Last fall The Guardian published a rueful retrospective by Sir Peter Hall — the last article written by the distinguished planner and historian before his death, in which he reflects on the status of city and town planning in Britain over more than half a century. From a high point in the 1960s, he wrote, “Planning fell into a long downward spiral. … It appears to have lost the capacity to plan good urban places. … Planning and planners have thus steadily become residualized.” So too in the United States. In an article in this journal, urban historian Thomas Campanella analyzes what he calls “a swelling perception, especially among young scholars and practitioners, that planning is a diffuse and ineffective field, and that it has been largely unsuccessful over the last half century at its own game: bringing about more just, sustainable, healthful, efficient and beautiful cities and regions.”
Both authors underscore a pointed and increasingly familiar dilemma: even as metropolitan regions face increasingly severe and structural problems — water scarcity, cyclical flooding, atmospheric pollution, housing affordability, failing infrastructure — the capacity of cities to counter these problems is diminishing. But the dilemma is not new — nor is the challenge to planning.
“Unorganized knowledge which cannot possibly be called scientific”
One of the fundamental challenges to design in the 20th century came not from critics within the discipline but rather from the Austrian-British economist Friedrich August Hayek. In his influential mid-century treatise, The Road to Serfdom, Hayek argued that design — specifically, socialist or state-based planning — belonged to a zeitgeist characterized by a “passion for a conscious control of everything.” 1 Written during an extraordinarily turbulent and violent time — when Hayek himself was a political émigré from Nazi-occupied Vienna based at the London School of Economics — the book challenged the assumption, pervasive in the interwar years among leftist intellectuals and politicians, that democratic society was necessarily based upon a “designed order.”
Hayek contrasted the centralized and “planned order” of socialist states with what he called the “spontaneous order” of free-market economies, which he described as the unplanned coordination that results when individual citizens are allowed to pursue self-interest and free trade with minimal coercion. His main polemic focused upon the proposition that spontaneous order was essential to economic freedom and democracy, and that all forms of centralized power and state collectivism, whether from the left (e.g., the socialism of the USSR) or the right (e.g., the National Socialism of the Third Reich) would lead inevitably to an unbearable loss of personal liberties and ultimately to totalitarianism. Indeed, he viewed both the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany as forms of social engineering. “The universal demand for ‘conscious’ control or direction of social processes,” he wrote, “is one of the most characteristic features of our generation.” 2
Appearing in the midst of the Second World War, and with memories of the Great Depression still fresh, The Road to Serfdom was swiftly dismissed by the left as reactionary. In those years the macroeconomic theories of John Maynard Keynes were being embraced on both sides of the Atlantic and energetically implemented by the administration of Franklin Roosevelt; the numerous programs of the New Deal — from Social Security to Rural Electrification to the Tennessee Valley Authority — were strongly influenced by Keynes’s argument that state intervention was needed to relieve the excesses, the cycles of boom and bust, of market capitalism. Hayek’s manuscript was rejected by three major American houses before being published by University of Chicago Press in September 1944.
But The Road to Serfdom soon attracted a devoted following. The influential editor and activist Max Eastman — once a leading radical intellectual, a friend and translator of Leon Trotsky, now an ardent anti-communist — recommended it to the Reader’s Digest, which published a twenty-page condensation in its April 1945 edition. The Book of the Month Club circulated copies to its 600,000 members. Also that year Look Magazine created a feature based upon the book that consisted of a series of emotionally charged drawings: spread across two pages were images of the Statue of Liberty, Joseph Stalin, Benito Mussolini, and Adolf Hitler, with this caption: “America is following the same road that Russia followed … Italy followed … Germany followed”; and this text: “Today, individuals and groups bent on planning our future are a feature of American life. But recent history proves that dictators follow ‘national planners’ as surely as night follows day. What happened in Russia, Italy and Germany can happen in America, too, if we ignore the warnings outlined here.” 3 These cartoons were later republished by General Motors in its “Thought Starter” pamphlet series.
