Sunday, 17 December 2006

Post-Modernism and Urban Planning


Planners should be aware of the forces and schools of thought that shape and change our cities. One such influence is that of Post-Modernism. Conventional, Modernist, rational planning has in the last decade and a half been subject to the influences of the post-modern movement. This has led to a distinct post-modern approach to planning. It is against the conventional, modernist approach that post-modernist planning will be contrasted. Through this, our perceptions and understanding of the nature of urban planning will be improved. To understand where the field of planning is heading, we must first examine modern planning and problems associated with it.

Planning, as with other fields, such as its close relation architecture, is subject to the new school of thought of post-modernism. The previous sections laid out the modernist approach to planning and problems associated with it, the following sections detail the post-modernist approach and the differences between it and the modernist approach. From this, insights into the study of urban planning can be gained.


Modernism was a movement of which planning was a part. This school of thought for planning came out of a reform movement in reaction to the industrial cities of the nineteenth. Modernism is then a cultural reaction to the processes of modernisation associated with the rise of capitalism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (Beauregard, 384). Its initial thrust was to diminish the excesses of industrial capitalism while mediating between capitalists who had developed cities which were inefficiently organized for production and those affected by this (Beauregard, 384). Modernism can generally be characterized by "fordism" after the industrial mass production of the type pioneered in the 1920's by Henry Ford for motor vehicle manufacturing.

The early modernist planners held utopian attitudes and a belief in a future in which social problems could be tamed and humanity liberated from the constraints of scarcity and greed (Beauregard, 384). Modern architects for their part, sought to design cities that would promote industrial efficiency and as well, in the face of massive housing shortages, standardised dwelling types capable of mass production (Goodchild, 122). To Harvey, modernist planning and development focused on the large scale, technologically rational, austere, and functionally efficient "international style" design (Robins, 309).

The process of developing modernist planning was driven by universalising forces (universalism and uniformity have become associated with a crisis of urbanity!), functionalism, and abstraction (this has been criticized as having led to a lost sense of territorial identity, urban community, and public space) (Robins, 303). However, the outcomes of modernist planning were not always desirable. For instance, communities were disrupted by the fragmentation of the modern city. Additionally, HRH Prince Charles (an out spoken critic of modern architecture and planning in Britain) claims that after 1945, Britain entered a bleak, forty-year decline constituting a period of bureaucratic planning and "destructive modernisation" (Robins, 307).


Modernist planning is being challenged by the political and economic manifestations of post-modernity. Problems became evident in the 1970's and 1980's as new political forms, economic relations, and restructured cities posed difficulties for the premises that underlie the tenants of modernist planning (Beauregard, 381). To try to put the difficulties faced by modernist planning in context, reference can be made to Robins' belief that there is a crisis of urban modernization on two levels: the scale of physical and social problems in the modern city (inequality, segmentation, and alienation are inscribed in the physical and social landscape of cities) and on a higher level, the questions of: What do we think cities are for? What are the values that should regulate urban life? what does civic identity mean now? (the new urban agglomerations and systems seem remote from traditional conceptions of city life and culture) (Robins, 316).

It follows that the modernist paradigms under which cities developed in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries have been taken as far as they can go. They are, under current conditions, unable to effectively deal with demands as the scale of urban systems has increased and have become networked into global systems. Planning has, as a result, become more fragmented and piecemeal (Robins, 316). This is exemplified in Robins comments that there has also been a collapse of the imagination in the sense that what was once driven by vision and energy is now drained of affect and the utopian has collapsed into the banal (not planning the ideal city but the good enough city) (Robins, 316). The complexity and banality that are significant consequences of urban modernization now impeded its further development (Robins, 316).

Uniformity and inhumanity are evident in modern cities. These phenomena are, according to Robins, indicative of the abstraction and universalism in modernist planning. Moreover, according to Philip Cooke, the local dimension has been for too long neglected by and over-centralized, dominating and exclusive modernist culture (Robins, 306).

