Planning in a Globalized World

Globalization has become the major debate in many fields during the last ten years. The process of global transformation is generally seen to operate in a multi-layered way covering culture, economics, politics, and the environment. How planning practices and policies will respond to an increasingly globalized world? This week’s readings provide us with some clues.

By examining how planning ideas migrate across international borders, Stephen Ward introduces two distinct types of diffusion — “borrowing” and “imposition”. “Borrowing” is the diffusion process that in which the importing country plays a more important role in transforming planning ideas. “Imposition” is the process that in which the exporting country serve as the major determine the force to provide planning ideas to other countries. Ward indicates that the nature of the diffusion is largely shaped by the power relationship between importing and exporting countries. In “Re-engaging Planning Theory? Towards ‘South-Eastern’ Perspectives,” Oren Yiftachel examines the urban renewal efforts in Tallinn, Estonia during the 1990s and its reaction to the Soviet occupation by marginalizing Estonia’s Russian population. He expresses his disappointment in the Anglo-American planning theory’s failure to include non-western or non-northern societies in the conversation. He also calls for a more complex understanding of the urban development process and its different players beyond the formal professional planning circles.

Here comes the question: can we borrow the planning practices from different regions of the world? In “Planning for Sustainability in European Cities: A Review of Practice in Leading Cities,” Timothy Beatley points out that borrowing can be a positive learning process. From his perspective, it is possible to apply European sustainable urban development experiences to various settings ranging from rural to urban and compact. The regionally unique culture values and differences do not hinder the lessons to be profound. On the topic of livable and sustainable cities, Peter Evans conducts a broad case study in American, Asian and European cities. He notices that political action at the community level still remains very effective to achieve community livability in the global era. Moreover, livable spaces that generate neighborhood healthily and a sustainable lifestyle are especially important to make poor communities effective agents of livability. Yan Zhang and Ke Fang make a comparison between “apples” and “oranges” — the two seemingly opposite urban redevelopment experiences in the United States and China. There is no denying fact that there are many distinctions in the urban transformation in the United States, such as economic activities, government roles, and democratic status. Surprisingly and unsurprisingly, the two experiences of the urban renewal in the United States are relevant to some extent, including the devastation of traditional forms by mass-produced modernity, the increasing proportion of economic development, and the lack of sufficient compensation for the relocation.

“In the next decade or so, the battle for the urban heritage and indigenous habitats of many countries in Asia and the Pacific will be either significantly won or lost. The survival of civilizational records, diverse urban cultures and traditional building skills also hang in the balance. We need a strong movement to save our heritage habitats.”

— Khoo Salma Nasution, The Asia Pacific Network for Urban Preservation, 1997

That speaks for Beijing. Suffering different waves of urban development, there will not be much left of the “ancient capital” but for a handful of grand architectural monuments. Its historic characteristics are rapidly being replaced with no character. Should we proudly call it “international style” and deceive ourselves? The main problems encountered in the Beijing urban redevelopment patterns are: street inappropriately widened to an old city center; large renewal parcels and the equally large scale of demolition broke continuity and prevented a more gradual and demand-oriented renewal; massive relocation of original residents segregated the urban living. The desire for rapid economic development drove China to step on a path of “mass-produced modernity.”

Rather than the centers of economic exchange and political power, can we see cities in a different way? In “The Urban Future,” Joel Kotkin indicates that cities were spiritual or sacred places, “a great city relies on those things that engender for its citizens a peculiar and strong attachment, sentiments that separate one specific place from others.” Economic and social change impact on civil society and political expression. Nowadays cities are increasingly dependent on their interaction with the global economy but also they must have a solid relationship with their local community and its inherent interests to survive and thrive. In the global era, the challenges of planning come both from the desire to integrate city economies with global forces and from the need to integrate fragmented interests within the city. To extend this point, I think in addition to globalization, we should also introduce the concept of localization in the topic on creating livable and sustainable cities.


Thank you, Ms. Hamer

I really appreciate that we had Ms. Hamer speak to our class. It was a great opportunity to get exposure to local politics and real world planning. On the topic of community engagement, one of my takeaways is that planners need to be creative to encourage public participation. One good example is breaking a large group into several small groups to collect more voices in the dialogue. I think this idea of changing the rules of communication is pretty neat. Also, I would keep in mind that a good relationship with the community is the key to move projects forward, especially in a tight-knit community.