This was heady stuff for a theoretical work originally intended “to inform a small circle of British intellectuals.” 4 Indeed, by the time Hayek arrived in the United States for a five-week book tour, in spring 1945, his first lecture attracted not only a crowd of 3,000 to Town Hall in New York City but also an enthusiastic radio audience for the live broadcast. And by this point the Reader’s Digest version was on its way to becoming the first popular manifesto for what would grow into a powerful movement for economic liberalism and free-market philosophy — the beginnings of a serious rebuttal of the socialist, social-democratic, and Keynesian ideas that had long found widespread support among the political intelligentsia and artistic avant-garde in North America and Western Europe. In that distillation of the original 266 pages, a readership of many millions would be warned that “in order to achieve their ends, the planners must create power … so that it can be used in the service of a single plan.” It was this use of power that produced what Hayek would contend was an inevitable and irreconcilable “clash between planning and democracy.” 5
But if Hayek was determined to expose the dangers of socialized planning and “deliberate human design,” he was also eager to articulate an alternative. In a 1945 essay, “The Use of Knowledge in Society,” Hayek argued that the most valuable form of knowledge, in a democratic society, was the “unorganized knowledge which cannot possibly be called scientific, [which is] the knowledge of the particular circumstances of time and place.” This was knowledge beyond the control of experts and authorities, and Hayek insisted that the greatest oversight of centralized and socialist planning was to discount this vital resource. As he explained, “Practically every individual has some advantage over all others in that he possesses unique information of which beneficial use might be made, but of which use can be made only if the decisions depending on it are left to him or are made with his active cooperation.” 6
By the 1950s, Hayek’s ideas — or at least, the popularized and simplified versions — had become practically mainstream. Hayek himself had joined the faculty of the University of Chicago — then as now a powerful center for neoclassical economic thinking — and in the 1956 edition of The Road to Serfdom he would acknowledge: “If twelve years ago it seemed to many almost sacrilege to suggest that fascism and communism are merely variants of the same totalitarianism which central control of all economic activity tends to produce, this has become almost a commonplace.” 7 He recapitulated his belief in the efficacy of the free market — a “value-free” or “neutral” framework within which individual citizens could pursue diverse activities according to their own “individual plans.” He conceded that “modern planners” would find this “liberal plan” to be “no plan,” and in fact it was “not a plan designed to satisfy particular views about who should have what.” 8 In effect, Hayek was arguing that order did not need to be invented, or planned; rather than “designing” a new society — and thus privileging state control — he argued instead for “cultivating” existing social and economic phenomena.
The mid-century debate articulated so forcefully by Friedrich Hayek, on the right, and John Maynard Keynes, on the left, has continued to influence political and economic debate. No matter that fascism and socialism are no longer rallying cries; the battle of ideas between those who argue for unfettered market freedom and those who champion a strong role for government remains as relevant as ever. And of course Hayek has lately found a new generation of followers: not only was The Road to Serfdom one of the bibles of the Reagan-Thatcher Revolution of the ‘80s; a few years ago the book topped the Amazon bestseller list thanks to the endorsement of Glenn Beck.
“For us, ‘design’ was a dirty word”
In the postwar decades, the impact of Hayek’s theories of anti-control and individualism was felt strongly in architecture and urbanism. In those years a rising generation of artists, architects, critics, and historians were seeking alternatives to the socialist ideals — the visions of planned communities and man-made utopias — that had long informed and even defined 20th-century modernism. Consider that amid the austerities of war-weary Great Britain, one of the most influential new concepts was the “as found” aesthetic articulated by architects Alison and Peter Smithson. Just as Hayek had extolled the “unscientific knowledge” of “the particular circumstances of time and place,” so too the proponents of “as found” sought value in environments, in buildings and materials, that were untouched — unmolested — by design. “Setting ourselves the task of rethinking architecture in the early 1950s,” the Smithsons would write decades later, “we meant by the ‘as found’ not only adjacent buildings but all those marks that constitute remembrance in a place and that are to be read through finding out how the existing built fabric of the place had come to be as it was.” 9 For the Smithsons and their circle, the as found aesthetic was a way to underscore the value of the informal, the un-designed and “unconscious” qualities of places, and for them these ordinary common conditions became the basis of a methodology of non-design. As they would recall, “For us ‘design’ was a dirty word.” 10
