Coup De Grâce


April 19, 2016 — by Patrik Schumacher

The welfare state was pretty great while it lasted, wasn’t it? Yeah, those were the days, golden, even. But now, sad to say yet no point to lament times have changed; things are different. Planning used to be the way society would stay on track and moving forward. Today, for better or worse, we have the market. There are reasons why the market came to take the place of the state, but the real question is, now that we have it, how can we make the market work for us?

Neoliberal post-fordism poses a dramatic challenge to urbanism as we have come to know it since the early 20th century. The public planning process has become more and more an embarrassment and obstacle to urban and economic flourishing. It’s a relic of a bygone era. The high point of urban planning was the post-war era of socialist planning and re-construction of the built environment. With respect to this period we can speak about physical or perhaps ‘positive planning’, in the sense of governments formulating concrete plans and designs about what to build. This era has long gone as society evolved beyond the simple fordist society of mechanical mass production to our current post-fordist networked society. When a few basic standards were functionally separate, optimized and endlessly repeated, central planning could still cope with the pace of societal progress. The world we live in today is far too multi-faceted, complex and dynamic to be entrusted to a central planning agency. The old model broke apart as it could not handle the level of complexity we live with and our cities should accommodate. The decentralized information processing mechanism of the market was indeed capable of managing such levels of complexity and, for this reason, has effectively taken over all positive decision-making processes.

Alongside the dramatic contraction of public investment in construction, public planning was reduced to setting constraints; it became ‘negative planning’ via restrictions and veto powers without any power to make any real positive decisions. Zoning restrictions can be imposed, for example, and then planners wait and see if investments from the private realm come forward. It’s possible that no investments come, which could be a politically intended result (nimbyism), or prompt the adjustment of planning constraints. In theory, such a trial and error process might allow planners to find a set of restrictions that attracts certain investments while avoiding others considered undesirable. However, the present state of public planning is too slow to adapt and prevents the exploitation of myriads of opportunities. Development processes based on negative planning are inherently conservative compared to an unhampered market-driven process of land use allocation. Even worse is when planners assume discretionary powers rather than operating via strict rules due to the paralyzing uncertainty this creates. Indeed, to give permission is often riskier than to refuse it. Another mounting problem is that any rule change creates problematic windfalls and losses. In short, the public planning process turns the process of urban development into a precarious gamble and makes the power of officials liable to be treated as fiefdoms for the extraction of bribes – an endemic problem (not only) in the developing world.


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