As Ms. Hamer mentioned, there are many people not comfortable with changes in their neighborhood, thus growth always parallels with controversy. In this situation, the art of communication is very important. First, planners need to become good listeners and make civic groups feel heard in the planning process, even don’t agree with them. Second, smart planners need to know how to phase the problem or question to achieve the planning goal.

I have questions about affordability of urban living and DC height limit for a long time. It was really enlightening to hear about Ms. Hamer’s insights on the trend of high-rise construction and housing crisis. She mentioned that the least expensive way to increase affordable housing is actually to rehab the existing houses instead of creating new high-rise buildings. That inspires me to explore more about this topic and what would be a good intersection to apply my studies in historic preservation and urban planning to research.

Thank you for sharing your experience and wisdom, Ms. Hamer!

Urban Economics and Community Development

This week’s readings examine the intricate relationships between urban economics, politics, and governance. As the pioneer to define the field of urban economics, Wilbur Thompson introduces three fundamental concepts: public goods provided free for the consumption of citizens, merit goods allocated to incentivize desired behaviors, and payments to redistribute income. He indicates the ignorance of using price to ration the city investment and planning goals. In “The Competitive Advantage of the Inner City,” Michael Port also mentions the poor decision of government investment strategy: either wasted money on small inner city businesses or dumped money on hopeless blighted urban areas and undesirable brownfields. According to Porter, government regulation and anti-business attitudes are the two of the main reasons that lead to the lack of economic activities in inner cities.

I would see historic preservation as public goods addressed by Thompson. The aim of the National Register of Historic Places program is to coordinate and support public and private efforts to identify, evaluate, and protect historic and archeological resources, in short, for public good. However, many neighborhood in the 1980s’ Philadelphia actually rejected historic designation as an option for good community development. Take Philly’s Chinatown for example. Back in the 80s and 90s, the community’s major concern is to build new housing to replace structures that had been demolished as part of urban renewal (whole blocks of housing had been razed in the 1960s and 70s) and accommodate the needs of new immigrants. However, historic designation didn’t help with that and moreover historic districting can possibly inhibit that. Community leaders thought historic designation would place undue burdens on homeowners and lead to gentrification in the long run. What they did instead was get special zoning status for the historic Chinatown core, so that building heights and other structural features were restricted. This was to retain the existing scale in the core and helped them fight off more demolition and high-rise construction. This zoning undoubtedly worked to help preserve some structures in the historic core as it made new development unattractive. Chin, the director of the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation, mentioned in an interview that the community felt they “couldn’t afford history.” It would be worthy imploring how to make historic preservation affordable for inner-city communities?

David Harvey demonstrates the importance of thinking about cities in terms of processes rather than just things. I strongly agree with him for our cities are not merely composed by the built environment, but also are collective sites of social values. The conflicts between the tangible and intangible heritage of communities can be examined through place-making in ethnic neighborhoods. The most current local efforts are dedicated to making US Chinatowns tourist destinations and implanting many oriental symbols in their built environments. The problem of such oriental-image creation is that symbol-embedding merely aims at catering to sightseers’ novelty-hunting expectations and thus cannot turn into cultural accretion for the community. To make clear my point, I am not criticizing the use of tourism as a means to benefit a community, but rather, boosting tourism as the only goal in saving ethnic places including Chinatowns. This kind of motivated preservation, or more accurately, “tourism gentrification,” would exploit Chinatowns’ meaning of existence in the future. If Chinese-American residents make up only a tiny fraction of the total population in the neighborhood, if traditional Chinese businesses are replaced by mainstream national chain stores in the district, if the Chinese characters on the signage convey no useful information to the Chinese living in the area, even a neighborhood with all of the fancy oriental details you can imagine, can only deceive us and we cannot still call such place a Chinatown. It is really ironic to see the smallest Chinatown throughout the nation with the largest Chinese arch in the world. A Chinese archway does not make a Chinatown; people do.

In DC metropolitan area, many neighborhoods have been gentrified or it’s an ongoing process. Community residents left for reasons: some of them were priced out, some moved to other places to pursue good education for their children, etc. Urban neighborhoods are supposed to accommodate the needs  of their long-time residents. Just as Michael Porter mentioned in “The Competitive Advantage of the Inner City,” our current approach as based on a social model aimed at the individual and government should respond to the problem of inner-city decline and lack of jobs.

Sustainability and Sustainable Development

The main theme of this week’s readings is to inspire us to think outside the box. Instead of satisfying with the old progressive motto “question authority,” all of the three scholars “question assumptions” and challenge some fundamental concepts. Margaret Kohn analyses the issues in securing public spaces through examining the shifting role of American shopping malls in the history instead of merely focusing on authoritarian regimes. As a political scientist, Frank Fisher argues against the insufficient understanding of existing social values and meanings, and reinterpret the social meaning by examining its interwoven relationship with authority and power. In “”Green Cities, Growing Cities, Just Cities? Urban Planning and the Contradictions of Sustainable Development,” Campbell challenges the ubiquitous usage of the word “sustainability” in the broad urban planning dialogue.

I agree with Campbell that definition of sustainability in our society can be seen as vague because it leave too much room for interpretation the exact scope of sustainability. That is a universal problem in the urban planning field nowadays. The goal of “developing a sustainable city” can be easily found in the vision of a plan. However, the vagueness of the term sustainability itself would lead to a key problem: if we cannot reach the consensus about what sustainability is at the first place, then how can we vision what is desirable sustainable development for our cities. Furthermore, the term can be used as consensus politics, which may end having no effect on the planning practices. According to the broad narrative, sustainable development is indispensable and desired. But by the consensus politics there can be an empowerment of already marginalized groups in the society and a control of development by the urban elitists.

The Planner’s Triangle model developed by Campbell shows the three fundamental goals of planning — environmental protection, economic development, and social justice/equity. The contradicted arrows indicate the conflicts when planner try to reconcile two of the three interests. The concept of sustainability brings all those conflicts on the table and the challenge for urban planners is to deal with all three aspects and the conflicts between them. It seems it is “an impossible mission” to achieve an ideal balance of all three goals because they actually inherently conflict over property, resources, and development. Let us take a look at the examples that showed conflicts between economic development and social equity. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, the Federal Beautification plans for Washington, D.C. brought disaster to the first Chinese community between 4 ½ and 6th Streets along the lower Pennsylvania Avenue. The federal government forced the evacuation of the original Chinatown to make room for office construction as part of the Federal Triangle project in 1929. Without social or political clout to stop the community’s fate towards demolition, the 398 Chinese residents in the neighborhood had no choice but to move. From the 1950s through the 1970s, various plans were devised by local and federal agencies to build a comprehensive urban expressway system to link D.C. to the national interstate highway system. The Three Sisters Bridge project, Southwest/Southeast Freeway, 14th Street Bridge, and Anacostia Freeway paralleled with a powerful post titled “White Men’s Roads Thru Black Man’s Homes.” These two examples elaborate the property conflict introduced by Campbell. In a broad sense, social sustainability is a reaction against the economic dominance in the sustainability discourse. However, like Campbell mentions, if planners recognize the conflicts and try to understand the linkage among them, sustainability could be seen as a good starting point in the planning field.

I would say there is imbalance of the three goals in urban planning today. It seems that there are more and more discussion in promoting social sustainability in academic research. In contrast, if we examine the current planning practices, we can notice that the strategies and promoting measures about sustainability quite often focus on environmental and economic sustainability, where social sustainability and social inequalities has not received enough investment . One problem I can think about is that sustainable development is set in the existing economic system, which promotes competition between cities and regions and which therefore makes it difficult for cities and urban regions to focus on social plus environmental issues. This is in conflict with the different dimensions of sustainable development because it leads to inequality between different regions and also in a city itself.

Inclusion and Equity

In an era of multiculturalism and globalization, planners – as actors that guide urban development and management – are positioned within a complex arena where decision makings need to have a positive economic impact while also achieve desirable social outcomes. Past urban development patterns focus on growth at the edge of urban area, resulting in sprawl and creating places of disinvestment in the center city as jobs, businesses and wealth migrate outwards. For the low income and minority communities, the daily challenges for quality of life including struggling schools, lack of access to healthy, affordable food, unemployment and underemployment, health impacts of cumulative pollution problems, and the presence of vacant and contaminated properties that contribute to the continued cycle of disinvestment.

The assigned readings this week provide unique perspectives on the issue of unequal access in regard of race, ethnicity, and gender. Iris Marion Young challenges the traditional dichotomy to deal with social differences and advocates the third path where the difference can be embraced and a shared public space can be shaped with broad interests. June Manning Thomas, in “The Minority-Race Planner in the Quest for a Just City”, examines beyond the promising outcomes of increasing minority participation in the planning profession through interviews with six black planners in the public sector of Michigan. From his analysis, the shortcomings of overstressing the bridge role of underrepresented minority planners plays in the planning process may put them in dilemmas of concerning system demands, community accountability, and personal commitment. Dolores Hayden takes a path in the middle of two prototypes of organization household work: home as haven and the industrial strategy. The third path she advocates is to strengthen women power through collaboration of local initiatives. Last but not least, Michael Frisch faces up to the hot-potato issue about sexual preference in the planning field. Frisch questions about the foundation of heterosexuality and reveal the fact that it is equated with urban disorders.

All of the above perspectives provided different perspectives from traditional scholarship of how planners behave within the complex themes and issues in our society. Planners are major players in guiding the resource allocation and distribution. These professional decisions can affect every aspect of human life, including but not limited to where to live, access to good education, natural and built environment. If we take a look at U.S. planning history, it seems important to address racial issues as an integral part of the profession. However, my questions is can we see race as a center point to explain or understand everything in the field? Whether the negative ethnicity and racial discrimination in urban planning is a result of intentionally ignorance, inadequate planning to address social justice?

Growing up in central China, I did not pay attention to race or ethnicity within academic research until I came to study in the United States. I noticed race or ethnicity usually has been in the center of class debates in American universities. In addition, many scholars’ research interests and career goals are shaped by their own ethnic experience, and the equity issue is a common denominator for scholars interested in social justice. Can we see racial and ethnical unjustness in urban planning as the manifestations of deep-rooted societal issues, such as unbalanced power, limited resources, lack of trust and so forth? As far as I am concerned, there is a need for planners to go beyond awareness creation and problem identification to achieve equitable development.

Urban Planning in the Middle of Power and Capital

There is no denying the fact that both politics and finance play significant roles in the realm of planning practice today. Government control can lead the strategic allocation of scarce resources in the protection of the broad public interest; financing through private sector can lower financial burden and potential risk on general taxpayers. This kind of public-private partnership seems promising for delivering win-win outcomes that can marry community needs and local economic development. Matti Siemiatychi introduced a prevailing design-build-finance-operate (DBFO) model of public-private partnership and also demonstrated some issues of applying that model to the public project. What we can learn from the transit-megaproject planning failures is that the unbalanced power relations between the various parties would undermine the theoretical benefits of a more competitive procurement process, and lead to problems like political interference, weak procedural accountability, escalating construction costs, and performance shortfalls.  

Stuck in the middle of power and capital, planning practice sometimes deviates from its original intention. This topic reminds me of a very controversial massive civic project in my home city Wuhan. The City’s first Hongshan Square was built in 1991 to memorize a Chinese communist political leader, Dong Biwu. It had a grove of trees and a big piece of grass and became a civic center, especially a good place for children to fly kites. In order to beautify the city built environment, Hubei Province government along with Wuhan City government launched an overall reconstruction of Hongshan Square in 1999. The later Hongshan Square boasted to have a total area of 108,000 square meters with three squares (Dong Biwu Memorial Square, Sunken Plaza, and Music Fountain Leisure Square) connected. It was the largest city square in the central China and seen as “city card” and one of Wuhan Top 10 Environmental Innovation Projects. Hongshan Square area has developed into the most densely populated and commercial prosperous district until the city metro planning project. Wuhan Department of Rail Transit Construction announced the government decided to work with Wuhan Metro Group Co.,Ltd. to demolish Hongshan Square to facilitate the construction of metro station and underground facilities and they promised after the construction was completed, the city would return “a more beautiful Hongshan Square” to citizens. The torn down work would happen soon, however, citizens had no say in the decision-making process. It was ironic that the City’s proposal to build a “construction resources saving & environmental friendly city” just got approval from the central government. After five years of reconstruction with a total cost of a hundred million, the newly built Hongshan Square finally reopened to the public in late 2013.


Hongshan Square before (2000-2008)


Hongshan Square after (2013-present)

The four value-rational questions that Bent Flyvbjerg raised can be applied to examine and rethink of the Hongshan Square project.

1.Where are we going with planning and democracy in Wuhan?

Many public projects in Wuhan are still lacking public transparency, the Hongshan Square case is just one of them. Citizens have little power in determining what kinds of projects get built even those were claimed for public good. What’s worse, citizens have no idea of how long the construction will last. The unbalanced knowledge and power bring more and more estrangements between the government and citizens. Even a project dedicated to the public good, lack of effective dialogue would end in the impression of another local project that wastes taxpayers’ money.

2. Who gains and who loses, by which mechanisms of power?

I would say these is no winner in this game: citizens lost the convenience of entertainment/transportation and also their memory associated with the old public space. The city government sacrificed the confidence and support from citizens. The developers may get benefits from the project at the short-term, but in the long run, its reputation and potential opportunities would be largely diminished.  

3. Is this development desirable?

Apparently no. The final reopening of the Hongshan Square did not get citizens excited. A 2016 July report indicated that the Square was not as popular as before. Many visitors complained most of the entrances were built underground (connected with metro and commercial stores) and people on the streets do not have easy access the Square due to surrounding fences and lack of pedestrian crossing. Also, citizens missed some interactive elements of old Hongshan Square, such as pigeons fed and music fountain, which were not in the consideration of the reconstruction. Within three decades, there were three built-and-rebuilt happened to one project. City planning cannot vision for the next ten years of urban transformation. That is a serious problem that should cause our attention and introspection.

4. What should be done?

In my opinion, the role of government should focus on coordination and guidance rather than too much involved in specific matters of project details. Enacting the planning review standard procedures is essential to strengthen and also restrict the power of one party in the decision-making process. In addition, the public participation mechanism should be regarded as an important part of visioning the city move forward. The government, planning professional and citizens need to build an efficient dialogue to make sure every group is on the same page.

Once urban planning has fallen captive of politics and money, its expertise, seriousness, rationality, and long-term goals are badly weakened. Pressures to maintain confidentiality undermined the expectation for public transparency and accountability. To better understand the relationship between rationality vs. power and truth vs. politics in the real world planning, we also need the “phronetic planning research” that Flyvbjerg called for.

Arnstein’s Ladder and Contemporary Participatory Planning

As we discussed in the last class, the goal of planning is to create a just city. This week’s readings extend the topic by exploring the governance structures of attaining it. There is no denying the fact that intellectuals’ perspective and governors’ vision have guiding significance towards a better city. However, if decisions are made merely according to the selected voices, it is unlikely to capture the veritable demand of the whole society. That is why we underline the role of public participation in urban programs. How, exactly, should the public get involved in local government decision-making process?

Sherry Arnstein introduces the metaphor of a ladder to describe public participation hierarchy. In her renowned article “A Ladder of Citizen Participation,” Arnstein compares different gradations of citizen participation to rungs towards ultimate people-centered planning. Two forms of nonparticipation, manipulation and therapy, are at the ladder’s lowest level. In these two situations, the power of governors and citizens is extremely unbalanced, which means citizens have no saying in the predetermined action plan. If citizens can take one step further and reach the middle level of the ladder, they would at least get informed of what is going on in their city. At this level, the power of citizens to is still limited. However, that one step is crucial and the access to information can be seen as the basis to achieve a higher level of citizen participation. If we are aiming at a just city, we need to ensure the equity of information among different social groups first.

A popular Government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy, or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.

—- James Madison

The highest rungs of Arnstein’s ladder are partnership, delegated power, and citizen control. We can observe that different from the middle level’s one-way flow these three forms have interactive elements. The processes are more like communication between citizens and governors on the same scales, which indicate that citizens can participate in a comparatively early stage and have more sayings to shape the final plan. As we enter the 21st century, there are more possibilities of public participation beyond Arnstein’s Ladder. Let us take a look at a successful example.

In the past, Amsterdam’s planning outcomes were usually criticized for its being detached from local demand and political sphere. Citizens and politicians found it very hard to digest the tedious planning documents so they had no interests in planning efforts. In order to change that situation, Zef Hemel, the Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission, tried to weave stories in his lecture about the past and future of Amsterdam to attract people’s attention. His storytelling was a big success, and more and more citizens were willing to share their stories and thoughts about the city. As plenty stories were collected, Hemel came up with the idea to arrange an exhibition titled “Free State of Amsterdam.” An interactive website was launched, so that the city’s residents and visitors could post their wishes to make a better Amsterdam. More than 2,000 ideas were collected in three consultative rounds, and the exhibition visioning the city’s future opened in September 2009. Nothing of the project was predetermined so people could talk about the future in all openness. The outcomes of the exhibition were used in the making of the Structural Vision Amsterdam 2040.

Here is a glimpse of the innovative project:


People got engaged in a heated discussion (Free State of Amsterdam)


Interactive model encouraged public input (Free State of Amsterdam)

Someone would ask that participatory planning process is time-consuming, money-consuming, energy-consuming, would it worthy of doing this? First, it is true that a lot of resources has been invested in the procedure and the outcome seems without promise. However, citizens’ satisfaction can counter the planning cost in a long run. Time will give us an answer. Also, I think participatory planning process should never be understood merely as a means to a substantive end. As a statement made by Patsy Healey, processes have process outcomes. Engagement in governance processes shapes participants’ sense of themselves and strengthens their confidence in a better city.