Physical Planning – What Do We Miss Without Postmodernism and Development Feminism?

Postmodernism and Development (PAD) thought argues that even though there are problems with the paradigm under which international development has been carried out since the middle of the 20th century, poor women continue to face recognizable problems that are different than those faced by poor men or people who are not poor.  Practitioners of the PAD school of reasoning approach development, then, as if they are “consultants” and poor women are the “clients;” hopefully, this approach would give these clients a high level of agency in their own development process and still allow a space for people outside of the situation to contribute positively.  This school of thought recognizes a need for a paradigm shift, but balances this with a need to act now, even though the status quo may not shift as desired.

This PAD thinking left me hopeful and ready to apply the reasoning to a practical situation.  As such, I thought I would attempt to apply this school of development thinking to a common urban or regional planning task: the physical suitability analysis.

When boiling the field of planning down to brass tacks, perhaps we can agree that given some geographic parameters, a planner should have the skills to assess that space and determine its suitability to be developed. Historically, this exercise probably included an analysis of soils (their permeability, plasticity, liquid limit, etc.), slope of the contours in the area, proximity of water bodies which may negatively interact with buildings, and, perhaps, proximity to sources of hazards.  More recently, green infrastructure, which provides services to humans in the form of water filtration, recreational space, protects water sources, increased property values, and other values, has been added to this list of site suitability considerations.

Although I am a novice at this and my list is surely far from complete with all the considerations taken by planners, I wonder what the limitations of this approach might be through a Postmodernism and Development lens?  I can think of at a least three things:

  1. This approach assumes the episteme of western geological specialists; it does not take into account local knowledge about which areas are suitable for building or why
  2. Similarly, this approach does not solicit an assessment of the space for development from both men and women, thereby ensuring an incorporation of their perspectives
  3. The above two points assume an external assessor who is an “expert.”  Indeed, it assumes that development shouldn’t be done without said “expert” coming in to do the assessment.

This third item really drives at the heart of the issue.  While certainly western scientific thought has been able to categorize our western understanding of everything into neat, small boxes, it has also very effectively marginalized what I might call “human” knowledge. Do people really depend on specialized labor for everything, including shelter?  If so, what in the world did people do before this urbanization of work?  Did everyone built terrible homes in the least suitable of places?

Of course not.

So, what might some of these left-out perspectives tell us, beyond soil qualities, contours, water concerns, hazards, and the ability of nature to serve us?

Well, Vandana Shiva, the Indian environmentalist, for one, would argue that if the natural world must be assessed in terms of economic output, then that economic assessment needs to shift from one of profit generation to one of sustenance and needs-fulfillment generation.  This would change the assessment of our Illinois grassland from one of largely unsuitable land, only good for “development” inasmuch as it can be drained and manipulated, into a landscape ripe with possibility provide.

Twenty-first century women who work primarily from within the home might assess the space in terms of the ease or difficulty in navigating the space, through difficult roads, well-place landmark geological structures, or the low cost of networking with roads and paths (environmentally minimal impact; low dollar cost).  Women or men working out of doors in the same time-space might evaluate this location based on the weather patterns, seasonality for cultivation, or soil fertility. Pregnant women might consider agricultural chemical hazard contamination or availability of local food sources. A religious woman might assess the space in light of holy places, burial grounds, spiritually sacred landmarks, or spiritual directives (one must always perform a certain activity facing a certain direction, for instance). A poor woman may assess this place in terms of what sustenance she can derive from the land, or perhaps how efficiently she can travel to a place where her immediate needs can be met.

Each of these considerations is missing from the conventional suitability analysis this budding planner has been trained to perform, yet each of them is spatial and physical in nature.  And, of course, the list would certainly be much longer than this.

So how can a planner, especially a PAD planner, be sure to capture all of the relevant perspectives of analysis when considering an area for development?  Here enters the PAD as a “consultant.” Only by taking the role of the “directed” participant, rather than the director, can such a planner do the space and the people justice.  Only by breaking into a robust tool-chest of community engagement, taking great pains to ensure all voices of people who care about the area are heard, can the PAD planner be sure to include all of the right GIS layers.  Only by humbling oneself to “non-expert,” allowing the non-science and the non-planner to sit at the table, can inclusive planning and development be done.

Am I off the mark? Are physical site assessments already considering these perspectives? What else might be missed?



5 thoughts on “Physical Planning – What Do We Miss Without Postmodernism and Development Feminism?

  1. Annie, I think that you raise some great points. David Harvey has critiqued gis because it doesn’t take al of the understandings of space and land into account.
    You have raised some good questions…ones I don’t want to address…but good questions!

  2. I think you’ve made an appropriate observation, however when you are talking about an entire region, a piece of dirt, certain protocol for analysis is important. It is the foundation, no pun intended, of what we need to understand of the area. What we should question is, when a suitability analysis is performed and a given area is ready for development, why have we been so near-sighted? The planner of the future will not have to deal with a blank slate, rather an urban area with complex networks and interconnected issues. That said, suitability of an area has shifted from the physical to all these “other” factors.

    The question then is, how do we not make those same “western decision” mistakes in evaluating a given area for potential development? Is development a physical thing anymore?

    Lets broaden the definition of development in planning…..

    • Edwin Carlos Muller III, I am wondering if you could explain what you mean by “Is development a physical thing anymore?” Do you mean in the sense of dirt, water, slope, green infrastructure?
      I think that almost everything is physical…

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  4. Pingback: Urban Planning Tool Kit: Steps to Engage Communities | Transnational Planning

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