23 September, 2018

Come, let’s watch a film and discuss cities!!


What follows are my musings on an event yet to happen: 

Wednesday 26 September, 18h00 to Campus Belval, Maison du Savoir (MSA), Salle 3.500

In the coming week, I am invited to join a panel discussion regarding a film on the work of the famous Danish architect, Jan Gehl(-1-). I am not yet sure whether we will watch a movie or a documentary. I am also not sure what Luxembourg can learn from the best practices of starchitects. In any case, I am curious about this opportunity to talk to practitioners and participate in a creative exchange. Sometimes different people perceive a given subject in rather different ways, so talking about this can be really enriching, or entertaining at least. (I am hoping that the film is not too long, and there will be still sufficient audience to talk to afterwards …).

As a matter of total coincidence, there is a national election coming up in Luxembourg and the event coincides with ongoing campaigning. On Sunday, October 14, voters will be called upon to decide the race for 60 Chamber seats. Judging from the palate of political programmes and platforms, issues such as spatial planning, cities, and housing are not necessarily playing a prominent role there – apart from the discursive routine where all parties generally consider issues such as transport or housing to be problematic. However, the parties are far from presenting a convincing idea concerning how to resolve it, which, admittedly, would be nothing short of heroic: Its a market environment composing one of the richest countries of the planet, an island of money industries and services firms, where real estate bingo is played by both local families and the Middle East state investment funds. Any policy program to address this situation would necessarily have to include a toxic package, demonstrating: strong political will, efficient means for creating new supply and at the same time regulating the market, and last but not least, a preparedness for getting into conflict with most powerful lobbies around (home/landowners on the one hand, and real estate agents and developers on the other).

Is anything like this rising on the horizon? No, let’s be serious. It is rather unlikely that this could become part of a realistic tableau for future politics in the Grand Duchy, as long as the economy is booming and outer space is increasingly the testbed for alternative room for the small, landlocked country. So, should we leave it here? My part on the podium isn’t likely to be about politics and policy, which is actually the privilege of the Minister and Mayor to address. And, as I am still unsure what we will listen to Wednesday night concerning the details and impacts of global starchitecture, I remain somewhat puzzled about what my researcher’s point of view should be? What can I bring to the table on this occasion?

A reflection on place, planning and implementation
My take will probably be to provide a sort of sense-making endeavour: What is this place really about, so that the recipe-like stuff recommended by urban designers might not appear like it is falling out of blue sky down to the soil, but something that could inspire mutual understanding of, and reflection on, the situation here – before getting into the hasty run for ‘solutions’ whose seedbed is difficult to prepare. What I can refer to are Luxembourg’s framework conditions that shape its development trajectory and render it rather specific: It is small but global, embedded in a network of relationships that compensate limited size, and at the same time, offering a wide range of political and business niches to explore, being these the financial market, European politics, the services industries and corporate headquarters (attracted by a favourable tax regime), or as recently put on the screen, space exploitation. For further readings, there is no need to be repetitive. I can spare the details and refer to two recent entries that I wrote for this Blog before the summer break (-2-). It’s all there, there is nothing really new. 

What I will do here and then is reflect on the flip side of economic success, and the way Luxembourg’s development activities have left their imprint on land, mobility and the built environment. Most particularly: As Luxembourg’s business secret of being a hotspot in global GDP and wealth was effectively homemade, so likewise were the responses to it -- the plans and strategies, the people and institutions in the planning and real estate domains etc. Nothing of this kind came from mighty powers elsewhere, but was intelligently funneled through local brains, desks, strategies (to a limited degree) and practice. This would be my contribution to the panel discussion: How does planning usually to respond to overarching development pressure, and are the responses appropriate given the scope and scale of the challenges?

This is the question that we as members of the UL are also engaging with in our research and teaching endeavours. Good fortune will also have that I just started my planning track in our Master’s Programme “Geography & Spatial Planning” (-3-) at the UL, consisting of three seminars on cities, planning and urban governance, on related theories and progress, and on research practice. So, this event comes at a time when all these issues are around and we are right the thick of it. Hopefully, we can also attract a number of our students to attend the event, to listen, learn, and debate with our guests.

The two different worlds of planning: parametric vs. procedural
When reflecting on planning, teaching students, or presenting to a panel audience, there are basically two different approaches to planning and urbanism that we can distinguish and that are worth mentioning. One approach is in the tradition of parametric planning; that is to say, steering a topical issue so that it conforms to certain measurements and thresholds (such as density, design, accessibility). The belief is that such measures will provide a desired impact, if users and systems (and subsystems) behave in causal directions, irrespective of the fact that parametric planning may serve some interests while unfolding on the cost of others. It is roughly oriented to the supply side of planning problems. The second approach is based on the communicative, collaborative or co-productive paradigm, which has become rather mainstream in planning theory and practice in recent decades (but not everywhere, of course). The ambition is more demand-side oriented, asking for people’s interest and will, providing a consensual solution everybody can live with. Its drawback may be that the real impact on how the system works could turn limited, as the two main goals - impact vs. acceptance - are not subject to a linear but possibly reciprocal relationship.

