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

Diary 10 | Projects, visions, scenarios

by Bernardo Secchi

 Italian Version

As I have said many times, in the last twenty years or so, the project for the city has changed. Its place within society has been radically modified, along with its premises, conceptual frameworks, and modes of representation, and above all, the process by which hypotheses put forward by projects are actualized in the city and territory.
Perhaps those who have experienced these changes day-by-day have not been able to appreciate their radical nature. On the other hand, those who have been disturbed by these changes have not accepted their displacement from prior routine, have not acknowledged the changes or have denied or opposed them. But today, when many design and policy management practices regarding urban and territorial transformation throughout the entire European continent have shown extraordinary convergence toward what was foreseen and prospected so many years ago, maybe it is important to reflect again, beyond contingent visions and short term reasoning, upon the character, the meanings and the reasons for these changes.

As we all know, the city has been the destination for the intense migratory flows causing unprecedented population growth and urban expansion from the 18th century until at least the 1960's, with some prematurity or delay in different European countries. In the words of W. Sombart this was "one of the most important events for the entire development of our Kultur." The more-or-less orderly urban additions during this long period - and especially over the last century - are, as we can all testify, much more extensive than the city which preceded them. They have modified its form, meaning, role, operation, relationships among its different parts and with the external world. More profoundly, these changes have modified individual and collective images, and ways of thinking about the city, the territory and their possible future.

Modern planning was born in this same period as an autonomous discipline endowed with a specific social role and founded upon specific techniques.
It was an era in which the principal issue was the construction of new, extensive parts of cities and therefore the configuration of an overall urban and territorial structure suitable both for the demands emerging from society and the urban economy as well as for the responses that could be provided with the technologies that progressively became available.
The instrument established by European society - substantially analogous in all countries - was composed of a set of prescriptions, usually expressed in graphic and verbal form, attempting to specify guidelines and rules to ensure suitable performance of habitable space and an efficient functioning of the entire urban complex. Attention was first placed on the city as immense and fundamental fixed social capital - as an enlarged infrastructure that would bring about a process of social reproduction having its center in its industrial system and in the city. Then, in the true liberal era, attention was placed on the necessity to regulate the real estate and building markets and in particular, the key consequences deriving from the mechanisms of redistribution of wealth that were set into motion. Finally, in the twentieth century, attention was placed on the city as a place designated for the construction of a general welfare where widespread citizens' rights were represented - in other words, creating the possibility for vast portions of the population to access goods and services that administrative practices and economic response necessarily included within the sphere of the public "good". The car, along with industrial and labor organization became, like in all of disciplinary society, the principal figures of reference for this period. And as we all know, this did not only concern the planning profession.
The architecture of the city was usually contained within an "implicit project" expressed and represented by different instruments: from geometries, hierarchies and design of the constitutive materials of the road network, to the construction, through them, of exceptional and meaningful places, to the location of important urban equipment and services, to the norms that would regulate, in more or less detailed ways, building rights and zoning, relationships between solid and void, between public and private space, between distances and volumes. When these conceptual and operational tools were interpreted in non-trivial and non-reductive ways, architecture - later to became important references for modernity's entire final period - was produced.

At the end of 1960's the issues changed. Urban growth on our continent came to its end. For a series of demographic, social, economic and cultural reasons, the immense relocation of populations from the country to the city, from agriculture to industry, from the south to the north, from the world of rural culture to the world of urban culture were first attenuated and then practically annulled. This happened in Europe along with evident processes of de-industrialization of the largest urban areas and the demolition of many aspects of the welfare state. It would be misleading to establish simple causal bonds among these phenomena that are so multi-faceted. Urban phenomenology is always "over-determined." But all of this was, once again, one of the most important events for the most recent development of our Kultur.
The era of urban growth will never be repeated, at least within the temporal horizons that we conceive in Europe. Even the migratory flows from other continents and cultures no longer allow us to forecast growth analogous to that of the past decades. As their inheritance, those decades left an immense patrimony of abandoned areas and infrastructure which, only with great difficulty, can be placed on the market without resulting in important disturbances in whole portions of our economies and vast urban sprawl to which part of the European population has looked for a positive welfare which the city was no longer able to offer.

In the new situation, the project for the city has as its central issue the new configuration of the entire urban structure that cannot rely upon consistent urban expansion as much as upon a set of precise and limited interventions. These are not only limited spatially, but are also limited in terms of the actors and resources that are mobilized and their necessary time-frames. Unlike the past, this has changed the premises, methods of construction and representation of the project for the city; but what has changed above all is the process by which hypotheses can aspire to their realization; and more in general, its place in society has changed.
Perhaps this course, which many call renovatio urbis, is not the only feasible one; and it is not even such a new one given the important sixteenth-century precedents that were greatly studied precisely at the end of the 1970s in concomitance with the change I am describing. But the recent change in the project for the city lies here even if, thus described, it does not appear in all of its dimension and importance.
Initially interpreted as breaking away from planning and from a set of rules that, in the new situation, appeared inadequate and ineffective as much as they were ideologically inspired, this change troubled many planners and generated the euphoria of many architects and operators ever more open to a growing climate of a-critical pragmatism. For opposing reasons, the euphoric and the depressed removed the characteristics and the modes of change, perhaps its manifold causes. A set of projects and precise actions, often with great architectural value, occupied the imagination as well as urban policy in many cases with extremely modest effects upon the different dimensions of the city and the territory and providing only partial responses to many emerging questions. The search for visibility and immediacy and the rhetoric of the "marketplace" often reduced the range of the patient search for a collective and general good; with the changes in economic structures and social practices being, in those years, as difficult as they were rapid. In compensation, this research expanded private interests. For years in western society, new and dramatic inequities have been growing, creating new and aggressive hierarchies, new positional goods, new maps of power corresponding to an ever-diminishing attention to the demands expressed by weaker social groups.

