Thursday, January 18, 2007

On Masterplanning

I found a short paper that I wrote a little over two years ago (Oct'05) for my "Architecture, Planning and Preservation-New York" class. Much of it still seems to make sense, though on hindsight, I realise that the issue is much more profound than this essay could cover. And my personal stand on this question (where sg is concerned) has also shifted somewhat from this essay. And so here goes:

Do you think it is possible and/or desireable to have a masterplan or masterplanner in New York today?

I begin this essay with a basic tenet: that all urban planners have the best intentions to make the city a better place to live in. Likewise, a master plan begins with such intentions to realise its vision of a utopian city by homogenising the city into a coherent whole. Herein lies its irony: that the well-intentioned realisation of this utopia replaces a rich multi-layered urban fabric with banality. Although planning has been synonymous with community destruction, this essay will argue for city intervention and how it can enhance neighbourhoods, not destroy them.

Some of the greatest cities of today were the result of master plans. Without Central Park and the grid, New York would not be what it is today. Without the boulevards of Haussmann, Paris would not be the iconic city of culture we know of today. One only needs to set foot on an unplanned city such as Kuala Lumpur (with the exception of its CBD) to understand the difficulty of living, walking, and finding one’s bearings in an unplanned environment. The haphazard, unplanned growth of a city can be as detrimental to the development of community and civic culture as planning is.

Manhattan & Central Park

Planning takes into account future growth trends, and problems. It is the means through which planners to take preventive, pre-emptive, and remedial action through intervention to avert future crises. Had not the Singapore government developed an outer ring of satellite towns and linked them to the CBD by mass transit in anticipation of potential growth, acute conditions of overcrowding and traffic congestion would have taken its toll in the immediate vicinity of the city centre.
The Singapore Experience - Linking an outer-ring of satellite
towns with mass transit

What makes master planning contentious is the confrontation between this need to deal with potential problems (e.g. highway construction) and the drawbacks of taking such pre-emptive measures (e.g. community and civic destruction). The former deals with the near-future and hence cannot be immediately perceived. The latter deals with the loss of the present and is thus met with a sense of fear and trepidation. On a more basic level, one often questions the validity of such forecasts justifying city intervention.

This confrontation between planner and community, between the need to pre-empt future growth and its negative ramifications gives rise to the legitimate discourse of master planning as being antithetical to a community’s organic growth. After all, plans are deliberate and often arbitrary. In particular, there is the contention that most planners do not respect the pre-existing fabric and the needs of the local community in their decisions.

Yet, planning per se does not tear apart communities. When applied sensitively to the needs of the community and the collective unconscious of the city, the tools of city planning can enhance the fabric of the city. While we criticise Moses’ public projects with venom, we do not reserve the same judgement for Edmund Bacon’s revitalisation of Philadelphia’s Society Hill. Whereas the former intervened with no due respect to what occurred on the ground level, the latter was sensitive to the existing fabric. Planning per se does not tear communities apart.

The excesses of Robert Moses took place primarily because of the amount of power he had amassed in the absence of checks and balances. Likewise, most planners proceed without due respect to the affected local community because of the power vested in them and the assumption that they, as professionals, know better. In that sense, the problem of city planning and community destruction, is not so much the problem of planning per se as it is about the location of power and how decision making processes are influenced.

Robert Moses- responsible for the destruction/development
of much of New York

Who has the power to make the important decisions? Is the decision-making power evenly distributed to include the interests of the community stakeholder? If the planner claims to act in the interest of city dwellers in trying to make the city a better place to live, the planner is ultimately answerable to those whose lives are affected by his decisions. This means that planning decisions should ultimately be determined by a democratic process.

The urban fabric of New York is composed of multiple layers of history combined with the numerous community ecosystems simultaneously interacting with one another. New York will not exist without its communities and without its history. Hence, any intervention by city planners in the existing fabric cannot be a utopia removed from the existing conditions of the fabric. In formulating any master plan for New York City, the vision cannot belong to the planners alone, but has to be collectively determined by the city dwellers.

For the insights I learnt and managed to articulate on this paper, I am very much indebted to Professors Anne Buttenweiser and Carol Willis, who opened my eyes to the many issues surrounding this great city.