Hence, my question will most certainly not be about what the best possible design solution for Luxembourg is. As an urban geographer, I am still in the process of trying to distil my own experience and interpretation. This it not an absolute truth, of course, but an understanding founded on empirically settled knowledge which was carefully reflected on, and based on grounded argumentation. My view focuses on the ways socio-economics, wealth and growth have exploded, nested in a highly dynamic mix of land and property development and various flows of mobility, and how this changes neighbourhoods, towns and the country, and thus poses extraordinary (!) planning challenges. When I consider these issues, I aim to reference existing knowledge, particularly concerning what we believe we know from the history of planning (time) and from experiences made elsewhere (space). However, dear friends in the ministries and local councils, we need to be totally aware of the specificity (!) of what happens in the Grand Duchy. It is far from normal. Hence, seeking inspiration from planning expertise from elsewhere, or best practice ideals from shining stars in urban design, risks turning in useless exercise, at least as long as local specificities are not taken into account in an appropriate way, subject to open (rather than closed) and honest (rather than biased) conversation.

Supply of and demand for planning in Luxembourg
What is the Luxembourg planning system, habit and practice about, in a nutshell? Let’s start with the demand side; that is, the real world of those who are using land and resources is to be steered by consensual planning. How about the people targeted by plans? Consensus seems to be the traditional and preferred approach of making it happen in this small country, and maybe for good reason. However, the more intense the economic growth and the more that wealth accumulates, the more this society is fragmented and segmented. One might reiterate that half of the country’s population are landed immigrants, a number that exceeds 70% in the capital city. Deviating from conventional wisdom, Luxembourg is not one society. This is obvious from any city tour that we’d recommend on an average workday morning. Based on origin, nationality, language, qualification, kinship, access to land, employment model, commuting needs, and other factors that are relevant here, one must distinguish a wide variety of different groups and social milieux.

As a result, a key question for Wednesday night, in this setting then, is whether there can even be one ‘Human Scale’. Or, are there many scales, depending on economic, social, or tribal capital? How many are there, how are they articulated, how can they be included in a balanced way? Referring to the specific problem of housing: For whom is housing a problem, and for whom is it a resource, an asset? These are the real issues and questions we are confronted with, not the search for big bang solutions or the technical or design fixes that supposedly make everyone happy.

Turning to the supply side, there is the planning system that is repeatedly called upon to urgently sort things out, while avoiding any harm to growth and wealth, of course. Effectively, the call for order is stuck in a dead end for several reasons. (a) Planning is confronted with increasing degrees of complexity and uncertainty. Where, for example, does the space of spatial planning end in the globally and regionally highly connected, not territorial, but relational Luxembourg? At the border, in Lorraine, in China? (b) Planning does not have the legal means to sort things out, and this is also why so much is compensated with big money put into large-scale urban projects and triple-win solutions for all involved, except regular people. So, do we need more of that? Probably not. c) Planning and planners are not invited to emphasise tension and conflict – even though the most fundamental reason for inventing urban and spatial planning has always been, from its very beginning, mediating concurring needs and interests in land, development, resources. Do we need to refer to the great volumes on the history of planning as provided by the late Sir Peter Hall in order to recall the overly conflicting nature of planning (-4-)? It is a bitter truth (sorry) and the most brutal aspect here: The Luxembourg way of handling issues in an utterly hermetic “cage of consensus” assures that any sort of corridor towards solving problems effectively stays out of reach.

A fresh look at the problem: Relational and evolutionary perspectives
As a researcher, I don’t want to play the political card, even though one cannot effectively talk about planning without recognising that planning was – see above – invented to deal with conflict. Being aware, too, that the University of Luxembourg is increasingly called upon to serve the country, related reflections from geography and planning studies would focus on two observations resulting from over a decade of empirical research. They fit with our most recent comparative study of Geneva, Luxembourg and Singapore, that was funded by the FNR and its highly demanding international peer-review system (-5-). In analytical terms, the clue to this research is to look at relations rather than (solely) territories. This includes a fresh look at land, which seems to be the ultimate resource for getting things going, and focussing the lens on the commodification of land by two different, but also strikingly comparable, ‘property states’ – the Southeast Asian city-state, Singapore, and the liberal market economy of land ownership and property trade of the Grand Duchy.

Moreover, addressing the dimension of time, the aim is to provide a sense of evolution: How did all this come into being? Explosion of growth in a variety of parameters (GDP, jobs, people, cars ...) was possible through the evolution of an exceptional planned out system of land use and property development. It was institutionalised (laws, ordinances, frameworks, practice) rather lately, while a huge portion of development was already on the rise. It became then over-regulated by French law, which understanding poses obvious difficulties not only for planners and practitioners, but even to government officials as well. And, the system still suffers from a lack of binding power. It is squeezed in-between local planning autonomy and the state’s strategic and budgetary authority, the foundational conflict that we see popping up almost everywhere. Tension is ubiquitous, also when looking at the leading government bodies in charge (one designs and controls municipal affairs, the other designs and controls the state’s framework). The same can be said about the relation between government and municipal levels, made even more complex through party and ideology variances and governmental blendings (double mandates in local council and national Chamber). Likewise, towns and cities are called to collaborate, but in the very first instance are successful by pursuing their own interests, and not by addressing the common good or watching out for their immediate neighbours. 

