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Listen to everyone

by Rüdiger Korff


Retrieving documents from the ruins of Cologne’s historical archive in March 2009.

Retrieving documents from the ruins of Cologne’s historical archive in March 2009.

Urban planning all too often does not work out because it is based on illusions. To improve matters, it is essential to take into account the perspectives of all segments of society. Doing so is particularly relevant in small and mid-sized towns where the scope for future development is greatest.

Urban planners tend to be experts who have a clear idea of how an agglomeration should reasonably develop. Unfortunately, they often lack an understanding of many relevant issues that should be taken into consideration. For several reasons, it is actually impossible to understand everything that matters:

  • First of all, urban settings foster self-organised behaviour, much of which authorities are not even aware of. Slum settlements, for example, are often beyond the reach of law enforcement and almost always unplanned. Nonetheless, people survive there, and their community life is widely self-organised. Urban planners may see informal settlements as  problems, but to the people living there, they are solutions: this is where they have a home and where many of them work. Self-organisation matters in other respects too. For example, businesses network among one another, religious communities and social movements spread, traffic patterns evolve.
  • Cities are where change happens and political challenges arise. Technology, migration and political uprisings are just three catchwords. Cities keep transforming, so what planners consider normal today may not be obvious at all tomorrow.
  • Urban land is expensive, and vested interests have a bearing on development, but they are not necessarily aligned with urban planning. All over the world, the incidence of corruption pertaining to urban affairs is particularly high, which shows that urban planners cannot simply implement the common good.

Urban development is always complex, complicated and contested. That does not mean that planning is useless. It is indeed important. However, it can only make meaningful contributions if planners get rid of their illusions. Planning and building a city is not like setting up a factory according to rational principles. Cities are not machines, and opinions diverge concerning what is rational. Cities are more like biological eco-systems with in-built immune systems, surprising resilience, a potential for spontaneous developments and a propensity for conflict. Accordingly, interventions can easily prove counter-productive.

The better urban planners know their agglomeration and its diverse communities, the better they will perform. They must not withdraw into fancy office buildings to draft grand schemes, but must engage with the public. They should realistically assess why so many grand plans fail. An approach one might call “agora” planning would make sense. “Agora” is the ancient Greek word for the market places that, like Rome’s Forum, also served public debate.

To make a relevant difference, planners must take an inclusive approach. The more voices they hear and the more perspectives they share, the better they can rise to the challenges. They need to take into account inconvenient truths as well as powerful vested interests. To overcome major obstacles, they will have to forge big coalitions, involving different social forces. Top-down approaches, however, are bound to fail.

The agora approach should not only be taken in megacities like Lagos, Lahore or Lima. For several reasons, competent agora planning is at least as important in smaller towns. One reason is that smaller towns grow faster than big ones. Another one is that they are becoming diverse, and multiculturalism is becoming the norm. Unlike in megacities, it is impossible to withdraw into secluded communities.

Moreover, small and mid-sized towns are not stuck in age-old patterns. Information technology matters too. Supposed backwaters are no longer cut off from what is being discussed elsewhere.  There is a great scope for innovation.

It is worth noting that Germany has a lot of urban-planning problems. Grand schemes like Berlin’s new airport are not making progress, and Cologne even lost its historical archive in 2009 when a new-dug tunnel for the underground collapsed. There are many more examples of flawed planning in German cities in spite of their lively civil society, strong institutions and comparatively small size.  That planning is not perfect even here, shows how great the challenges are, and that realism must prevail over illusions.

Rüdiger Korff is a professor of Southeast Asia studies at the University of Passau.
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