on to justify the project’s legitimacy.

What I’m suggesting here is that we ought to care about the implications of ‘contained’ or piecemeal efforts across disciplinary and sectorial boundaries, and not least across local, regional, national scales and above. I guess this can be considered as the academic version of the concern I had pointed out earlier for overcoming our reductionist tendencies when it comes to dealing with social and environmental issues. 

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