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Planning as Critical Engaged Practice

Key words: Community engagement, everyday environment, spatial justice, participation,

Lefebvre’s understanding of space through its trialectic approach gives us a hint that merely looking at space, and thus attempting to plan and structure its development and related urban growth, cannot solely be done through the eyes and understanding of professionals. Instead, the everyday experience and use of space by people and the related symbolical meaning that people attach to places needs to be incorporated in spatial planning and urban development strategies. Planning as an engaged practice entails both engagement in the phase of knowledge gathering and production, and engagement in the phase of proposing spatial development strategies and urban design interventions. Getting to understand a site cannot be done by the planner alone. Understanding is also created and supported through the lived experiences and the spatial practices (Lefebvre’s conceived space) of the inhabitants of these places. Planning does not work in a vacuum: eventual development is always a collective work, the result of a collective of actions by a myriad of actors, all with different experiences, but also different dreams, living in different worlds. It aims – or should aim –  at all sharing the same space (see also Boano, Newton & Talocci, 2016).

How can we, as planners, achieve this? To what extent can a participatory approach be successful to achieve this? In our understanding, participation of citizens and other actors who are not involved as planners or professionals, is often practiced in an insufficient or flawed way and hence not resulting in an outcome that enables a spatially just and needs-based transformation of streets, neighbourhoods, cities and regions. According to Jeremy Till, ‘true’ participation is the space where hope is negotiated. We need to work towards a mutual knowledge production on space which comes about through conversation, through engaging with the reality, and this cannot happen without engaging with the citizens, with the inhabitants of the places we are interfering in. This means that we are interested in opportunities, tactics and governance of communities of users (residents or others) to affect the planning of their daily living environment, preferably in a form of co-production between citizens, governments, housing providers and other planning agencies. Approaching the field of planning from this perspective also entails that planning or urban design is no longer considered only as a problem-solving discipline, but also as a future projective discipline. For example, how can this inner-city neighbourhood become a place where different people can thrive, where they can flourish and build a life for themselves?

In this sub-studio of Planning Complex Cities, we will critically explore and test the design of innovative socio-spatial strategies that arise in the context of planning as engaged critical practice. Such strategies may range from bottom-up, community-led planning against common threats, crowdsourcing local information with digital participatory platforms, to collaborative action research and design (e.g. urban living labs, makerspaces, ‘do-it-yourself’ urbanism), and new forms of place-based entrepreneurial citizenship (e.g. affordable housing co-operatives, community enterprises and other voluntary associations aimed at managing ‘the commons’ in a socially just, sustainable and responsible way). If we want to do this we need to understand how these different inhabitants make sense of the world they inhabit, how do inhabitants understand the spaces they are living in, we need to complement our instrumental and professional knowledge with these ‘local’ insights, with these lived and perceived understandings.

Learning goals

At the end of their graduation, students can:

  1. Understand how spaces are used and appropriated through the everyday practices of users and inhabitants;
  2. Assess how planning and design interventions into the built environment affect these everyday practices;
  3. Discuss the politics of space and demonstrate how these are visible in a particular local context;
  4. Analyse challenges to people-centred, just and inclusive space as well as opportunities for design and planning interventions to address these;
  5. Motivate choices for design interventions, using both theory and fieldwork findings;
  6. Use a wide variety of socio-spatial research methods and assess which methods are the most appropriate to use in a given situation;
  7. Develop a methodology and a framework to approach planning in an engaged way, using participatory processes that foster inclusive spatial interventions;
  8. Critically evaluate your own spatial strategy in terms of spatial justice, environmental sustainability, and economic viability, using a theoretically grounded evaluation framework which you have developed yourself;
  9. Communicate your strategy and design proposal using verbal and visual communication techniques, in an effective and engaging way.

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Reading recommendation

  • Boano, C., Newton, C., & Talocci, G. (2016). Towards an architecture of engagement: researching contested urbanism and informalities. In B. Campkin & G. Duijzings (Eds.), Engaged Urbanism. Cities & Methodologies (pp. 45–52). London: I.B. Tauris.
  • Brenner, N., Marcuse, P., & Mayer, M. (2009). Cities for people, not for profit. City: Analysis of Urban Trends, Culture, Theory, Policy, Action, 13(2), 176–184.
  • Elwahgee, A., Ham, M. van, & Kleinhans, R. (2020). Active Citizenship and Neighborhood Governance; North-Western Literature and Global South Realities. Sociology and Anthropology, 8(2), 36-48.
  • Kleinhans, R. (2017). False Promises of Co-Production in Neighbourhood Regeneration: The Case of Dutch Community Enterprises. Public Management Review, 19(10), 1500-1518.
  • Lipietz, B., & Newton, C. (2016). Pedagogy for “real change”: The DPU/ACHR partnership. In A. Deboulet (Ed.), Rethinking Precarious Neighborhoods (p. 254). Agence Française de développement.
  • Li, X., Kleinhans, R., & van Ham, M. (2019). Understanding the Experiences of Relocatees During Forced Relocation in Chinese Urban Restructuring. Housing, Theory and Society, 36(3), 338-358.
  • Loopmans, M., Leclerq, E., & Newton, C. (2011). plannen voor mensen. Antwerpen: Garant.
  • Marcuse, P. (2009). From critical urban theory to the right to the city. City, 13(2–3), 185–197.
  • Miessens, M. (2010). The Nightmare of Participation. Berlin: Sternberg.
  • Miraftab, F. (2009). Insurgent Planning: Situating Radical Planning in the Global South. Planning Theory, 8(1), 32–50.
  • Tasan-Kok, T., & Baeten, G. (Eds.). (2012). Contradictions of Neoliberal Planning. Cities, Policies, and Politics. Springer.
  • Till, J. (2005). The negotiation of hope. In P. B. Jones, D. Petrescu, & J. Till (Eds.), Architecture and participation (pp. 25–44). London: Routledge.

Exemplary graduation projects