Harvey makes the case for the need for an alternative logic to modernism for dealing with cities:

the logic of modernism was centred around efficiency, functionalism, and impersonality; as it eroded the sense of place so it undermined the sense of identity, or, rather, severed the links between identity and peace Harvey in Robins

When studying post-modern planning, it is a simple matter to concentrate on the faults of the modernist approach. However, it is arguable that some kind of large-scale planning and industrialization of the construction industry was needed if capitalistic solutions were to be found for dilemmas of post-war development demands. This was combined with the investigation of new techniques for high-speed mass transportation and high-density development (Harvey, 36). Although the modernist planning approach may have found solutions of a kind, the success of these is widely debated for these solutions were achieved by methods and provided results that are noticeably different from those of post-modernist planning. An example of this is the loss of ornamentation and personalized design (Harvey, 36).

Notwithstanding the above defence of modernism and modernist planning, problems are clearly evident and significant. An outlet for the dissatisfaction with the modernist approach was provided by post-modernism.


The times and urban conditions that spawned modernist planning have changed and what was developed under that paradigm is now in the near and near-distant past. In response to the short-comings of the modernist paradigm and changes in the organization of society and economic activity, post-modernism emerged. It can generally be described as "post-fordism" and can be characterized by the emergence of new information based industries such as computing (Goodchild, 122).

To attempt to define what post-modernist planning is it may be most effective to examine what modernist planning is not. If modernism can be said to have broken ties with any or all historical conditions, than post-modernism can be said to re-establish historical ties (Harvey, 12). It is concerned about reclaiming the city, re-establishing personal and collective roots and in general, the re-enchantment of the city through the re-enchantment of identity and community (Robins, 310).

Modernism was a reaction in revulsion against the nineteenth-century metropolis. This lead to the development of new, visionary and utopic approaches for the planning and development of cities. For example, Ebenezer Howard, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Le Corbusier devised new ways of organizing human settlements and lining arrangements. Many of the built forms that came out of their thinking are thinking exist today and their ideas persist in the thinking of post-modenist planning. This has the effect of making it familar and predictable (Robins, 315). However, there was also a reworking and rejection of ideas and concepts of the modernism considered less desirable, such as the functional, style-less, mass production architecture and clean sweep utopian town planning (Punter, 22).

In the case of post-modernist planning, "pluralistic" and organic" strategies are sought for dealing with urban development. Under this "new" way of thinking, urban develpment is a "collage" of highly defferentiated spaces and attention is given to "other worlds" and "other voices". This is in contrast to habit under modernist thinking fo imposing plans based on functional zoning of different activities (to use the northern North American terminology) (Harvey, 40). Post-modernism aims for a return to the human scale, the re-creation of community, and venacular forms (Robins, 308). For some European followers of post-modernism incorportes the restoration and re-creation of traditional "classical" urban vlues, which includes the restoration of older urban fabric, the re-habilitation to new uses, and creation of new spaces that express traditional visions with modern technologies and materials (Harvey, 68). In short, post-modernism seeks to find ways to express the aesthetics of deversity.


The two approaches to planning discussed here are vividly different. Modernism is driven by universalizing forces whereas post-modernism seeks a return to differences and particularity (Robins, 303).

hierarchy anarchy
design chance
centering dispersal
reason and rational science can find us the answerers not possible, live with the incomprehensible
world is logical, orderly not so, world is disorderly
objective truths via science not so, are multiple interpretations
seriousness, depth, austere autonomy superficiality, playfully embrace commerce, commodity, fashion, style (eg., playful reference to past architectural styles, juxtapose them

Modernist ideas of planning and development tend to focus on large-scale, metropolitan wide, technologically rationalized, and efficient urban plans with no-frills architecture. Where modernism, in general, aspired to utopia, post-modernism is more rooted in the real world (Punter, 24). Post-modernism holds a conception of the urban fabric as being fragmented and a hodgepodge of past forms superimposed or overlain on each other. Urban design is sensitive to vernacular tradition, local histories, and customized architecture (Harvey, 66).

