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

Diary 06 | Scenarios

by Bernardo Secchi

 Italian Version

Our times seem dominated by uncertainty. Banalized and driven to intrude upon the collective imagination, today the rhetoric of uncertainty plays an important role in legitimizing the different forms of relativism. If nothing can be spoken with certainty, if everything appears un-certain, un-reliable and un-believable, everything can appear speakable and this can cover up substantial redistributions of power.

Today's emphasis on uncertainty is certainly a reaction to the more reductive versions of past determinism and to the teleological visions of history that they helped to create, but it is also perhaps the result of the disenchantment produced in many fields, especially in those areas containing strong design content or systemic conceptions.

What we are realizing, and what numerous studies over the last years show, at least in my field, is that many phenomena, which we formerly isolated and relegated to the confines of ever more specific areas of research and study, are basically "over-determined" (meaning determined by many more variables than necessary). Among these phenomena are urban and territorial transformations. I would like to contrast and oppose the term "over-determination" with that of "uncertainty ."
To exemplify this, I cannot find a better reference than "The Man without Quality." As we all know, Musil faces the issue of the underlying reasons for WWI. The result of an overly abundant number of causes compared to those necessary, and among which it becomes difficult to establish orders of importance and priority, the conflict appears, in Musil's eyes, as an over-determined phenomenon just like, for instance, many meteorological phenomena which, not coincidentally, are referred to at the beginning of the novel. Today the transformations of the European city and territory appear similarly "over-determined."

The awareness of the nature of urban phenomena in their various dimensions - profoundly different from the past - is, to my way of seeing, the result of a very fertile season characterized by a palpable and pervasive descriptive effort. Moving in many different directions, referring to a continuously expanding and incredibly dense (in metaphoric terms) vocabulary, utilizing different cognitive strategies and tactics, and calling upon the collaboration of different disciplines - unusual areas of study and artistic expression, this effort appears analogous to ones undertaken in the past; such as the European novel of the nineteenth century - "a period" in the words of Balzac "of analysis and description" that brought about so many consequences for our way of observing and imagining the modern city.
With great attention to the present, to "things in the making" using the expression of William James, the descriptive era to which I refer, revealed, through the experience of place, the new and extraordinary things happening in European society - the use of the city and territory, the everyday dimension, the differences that intersect it, the continuous annulment and reform of visible and invisible barriers of inclusion and exclusion, the change in the role and sense of materials that had been established for a long time. The new descriptive effort contributed so much to building a critical distance from the object investigated that this is where its importance truly resides. City and territory seemed crossed by many series of tendencies, each one of which might find their own reasonable explanation but the set of which also appeared overly abundant to explain its past and to build its future.

What the awareness of the over-determined nature of urban phenomena produced is the necessity to explore in greater depth than usual the ample space that, just because of over-determination, opens up between finalizing visions and daily experience, between ideology and pragmatism, between concept and project, where each of these terms asks not only not to be removed, but also to be understood in its deeper dimensions. In fact, they do not allude to extremes from which to create distance, but they become the ineluctable references which delimit - in different ways in every era - the space of political and project action. If criticism can be directed at recent architecture and urbanism, it is that of being placed at one of the vertexes of this polygon, sheltered by daily experience reduced to its most banal, or by the mere procedures of the project's material construction, of an ideology that is unable to connect to the reality of the social movement or of a pragmatism reduced to formula, seriously thinning the dimensions of each of these terms without thoroughly exploring the space in between. A space that more and more tends to be filled by evasive and seductive images, as well as by images of a possible or desirable future that are not always compatible, which approach each other, superimpose and mix providing glimpses of different results according to whether one of the tendencies intersecting the city and the territory can prevail over the others or meld with them in original ways.

Scenario is a polisemic and covering term that has taken on different meanings in the history of the theater as well as in meteorological forecasting. Often used in approximate ways, it has become a term referring to a future - whether good or evil - foreseen as possible. Absorbed and overwhelmed by different rhetoric, promoted and possessed by different constellations of actors, built with participative or technocratic procedures, some of these images have become possible points of retreat from the present - proposed in evasive ways. Other images are mere representations of current trends. And even others are directions sustained and suggested to more or less vast collectivities. And yet again others have taken on the connotations of visions of often-allusive representations of the set of demands and desires implicit in society at varying depths. Finally others are true scenarios - attempts at inquiring into "what would happen if…"
If, in an overly-determined field of phenomena, such as urban transformations, some aspects are isolated and we ask what would happen if these phenomena reached their extreme or probable consequences, we obtain images of the future - scenarios - that are partially incompatible. And it is just their partial antagonism that makes them interesting.

