The Tragedy of the Town Planning Profession

The town planning profession has been in crisis perennially. This crisis is driven by various factors dating back to the very origins of the profession. The journey the profession has travelled and the hostile environment that the profession operates in has influenced significantly the crisis. Among other professionals in the built environment, town planning struggles to establish identity and value of its own. Its fundamental role has been declining and facing extinction as society moves from the political to the transpolitical.

In this working paper, I explore the tragedy that town planning is facing as a profession. I chart through the challenging history that gave birth to town planning, the interventions that town planning has made to the ever-evolving society. I also explain how town planning professionals themselves inadvertently contribute to the demise of their profession at the detriment of cities. By engaging this debate, I seek to stimulate discussion on the future of the town planning profession and possibilities of saving the profession towards better cities.

1. Back to the Origins

Town planning profession is well known to have originated in the Garden City idea of Ebenezer Howard. This was a non-Marxist social utopian approach to reforming cities peacefully towards better quality of life. The garden city idea was a unique combination of proposals from earlier utopian socialist thinkers.[1] For Howard to come up with the Garden City idea, the laissez-faire as a system of organising society during the industrial revolution had proven catastrophic for cities. Unregulated private enterprise failed to provide for social investment and services critical to sustaining cities. Cities were affected by problems of diseases and ill health as buildings took place without effective control on standards. The lack of regulation led to poorly built houses, poor drainage, and unsanitary conditions that eventually led to cholera outbreaks and respiratory diseases caused by industrial pollution.

The network of garden cities that Howard proposed as a solution to the social ills of industrial cities was of decentralised network containing 30 000 people and surrounding a larger central city of 58 000. The garden cities were to be slum-free, pollution free with good quality housing and green spaces that separate the individual Garden Cities. Key to the Garden Cities idea was also the communal ownership of land to hedge against private land speculation.

As noble as the Garden City idea was as an alternative to the laissez-faire system that caused problems, town planning as a social reform movement remained a voluntary practice. Several measures were taken to address the problems of industrial cities including building control, zoning regulations under public health legislation.

In the British context, which influenced town planning globally, the change of town planning from a voluntary practice to a statutory practice as a profession was influenced by two factors. First, as Britain was losing its world dominance to Germany and USA both in military and economic terms, deteriorating urban condition became an alarming issue. Unfitness of urban volunteers for military service was very evident.[2] Second, the labour movement of the working class through mass unionism was causing serious strikes since the 1880s leading to social unrest. The working class was demanding not only higher wages but also better way of life in cities, better houses fit to live in.[3]

Proponents of the town planning movement maximised this policy window. They argued to the government that society could be stabilised through application of town planning principles of the Garden City. The principles afforded all classes the benefits of living harmoniously. The working class was to benefit from better housing in the suburbs. The industrialists were to benefit through a better workforce. The ruling class was to benefit through a stable society. So, town planning as a profession was born out of consensus of various classes. It is this establishment of harmony among various competing classes in cities through land use planning that gave planning the value as a statutory practice in the local government.

However, the capital nature of the industrialists through landed interests proved very difficult to rationalize for harmonious co-existence with other systems of organizing cities. The social reform ideas of Morris and Howard did not succeed in reforming the land market effectively. The labour movement that led the working class politics was skeptical of town planning principles’ ability to reform the urban land market, which was, regarded the source of all urban ills. Therefore, the consensus that gave birth to town planning as a profession was a weak one right from the beginning. While the capital that governed the land markets proved powerful and could not be reformed successfully, the labour movement of the social proved to be an impoverished energy to overcome the forces of capital.

Nonetheless, town planning was established as a profession. In Britain, the first town planning legislation was passed in 1909, the Housing, Town Planning &c. Act. This transformed planning from voluntary philanthropic activity of social reform into the field of state policy under the local government. It was a move from idealism to policy. The term ‘town planning’, which was, conned John S. Nettlefold, the Chairman of Birmingham Housing Committee in 1905 became an umbrella term for various reforms from housing to land and the garden city. Movements with controversial reformist ideas got a shelter to polish their ideas under towards acceptability.

