Public Domain

Planning to be Spontaneous in the Improvised City

July 13, 2017

Several years ago, while wandering the streets of Delhi, India in the middle of triple-digit summer heat, a fundamental urban planning question revealed itself to me on a thoroughfare that was a riot of colors, sounds, and seemingly incompatible uses of space: how much “planning” is really needed in our cities if, in fact, some sort of self-organizing process occurs?

On that street, cattle ambled next to pedestrians who dodged motorized rickshaws weaving between moving cars, while monkeys scampered overhead across ominously low-hanging clusters of powerlines. There were painted lanes on some roads, but no one seemed to pay much attention to these nor to the changing colors of the traffic signals overhead. The street space was shared more or less equally by all manner of wheeled, hooved, and bi-pedaled creature.

As overwhelmed as I was, suddenly a single thought occurred to me as I stood there in the midst of it all: Why had no one yet stepped on my toes?

In the unplanned chaos of the streets of Delhi, I observed an informal system by which people, goods, and services were distributed with what I suspected was more efficiency than might be assumed at first glance. Within the uncontrolled, teeming mass there was a type of semi-order. The crowd flowed around and within itself with a choreographed precision.

That moment illustrated what I have long felt to be a central theme—at times, a central tension—within my chosen field of city planning: while there’s a need to actually plan things out, there also exists a need to allow places, processes, (and people) to evolve at their own pace, and according to their own rhythm.

A few years earlier in Lagos, Nigeria the famed Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas observed a similar phenomenon to the one I witnessed in Delhi, a phenomenon he termed “…self-organizing processes…”, which he discussed in a documentary film about the African capital. I have observed something similar in Beijing, Cairo, Bucharest, Istanbul, Bogota, and numerous other high–density urban settings. This observation is not solely contemporary. In the early part of the 20th Century, the urban sociologist Robert Park wrote of a “biotic social order” in cities: an underlying, dynamic force.

While Park’s theory was for many years dismissed by many urban sociologists as being untestable (how does one empirically test for a biotic impulse?), it nonetheless raised the question whether and to what extent there are self-regulating mechanisms at work in urban spaces and, if so, what are the implications for planning practice?

I know that I walk a fine line here. After all, few urban planners make the argument that their profession is not really needed. Nor am I making that argument at the moment. What I am saying is that my own observations and those of others suggest that in the absence of “rational” planning (usually in “less developed" countries), there tends to be a self-regulating tendency in cities—or at least certain spaces within cities. On the other hand, I have seen urban spaces (usually in “developed” industrialized Western countries) that have been so over-planned and over-regulated as to feel somehow artificial, contrived and, ultimately, lifeless.

Indeed this balance between planned and organic spaces in modern cities was noted by Koolhaas in regards to Lagos:

“…Self-organization is inscribed upon an organized model of the city…There’s a weird interdependence between the planned and the unplanned…”

In some ways the city, when viewed from this perspective, represents an apt reflection of the human condition: the ongoing struggle between knowing and feeling, science and faith, instinct and cognition.

I think again about Delhi, a medieval warren of unplanned streets, in relation to New Delhi, the seat of government. Designed by the British architect and planner Lutyens to have grand, straight boulevards, radial roads emanating out from carefully placed traffic circles, New Delhi is the epitome of post-Enlightenment-era rational European city planning. And yet the two together—the rational New Delhi and the organically intuitive old Delhi— somehow form a unity.

But why is it important to maintain that balance between the planned and the unplanned, the rational, and the intuitive, both in our cities and in our lives? I turn once again to Koolhaas:    

“And every time I go to Lagos I am encouraged to…become less hesitant and more immediate about what I like, don’t like, or what I think will work…it’s really a kind of sensitivity.”

The architect, a master of planned form, finds through the experience of being in a largely improvised city a sense of immediacy, vibrancy, and spontaneity in his life and his work.

In other words, places change us as much as we change them

This is the gentle balance that planners and policy-makers today face: knowing when to come up with a plan and put it into action, hopefully for the betterment of all; knowing when to relax a bit and let things take their course; and perhaps most importantly, knowing both where in an urban setting and when in a city’s development trajectory each of those approaches makes the most sense.

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