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18 April 2017

The rapid rollout of new technologies has led us to a fork in the road for urban planning and policy-making. Kris Hartley takes a look at whether the cities of tomorrow will reflect populist politics, or people’s real needs and concerns.

If the current populist political swell has taught us anything, it’s that people resist top-down interventions. This is a lesson often unheeded by today’s urban planning and policy practitioners.

With deepening links between technology and urban management, the means to innovate, scale-up, and implement “smart city” initiatives reside primarily with governments and corporations. The individual citizen is outside the conversation, as in the bygone rationalist era of urban renewal. Planning is in danger of again becoming a game of high politics and technocracy, reversing progress made during the rise of collaborative and advocacy planning from the 1960s onward.

A crucial difference, however, is that the new populist uprising is not from the left, but from the fringe right. The ideological foundation is different and the underlying forces are beyond planning, but the lesson is clear: planners must ensure that the new generation of technology-driven urban growth is democratic, serves the public good, and avoids capture by elite interests.

Urban planning emerged from the field of architecture in the early 20th century and predictably focused on physical design. The opportunity for public health officials and social advocates to shape the field was lost to architects, argues Amanda Erickson. Addressing the plight of the poor, the sick, and the underrepresented relegated social reformers to peripheral status in the halls of planning, elbowed out by a preoccupation with spatial rationalism.

More on this: Mental health, migration, and megacities: podcast

With architects leading, it was inevitable that technological advancement would focus on the built environment. The prospect of eliminating the pathologies of industrial-era life and the inconveniences of congestion seemed possible through the application of data, rationalism, and top-down policy prescriptions. Building safety codes and traffic light sequencing are examples. Even the garden city movement and its later modifications were a rationalist effort to arrest nature in service to economic and social goals.

The lessons should have been obvious, and there is little surprise that citizens eventually pushed back. In the late 1960s, social disenfranchisement, largely impacting African American communities, ignited a backlash against the status quo in economics, urban planning, politics, and many other facets of society. A wave of social progressivism hatched what urbanist Paul Davidoff labelled advocacy planning, re-focusing on the plight of urban residents displaced by renewal and later by manufacturing decline. As symbolic as it may have been, the notion of collaborative governance disrupted top-down planning and brought the field closer to residents through micro-democratic mechanisms like community development corporations.

By the turn of the millennium, an emphasis on environmental sustainability, design aesthetics, and their corollaries (urban livability and walkability) started receiving broader attention from planners and policymakers. While community engagement and feedback mechanisms remained, it did not take long for this new planning concept to detour towards professional expertise and agency.

At a strategic level, the growing push for sustainability gives planners an opportunity to connect urban-scale projects with global challenges. At an operational level, modern technological advancements provide tools to measure and manage issues like traffic, land development, and energy consumption in ways far more sophisticated than the first generation of urban technologies allowed. Effectively, this renewed quantitative approach has revived rationalist planning. The application of technology to transform urban life, often packaged as “smart city” programs, also reflects a futurist optimism not seen since the 1950s.

Revolutionary technologies are a high-profile sell; today, society is both fascinated and nervous about Amazon drone deliveries, hyperloop transport, and driverless police cars, among other projects. Nevertheless, the capital needed to implement such technologies is held by governments and corporations, meaning the plight of the individual citizen and disadvantaged groups is again at risk of being superseded by a revived fixation on rationalism.

Will there be a disruptive pushback similar to that of the 1960s? Populism is now rising as authoritarian strongmen claim to champion the marginalised. This is a reaction neither to any single factor nor to a particular planning theory. Economic, social, and governance systems have, by some accounts, ignored the plight of the individual – including those who are aggrieved by the new economic and social order. Populist and nationalistic sentiments are unlikely to weaken because the trends that created them are enduring: immigration, globalisation, and the continued pluralisation of society.

This message of exclusion differs significantly from the message of inclusion and minority liberation of 1960s progressivism. However, both are in some ways reactions to a sense of helplessness; the first in part to institutionalised racism, and the second to economic restructuring. If smart cities are a new incarnation of urban renewal, and populism the new progressive pushback, society has come full cycle in under half a century.

Smart city technology need not be only a technocratic fetish, and planners have the opportunity to embrace technology’s inherently humanising and democratising potential at the early stage of the smart city revolution. The alternative is the coupling of the smart cities paradigm – and evidence-based policy more generally – with elite interests and the inevitable continuation of the pushback cycle.

As a new populism takes root, technological progress must weather the storm not by resistance but by asserting itself as a tool for positive change in urban residents’ everyday lives. Recognising that technology should serve people is not surrendering to rightist populism. However, it can diffuse pushback against funding for technology initiatives that improve the urban experience for all citizens. In short, planning must be re-humanised.

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