The professionalization of town planning however raised a debate over who should practice it. Several professionals in the built environment were already practicing some aspects that fell under town planning. These included architects, civil engineers, and surveyors. In Britain, the pioneer, this led to establishment of the Town Planning Institute as an inter-professional forum and the emergence of an independent town planning education in 1909 at Liverpool University’s newly established Department of Civic Design. The argument by the city engineer of Birmingham, Henry Stilgoe in 1910 demonstrated the contentions that existed over who should administer the newly established town planning practice. His argument has proved more important than ever and it is worth quoting:

I think the people to administer it [the 1909 Housing, Town Planning &c. Act] will be the borough engineers and surveyors of this country. It is their right. They are the officials, the statutory officials, appointed under the Public Health Act, and without their cooperation, and, in fact, without their intimate knowledge of their districts, this Act cannot be put into proper and efficient working order… We must drive forward the great engineering works. The others will follow. Those people who talk so much about town planning do not know what they want; would not know what to do with it if given the opportunity. [4]

The professionalisation of town planning came at a big cost. The development of social reform ideas towards better cities lost attention as professionals focused on developing tools and strategies for professional practice. Tools and strategies such as zoning regulations, site layouts, building regulations became the core of professional practice. However, most of these tools and strategies already existed and were used by other professionals before town planning became an established profession. As a result, town planning lost its core value; it became focused on the bureaucratic role of regulating urban development, a role which during its formative years had been suggested people who studied law and public administration were most suited to practice. Up to now, idea generation is one of the weaknesses of the town planning profession. Most ideas on town planning such as mixed-use development were proposed and developed by architects. Because of this shortcoming, town planning has remained an underdog among most professionals in the built environment. One key attribute that town planning forsaken when it became a profession is the model of equilibrium for cities that was developed and consolidated by Ebenezer Howard in the Garden City idea. Because of the lack of this model, most planning interventions are driven by radical ideologies at the expense of the profession’s integrity.

2. The Model of Equilibrium

Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City idea is the basis of modern town planning. However, the principles of the Garden City that were left behind when town planning became a statutory practice under local government are worth exploring. Given that town planning emerged as an idealistic practice, its shift to state policy still requires a model of equilibrium that sets benchmarks for planning intervention. Without such a model, town planning is bound to remain driven by various radical ideologies of modernism and postmodernism at the expense of creating great cities, harmonious cities.

Under the Garden City, the model of equilibrium for town planning had four dimensions: the what, the where, the when, and the who of planning. By combining the town and country, Howard identified elements that constitute good urbanism into the question of what. These elements comprise for example, of the city’s dependency on the centre versus completeness of community; the amount of private housing versus social housing; the amount of private transport versus public transport; the balance between urbanisation intensity and open space; the balance between economic opportunities and range of housing; the balance between food production and food consumption. These set the attributes of the city into right balance and proportion.

Following the what was the where of cities. This was in form of a regional and urban transect delimiting the spatial characteristics of each zone of the city and the region. This required the city to have a proportional composition of the various zones to form spatial harmony. It stretched from the centre of the large city to the peripheries of the garden cities. The when of the city entailed the spatial evolution and transformation of the city as the city go through various stages of growth each with a set size and characteristics from a village to a metropolitan city. The who of planning further determined the level of decision making in the planning process. This ranged from the level of the block, to neighbourhood, district, city level, region, to national level. Combined, these four questions made up the perfect model of equilibrium for town planning practice.

However, given that town planning has been operating without such a model of equilibrium, rationalising competing interests and various ideologies has been a very difficult for the planning profession. It is the major contributing factor to the profession’s demise. Unlike the age of the political, that society enjoyed until the end of planned economies, the age of the transpolitical which arose in the postmodern has ideologies and interest that are more radical. The radical antagonism in the transpolitical age threatens to push the town planning profession off the cliff.

3. Town Planning in the Postmodern

The success of the town planning profession at creating great cities with a significant degree of harmony and equilibrium depended on the dialectical transcendence nature of society. As landed interests could, to some extent, reconcile with the labour movement. The social and the capital could be synthesised to a certain degree of harmonious co-existence. However, the transpolitical is no longer an age of dialectical transcendence. Society now comprises of extremes, sworn to radical antagonism. There is less room for reconciling the extremes into harmonious co-existence. As a result, rationality in the planning profession is increasingly becoming elusive; a reason the profession has been in a crisis, perennially, and increasingly.

In the transpolitical, systems of organising society be they social versus capital, or the urban versus the suburban, they have all redoubled. They now have superlative power and are more polarised. This redoubling is explained by French sociologist, Jean Baudrillard in his book, Fatal Strategies, where the social absorbs the energy of the opposite to form what is more social than social, the hyperreal social. This redoubling has been occurring with capital as it evolves faster than any other system of organising society. The same redoubling is also occurring to spatial forms of organising cities, that of the urban and the suburban. As a result, cities now have suburbs that are more suburban than suburban, the hyperreal suburban. The urban has been redoubling to form spatial forms that are more urban than urban, the hyperreal urban.

In all this process of redoubling to the superlative power, systems of organising cities are now driven by ecstasy. Baudrillard describes this ecstasy as the overmultiplication of formal qualities of a system until all sense is lost, leading to the system shining forth its pure and empty form “the apogee of the simulacrum,” as Baudrillard calls it. The town planning profession is faced with the radical antagonism of the hyperreal social, the tyranny of the hyperreal capital that is threatening the very existence of the profession. The profession is struggling to put the urban and the suburban into harmonious co-existence.

3.1. Radical Antagonism of the Social

The emergence of town planning as a profession has an inclination towards the social. All the ideas that led to the profession — mostly consolidated by Ebenezer Howard under the Garden City concept — were of social reform. When town planning moved from a voluntary practice to become a profession under the local government, it was riding on social reform where it offered to improve the livelihoods of the working class that was affected by the ills of industrial revolution.

However, the social reform of social utopians that formed and shaped the profession is being replaced by the social revolutions of Marxism. It is this change from sentiments of reform to that of revolution that is also pushing town planning as a profession off the cliff. Other than the emergence of the Marx’s revolution tendencies against the capital however, the social of the transpolitical is another concern, which should worry the proponents of the social.

In the age of the transpolitical, the movement towards socialist cities (under the umbrella movement of right to the city) is losing the inherent purpose of the social. The movement has gone beyond the social, what Baudrillard calls “more social than social — the masses.” It is a social that has redoubled, by doing so, it has absorbed the energies of its opposite, the antisocial. Now, cities are experiencing the antisocial type of urbanism dressed in inertia and resistance garb. As the movement towards socialist cities approaches its limits, the masses have become the ecstasy of movement towards socialist cities.

In its radical antagonism against the capital, the movement towards socialist cities is no longer happy with the town planning profession. Other than the attempt to turn the profession into the radical social revolution camp, the movement is also seeking to get rid of the institution of the profession. Such efforts have been intensifying ever since Jane Jacobs’s polemic work against town planning’s top-down approach after its significant failure under planners such as Robert Moses. The efforts that seek to exterminate the institution of town planning profession derive from the radical antagonism of the social against the capital. The social movement accuses the town planning profession of working for the capitalist system at the expense of liveability of cities. Therefore, the profession is regarded an accomplice of the enemy. As a result, the social movement wants planning to get out of the way of the social-capital warfare and let the brass-knuckles fight take place, the build up towards a revolution against the capital.