There is no deductive procedure that can lead contemporary society to the construction of a coherent urban and territorial policy, as strong as its points of departure might be. The only concretely practicable ground is the choice among antagonistic images produced by subjects driven by the imaginary, by reductive presuppositions, by interests and cultural backgrounds that are partially incompatible. The principles usually affirmed in the constitutive documents of different civil societies or, more modestly, in the different locally-produced "documents " in recent years historically delimit the field of conflicts that are perceived as legitimate each time. The construction of scenarios makes all of this evident and, at the same time, renders the construction of the project for the city and the territory an operation that is profoundly different from that of the past. It is not a question of methodological refinement, but rather of epistemological overturn.

A set of scenarios can be observed at least from three different and inseparable viewpoints that, for simplicity, I will point out with terms alluding to politics, geography and architecture where it is evident that each of these terms must be taken in its broadest sense. The first refers to the set of relationships, alliances and conflicts between populations, economies, cultures and institutions. The second refers to the spatial aspects of these same relationships, to their intersections and the production of specific constellations of materials endowed with their own different inertias. The third refers to the concrete nature of all the materials that these same relationships utilize and construct. No possible separation or hierarchical or chronological relationship can intervene among the three different dimensions to which I refer. Some very simple examples, with their very crudeness, can help understand and deepen some of the issues implicated by this position.
Many observers have noticed that the transformation of the European city and territory is also accompanied by evident phenomena of inclusion and exclusion, sometimes the object of accurate literary, cinematic and statistical descriptions, building a terrain of political confrontation and contrast most likely destined to become even more evident. A kind of immense functional, social and institutional zoning is producing - on a regional and continental scale - the formation of areas of different dimensions that are appropriated de facto by specific population groups or by specific activities; a sort of patchwork that builds new relationships, new distinctions and new cultural milieux among populations and activities. This, in turn, creates a new urban geography, new materials, new architectures and landscapes. Some current tendencies like sprawl, can be interpreted as the result of processes of inclusion/exclusion or as opportunities for these processes to evolve in complete ways. What would happen if these same processes took on the dimensions and the characteristics described by Gerald E. Frug when observing the American experience? Or are they these characteristics promoted by actors, such as property owners' associations, in fact absent from the European experience? But doesn't the progressive dismantlement of the welfare state along with the progressive privatization of fundamental public services move in the same direction? Doesn't this progressive reduction of the public dimension also correspond to a progressive reduction and marginalization of the political dimension, the results of which are visible to everyone?
Many observers have also, and finally, noticed that fragmentation and dispersion are not phenomena that concern the limited sample of the Italian regions initially studied, but that they extend to the greater part of the continent. Sprawl initially created two ridiculous factions: one against it and the other, rather imaginary, in favor, but which, in reality, forced us to observe the scope and pervasiveness of the phenomenon. Few asked the question: what would happen if it continued and reached its extreme dimensions? Where are its limits, given the current state of techniques, of economic relationships, of cultures, of the imaginary and of the dominant behaviors including political ones? What would happen to the porosity - physical, economic and social - which, because of abandonment, comes about within the established city? Which new territory or what new urban form would be formed and how would the different subjects move within them? What questions, and what order, would they construct?

To try to give an answer to these questions implies clarifying many conditions and hypotheses. It forces us to define the conditions within which some affirmations can be reasonable and the procedures within which certain proposals can come to pass. It forces every project to move out of the enclosure that is well-protected by an ineffable private wisdom to declare which aspects of urban transformation, of social and economic transformations and which actors and recipients it intends to face and how it will concretely attempt to meet them. Perhaps we are arriving too late and, at the same time, too early to say these things. Too late because the tendencies I speak of have had the time to change the situation radically; too soon because our ideas regarding the entire transformation process are still barely clear like many of Musil's characters. And like many of them we continue to deal with parallel actions.