The series of posts from me this fortnight are progressively exploring certain questions:
In the field of international/transnational development, why focus on planning? Well, excluding our proclivity to the profession by way of being students of planning, my opinion is that the planning profession operates at a scale that makes it uniquely positioned to be exposed to competing socio-political and economic interests, as well as ecological limits.
What about “development” goals can be addressed by planners? Simply put, distributional equity.
Which brings me to the final piece in the series:
How can this be achieved? If you aim for distributional equity, people are the focus. Who do you plan for? What all does everyone in a collective have equal access rights to? How is this collective defined? Is this collective geographically restricted? And, do you plan for the collective or with the collective? And it is this last question wherein insurgency, citizenship, and participation show their pretty faces.
With countries being a melting pot of cultures, religions, familial traditions, languages, diet, sexual preferences, professions and what not, it becomes important to stop viewing a single nation as a single collective. It is well-established that national boundaries were effected as a means of division and operation (and is still largely used as such), and not always based on inherent differences between the people in geographically adjacent nations.
So it is relevant to talk about how this collective of a nation redefines itself internal and external to national boundaries.
And also relevant to talk about how planning for this constantly redefined collective requires legitimizing participation– sometimes insurgent- in decision-making.
What connects participation, insurgency, and citizenship?
I’ve been absorbing sporadic literature on these themes as they relate to planning over the past few weeks. And I realized that these issues tie into each other when you begin the story with the origins of the planning profession.
The key issue that ties participation, insurgency, and citizenship is equity. The need for planning in the “Global South” was touched upon in a previous post, explaining how the planning profession is uniquely positioned in space and time, to view and address the interrelationships between the various actors from physical, economic, and sociopolitical standpoints. That planning is necessary to maintain distributional equity in terms of goods, services, and opportunities. At least theoretically.
Equity is important, because the profession’s origins trace back to the need for equity. Be it John Friedmann, Michael Brooks, Terry Moore, John Scott, Robert Beauregard, or other planning theorists, all have spoken about this ethic whatever their position on the spectrum of public participation in the planning process. So the question now is, how much participation? What form(s) does it take in the planning process? Michael Brooks speaks about this in his book Planning Theory for Practitioners under the big umbrella of politics in planning, but my focus is on the collective being planned for. And mostly, their role in the planning process.
The Russell Brand-prescribed Revolution?!
The source that originally inspired this article was the recent Russell Brand interview and one (of the many) follow-up pieces that I think best summarized the counter-position, an article in the Huffington post. It is valid enough to call Brand on his outburst about dismal politics not amounting to any tangible suggestions on how to improve it, but what he says about inequity as a by-product of the political and economic status quo today is a personal frustration as well. So I’m grateful that a pop-culture icon pushed this issue to the fore with such gusto and evident disdain, because if nothing else, it prompts people with more serious interests and tangible solutions to hitch their arguments on the wagon of a hashtag-dominant figure!
I came across the Russell Brand interview a day after watching a private screening of the movie Inequality For All, which while based entirely in the context of the United States, says pretty much the same things that are relevant in the politico-economy worldwide, and within nations that face “development” challenges:
1. The middle class consumes, and is quantitatively relevant, so given the basics of the economies of scale they should be the focus of economic measures and support.
2. Even so, the proliferation of an economy based on consumption should be viewed with caution.
3. Stagnating wages and growing personal debt are leading the economy to ruins.
4. The gulf between the “rich” and “poor” has widened exponentially over the last half century.
The last point should be emphasized with some stats to cement the grotesque extent of the problem: top 1% of earners take in more than 20% of all income — triple that of what they did in 1970. And, the 400 richest Americans own more wealth than the bottom 150 million combined.
Look, I am all for competition feeding efficiency, so I love markets. To the extent that I think projects in public infrastructure and social/environmental entrepreneurship may benefit from the stringency of market rules that serves to boost the longevity of public interest interventions by- if nothing else- coaxing interveners to add measures of self-sufficiency (financial and otherwise) into the solution. But then you would have to address the market failures that occur via externalities, misinformation, and transaction costs. That is a whole other discussion.
The crux of the story here is, equity is necessary, and it can come without sacrificing productivity and efficiency. And no, I doubt that abstaining from voting will be an appropriate step in that direction.
Participation. Insurgency. Citizenship. Equity.
So here’s the lowdown: The planning profession operates at a scale wherein societal interrelationships are evident, making it easier for the profession to achieve the distributional equity goals that was a reason initially used to legitimize the profession’s existence. Talking about equity necessitates an understanding of the collective within which equity is sought, along with the parameters for which equity is sought. And since this collective is amoebic in nature, it is redefined from time to time in order to understand what “values” are of relevance to it at any given point in time. This redefinition exercise cannot be correctly executed by planners alone, making the participation of the collective of utmost importance.
Participation itself has evolved from a notation on a planner’s checklist to insurgencies that legitimize social rights demanded. The next part of this article explores that aspect from literature in planning theory. I
Russell Brand may have inadvertently suggested a “revolution” of sorts, but without taking his more drastic suggestions into consideration, it is worthwhile for planners to consider legitimizing the insurgencies in society that seek to redefine the collective, assert their presence therein, and remind the powers-that-be that their contribution to “urban development” is tangible.