Town planning, socialist planning: what connections?

Guest post:

Jamie Gough is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Town and Regional Planning at the University of Sheffield. Among other things outside the academy, he worked for the Greater London Council in the 1980s, and has been active in socialist politics for several decades. His research interests centre on the political economy of production and social reproduction within localities and regions, while his more theoretical work focuses on neoliberalism, the relations between society and space, state and society, and models of economic and industrial organisation.

PA budgeting

I have been a socialist since I was 17 and an urbanist since I was 24 – a long time ago. The relation between urban planning and socialist planning has been a constant puzzle and challenge to me, and the question ‘what is planning?’ provoked a number of thoughts.

The tradition of British ‘town planning’ from the late nineteenth century to the 1970s had a central aim of creating good physical environments and landscapes, understood to be good quality housing with greenery; efficient transport; preservation of the green countryside; and some aesthetic control over new buildings. These built-environment aims were to serve a social democratic agenda: economic efficiency, particularly in infrastructures and utilities; and orderly social life, centred on the patriarchal nuclear family. Development was to be partly financed by state or community appropriation of development gain, regarded as an unjustified profit to private landowners. The social democratic assumption was that planning, and the local and national state more generally, has ‘the public interest’ at heart, achieved through an enlightened bureaucracy and consensus between all social groups.

From the 1970s socialist and feminist activists and academics criticised this town planning tradition. They pointed out that urban planners had merely veto powers over development, without the ability to positively develop the built environment. Planning was therefore subordinate to, and largely served, property and building capital. The latter was seen as driven not by the provision of use values but by the creation of fictitious capital in land and buildings. With the emerging crisis of the economy and rising unemployment, it was evident that planning had no control over private sector investment in manufacturing and services. Small area and community programmes to address poverty and poor physical environment therefore lacked the key levers – control over productive investment and the design and provision of jobs. The social order sought by town planning was criticised for its lack of attention to gender oppression, and the creation of urban structures which disadvantage women and also children. Public services were seen as internalising class, gender and racial differences. Accordingly, planning, and the state more generally, did not in reality pursue ‘good environments’ and the ‘social good’. Rather, planning and the (local) state were deeply embedded in, and served, the accumulation of capital, the stabilisation of oppressive class relations, and the reproduction of oppressive gender, sexual and racial relations.

Socialists consequently argued that progressive planning required collective organisation of workers (the 90 percent dependent on wages for their life income), women and black people against the various forms of social power – of class, gender, sexuality and ‘race’/ethnicity. Diverse collective organisations, particularly trade unions, social movements and community groups, could oppose both capital and conservative social structures and assumptions. Popular organisations needed both to engage with the local state through formal democratic processes, but also to oppose the state and capital where necessary through militant and direct action.

Socialist, feminist and anti-racist urbanism of the last forty years has not, however, limited itself to opposition and critique. It has also attempted to develop various forms of ‘popular planning’. Some left Labour authorities in the 1980s, for example, facilitated community discussions of new visions for the built environment, jobs, transport and public services in their localities. In Latin America in recent years ‘participatory budgeting’ has in many cases gone well beyond its starting point of consulting communities about their priorities for municipal spending. In many cities it now involves positive planning at the neighbourhood and city level, and has drawn in trade unions and radical community organisations. It has drawn on the militant local struggles that have taken place in the last 15 years or so such as land occupations in Brazil, factory occupations in Argentina, and the insurrection of Cochabamba against water privatisation.

These experiences in urban popular planning point towards democratic, collective control by the people of all the major resources of the society, including those presently in the hands of private capital. That is, precisely the traditional idea of socialist planning. At the urban scale this implies a transitional approach, starting from collective organisations influencing planning decisions and public services to gaining more direct forms of control and planning of public resources and of resources which are presently controlled by capital. The more this power develops, the more people will be encouraged to take part in debates and actions to plan these resources for human needs and for conservation of ecosystems. Capitalist society disempowers most people most of the time. But dialectics of action and debate, material power and changed ideas, visible gains and increased involvement, can lead to real empowerment of the majority. And thus to real planning.

A much longer version of this piece is to be found here in the ‘longreads’ section.

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