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Urban Sustainable Futures: Why Planning Should Leave Behind “Urban Forms-Driven” Codes

By November 8, 2019December 3rd, 2021Learnings, News

This year, the opening lecture of the Int. Msc in City Resilience Design and Management hosted Prof M. Neuman (Westminster University, UK), offering the open Keynote titled “Sustainable Infrastructure as a Key for Urban Resilience”.

He is not new at challenging the mainstream understanding of planning and governance perspectives around cities, having generated debates with his papers “Does Planning need the Plan?” – questioning the planning holy grail and historical “tool” – or “The Compact City Fallacy” which challenged the emerging and agreed paradigm of densification as best solution driving sustainability paths, by saying that densification per se it is not the silver bullet.

He welcomed new students through an introduction about the historical moment we are living: due to climate and environmental changes happening while (and because of) unprecedent global urbanization growth, meeting the sustainability challenges will require unprecedented transformative solutions. That said, he put forward the sad reality of urban sustainability and resilience being poorly understood from policy makers and frameworks: “vague definitions leading to deep confusion, particularly when the two are used interchangeably”. That is not a good premise for the transformational change we need to undergo.


In relation to that, what we learnt from the keynote (and from the two more seminars and debates held with Michael) were critical insights about how and why to link urban sustainability with infrastructures. And how the concept of resilience relates to this nexus:

Through infrastructure around 70% of global greenhouse gas emissions are released, because of their construction and operations such as power plants, buildings, and transport. If you wish to tackle urban sustainability, there you go: start from focusing on infrastructure and try to make them sustainable first. Then, make them resilient too. If you confer resilience to current (unsustainable) infrastructure, you’ll get an unsustainable urban future”.

So much truth in a sentence. You should not even be thinking about building resilience if you’re not moved toward sustainability first. Otherwise resilience will be just a way of conferring persistency to your current unsustainable system. “We need to change the system…You need to change it! Go for office!” repeated Michael through the classes. The hypothesis under these messages about change relies in the business-as-usual resilience implementation: resilience building unfortunately framed in order to resist change, rather than inspire it.

But why is resilience being interpreted as “resisting change” and advocating for maintaining things as they are, if its meaning is about “being adaptive”? Well, when he wrote “The Compact City Fallacy”, most of the academics, planners and architects were celebrating the call for density as the holy grail for more sustainable cities, because “planning institutions have been following for decades those same planning codes and norms, based on land-use plans and standards driven by forms”. Michael spent quite few hours explaining us the meaning and behaviour of institutions versus organizations. “Institutions simply try to maintain its roles, images and believes, while organizations are more flexible entities working to bring people together, enhancing dialogue between different stakeholders in order to reach a common set of goals”. That is why (for example planning) institutions are designed and framed by clear norms and behaves, and logos, images and symbols are used to enable people identify (and follow) those norms. Institutions ultimately tend to define rigid structures and beliefs, developing a form of resistance to different thinking. “This is why it took me almost a decade, before a journal accepted my paper about the fallacy of the mainstreaming and institutionalized ideas of density as the holy grail”, explained the professor. “The compact city is neither a necessary or sufficient condition for a city to be sustainable and the attempt to make cities more sustainable only by using ‘urban form strategies’ is actually counterproductive”. The city can and desperately needs to be conceived as a complex system of metabolic processes, while envisioning the urban form as a mere processual outcome. Following this critical reflection, the key learning about how to challenge old-fashion understanding of urban sustainability and fight for transformational thinking goes through the almost 3 decades old quotation: “If the city is to survive, process must have the final word. In the end the urban truth is in the flow” (Kostof 1992).

“Leaving behind the urban form-based codes to process-based codes. You can only measure carbon impact through processes, not forms.  Why is planning still based on form codes and not processes?”

There is a wonderful talk Michael gave in Australia a few years ago, addressing different proposals about how to think about this shift, from form-based to process-oriented urban codes and standards.

Last but not least, back to the persistence of resilient institutions and resisting changing behaviours, we discussed how transformation change is to be put into practices and why usually we prefer to not change. “Human nature is more prone to allow mechanism to allow things not to change. The simple fact that we put taxes on pollution and on carbon, these are mechanism to price something, rather than change it. Prices simply allow the polluter to keep polluting. If you don’t want something bad to happen, you won’t put a price on it. You label it as illicit”. 

“Putting tax on carbon is just allowing big polluters to keep polluting. This is our fault. You cannot expect people to change if money comes from not changing”

These messages, so much realistic in aligning our emerging and promising regulations with the actual lack of agreements about any radical transformation addressing climate or environmental changes, left us a bit depressed. However, Michael left us with some key inspirational reflections, about how to inspire change: “You need to break the image of the current model. We urge for new persuasive images and imaginaries, in order to activate an effective revolution in the perception of our societies. Images are powerful tools to shape people perceptions and society behaviours”.

Simple worlds, but so true. As architects and planners, we need to educate people, clients, policy makers. Guide them to better choose for the sustainable, long-term solutions. Cities need to educate citizens and make them aware of which kind of future scenarios we need to move toward to. Images and symbols make people visualize what is much needed, and change their preferences. It does not exist anything more powerful to change the status quo.

Great talks, interesting debates, lots of thinking. We hope that sharing them with you here has been inspiring for you too. If you are interested in learning more, just start by reading Michael papers:

  • Michael Neuman “Is Resilience Planning’s Holy Grail?” Town Planning Review. 90(2):109-115.
  • Michael Neuman and Stuart W. Churchill “Measuring Sustainability” Town Planning Review, 86(4): 457–482, 2015.
  • Michael Neuman and Angela Hull “The Futures of the City Region” Regional Studies, 43(6) 777-787, 2009.
  • Michael Neuman. “The Compact City Fallacy” Journal of Planning Education and Research, 25(1):11-26, 2005.
  • Robert Webb, Xuemei Bai, Mark Stafford Smith, Robert Costanza, David Griggs, Magnus Moglia, Michael Neuman, Peter Newman, Peter Newton, Barbara Norman, Chris Ryan, Heinz Schandl, Will Steffen, Nigel Tapper, Giles Thomson. “Sustainable Urban Systems: Co-design and Framing for Transformation” AMBIO, 47(1):57-77, 2018.
  • Michael Neuman “The Image of the Institution: A Cognitive Theory of Institutional Change” Journal of the American Planning Association, 78(2) 139-156, 2012.
  • Michael Neuman “Spatial Planning Leadership by Infrastructure: An American View” International Planning Studies, 14(2) 201-217, 2009.
  • Michael Neuman. “Multi-Scalar Large Institutional Networks in Regional Planning” Planning Theory and Practice, 8(3) 319–344, 2007.

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