Friday, 11 June 2010

Book - The Urban Connection

Strong concepts and approaches in planning, shaping and maintaining urban areas are very scarce these days and it is more a 'we figure it out by ourselves' climate. At least if one dwells in the romanic admiration of past epochs. Looking back, from a different standpoint, puts a different perspective on things and relating this to current or upcoming tasks, one is tempted to believe everything was simpler and better in the old days. (But it was not! as a statement to move on.) Still the lack of a strategy, an overall idea or a concept one can relate projects, processes and task to is a problem. Not so much for the quality of the output or the individual project, but for the discipline and the communication. So much effort needs to be put in for the translation or the connection that too often this is neglected. In this sense it hinders the progress, the richness and the ability to react on different levels.
A approach that has been recently dug out and is now published in a book with a lot of contextual information and supported by case studyes illustrating the point is by Luuk Boelens 'The Urban COnnection - An actor relational approach to urban planning' published by 010 Publishers. The concept of an actor oriented practice contrasts directly with the traditional retrospective analysis of studies. The benefit is the concrete aspects of the examples as well as the suggestions and solution orientated conclusions well suited for a globalising but fragmenting world. Speaking of globalisation, this, I believe, forms an important part of the context in which this publication stands. On one hand reflected in the choice of case studies represented in the 'referencial argument' presented as 'boxes' or special inter chapters, looking at Denver and Dallas-Fort Worth, the Pearl River Delta, Tokyo, Buenos Aires and Sao Paulo. On the other hand this reflects the topics raised in the current debate concerned with global phenomena as well as the vanishing identity of local areas.
This is obvious a massive task, but strikingly successful. By touching on and integrating a multidisciplinary perspective on planning, economics, social geography and governance this starts to paint a holistic picture. Explained in a few words, Jaqueline Cramer, Minister of the Environment and Spatial Planning, tried to summarise the concept as: "It's not them, it's just a whole lot of us."
For me this is the central and most important argument for a new approach, claiming back owner ship of the urban areas, the spaces and landscapes. It is not a service out there that we enjoy, its not a shopping mall and its not a place we payed for an entry ticket! On the contrary as Cramer puts it it is us, we make the city.
This of course brings with it the responsibility a;; of us have to carry, the most normal thing in the world, one could argue, has become the privilege of the elite role models.
The content of the publication is structured in two parts. First as a 'scientific argument' in five chapters: 'Dutch spatial planningin transition', 'Main and brainport planning 2.0', 'Transnational communities', 'Institutional order via association' and 'Outlines for a new planning future'. This is followed by the second part of the earlier mentioned 'Referential argument' in two chapters: 'A relational tale of metropolises' and 'References as suggestion for further research'.

Image by 010 Publishers / Spread 60-61 'The Urban Connection - An actor relational approach to urban planning.

The examples in the 'boxes' examine one example each in specific detail and wider context. The first box focuses on Rotterdam: from staple port to main port and further. Here the usual historical facts and stories are presented, but with a special focus on the actors. In a lot of detail the individuals or companies are portrayed to find out about their role and actions in a wider context. This not only makes the story a lot more interesting but actually allows for an additional perspective. It does require to some extend a courageous stand to tackle the historic problem with this sort of a standpoint, since the author has to leave the tall platform of objectivity and take on a more subjective position. This is, as beautifully demonstrated here, however very beneficial.

Image by 010 Publishers / Spread 108-109 'The Urban Connection - An actor relational approach to urban planning.

In the chapter transnational communities South America stands a the centre with a focus on Buenos Aires and Sao Paulo who both are largely immigrant cities, not least based on the fact both are founded by European Colonials, the Spanish and Portuguese respectively. These immigrants forme large communities in these urban areas and in general identify clearly with the place. This is for me a very interesting point of view that is argued here, how these transnational communities play a major role in the running of these cities portrayed as actors and not as usual as part of the problem. This completely changes the picture and disarms all the standard arguments and solutions on the spot. A joy, opening new perspectives that were thought to be lost in the haystack.

A book that outlines an approach that doe not only sound promising but actually looks promising. The richness of examples and concrete conclusions and suggestions make this a perfect starting point for experts of the trans disciplinary field and global community to change their minds and perspectives. For many I imagine this will be spoken from the heart. Finally something to hold in the hands as a 'leitmotif' for everyday practice.

The book can also be found online at Google Books for a first read, but as usual the previe is restricted in parts.

Image by 010 Publishers / Book cover 'The Urban Connection - An actor relational approach to urban planning.

Boelens, L., 2009. The Urban Connection: An Actor-relational Approach to Urban Planning, 010 Publishers.

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