The need to get rid of the planning profession’s facilitation of the capital is part of the reason all the planning responsibilities and authority are being put into the hands of the citizens through the bottom-up approaches. It is a protracted process that is turning town planners into mere facilitators of citizen-led planning.

Other than correcting the excesses of top-down approach, the social’s interventions are instead replacing them with absolute bottom-up approaches. It is a form of radical antagonism against the profession. In its quest to take control of the city from the capital, the social movement is not seeking rationality in decision-making process. Following Sherry Arnstein’s Ladder of Citizen Participation, the movement seeks ‘citizen control’ of decision-making as the ultimate form of participation.[5] This is a radical deviation from the rational model of decision-making under the Garden City. Under the Garden City, Howard applied the principle of subsidiarity; decision-making was designated to levels where it was most efficient. Not every decision-making was top-down or bottom-up, some decisions were designated to be made at block level, some at neighbourhood, some at city and some at national level.

As the masses dominate decision-making in the movement towards socialist cities, the movement itself is now driven by ecstasy. Combined with the movement’s failure to distinguish the social from the antisocial, the socialist cities movement has risked turning into an immoral form. However, the realisation of the social’s deviation from the fundamental principles is hardly followed by reforms. Because the ecstatic form of the social — the masses — is very seductive. Its seduction can blind even the most enlightened in the society. Therefore, masses, the ecstatic form of the social movement continue to be dominant where its seductive nature is evidenced in how the ‘right to the city’ movement plays politics of class. It is the poor (the masses) versus the minority (the rich). Every other class that falls in between these two extremes becomes less important. Sometimes, the middle class and all its subclasses can be despised by the social movement, partly for distorting the possibilities of creating the ecstatic spectacle of class struggle. In developing countries for example, it is the very poor in slums juxtaposed to the very rich in luxury, gated estates that pull a spectacle worth showcasing. The rest in the middle are perceived to take care of themselves.

The redoubling of the social cities movement into an empty form is even perplexing to the proponents of the movement themselves. They do not know how to deal with the manifestations of the new form they are advocating. For example, the bottom-up approach that make citizens the ultimate decision makers on all planning issues, at all levels, is biting back at the very social movement.

Using the same powers of bottom-up bestowed upon them, the empowered citizens are becoming antisocial. They are resisting inclusive housing in their neighbourhoods, they are resisting density and public transit that promote inclusiveness. The antisocial and the resistance of the social movement in its hyperreal form has become obstructionist to the making of good and liveable cities. Known as NIMBYISM (Not In My Backyard), the resistance has proved the contradictory ethos that exist in the movement towards socialist cities. The contradictions in the social movement can be traced back to much-famed French Revolution slogan, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity. One socialist theorist, Charles Fourier criticised the slogan; he highlighted how equality and fraternity were antipathetical to liberty.

What stifles the role of town planning profession is that the radical antagonism of the social movement in its quest to create socialist cities is now driven by potentialisation rather than dialectical transcendence. It has been the case of moving from absolute values to relative values. In such a case, proponents of the social despise the model of equilibrium. Under dialectical transcendence, it used to be “to each according to his needs.” With the emergence of potentialisation however, this has evolved to “to each according to his desires,” and now, “to each according to his lack.” The social movement has replaced absolute inequality of Marxism with relative inequality of the postmodern. As the social pursues radical antagonism to take over control of cities from the capital, the capital is also digging into the same war.

3.2. The Tyranny of the Capital

In the 21st century, a new school of thought has been emerging advocating for exclusive market-led urbanism. This school of thought argues that the regulatory frameworks of the town planning profession stifle urban growth and development. It is an argument that stems from the neoliberal economic theory where markets are regarded natural and any regulation becomes a distortion. A libertarian manifesto presented by a leading architect, Patrik Schumacher as a solution to London’s housing crisis sums up best the argument for market-led urbanism. At the 2016 World Architecture Festival in Berlin, Schumacher called for privatisation of all urban spaces, an end to affordable housing policies, and abolishment of all land-use prescriptions and housing standards. It was a radical free-market urban development manifesto, which propped up the tyranny of capital.

Some town planning professionals have been also advancing the same argument. One example is Alain Bertaud in his book, Order Without Design, where he argues that when it comes to urban growth, the market knows best, that the market will solve most planning problems if uninterrupted by planning regulations. While arguments exists that support the role of market in helping planning practice, the call for the laissez-faire approach to urban development like during the industrial revolution warrants particular attention. These arguments come from experts who argue based on their expertise, and their understanding of the markets. However, what the experts miss in these arguments is the existence of underlying forces that shape markets and the evolution of capital. For this reason, the same experts struggle to explain how problems caused by the laissez-faire system during the industrial revolution, the same problems that gave birth to town planning as a profession can be avoided after adopting market-led urbanism, again.

Like the social, the capital is no longer happy with the town planning profession. In the age of the transpolitical where the capital is a sworn enemy of the social, the regulatory role of town planning is regarded to interfere with the antagonism of the capital against the social. Town planning is accused of creeping socialism as Randal O’Toole argues in his article, Is Urban Planning “Creeping Socialism?” Therefore, there are concerted efforts to get rid of the town planning profession entirely. One of these efforts is through the emergence of smart city concept.

When the idea of smart cities began, it did not have a specific problem to solve; tech industrialists offered it as a cocktail of solutions to yet-to-be-identified problems in urban development. This was demonstrated most tellingly by the provocative title of architect, Cedric Price’s 1966 lecture, “Technology is the answer, but what was the question?” Now, the concept of smart cities is very fashionable. Most in the built environment are jumping onto the idea as the next best thing. While introduced by tech industrialists to market digital technology solution to all kinds of problems facing cities, it is now regarded as the future of cities.

Town planning professionals have been trying to harness what they can from what smart cities have to offer in improving the practice of town planning. The social movement has been trying to explore what smart cities has to offer in terms of democratic urban governance. In all the forecasts however, the smart cities concept demonstrate tendencies of being the automation of the town planning profession. Town planning decisions are increasingly going to be determined by a combination of big data and algorithms. By doing so, the capital will get rid of town planning regulatory role as it accuses it of playing too much into the social. The automation will put the capital in direct warfare with the social’s bottom-up, citizen led initiatives in the two’s quest to take over and dominate the city in absoluteness.

Because town planning profession did not attempt to continue with the model of equilibrium of the Garden City, smart cities just like the bottom-up participation is another ideological movement taking over planning without being rationalised. The smart cities concept is coming up with its own equilibrium and indicators. Meanwhile town planning professionals themselves have never discussed comprehensively how the smart cities concept, which is driven by a new form of capital, will alter the harmony and equilibrium of cities for the professionals to set measure of creating new equilibriums.

Other than getting town planning out of the way of capital’s brass knuckles fight with the social, the ethos of market-led urbanism is driven by the nature of capital in the transpolitical. We now live in the growth society, which is not affluent at all, as Baudrillard argues that by combining structural excess with structural penny it produces both wealth and poverty, the opposite of an affluent society.

Since the 1970s, when exponential growth became evident that it could not be sustained, the capital started simulating growth to sustain the growth society. This has been what mathematician Eric Weinstein calls ‘embedded growth obligation’ where for society to sustain itself it has to keep growing, at all cost. Therefore, to keep up with the ethos of the growth society, town planning profession with its regulations proves to be a hindrance to growth. The building control, the land-use control, the demarcation of long-term planning profession and let the market take operate, uninterrupted.

The growth obligation of the capital in the transpolitical has led to the emergence of ‘Urban Growth Boundaries,’ boundaries for cities that are so temporary that they are revised as frequent as every five years. Such boundaries are not effective at all at promoting the characteristics of a liveable city that town planning as a profession seeks to achieve through tight boundaries. By seeking to promote growth society, the capital has been manifesting itself mostly through suburbanisation, a spatial form that promotes all aspects of a consumer society and exponential growth.