Very quickly the as found concept — or ethic — began to inspire the artists and architects associated with what became known as the Independent Group and the New Brutalists — a diverse network that included, in addition to the Smithsons, the artists Eduardo Paolozzi, Richard Hamilton, and John McHale, the art critic Lawrence Alloway, and the historian Reyner Banham. As early as 1955, in his essay “The New Brutalism,” Reyner Banham would claim for the Smithsons’ work a revolutionary importance, and he understood their ideas to be a challenge not only to the aesthetics of modernism but to the politics of socialism as well. 11 This rising generation rejected the older Bauhaus visions of “total design,” of the Gesamtkunstwerk; they embraced instead the unself-conscious and unplanned spaces of everyday life, the fragmented, random, incongruent aspects of urban streets — those parts of the city that had eluded the control of state-based planning. As the Smithsons explained: “We were the generation stepping aside from politics as no longer appropriate to our needs.” 12
Over the years, the ties among the various members of the Independent Group would loosen; as Banham noted, there had never been much “unity of programme or intention.” 13 But the ideological battles about design and the market — about urban planning as a form of control, an unnecessary limit upon the freedom of the market — would remain heated. In 1969 the British weekly New Society devoted a special issue to “Non-Plan: An Experiment in Freedom,” a manifesto written collaboratively by Banham, Paul Barker, Peter Hall, and Cedric Price. With its illustrations of supermarkets and laundromats, of gas stations and burger joints, “Non-Plan” was in essence an effort to discredit the role of centralized planning and design in shaping the urban environment. The authors decried the prescriptive interventions of the experts and advocated for what they termed “non-plan” — which is to say, they argued for the removal of regulations and in favor of the “spontaneous” urban development that would follow. In the section titled “Spontaneity and Space,” they put it succinctly: “The notion that the planner has the right to say what is ‘right’ is really an extraordinary hangover from the day of collectivism in left-wing thought, which has long ago been abandoned elsewhere.” 14
The ‘Non-Plan’ authors tended to equate personal freedom with free-market capitalism.
Much like Friedrich Hayek — who dedicated one of his books to “the unknown civilization that is growing in America” 15 — the authors of “Non-Plan” were powerfully drawn to the laissez-faire, decentralized cities of the United States, and like Hayek, they tended to equate personal freedom with free-market capitalism. Attracted to the roadside vernacular of mid-century America, they proposed that the United Kingdom establish “free zones” that would encourage the “freedom,” “vitality,” and “spontaneity” of the commercial strips, especially those of the American West.
“Non-Plan” ignited the imaginations of young architects and critics; the argument resonated with what had become, by this point, the demonization of state-based urban planning by groups on both the left and right. As political historian Ben Franks has pointed out, both factions identified “the same enemies: the planned economies of the Soviet Union and the paternalistic liberalism of the Western Welfare States.” 16 In this light “non-plan” can be viewed as the logical conclusion to a decade that began with the publication of The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Jane Jacobs’s impassioned indictment of modern urban planning in general, and of the bulldoze-and-build tactics of Robert Moses in particular, has become one of the central polemics in the top-down-versus-bottom-up debates that have raged for decades with varying degrees of intensity. In his influential After the Planners, of 1971, the MIT professor Robert Goodman captured the anti-establishment mood of the era. He argued against large-scale government-sponsored planning — epitomized by the demolition of longstanding neighborhoods and the construction of high-rise public housing — and deplored what he saw as the “urban-industrial complex,” characterized by an increasingly technocratic approach to so-called “urban renewal.” And, in an echo of Hayek, he challenged socially conscious planners to reassess their methods: “We don’t think of ourselves as agents of the oppressors, yet we are not really far from being the Albert Speers of our time.” 17
“One feels it could even do harm”
Other contemporary critics were focusing less upon regretting the results of government-based planning and more upon praising the vitality of sprawling and putatively unplanned cities. It was in this era that ambitious architects and theorists began to take field trips not to the capitals of old-world Europe but instead to the newer cities of the American West. Most famously, in the fall of 1968, Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour took their Yale studio on the road to study the Strip in Las Vegas; in Learning from Las Vegas, which appeared four years later and would quickly become a familiar sight on drafting tables and a perennial presence on architecture syllabi, the authors write:
Learning from the existing is a way of being revolutionary for an architect. … Architects are out of the habit of looking nonjudgmentally at the environment, because orthodox Modern architecture is progressive, if not revolutionary, utopian, and puristic; it is dissatisfied with existing conditions. Modern architecture has been anything but permissive: Architects have preferred to change the existing environment rather than enhance what is there. 18
