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Diary of a Planner by Bernardo Secchi | Planum 2002-2013

Diary 02 | Welfare

by Bernardo Secchi

 Italian Version

From the 1970s on, "welfare" and "welfare state" have become words alluding to policies and institutions placed under harsh criticism and even derision. The tensions and utopias of the '70s seemed to indicate the inadequacy of a reformist policy careful to correct and ameliorate the functioning of the primary institutions, while the western world's experience with welfare policy showed the insufficiency, if not the perversity, of every attempt to define the dimensions of a well-being that could aspire to intersect broad social groups and territories in transparent ways. Above all, the deterministic "banalization" to which much of planning practice naively referred in the preceding decades was rightfully criticized. Both criticisms had quite important, and perhaps unwanted, effects. Reformist policy and the planning discipline suddenly found themselves devoid of a recognizable statute if not of the broad legitimization that they enjoyed, and which partly associated the two, during the prior decades.

Notwithstanding this, and in different, and more articulated and sophisticated, terms the discussion of welfare and its new dimensions continues; and the old determinism, albeit in less banal and reductive forms, has not completely abandoned urban and territorial policy. Perhaps one positive effect has been to save urbanists from the self-referential deviation that characterized many projects in western cities at that time. The idea that planning practices find their main source of legitimization in the search for better conditions for a great part of society; the idea that planning is an important part of biopolitics, as a set of actions with evident and controllable consequences for the life of a population; or the idea that population is a term inseparable from territory, and that every policy must take into account the spatial dimension cannot be ascribed to banal environmental determinism.

Two main directions seem to me to have kept attention alive regarding the concrete dimensions of individual and collective wellbeing, also proposing them as dimensions of political action and, for the most part, of urban policy. The first investigated everyday experience and the story of the present, while the second explored processes of society's (and the territories of the western world) progressive democratization.
• The first course involved sociologists, ethnologists, anthropologists along with photographers, directors, writers and, naturally, urbanists. It produced a great number of case studies which, by closely observing the changes which came about in society, and in western and European territories, radically modified the ways in which individual and collective demand on the city and territory are explored and conceptualized today.
Proposing a great number of images and continually running the risk of "aestheticizing" the present, this research showed how individual and collective well-being is located at a crossroads of practices and forms of using time and space which are much more variegated, articulated and complex than the ones which characterized industrial society and the city for the entire first half of the twentieth century. Those dealing with welfare policy were not only driven to lengthen the list of the fields of intervention, to conceive of new, and more numerous, infrastructures and appropriate places (along with their increased performance) but also to consider how the tremendous fragmentation of contemporary society makes it difficult, if not impossible, to define dimensions of welfare once and for all within a single norm that is valid for every territory and population. They acknowledged how the very idea of welfare pervades every aspect of individual and collective life - from economic activity to consumption to leisure; how the same idea is understood differently by different generational, cultural, ethnic and local groups; and how the different ideas of welfare cultivated by the different groups can conflict among themselves. The studies compiled by Pierre Bourdieu in La misère du monde and the fieldwork conducted by every reflective planner over the last decades are testimonies to this thinking.
• The second direction has received much less attention even if everyone is convinced, beyond the associations of events in different countries and territories, that the second half of the twentieth century corresponded to a progressive democratization of western society - an often radical modification of the map of shared values with a progressive loss of traditional positional values - here the terms must be interpreted along the lines of R. Harrod and F. Hirsch. To cite just a couple of examples - the decrease in the value of a college degree on the one hand and on the other of a location within a city; this decrease also concerns the civic value attributed to the architecture of buildings, places, cities.

The two movements to which I have referred synthetically (but certainly not the only ones regarding contemporary society and territory) have questioned the idea that we had (and to which we had granted institutional status) of the general, collective and public interest, where the three terms are not synonymous, and concern, each and every time, different aspects and parts of society. By questioning these terms, we have shaken the foundations of the institutional building of the modern State and created the need for its urgent reform - including ways of conducting planning, ways of guiding the transformation and modification of the city and territory - the material conditions within which the aspirations and images of concrete individual and collective wellbeing are constructed.