3.3. The Pathology of Suburbia

When Ebenezer Howard proposed the Garden City concept, controlling rampant suburbanization that was driven by the transport revolution of railway combined with the declining quality of urban areas was one of the objectives. The Garden City model did not seek to abolish the suburb but sought to control and put it into harmonious proportion to the urban.

During the early 20th century, suburbanisation was a form of compensatory sprawl of the poorly urbanised and an alimentary one of the overurbanised. However, under the capital influence of growth society, cities are now growing as if they are no longer opposed to the external world. The suburbanisation is growing cities into total ecstasy. By growing into such ecstasy, cities are surpassing their spatiality by being larger than large — the megapolis. Cities are escaping the traditional urban boundaries, morphing into the logic of the exponential, that of the ‘city-regions.’

One of the reasons the town planning profession is failing to contain and rationalise the rampant suburbanisation is that until the New Urbanists’ transect model, no comprehensive model of equilibrium was established by town planners to harmonise the spatial systems ever since the Garden City. More than hundred years after the profession was established, suburbanisation is approached ideologically where it is regarded disastrous while the urban is upheld as glorious. No benchmarks exist on the minimum and maximum proportion of suburbs to urban areas that is required for cities to function optimally. The current zero-sum game to addressing suburbanisation has not made much progress as suburban dwellers develop resistance and label town planners as socialist tyrants that force the urban way of living on them.

Because of the suburban’s redoubling, suburbs now exist that have absorbed the energy of the urban to become hyperreal. This has been in form of suburban subdivisions. The hyperreal suburbs lack the positive qualities of the suburban that of ample garden space for great sense of family where residents can grow their own food, reticulate sewer, recycle waste on site, harvest rainwater or have high tree canopy among other compensatory qualities for a sprawling living. With the negative qualities of the suburban such as automobile dependency, the high density nature of the hyperreal suburbs however does not come with positive qualities of the urban such as vibrant street life and civic life. The town planning profession is struggling to rationalise these new spatial forms given the lack of a comprehensive model of equilibrium.

The pathology of suburbia is being driven by the hyperreal capital as a system of organising society. In the growth society, suburbanisation has known neither crisis nor catastrophe. Other than the oil crisis of the 1973, suburbia has been hypertelic by lacking any limit in its growth. Under the symbolic Urban Growth Boundaries, suburbanisation does not stop, it no longer has anything to do with growth; suburbanisation is now the ecstasy of growth of cities. This embedded exponential growth is also influencing the urban as the traditional spatial form of cities.

3.4. The Disappearance of the Urban

The increasing suburban nature of cities globally is also causing the disappearance of the urban. Contributing to this phenomenon is the fact that the planning profession has not established a model of equilibrium, which determines the minimum proportion of a city that should be urban for it to function optimally. Therefore, forces of suburbanisation under the growth society are dominating the urban.

Since the 1950s, the urban began absorbing the energies of the suburban. This included the turning of vibrant streets into suburban type of freeways that rim through cities’ urban areas. The shopping malls, which were traditionally suburban, made their way into the urban. The rise of the skyscraper to domination as a building typology marked the decline of the urban, accommodating urban dwellers that seldom interact with the street.

The urban is witnessing a significant rise in residential buildings that are self-containing with attributes of suburban-gated communities. They have all the amenities that include clubhouses, spas, swimming pools, restaurants exclusively for residents. It has been also the case with town houses in London that were being turned into iceberg houses. The houses brought the qualities of a suburban home into the urban, from saunas, swimming pools, private cinemas, bowling alleys. By turning urban residential living into suburban, civic life which is the cornerstone of the urban is being driven into private enclaves, draining the city of its vibrant public life. It is draining energy out of the city as the urban redoubles into superlative power.

As the town planning profession lacks a model of equilibrium to harmonise various spatial forms, the new spatial forms that of hyperreal suburbia and hyperreal urban are not yet well recognised in town planning circles. It is as if the profession is being overtaken by its responsibilities unaware. By introducing the concept of the Urban Growth Boundaries, the profession broke the secret rule that delimited the sphere of the city. This secret rule was a mirror in which the city used to watch itself and its image. All this was abolished leaving cities to grow unrestrained. It is evidence to the domination of capital by driving the growth obligation.

Regardless of the shortcomings of the town planning profession in comprehending spatial evolution of cities in the transpolitical, the society in the transpolitical is difficult to rationalise and harmonise. This is evidenced in the disappearance of the urban. Urbanism is beautiful because it creates a scene. The scene of the city is where society interact, the civic space. It is where the city offers itself as seduction.

In the age where the urban is disappearing however, where suburbanisation is becoming dominant, cities are gradually becoming obscene. The absence of civic life is transforming suburban cities into obscenity. As society become accustomed to the redundancy of the suburban, civic life appears to be too much, to be superfluous. The reason why the suburban is being regarded superior to the urban has to do with Baudrillard’s observation; “the scene makes us passionate, but the obscene fascinates us.” The transpolitical being an age of ecstasy where society is driven more by fascination than passion, it is difficult for the town planning profession to harmonise spatial forms of the city that restrain the suburban to keep the city in harmonious balance without facing resistance.

4. The Last Planners Standing

Hope is not all lost regarding the future of town planning as a profession. Within local government authorities, planning measures exist that play the role of moderating cities towards equilibrium even though not comprehensively. These are under the economic planning and development divisions of cities. This is not a surprise as most models of equilibrium are being developed by economic planners rather than by town planning professionals. Such models are classified broadly as computable general equilibrium models of the city.

In 1993, the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) was established. It sought to promote traditional urbanism in the age of increasing domination of suburban sprawl. New Urbanism has become a new approach to plan cities with intention of bringing harmony. It follows the principles of traditional planning that sought to create cities with vibrant civic life and strong sense of community. However, in all their attempts to create and recreate cities of equilibrium and harmonious urbanism, New Urbanism is accused by the guardians of the transpolitical of trying to do something very dangerous, that of sitting on the middle of the bench.

New Urbanism is vilified for not advocating and achieving the extreme results that match ethos of radical antagonism in the age of the transpolitical. It is being accused of not achieving absolute results such as of total walkability, absolute elimination of cars, absolute social housing, and absolute elimination of suburbia. Most of the critics seek to get New Urbanism to join their camp, either the hyperreal capital camp or the hyperreal social camp. If the New Urbanists are the last planners standing, they are the microcosm of the broader challenge that the planning profession is facing, ‘criticism of extremism.’

The equilibrium is no longer in a happy place. Anyone who tries to take a seat on the middle of the bench is vilified ruthlessly. This is also evidenced in how important text that shape planning as a profession is treated in the age of the transpolitical. Ebenezer Howard, when he proposed the Garden City idea in his book, Tomorrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform, it was a synthesis of more than hundred years of thinking and experimentation by earlier proponents of new communities based on equilibrium and harmony. However, in the age of the transpolitical, of radical antagonism, some practitioners and scholars dismiss such ideas of Garden Cities. The dismissal is a result of the ideas’ failure to align with a specific camp, be it the capital or the social.

Several decades after Ebenezer Howard published his book, the quest for same equilibrium keeps gaining attention as a persistent concept. Two publications stand out in this regard. In December 2013, American architects, Robert A.M Stern, David Fishman, and Jacob Tilove published a magnum opus titled, Paradise Planned: The Garden City and the Modern City. The book gave definitive history and development of the Garden City movement and its influences on modern planning. Following this publication was another flagship text in 2014. American architect-planners Andres Duany, Paul Roberts, and Professor Emily Talen wrote an essay titled, A General Theory of Urbanism. It was a submission to the Wolfson Prize of 2014. The essay built on the garden city principles to develop a system of assessing urbanism and establishing a standard model that puts the city into equilibrium.

While the two publications proved to be some of the most important after Ebenezer Howard’s book, they never received much attention in planning literature and discourse. It has become the norm in planning, that ideas that seek equilibrium and rationalisation of interests rarely get much attention regardless of their significance to the development of the planning profession. The work that receives the most attention is one that appeals to radical antagonism either of the hyperreal social or of the hyperreal capital. It is the age of the transpolitical, texts about standard models and equilibrium of cities are not ecstatic enough to seduce town planning professionals. While town planning professionals are under the seduction of the ecstasy in the transpolitical, they have not made their mind whether they want to pursue the Marxist path of violent revolutions or the socialist utopians of peaceful reform.

5. Revolution or Reform?

Should town planning remain in the realm of state policy as a profession, or should it move into voluntary realm as a philanthropic practice driving radical reform ideas? If an individual was to enroll into a planning program, these two ideas shape up the planning education as it seeks to deliver on both. However, no much debate has been done on the choice of the two. If they are to both exist, the modalities of their co-existence are rarely discussed.

The biggest challenge that the town planning profession has been facing is the shift from the social utopianism of early socialists — summed up in Howard’s Garden City idea — into Marxism’s call for revolution against the capital. The domination of the revolution sentiments dressed up in calls for reform is one of the shortcomings of town planning’s failure to have a model of rationalising interests and ideologies. In their criticism of the capital for example, planning intellectuals highlight the shortcomings of planning as it facilitates the capital. Therefore, they call for moving beyond the confines of the profession, into what Tore Sager calls activist planning.[6]

The interest towards revolution of the social against the capital, the quest to take back the city from the capital has been so significant; it has dominated every planning school, every civil society organisation focusing on cities. As this movement of the hyperreal social grows, discussions are also required to determine if the revolution is the best approach to address the inadequacies of the capital. This is particularly so as the town planning profession is at the brink of collapse as it is partly sucked by the revolution energy.

Another major challenge that has been facing the revolution movement in the transpolitical is the movement’s nature of being driven by the seduction of the spectacle. French writer, Antoine de Rivarol’s comment on the French Revolution of 1789 sums this up, “the people [in 1789] didn’t want a Revolution, only the spectacle of it.” Therefore, if the revolution movement towards socialist cities is not seductive enough, it risks losing its momentum, yet the same seduction from the spectacle can be a hindrance to real change in transformation of cities.

While the social is an impoverished energy to carry out a successful revolution, the capital has been a dominant energy in the emergency of town planning profession. The capital has always evolved into a totally new form whenever it hits a major obstacle such as wars, or crises. By being two or three steps ahead of the social, it has made any current revolution efforts very difficult and rather impossible even. As Baudrillard argues, that capital cheats, it does not play by the rules of critique, the true game of history. So every time the anti-capitalist theorists unmask a new form of capital, it would have evolved into another form already, making their analyses retrospective.

Proponents of socialist cities are falling into this trap of the capital perennially. Some of their propositions play right into the trajectory of the capital. As the call for revolution against the capital proves to be of impoverished energy, the efforts towards reform as it shaped the town planning profession are the marginal hope that is left if planning is going to make significant changes towards better cities. To triumph at reform however, the town planning profession needs to know how to play the politics of reform meticulously, a skill that planners have been failing to practice effectively. Without that, the town planning profession risks being on the brink of extinction as radical antagonism dominate cities in the age of the transpolitical.


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[1] See Howard, 1898, p. 102.

[2] See Read, 1972

[3] See Cadbury, 1915, p. 136

[4] Stilgoe, 1910, p. 44

[5] See Arnstein, 1969.

[6] See Sager, 2009.

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