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Questions to Detroit: Planning Alternatives – Planning after|with|by failure (?)

I will soon fly out to visit Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan as a Visiting Research Fellow. Looking forward to experiencing a city facing large challenges, showing much initiative for change and many remaining urban and regional planning issues. Three weeks between 26 July and 15 August will hopefully bring about new insights, questions, answers and reflections. This post shows some of my broad thoughts and questions on urban and regional planning issues in Detroit.

Post-industrial cities and regions around the world are prime examples for situations in which conventional planning thought seems to reach a dead end. Regions like Metro Detroit faced a huge loss in people and resources beyond the possibility of getting back to a similar state. Following the leave of large-scale production and economic activities, public budgets are outrun and important funding sources dried out. However, development has not stopped and many significant things happen. Failures have not led to stagnation, but to dynamic changes in very different directions. Planning itself becomes resource-poor, tentative, risky and in an ongoing transition of its roles. The amount of space where development seems outside of traditional control by established approaches jumps up. Hope for growth seems to be meaningless, but hope for positive change is not. The return of old growth and prosperity can merely be a long-term goal, but does not inspire actual policy and people today. Whereas change by growth focuses on economic opportunities and economic restructuring, change without growth focuses on leverage points, good stories, emotions and attachment to action. In different words, is it about returning to former positive stages or about trying to look further to imagining very different positive stages?

Small-scale initiative, project-based actions and civil society actors are on the one side, efforts of upscaling ideas and regional integration on the other. Individual actions are dynamic and oriented towards future opportunities. There are people doing things and identify with actions in a more experimental, emotional or artful manner that is different to systematic, integrative and accountable procedures of spatial planning. Additionally, new actors and intermediary organisations take an increasingly important stake in urban and regional development. Among these are universities, foundations and cooperatives. They own space, plan space and work with space but are only partly touched in many accounts of planning research that circles around public planning authorities.

Planning then needs to get beyond its own sphere to challenge its thinking, broaden its grounding and diverse actors involved with their individual characteristics. First, planning processes have to change after failure not to reproduce errors. Crucial part of any failure is to learn from mistakes collectively. Second, they also need to become adaptive to work proactively with failure. High amounts of perceived uncertainty and low resources demand for fast actions, reactions and even improvisation. Last, experimental approaches can also include the acceptance of failures on the search for meaningful leverage points and transformative learning with diverse actors. Changing the course of development means taking risks and to plan with unknown results.

Important questions for planners and planners arise, such as:

  1. What does past failure and the prospect of failing again mean for changing roles of planners?
  2. Which perception of planning is supportive of transformative learning with failure?
  3. How can planners deeper engage with others in improvising thinking and playful experimentation?

These questions centre around planning actions, i. e. actions around the organisation of space in a broad perspective. They acknowledge that failure implies a reorganisation of tasks and resources between planners and other actors and a reorganisation or responsibilities across scales. While public planning remains an anchoring point for integrated thinking and planning on the city and regional level, there are new interfaces necessary. Large failure can never be responsibility of one and always needs action of many. Large-scale investments can support region-wide changes. Likewise, small-scale actions can shift the path of development. Even planning alone – before implementing and before knowing about success or failure – can change the course of a large system up to the regional and state scales.

A challenge is to understand emergent dynamics related to failures, systems changes and transformative actions at the interface between planners working in public administrations and emergent actors around the organisation of space. Expected and experienced large failures and crises call into question boundaries of existing systems and their coupling to others. Hope lies on the emergence of a different dynamic stability that goes beyond the imagined and positive forces for transformative learning by irritation through failure.

Planning alternatives targets three aspects: Most importantly, it is about alternatives within planning, i. e. changing roles and modes of behaviour in planning processes after and with failures. Thinking about alternative ways of organising space centres on the procedural dimension of planning for and with alternatives. Past failures reveal the possibility of failing again by highlighting the inherent uncertain nature of planning actions. They can lead to restrained action towards the future and promote fear of failing again among most actors involved. However, they are also triggers for rethinking roles and processes, to be self-reflective and to take different actions. Second, it looks at alternative spaces that actualise in thinking and doing by planners. This encompasses different uses to trigger change from above (e. g. redevelopment of brownfield sites, supporting cultural and creative uses, creation of entrepreneurial spaces) but also emergent change from below (e. g. community initiatives, social entrepreneurialism, artistic uses). Additionally, it is about planning for and in alternative spaces as the framing conditions where planning happens. They function as anchoring points within planning processes: visions, aims, goals and institutional context.

From my outside perspective, important triggers and core themes are:

  • Public planning at the city and metropolitan/regional level (plan-making and acting with limited resources; search for goals beyond population and economic growth; flagship projects as way to initiate change vs. integrated view on coordinating and steering land-uses; upscaling of ideas and regional integration)
  • Self-organised care of urban spaces, especially at the neighbourhood level (community land-uses; local initiatives with or without support by public planners; organising and funding civic engagement and initiative; integration into policies and plans)
  • Emerging actors for urban and regional change (shift of space, resources and decision-making to foundations, cooperatives, educational organisations and alike; development of spatial visions and policies by others than public planners)

These lie ground for a critical but optimistic view towards planning and future spatial changes supported by planners beyond public agencies. It shifts from projects, strategies and plans towards foundations of establishing a mind-set for collaborative engagement in seemingly deadlocked environments. It therefore focuses on interfaces to imagine, think and establish alternative modes of planning together. Results deliver starting points for more detailed engagement in specific projects, strategies and plans.

It will remain interesting to understand and see what others can learn from Detroit’s experiences. It seems that there is much effort, creativity and experimentation happening on different scales. The challenging environment provides little resources, but maybe some discretion for specific ideas and unique approaches… Happy to go forward and seeing some of this happening.

Ideas on Detroit? Questions? Contacts? Write me, call me, post here… 

1 thought on “Questions to Detroit: Planning Alternatives – Planning after|with|by failure (?)

  1. Pingback: Detroit: first impressions | Christian Lamker | Raumplaner | Blog

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