Modernism uses abstraction and functionalism whereas post-modernism seeks a renaissance of tradition and re-enactment of place (Robins, 306). Creating a sense of community is an important tenant of post-modern planning according to Mulgan. In addition, it can give identity to local cultures that were neglected un modernism (Robins, 306).

Goodchild has prepared an extensive chart of the differences between Modernism and Post-Modernism. Parts of it can be selected to highlight differences between these two approaches to planning.


CONCEPTS OF THE CITY the city as an object; as mass housing the city as landscape, as an expression of social diversity
THEMES IN URBAN DESIGN continued emphasis on lower densities and sunlight; functional zoning; mixed flats and housing more diversity, more emphasis on local context, mixed land uses
THEMES IN STRATEGIC PLANNING redevelopment of slums; controlled expansion through suburbs, new town and greenbelts renewal and regeneration, containment
DECISION MAKING STYLE comprehensive, either blueprint, "unitary" (1940's-1960's) or "adaptive" piecemeal, "coping with conditions"

Some key ideas on Post-Modernism are: diversity in the landscape, local context; renewal and regeneration, and coping with conditions.

Two built environments that exemplify the differences between Modernism and Post-Modernism, both in London, England, are the Royal Festival Hall and South Bank Centre versus the Docklands. The futurism of Royal Festival Hall contrasts with the nostalgia of more recent development in the Docklands.


As with Modernist planning, problems with Post-Modernist planning are becoming evident. In many respects, Post-Modernism appears to search for a "lost Golden Age". Granted, Modernist architecture stripped away ornamentation and the appearance of many buildings designed under Post-Modernism contain more textures, ornamentation, and colours. However, changes brought on by fanciful designs are superficial only.

The notion of community is important in Post-Modernist planning however, a monetary price comes with this. Traditional territorial community seem to be replaced by "lifestyle communities" available to those who can afford it. Further on the subject of community, it is debatable how localist Post-Modernism can be in an era of world-culture.

Lastly, the Post-Modern city is not necessarily an ideal city. Davies presents Los Angeles with its gangs and bizarre lifestyle and contrasting poverty and richness as the paradigm of the Post-Modern city.


If Post-Modern planning is a reaction to the the perceived negative aspects of Modernist planning, than the differences between the two should bring out ways in which planning can be improved.

Planning under the modernist approach uses grand plans and the "big broom" or "clean sweep" approach to development. This implies that planning serves the interests capitalists and develpers as opposed to those with less power as only a select few can participate in the "major" schemes involved. Large-scale plans, development, and redevelopment activities can hardly be construed as being condusive to promoting the interests and wellbeing of those with less power as they are not in a postions to participate in the planning process and gain the benefits of the outcomes of modernist planning. The accomodation of a small-scale approach of post-modern planning, with its sensitivity to local interests and context human scale demands that planning encompse a wider range of interests.

A common complaint about the outcomes of modernist planning is that its inherent uniformity and universalization has led to rigidly uniform land use patterns with strict separation of different land uses and a monotonous landscape. Planning should not be the agent that brings this situarion but should work to counter this. There must therefore be the goal of facilitating an interesting and appealing urban built environment so that development is a "collage" of highly differentiated spaces, a mixture of land uses, and a divesity of landscape.

A theme in may texts is that post-modern planning has a sensitivity to vernacular tradition and local histories/context that modenist planning lacks. This lack of sensitivity is evident in its perchant for grand plans and demolition and clearing of lands to make way for new development. It comes across as being imposed from above rather than being derived locally.

A final complaint about modernist planning is that it fragments a city. By extension, it destroys communities. Following post-modern lines, planning is concerned with community and city building, regeneration, and re-newal. The sense of community that was lost under modernism is being brought back. Instead of demolishing according to the "bulldozer" approach, what already exists can be imporved. This method has the scope for leaving communities in place.

Post-Modernism holds several improvements for the practice of planning. Some key themes that planning should incoprorate in practive are sensitivity, inclusiveness, community building and small scall orientation. These points are rather obvious and are ones that planning should always be concerned with. Perhaps Post-Modernism has been useful in recapturing some aspects of planning that had fallen to the side.

No comments: