Urban and Regional Planning – Past Precedents and Future Prospects

First of all I would like to thank the organisers for the honour of asking me to address this gathering on a very important issue. I am not a planner but I have had a long association with plans and planners. More often than not we have sat on the opposite sides of the table and disagreed. However, in recent years, I have lectured extensively at European universities and research organisations on urban and regional planning issues. What I have learnt over the past three and a half decades, I will try and share with you.

Since the development of the bronze-age civilizations human settlements and agricultural production have always been planned in some form or the other; there was always a close relationship between the two. The extent of agricultural surplus and trade in its manufactured goods determined the size of the city. Communities built around class, caste, clans and extended families were an integral part of institutional arrangements that planned and managed human settlements both in rural and urban areas. It is true that lower castes and/or the poorer sections of the population were excluded from such arrangements.

With the advent of the industrial revolution in Europe things changed. Mass migration from the countryside as a result of industrialisation created terrible physical conditions in urban areas. These led to social problems, disease and large scale epidemics. In addition, the countryside was left without agricultural labour.

To address these issues research established the link between the physical environment, disease and social injustice and deprivation. Building bye-laws and zoning regulations were developed; sewage and piped water systems were conceived and implemented; labour laws were instituted and as a result the nineteenth century saw the emergence of a whole new system of professional education related to engineering, architecture, planning, medicine and law along with the tools for planning and managing urban settlements in the industrial era.

What is important to note, especially for this gathering, is that most of this work was done by academic and professional institutions such as the London School of Hygiene (later to become the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine). This work was owned by various citizen’s groups and church groups and radical political parties who took it to the parliaments, politicians and the ruling elite, forcing them to implement its recommendations. It was a massive research, extension and lobbying exercise spread over many decades.

Financing the implementation of the recommendations of this research was not a problem. Europe owned the resources of the world at that point in time. Subsequently, major modifications to planning related education were required to accommodate the railway and still later, the automobile. These modifications also involved a considerable amount of research and development effort which became teaching material.

It was out of this process that the modern movement and its ethos was born. It was also the birth of the concept of the welfare state. The important features of the modern movement were:

  • The state was responsible for providing its citizens with infrastructure, housing and social sector facilities.
  • Technology was capable of solving all problems related to these requirements and man was subservient to it.
  • Efficient state institutions with highly trained professionals were needed to develop and implement detail plans for every sector. These plans were known as “master plans”.
  • Professionals knew best and they could give physical shape to the vision of the politicians and determine the structure of society.

Thus technology became a god and the professionals became its prophets.

Pakistan and other Third World countries accepted the modernist paradigm and the welfare state concept after the Second World War, when most of them became independent. Their development plans were planned around these concepts and so was professional education. Zoning regulations and building bye-laws were developed on the European model although they were an anti-thesis of how our people lived and worked since they were anti-street, anti-pedestrian, anti-dissolved space and anti-mixed landuse. No wonder they have been violated systematically.

The modern movement in the First World built expressways, flyovers, mass transit systems, massive public sector housing schemes, and state constructed and managed social sector facilities. However, these brave and idealistic initiatives could not prevent massive environmental degradation, loss of built heritage, social fragmentation, inner city slums and growing congestion. Technology minus humanism extracted an enormous cost. Today in many European cities the high-rise housing blocks of the sixties are being demolished to be replaced by low-rise housing since they were responsible for a whole range of social problems that the public sector housing estates had created. In many cities, such as Boston, old flyovers are being demolished since they encroach on public space, are ugly to look at and there are better alternatives to solve traffic congestion.

A stage came when funds for sustaining the modernist paradigm were simply not available. After the economic crisis of 1973 this issue became critical. There were other problems too. Europe’s population growth was rapidly declining. This meant lesser schools, more old people’s homes and smaller families (often one member ones). These trends called for a reshaping of the existing building stock rather than the creation of new buildings. This reshaping could not be done without the active involvement of the residents. Thus “community participation” became an important planning tool. To cater to this changing demography new research was carried out. There was a search for a new paradigm and a new system of professional education.

In the case of the Third World the modernist paradigm could not cope with the population explosion and the massive influx of rural migrants into Third World cities. The city could provide jobs to the migrants but no homes or adequate physical and social infrastructure due to an absence of funds, institutions, human resources and effective political systems. The mega projects that many Third World cities built in attempting to solve their urban problems, displaced tens of thousands of people but could not meet their objectives. For example, in spite of the enormous expressways that Manila and Bangkok have built, their traffic congestion problems remain unsolved.

The result of the failure of the modernist paradigm in the Third World led to the growth of urban and rural informality, often in defiance of state rules and regulations, in housing, transport, health, education, industrial production, agricultural and finance and marketing and the creation of powerful informal lobbies who actively promote their claims and guard their gains. Formal planning has never tried to understand or integrate urban and rural informality into the planning process. As a result, plans, more often than not, do not work.

Out of the failure and constraints of the modernist paradigm were born the concepts of sustainable development and the green and environmental movements. These movements sought to bring man back to the centre stage in planning. They recognised that technology alone was not a solution; that the user or interest groups had to have a say in plans and their implementation; and that technology had to be subservient to sociological and environmental considerations. So structure and monitoring plans replaced conventional master plans and area conservation replaced the concept of restoration and preservation of individual buildings. Pedestrian precincts and segregation of local and through traffic replaced inner city flyovers and expressways; new bye-laws were framed to accommodate the concepts of mixed landuse; and addressing health conditions increasingly determined planning parameters. Administrative measures and new concepts of landuse planning rather than traffic engineering emerged as the new means of dealing with traffic congestion and pollution and the problems that automobiles pose in urban areas. Concepts such as environmental audit, environmental tribunals, environmental impact assessment for projects, sustainable livelihoods, involuntary relocation, emerged.

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