COVID-19: The future of cities and urban living
Climate emergency, COVID-19, Black Lives Matter: urban planning’s insurgent moment
Roger Keil and Sean Hertel
Emphasising its critical role in responding to COVID-19, addressing systemic social-spatial inequities and tackling climate change, Roger Keil and Sean Hertel make the case for courageous urban planning in times of crisis.
Can urban planning be a force of change?
Of course, it can, and it should, but we’ve known for a while that it isn’t. We learned it in graduate school, we have experienced it in practice, and we have taught it to our students: urban planning is too often a practice that cements the status quo.
Despite creating many sparkling visions, planning and planners have too often failed to deliver on promised world-changing results and have instead contributed to technocratic urbanism. While John Friedmann has expounded the possibilities of planning as a positive force of social change, especially when pressed and enabled by social mobilisation, and even insurrection, much of the outcome of urban planning in reality has contributed to the maintenance of the status quo.
Some of this failure is structural: planning in a society ruled by the market will deliver marketable results. In less glib terms, it must be assumed that planning normally first serves the purpose of capital accumulation through the production of space and produces use values almost as an afterthought.
In political terms, this means that planning is an instrument of power; in social terms it means that it tends to increase the socio-spatial disparities characteristic of our neoliberal, austerity-ravaged cities.
But that would be too simplistic an analysis. Planning doesn’t occur without planners, and planners are not entirely beholden to the laws of capital accumulation. They have space and agency.
Still, when we ask planning to hedge in the impulse of the market’s free reign, we need to be aware of the fact that planning regulations and urban public policy may not be a match for the systemic laws of urban development that are engrained and change slowly, often leaving legacies of inequalities that shape the social fabric of the city.
A prime example remains the pernicious practice of restrictive covenants and redlining in the United States that kept black people from homeownership which still today create, as Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor notes, “the perception that [residential segregation] is an unchanging, even permanent, fact of American life [and] the crises spawned by the spatial, economic and social isolation of African Americans throughout the 20th century are still generating consequences”.
Socio-spatial inequities and the crises of 2020
But planning needs to be challenged nonetheless to stand up for its self-proclaimed values, importance and the disadvantaged when the moment presents that possibility. We are currently living through such a moment in which, as urban planners such as James Holston and Leonie Sandercock have taught us, “insurgent urbanism” and “insurgent planning” are not just possible, but unavoidable.
In the early months of 2020, three fundamental crises have come to define the politics of planning in the cities of the world. The first crisis existed before and was already in full force as the year began: the climate emergency defined the media headlines of the world as a bad season of storms, fires and floods had ravaged urbanised landscapes across the globe.
The second crisis for the world of urban planning came when COVID-19 forced the world’s cities to impose unprecedented lockdown measures and hesitant schedules for reopening during the northern summer. Just as people around the world had become somewhat used to the slogan “staying at home” (with all its difficulties we have no space here to discuss), the brutal police killing of’ of African American George Floyd on 25 May in Minneapolis set loose a profound and widespread wave of protests against anti-black racism and police brutality and of solidarity with “Black Lives Matter” actions across the planet.
In each case, planning was both well-intentioned and a failure; it inadvertently championed the status quo despite its change-making claims. To build carbon-neutral urban environments had long been far from the top of the list of priorities in planning practice. In fact, the history of the 20th century is replete with examples to the contrary.
Cities were planned and built as if the planet had unending resources. And although, more recently, planning mantra had prescribed compact and dense urbanism, cities continued to sprawl massively in extended forms across the Earth, and planners – with varying degrees of enthusiasm and politically-induced pressure – prepared, signed and implemented the necessary paperwork for it to continue.