Also in the late ‘60s, Banham began to travel regularly to Southern California, and in Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, published in 1971, he would cheekily assert: “Planning in Los Angles? In the world’s eyes this is a self-cancelling concept.” Banham proceeded to describe the “art of planning” as a “giant wastebin of sumptuously forgotten paper projects.” He continued:
Psychologically, the nub of the matter seems to be that planning, as the discipline is normally understood in academic and professional circles, is one of those admired facets of the establishment Liberal approach to urban problems that has never struck root in the libertarian, but illiberal, atmosphere of Los Angeles (whatever pockets of conventional good planning may have been created by local pockets of conventional liberal thinking). Indeed, it is so much a stranger that one feels it could even do harm. 19
One feels it could even do harm. No wonder that by the ’70s and ’80s the discipline of planning had come under such sustained attack that in many design schools the planning programs were jettisoned altogether and relocated — banished — to schools of policy and administration. And no wonder, too, as the urban agenda began to recede from both pedagogy and practice, that the 1980s witnessed the triumph of postmodern historicism, the newly intense focus on the figural object as well as on the autonomy of the discipline. Nor is it surprising that in the architectural debates of the period, the speculative work of Rem Koolhaas and OMA would play a pivotal yet ambiguous role, with projects that sought to balance “market urbanism” with some semblance of public life. The unbuilt Ville Nouvelle Melun-Sénart proposal, from 1987, is especially remarkable in this regard: a competition entry which attempted to negotiate the tensions between planning and non-planning while succumbing fully to neither approach, proposing a series of “controlled” zones, or “voids,” that would accommodate public life while ceding the rest of the territory to market forces. “It would require a second innocence to believe, at this end of the 20th century, that the urban — the built — can be planned and mastered,” Koolhaas wrote in the project thesis. “Too many architects’ ‘visions’ have bitten the dust to propose new additions to this chimerical battalion.” And he continued: “The built is now fundamentally suspect. The unbuilt is green, ecological, popular. If the built — le plein — is now out of control — subject to permanent political, financial turmoil — the same is not yet true of the unbuilt; nothingness may be the last subject of plausible certainties.” 20
Koolhaas — who had done a stint as a journalist in Paris during the student demonstrations of 1968 — would continue to investigate the fraught relationship between urban form and the politics of the contemporary metropolis. Even as he cautioned designers about the seeming futility of efforts to plan the city, or even to conceive it as a whole in an era of “pervasive urbanization,” he published provocative essays that sought to reinsert planning onto the architectural agenda. “What Ever Happened to Urbanism?,” written in 1994 and published in S,M,L,XL, can be read as a kind of apotheosis of this argument.
Sous le pavé, la plage (under the pavement, beach): initially, May ’68 launched the idea of a new beginning for the city. Since then, we have been engaged in two parallel operations: documenting our overwhelming awe for the existing city, developing philosophies, projects, prototypes for a preserved and reconstituted city and, at the same time, laughing the professional field of urbanism out of existence, dismantling it in our contempt for those who planned (and made huge mistakes in planning) airports, New Towns, satellite cities, highways, high-rise buildings, infrastructures, and all the other fallout of modernization. After sabotaging urbanism, we have ridiculed it to the point where entire university departments are closed, offices bankrupted, bureaucracies fired or privatized.” 21
“Planning is most effective when it is practiced in advance”
By the end of the millennium — with the Reagan and Thatcher Revolutions seemingly triumphant, with the neoliberalism of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair dominating the political scene, with leading economists trumpeting a new era of endless prosperity — it seemed the long-running debate was nearly spent. Yet at this quiet moment there emerged growing efforts to break the lingering grip of non-plan, to counteract the loss of faith in large-scale intervention. In the sphere of design, of architecture and urbanism, the catalyst was the newly resurgent environmental movement and the growing awareness of the planetary consequences of climate change. Speaking at the Bioneers conference, in 2000, architect William McDonough reviewed the unfolding catalogue of ecological “tragedies in the making,” from global warming to the toxification of mother’s milk, and he reasserted the case for planning.
So we need to look at these tragedies and realize that if we are designers, we have to take responsibility. We can’t say it is not part of your plan that these things are going to happen. It is part of your de facto plan. It is the thing that is happening because you have no plan. …
And he added: “Planning is most effective when it is practiced in advance.”
