So let us stop talkin' falsely now, the hour's getting late.
--- Bob Dylan, all along the watchtower
Imagine a coming future day when you use an autonomous vehicle to go to work without worrying about where to park, be able to walk to a lovely local coffee shop on a shady street for lunch break where people surrounds you are talking about the latest public project from your community. Being both amazed and confused by the buzzing trends of ongoing planning visions, one might easily forget the path behind our own. History provides us a mirror which reflects the endeavors that the predecessors in case we forgot the path from which we came from. It helps to shape our perception of the coming future, by informing us about how much we have accomplished and where we could have done a better job. In the historical approach of planning theory narrative, each story comes as a stone which helps to form the future route, carrying their own weight into shaping our preparation for ourselves in the way of thinking and acting.
The core topic of John Friedmann’s book, or more accurately the work of his whole life, is dedicated to bridging the theoretical study and the practical advancement. Through the practical experience in America, Latin America, and Asia, Friedmann questioned himself on the meaning and necessity of doing the theoretical study. As reflected in Chapter 7 of Insurgencies, Friedmann wrote that it was until his late retirement life that he started to think planning theory is something more important than his “personal hobby”. In fact, John Friedmann’s essay helped illustrating the essential importance of “theory” and how it influences the practical affairs relevantly, also the basic background of planning and planning theory as the constant redefinition of planning itself and its “mission”.
Besides the meaning of theoretical study, Friedmann also aimed to identify the challenges from both the inherent of the theory itself and the social context that it exists within. The inherent difficulty, as indicated in chapter seven, is the dynamic nature of practice and knowledge themselves. As has been changing throughout the time, the answer of why planning theory matters testifies what he has always been proclaiming for: the uncertainty of knowledge itself, the uncertainty of coming conditions. The so-called “objective knowledge” is always worth questioning given that subjective value is so pervasive. Meanwhile, remember that there is only one thing that will constantly remain unchanged, which is the reality of changing itself.
Following his claim, John Friedmann conducted a self-critiques upon the written books and essays, for example the way how he improved his opinion in the book “Planning in the Public Domain” in the essay of “planning theory revisited” chapter, noting that the new experience has moved “beyond what I had written more than a decade earlier”. On the other hand, planning “theorists” are taking the risk of being ostracized from the practical world as long as they intend to synthesize the experience and build up critiques on them, especially in a field which “prides itself on being grounded in practice” like urban planning.
In the book of Peter Hall provides a chronic narrative follows the changing physical environment and the process and values it evolved accordingly, under the divided topics. Even with enormous examples cited from cities across the world during the different time, Hall is not a history recorder. He conducts a sensitive mind and an infectious humor with an anthropological approach, retells the stories in the planning history without avoiding his own idea/opinions on the objects he depicted. Hall’s writing evidentially follows the style of Greek historian Herodotus, who is usually referred to as the father of history, highly relying on the blended materials from oral interview, local stories, myth, emotions and subjectivity and the personalized interpretation based on them, representing his work as an aspect of “the truth”. For this reason, Herodotus is also regarded as a “sensational historian” in contrast with Thucydides, a “scientific historian” who rely much on the objectivity and the plain facts, intentionally regards his writing as the “truth” itself. In the book of Cities of tomorrow, Hall frankly made the statement in his opening chapter that all the study cases chosen in his book together with the narratives are highly “personal and judgmental”, following a Herodotean manner. For this reason, when examining the historical narrative of Hall’s book, readers may always need to learn: Which part of the reality is written while some else are not? How did the writer conduct the narrative and what attitude/purpose it tries to indicate? It is worth mentioning that, some of his opinions are even emphasized intentionally by Hall. For example, his enthusiastic recognition for early physical planning pioneers, the anarchist farther like Le Corbusier, addressing that their exploration needs to be remembered and celebrated. This is both a shortcoming of Hall’s book, if we have to name one, and a remarkable charm for his intellectual amazingness in the way of interpretation. It keeps reminding the readers the importance to keep a cautious mind and an independent attitude rather than a blind-minded belief in the existing text. Realizing this nature of history, there echoes again the skeptical attitude towards “knowledge”, in this case, the written history of planning, as reflected in John Friedmann’s book.
Planning activity, as Hall argues, holds an important implication for the ongoing and coming practice that envisions the betterment of human society rather than holding a “bureaucratic routine and technical exercise which has little in common with reform” (p.463). Hall indicates concerns constantly in his narrative about the practice, exploring how to translate the magnificent initiative and objects into actual context of urban development within the limitation of social conditions. In this way, one can conclude that Hall cares much more about WHO, WHAT and HOW while John Friedmann focuses more on WHY. As argued by Nigel Taylor (1998), the basic conceptual question in planning study which asks about how to define the discipline of urban planning should be investigated under a philosophical approach. Planners and planning theorist should acquire the skill to ask fundamental questions by employing the analytical rigor both ideologically and practically. From this aspect, these two books from Peter Hall and John Friedmann can be seen as a reflection and supplement to each other into depicting an intellectual panorama of planning history and development.
Even both of the two books critique the over-dominance of state power, Friedmann shows an absolute passion embracing the public’s opinion which somehow over-idealistic. Friedmann envisions a Platonic picture like in ancient Greece, where state and the public conduct effective, valuable, and harmonious collaboration in decision making, while the weakness or hidden dangers within the public empowerment approach are not well- addressed. We need to identify both the importance of civic involvement and the potential weaknesses hidden within this context: the quality of civic given their current culture background, long-term vision, analytic and strategic skills. “Planning theory is one of the few means we have at our disposal to hold us together, and I see a historically informed visioning of planning education and practice as one of the important roles for a theorist.” Friedmann’s narrative allows us to recognize that as a critical scholar of planning practice, he is calm as an eagle and tender as a dove. While his mild optimism gives guidance of revolution to the practice of daily life, this guidance would be more sounded and applicable given more analysis of conditional limitations incorporated.
Dylan, Bob, (1967), “All along the watchtower”. Nashville: Columbia.
Friedmann, John. (2011). Insurgencies: Essays in Planning Theory. New York: Routledge.
Friedmann, John. (1987). Planning in the Public Domain: From Knowledge to Action. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Hall, Peter. (2014). Cities of Tomorrow: An Intellectual History of Urban Planning and Design Since 1880. Malden, MA: Blackwell.
Taylor, Nigel. (1998). Urban Planning Theory since 1945. Thousand Oaks: Sage.