To Fight Neoliberalism In Cities, Planners Must Work With Activists

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Above photo: Nadine Shaabana/Unsplash.

I was surprised, in my first week of class as a graduate student in urban planning, to hear the death knell of my chosen field. In an unco-ordinated move, each of my professors at CUNY Hunter College had assigned Thomas J. Campanella’s essay “Jane Jacobs and the Death and Life of American Planning.” In the essay, Campanella describes urban planning as a trivial profession that is mired in bureaucratic procedure and lacks disciplinary identity, authority and visionary capacity.

One reason for this, say some contributors to Transformative Planning: Radical Alternatives to Neoliberal Urbanism, is that, as a profession, urban planning has too long been focused on creating products (i.e. housing and roads) rather than imagining cities as places that might sustain humans and the environment. This leaves planners indebted to the “urban growth machine” — a ruthless inter-urban scheme of competition in which urban residents and the environment are sacrificed to capital gain, and growth is normalized.

Edited by Tom Angotti, Transformative Planning explores the problems with the planning profession but also looks at the solutions available when planners and grassroots activists work together to combat the neoliberalization of cities. The collection of short essays includes many previously published online at Progressive City, as well as some original content.

It will appeal to both planning professionals and an activist public who brush up against planning concerns, and it contains many thoughtful essays that underscore the importance of the very visionary capacity that Campanella fears we collectively stand to lose. Transformative Planning is a critical assessment of the past hundred years of professional planning, and it also imbues the future with optimism by challenging planners to integrate grassroots activism or risk our own obsolescence.

The book meticulously tracks activist work across a broad spectrum of urban and human rights affairs and, in doing so, makes bold connections to the formal planning world and its concerns. The text explores alternative theories, practices, and heterodox planning methodologies already at work in the profession and across activist networks, as they force their way through the fractures of a neoliberal and professionally atomized development discourse.

The essays contained in the volume rely on scholarly accounts of activist work conducted over several decades and around the globe to exemplify some of the transformative planning techniques that may be extrapolated for use in an uncertain future. Separated into eight chapters, these writings address a range of topics from the history of planning to race, from displacement to community planning, from resistance to incarceration, and from climate justice to LGBTQ rights.

The various essays appraise the rich histories of planning, its developments, and the embedded assumptions of the profession to unpack and interrogate the idea of planning in the 21st century. It stops short of being a toolkit for radical planning, although it does offer some suggested further reading for anyone interested in the subject of radicalism, urbanism, and planning.

In some ways, the planning profession has been complicit in baking inequities into the physical and social fabrics of urban environments. One essay discusses the collective moment of awakening about the persistence and texture of race and class inequality in North American discourse that occurred after Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans. As we are confronted with natural disasters and pandemics such as the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak, we must ask ourselves as activists, scholars, and professionals, what historical actions, or inaction, have caused exaggerated suffering of the disadvantaged across the spectrum of race and income inequality?

In her piece on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Natalie Bump Vena shows how the notions of “sustainability” and “environmentalism” can often serve corporate interests trying to get community buy-in. In the case of a waste-to-energy facility proposed for construction in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, a corporation built a “bridge of trust” with community members to neutralize their concerns about impending pollution from the project. According to Bump Vena, the bridge-building exercise conducted by the corporation was a nefarious attempt to capture the good graces of the community. The EPA encouraged this tactic. When it encountered no decisive objections from the community, the agency turned a blind eye to the environmental damage that this facility would bring.

In a poignant essay about ongoing police brutality and the murder of Black men in America, Samuel Stein links this tragedy to the unresolved concerns of urban planners. “So where are the planners?,” he asks. In failing to condemn such violence and systemic injustice, the answer is that planners are notably absent.

Yet the book also shows that planners are, in fact, everywhere. Planners are professionals, educators, and activists; planners live in our communities and are involved in grassroots struggles for racial, social, economic and gender-based justice. Given that planning is already present in our everyday lives, Transformative Planning compels planners to employ grassroots activism in our work.

We must all resist the neoliberalization of cities, because the stakes are high — not only for planners, but also for activists and everyday people. In the future, will sidewalks, parks, and waterfronts, governance systems and social services, and rights to safety from environmental, socio-political, or economic harm be degraded in the interests of business, or will urban residents freely exercise their “right to the city” in new and transformative ways? Transformative Planning offers a balm for the ailing planning profession and gestures generously at why almost anyone should care.

Rachel Bondra is a master’s candidate at the City University of New York Hunter College urban planning program. She has a background in art and architectural history, and her current research focuses on expressions of power in the urban landscape, built environment, and planning processes.