Likewise, a few years later, designer Bruce Mau offered these cautionary words: “For most of us, design is invisible. Until it fails.” 22 Both McDonough and Mau were registering a fundamental shift then happening in design culture. As the focus on environmental issues has intensified in the past decade, as first sustainability and now resilience have become new mantras, the limitations of “non plan” or “no plan” have become ever clearer. And the environmental implications are only the most obvious. If as a discipline we thought we understood the history — and the shortcomings — of planning, it’s increasingly evident that we’ve paid comparatively little attention to the history of “non planning” — to the tumultuous consequences of the lack of a plan.
To oppose unplanned vitality against top-down planning leads to a caricatured view of reality.
Consider, for instance, that the critical examination of the “spontaneity” of the Strip — usually on the part of visitors from the great cities of the Eastern Seaboard or Western Europe — would devolve quickly into a largely aesthetic appreciation of mid-century commercial architecture and artifacts, even as these were being replaced by the newer products of globalizing franchises. (The Strip documented so carefully in Learning from Las Vegas now exists largely as history in the pages of the book.) Consider that to advance his view of Los Angeles as unplanned, Banham ignored some crucial chapters in the history of its urban development, including the pioneering transportation master plans of the 1940s, which laid out the highway patterns that would foster the decentralized, multi-centered metropolis that would emerge over the next half century. 23 And consider as well that when Peter Hall co-authored “Non Plan,” in the late ’60s it was in reaction to an era in which state planning was strong, powerful and well-funded; by the time of that last essay in The Guardian, he was deploring the marginalization of the field.
By now it seems clear that to counterpose unplanned vitality against top-down planning is to reinforce an either/or mentality that too easily leads to a caricatured view of complex reality and ultimately obscures the very real and accumulating effects — political, economic, social, ecological — of deregulation. The list of these effects is long and all too familiar: the endless miles of terrain vague in and around American cities; the decades of petrochemical industrialization that transformed the 85-mile stretch of the Mississippi River from New Orleans to Baton Rouge into “cancer alley”; the widespread use of fertilizers in the farms of the Mississippi Basin, the runoff of which has turned the Gulf of Mexico into a dead zone; the endlessly deferred maintenance of vital U.S. infrastructure, from transit systems to power networks to water reservoirs; the tragic and preventable vulnerability of major cities to ever more frequent and predictable weather disasters … and so it goes, on and on.
Today, as even a quick glance at the daily news makes clear, the debate about the role of government in American life remains as polarized ever, at least at the federal level. (And as contradictory: as the economist Joseph Stiglitz famously put it, during the depths of the Great Recession, in the U.S. we have been “socializing losses and privatizing gains.”) In urban design and planning we continue to oppose the practices of large-scale planning against those of DIY and tactical intervention. Yet some cities today are managing to move past outdated polarities and navigate a productive middle ground between the state and the market. But to find the city that seems to me the best example, we will need to travel south, beyond the border, to Medellín. In the past decade the municipal authorities of the second largest city in Colombia have followed a strikingly progressive agenda and transformed a once notorious city with an impotent and corrupt public sector — infamous in the ‘80s and ‘90s as the fiefdom of the Escobar drug cartel — into an award-winning model of innovative urbanism.
The achievements of Medellín have been well documented in the international press. In little more than a decade, sparked by the enlightened leadership of then mayor Sergio Farjado, the municipal government enacted the “commitment of all the citizens” plan, which outlined policies and urban initiatives that prioritized areas of the greatest social and economic need; developed “model projects” that could be quickly realized and thus instill confidence in public planning; implemented a hugely ambitious program of civic architecture and public works that resulted in a series of visually powerful libraries, schools, parks, and community centers located in the city’s slums (“our most beautiful buildings must be in our poorest neighborhoods,” said Farjado); expanded the Metro de Medellín, including the acclaimed cable car network; activated multiple forms of participation by establishing community action councils; and successfully courted the business community through carefully managed partnerships. 24
The Medellín model of city governance demonstrates that a well-defined planning agenda can be a powerful instrument for bringing multiple, even opposing, constituents together to achieve common goals. Thus a new generation of Medellínos — politicians, planners, architects, community activists, businesspeople, entrepreneurs — has been empowered to collaborate in city-building processes characterized by the blurring of public and private sector responsibilities, processes that ultimately defy the reductive labeling of left and right, bottom-up and top-down, state and market. That Medellín has demonstrated the powerful potential of a new middle way should help us move past false dichotomies and finally consign to history Hayek’s claim about an “irreconcilable clash between planning and democracy.”