In many countries, the issue is faced in reductive ways: moving the line of demarcation between the public and private sectors with a strong push towards the privatization of services and infrastructure that modernity and the welfare state entrusted to the public sector which, in many cases, demonstrated to be less and less efficient; diffidence regarding the collective dimensions of society at large, or parts of it; agitating all kinds of metropolitan fears in gross or instrumental ways; identifying general interests with the attainment of aggregate positions defined eminently in terms of economic targets. These are the passages, in Foucault's words, from a "disciplinary society" - well-represented by modern planning - to a "society of control" - well represented by contemporary urban policy. Doubts cannot be nourished regarding the scope of these policies in contexts where someone might even think of returning to a "society of sovereignty": accentuating mechanisms of selection/exclusion, redefining social hierarchy, returning the importance of old and new positional values

The main strategy of the disciplinary society was, in Deleuze's words, "to concentrate; to distribute in space; to order in time; to compose" - like in the modern city - "a productive force within the dimension of space-time whose effect will be greater than the sum of its component forces." These objectives, for example, were sought by modern planning through its discursive organization that ever more resembled the "hard" sciences, seeking to legitimize policies of identification, separation and distancing/approaching usually indicated synthetically by the term "zoning." The crisis in the welfare state was the crisis in all places of "enclosure" - the family, the school, the barracks, the hospital, the factory, the prison and in politics, including those regarding the city, based on spatial division and temporal ordering.

The main strategy of the society of control is, instead, modulation, the continual construction of metastable situations, the request for flexibility and permanent adaptation, the refusal of any idea of plan or program in the medium and long term as a useless restraint. The policies of control respond to social demand with a temporary, and open, list of projects and interventions characterized by important communicative investment and not with programs and actions logically connected in space and time and with their evaluation criteria. Whoever is familiar with today's EU urban policies and their differences cannot help but recognize their frequent connotations in these terms. The main "tale" of the disciplinary society ended with the recovery and emancipation of those less favored by history, by the market and by luck, with increasing diffusion of citizenship rights. The story of the society of control begins with the multiplication of astounding images representing the acceleration of technical progress, the state of unpredictability and uncertainty which this engenders, the generation of fears and the need for security that can lead to renouncing what was once considered a firm civil right.

City and territory are fields in which this passage is constructed and produced. Certainly, changes in the job market or in important juridical and institutional orders attract greater attention, but city and territory are places where individuals and social groups silently work towards the redefinition of their own positive idea of welfare and their own maps of values. It is worth giving them more attention.
The immense sprawl of single, two-family and three-family homes, isolated or in rows, with small gardens covering large part of a continent is not so much the expression of a bourgeois utopia for example as much as, in many cases, the search for predictable welfare that is safe and stable. It focuses on values that are different from those historically sought by the majority of the population in the industrial city. Even the localism of the last decades, in its concrete and daily manifestations, the search for teachers, doctors, nurses, bank directors, clerks and managers known because they come from the same local, cultural and social context must be ascribed to this search. It is an attempt to subtract themselves from the strategies, mechanisms and risks of the society of control - at least in part or at least regarding one's own emotional and economic life. Part of the European population has countered the alienation and anonymity of these mechanisms with the reinforcement of interpersonal relationships based on reciprocal knowledge and trust, and is thus producing a city that is, in some parts, radically different from the modern one

Analogous reflections can be formulated for other parts of the city and territory. They might convince us to return to the construction of policies in real terms rather than exclusively monetary ones, patiently reconstructing - more concretely - the motivations and consensuses which are pushed today and tend to crystallize on imaginary terrain. Urban policy, with its indispensable adhesion to the physicality of the city and territory, can help us recover these dimensions. For this very reason, they should be placed closer to the center of attention of every seriously reformist policy.