Planning cannot resolve problems greater than, or outside, itself, but it is not for this reason that it should conspire with tendencies sustained by baseless rhetoric and with which it declares to disagree. Both ambiguity and morality have such limits that it is necessary to keep them under continuous observation. Perhaps it is worthwhile to reflect anew upon some aspects and merits of the period that we are definitively leaving behind us and to reinterpret them in terms of the new conditions that have arisen.

The principal condition necessary for a renovatio urbis policy to acquire meaning and coherence - so that the interests of the active subjects are not only represented in the set of actions for its realization but also a coherent strategic map in which social utility can be shown - is that the same actions are placed naturally within a shared long-term vision. A vision is not a plan: it is, at the same time, a great deal less detailed and more complex; it does not define rights and specific duties, or construct executive procedures, but rather delineates a vanishing point, a horizon of meaning for an entire collectivity while specifying the appropriate strategies to reach it. A vision is open and flexible, but endowed with discriminating power: not every action is appropriate within a single vision. It can receive, change or refute not on a juridical basis, but on a logical basis of substantial and formal coherence. The stronger the power expressed - because absolute or shared - the more it lies within the realm of the unsaid. Sisto V had a clear vision of Rome's future, just as Napoleone III° and Haussmann did, but so did Oriol Bohigas when he created a new urban policy for Barcelona along with the projects for which the city became an obligatory reference point at the end of the XX° century.
In an open and democratic society, the construction of a vision within which precise actions take on meaning cannot remain an implicit one, nor can it be produced by a kind of power that is not driven to be aware of it. It would be illusory to think that a vision can emerge directly from an in-mediate colloquium with citizens, from participative processes. Those who have attempted this course, beyond every false rhetoric, have reached only trivial and reductive proposals, spatially situated within quite limited temporal and social horizons. Another possible course could involve those who deal with city and territory in vaster and more civically responsible ways. And the construction of a vision today cannot sanction prior actions by reconstructing a procedure that begins with the general to reach the specific - an approach which has amply shown its ineffectiveness. Today it is necessary to accept the challenge of a more difficult course that would develop simultaneously in many directions and on many levels, crossing scales of time and physical, social, institutional and power spaces. In this new formative journey, we are not entirely without help.

It seems to me that the guiding principle could be a continuous and patient construction of scenarios. "What would happen if…" - this is a scenario. In an open and democratic society everyone is free to advance proposals and to motivate them in terms of the issues that one sees fitting. We must also accept the rhetorical dimension of contemporary society, the flow of verbal and visual images - seductive or terrorizing - which attempt to induce us to accept or to refuse some possible aspects of our future and of our past. But the task of every intellectual aspiring to legitimacy, including architects and urbanists, is to submit each of these images to rigorous critique, transforming them - while constructing visions and projects - into scenarios. As I have tried to say many times, it is not a question of methodological change, but rather of a radical epistemological revolution.
This begins from the affirmation regarding how our naïve trust in forecasting abilities diminished starting from the second half the 20th century onward. The future appears to us less and less as something that meets us halfway but rather as something that is left up to us, with our tools of investigation, to "see before," to "pre-see". It appears to us more and more as an over-determined construct, in which the distribution of power plays am extraordinarily important role. Uncertainty is not equal for everyone: it troubles those without power, but it is often the result of the actions of those who hold power, of their implicit visions, of the ways in which their scenarios have been constructed and evaluated.

Planning, in its broadest sense, for a long time developed a socially progressive role bringing to light how, in the city and territory, the inequities caused by the development of our economies and the behaviors of our principal institutions were represented and constructed. From the beginning of the 20th century on, planning was necessarily forced to critically distance itself from the surrounding world and to become one of its more important critical consciences. For brief periods, planning was also accompanied by the design work of many architects. There is no doubt that this sustained the democratization process of European society as well as its economic growth: in this sense European planning has played a progressive role. In different ways, today's project for the city must attempt to return to this inevitable role: not on the basis of a mission granted by no one in particular, and not on the basis of rhetoric militancy, but on a serious and scientific basis regarding the continuous control of scenarios that can contribute to the construction of visions within which different actions and projects can simultaneously find their own legitimacy. Today, planning's true difficulty lies in that state between project, vision and scenario.