Wherever one looks, one finds different interests, different beliefs and mindsets, and different worlds. According to Storper (2014), fragmentation is the norm rather than the exception in metropolitan governance.(-6-) This is why he sees bricolage and tinkering – not the big plan from above – as a possible means of dealing with such issues. Fragmentation also rules in temporal terms: Fast growth rates tend to create synchronicities all over the place. For example, where long-term infrastructure policy is facing the speed of demand for land development or transport arterial capacity that we observe right now. Look at the government’s recent mobility turn with Modu 2.0: it is like changing the wheels while the locomotive is yet running, both catching up with the past and simultaneously caring for the future. Ironically, in their election programmes, Luxembourg political parties promise free transit, while the system’s performance got so terrible that people would love to pay … if the trains would only work. This is more than fuzzy.

(When) Does (what) planning provide the clue?
Now the question is whether we can cure this problem with some exclusive urban design? Let’s not forget that the real estate market has already jumped beyond the threshold of 20k€/m2 for wealthy pockets in the capital city, that has put top-notch inner-city districts such as Limpertsberg significantly beyond the 10k-threshold. Single homes in the city are unavailable for under 1 million euros. Exclusive urban design solutions? I have my doubts. Doubts may also apply to the belief that collaborative planning, driven by the search for consensus, can fix the issues, while political and discursive machines are yet controlled by governing actors? I remain skeptical. I also admit that I don’t have any clear answers. The dilemma for us as researchers, and this is the point here, is that tensions or conflicts are key in understanding what development has brought about, and what is imminent to planning and implementation. However, unfortunately such terms are considered inconvenient in this country. They are hidden in the cage of consensus, blocked by hesitance or fear against strategy (which would entail a formulated vision that might be subject to debate and interrogation), while preferring meticulous building practices against thoughtful planning.

Still, Luxembourg is no exception from the common standards and expectations seen in the international discourse that planning should switch from autocratic to more participative means and objectives. We got this here as well. The point remains, of course, what these offers are applied to: to clearly defined projects and well-argued problems that people would know how to evaluate and make judgements on, or to complex plans and frameworks (e.g. land use plans, spatial planning directives) that are overly detailed, comprehensive and thus difficult to assess? Another question is, of course, how and where actual political decision-making is yet situated. Will it continue to take place backstage, in municipal council enclaves, in ministers’ cabinets and spin doctor kitchens, on Big Four corporate advisory and consultancy office floors, then to be framed through the black box of the Leviathan State’s hegemony and control? If yes, then once again, there is little chance for real exchange, for open controversy and alternative pathways that could adequately inform planners, planning and civil society.

To be clear, and here is another link to planning theory: This is not post-political planning. Sorry folks, wrong reference -- it is highly political. It is a strange mix of planning that is presented to us in the shape of a de-politicised, neutral, technical system, one that effectively pursues social engineering, under the siege of a strong (but obscure) political imperative which is non-negotiable and thus not really open to debate. The risk that is associated with this ‘style of thought’ (see the debate of Ludwik Fleck’s Denkstile, -7-) is not only that it confuses matters and meaning, but thus promotes misguided perceptions of the subject matter. The dilemma is that officially legitimised knowledge produces selective imaginaries of planning, promising a capacity to steer that is actually not existing under the above circumstances. For me, this marks the real planning problem of the country.

Outlook: make no big plans
Curious to see whether next week’s journey into urban design across the world will bring us closer to a proper understanding of this messy situation, and help designing some thoughtful estimation as how to deal with it more appropriately. As an academic, my plan is to pose questions, debate these openly and in a creative setting. What I have learned is certainly that plans do not necessarily come to implementation, which is empirically evident. My hope is that there will be further questions, and also possible ways to figure out how to reach answers.

If variety is the spice of life, then one could also change respective roles and expectations: we as academics do not play the theorists’ but practitioners’ role. So I am asking myself: why not taking care of implementation on Wednesday night? Minister and Mayor may be asked to deliver their vision. Assisted by starchitect planning office representative, we could then see how this would work out. Worth an attempt to go for? I’ll keep you posted.

Markus Hesse

-2- The two blog entries on Luxembourg of earlier this summer, here and here.
-4- Hall, P. and M. Twedr-Jones (2010): Urban and Regional Planning. 5thEd. London: Routledge.
-5- See, for example, my take on land markets and property states: Hesse, M. (2018): Into the ground. How the financialization of property markets and land use puts cities under pressure. ARCH+231, 78-83 (English version, accessible here). The German version “In Grund und Boden” can be found here.
-6- Storper, M. (2014). Governing the large metropolis. Territory, Politics, Governance2(2), 115-134.
-7- Fleck, L. (2011). Denkstile und Tatsachen. Ed. by Sylwia Werner, Claus Zittel et al. Berlin: Suhrkamp.