By Matthew A Wood-Hill, on 4 July 2014
The third and final day of the DPU60 conference offered up plenty of food for thought through discussions on environmental management in cities, intersectionality and identity and learning and knowledge production in planning. This was then supported by a fantastic summary of many of the key arguments heard over the three days by Caren Levy in the closing session. We conclude the conference with many many thoughts to reflect upon into the future both as individuals and as a collective.
Re-imagining socio-environmental trajectories of change: Radical practices and approaches to environmental planning and governance
Environmental issues had been mentioned in the previous two days, but not discussed explicitly. Day three of the conference tackled some of these matters in great detail. Mark Swilling got things going by asking ‘what are the resource requirements of urbanisation?’ If 52% of the built environment thought to be needed by 2050 has yet to be created, what does this mean for the way we resource our cities? One approach might be to minimise damage through technological and smart-city approaches, but Mark advocated a more systematic reconstitution of human-environment relations and the web of life. Lyla Mehta focused her presentation on the urban periphery. She sees this as a particularly charged space into which cities are expanding but where services, rights and citizenship are not always well defined. We therefore arrive at a state where distinctions could be made between the political society and civil society as this ‘unequal citizenship’ forces many urban inhabitants to opt-out of the formal system.
The focus of John Twigg’s talk was on whether Disaster Risk Reduction, which itself emerged from the margins to the mainstream within a decade, might now be becoming unfashionable as the present discourse has become dominated by the concept of resilience. This is seen as providing a more holistic understanding of vulnerability reduction, but he wonders if this shift in emphasis is an academic or discursive shift, and if DRR might still have a lasting impact in guiding policy and practice. In her comments, discussant Adriana Allen remarked on the gap between environmental theory and thinking on environmental planning and management. She asked do cities exist outside of nature? And therefore what role is there for planning, encouraging us to think towards how planning can be reimagined around a more radical stance. Yet what kind of barriers do environmentally pragmatic approaches, adopted in many policies, pose to this?
Gender, intersectionality and socially just futures: Planning in an era of social polarisation
A stimulating session began with Sarah White’s presentation on how intersectionality can inform wellbeing. She discussed both the different and common challenges facing these discourses and suggested that in both cases the ‘real world’ focus is appealing, but as such there are challenges in articulating this complexity in practice. Gautam Bhan delivered a personal account thinking about queer politics and inclusive planning drawing on his experiences in India. He described how he couldn’t imagine the sorts of solidarities we have today back in 2001, but warned that a city that cannot make space for difference cannot effectively accommodate the diversity of its urban citizens.
Julian Walker went specifically into political representation at the local level, using the example of neighbourhood planning associations in Kisumu, Kenya. These associations ensure representatives are from a number of categories, but he suggested that such labelling can reinforce stigma, also questioning who is absent in such formations. He observed that methodologies, such as the DPU’s Gender in Policy and Planning approach, do exist to better integrate diversity into planning conversations. Maxine Molyneux, the discussant, identified working through intersectionality to bring about justice and recognition as a common theme among the speakers and discussed asked how we might go about incorporating our learning from practice back into theory.
Positioning planning learning in an urbanizing world: The challenge of practitioner formation and the co-production of knowledge
An overarching theme of the session was that learning happen in a number of different places and ways: the classroom, the studio, the community, and the personal and lived experiences embodied within each of us. Vanessa Watson presented the thinking behind a planning programme between the Association of African Planning Schools and Slum/Shack Dwellers International. The studios attempt to break down some of the perceived deficiencies in African planning education, which is too focused on teaching students how to work within national planning legislations. They therefore open up planners to different ways of thinking through the co-production of knowledge with SDI affiliate organisations. Vanessa sees the emphasis of this knowledge co-production as being on building relationships, empowering local groups and mutual learning by doing.
Jo Beall looked at the relationships between cities and higher education institutions. In setting herself the question ‘why are universities important to cities?’ she offered up the contributions to culture and society, and to regional knowledge economies among her responses. But reversing the question, to ask ‘why are cities important to universities?’ created different reflections. Specifically she suggested that these city-university relationships are stronger in the global south, whereas evidence shows that higher education in the north has a greater focus on working towards national economic growth.
Bisha Sanyal introduced us to the SPURS programme in MIT, which is a one year non-degree programme aimed at mid-career professional from emerging economies. He reflected that many ‘difficult conversations’ between participants from different geographies happen in such programmes as a means of understanding difference, and broadening our own horizons.
Discussant Alexandre Frediani raised several key points: in practice we see a pedagogy of contestation, not of negotiation in many contexts, and we need to consider the role of universities in engaging with this. How do we manage our public engagement as academic research, especially when it encounters these dynamics? He praised the studios approach, but questioned whether its time-bound nature constituted a weakness as students’ engagement is very brief. A lot of the impacts of such interventions depend on the end product and the types of processes that these pedagogical approaches are embedded within.
Caren Levy took on the enormous task of summarising the main talking points of the conference, which she delivered eloquently and comprehensively. She emphasised among many things that dialogue is important and events like this are fantastic opportunities in bringing together a community of practitioners – but that we also need advocacy. Alan Penn and Julio Davila closed the session.
The summaries in these blog posts provide only the tip of the iceberg in terms of the discussions that have taken place – podcasts from each of the sessions will be made available via our website later in the summer.