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Diary of a Planner by Bernardo Secchi | Planum 2002-2013

Diary 03 | In between

by Bernardo Secchi

 Italian Version

From the beginning of the 1980's on, many of us began both to explore the city and territory again as well as to describe it. This adventure was initially viewed with skepticism; its participants interacted, almost blending different and ever-more numerous outlooks like those of the architect, the photographer, the film director and many other artists and academics. It demonstrated that city and territory could no longer be expressed in the words, concepts and theories left to us by tradition and that even less could their evolution (the city's and territory's) be guided, or even eventually designed, by the use of the established instruments of European planning. It encouraged the glance, close inspection and the observation of the ordinary that captured the differences permeating every-day practices, evidenced local specificity and produced a universe of images that are, in some ways, extraordinary.

But we were late. Literature and film, to cite only two examples, had been exploring this realm for a much longer time.

In the same years, much attention focused on that series of phenomena which touched, in a global way, European economies, societies and territories and which were giving way to new relationships between cities and territory, to new geographies, to new spatial uses represented in seductive, and highly contrasting, scenarios. Cities, in competition among themselves, sought out policies that would allow them to perform favorably within markets perceived as unpredictable because they were in constant evolution. In this search, they resorted to architecture and planning as vehicles of meanings and values that often contrasted with their history but especially with the expectations of most of their populations.

Painstaking description of the city and territory seemed to be a way to bring a multitude of practices and uses to light. These practices and uses ranged from those more rooted in place to newer and more surprising ones, from the all-pervasive to those restricted to smaller generational, professional or cultural groups who seemed to resist the uniformity of behaviors and values propounded by media powers and by most consumer goods.
On the other hand, it appeared clear that the same behaviors and values could infiltrate, and percolate within, the folds of everyday life and that no place, no social group, no subject could remain totally immune.
These two phenomena are well-illustrated - albeit asymmetrically - in the exhibit addressing the issue of uncertainty that Stefano Boeri first brought to Bordeaux and then to the Milan Triennale. In between the two levels of reality , evidenced by much research over the last twenty years, is a void - an absence of political proposals and pertinent, effective actions that generate uncertainty which some believe can be filled with the rhetorical - but noisy - void of the project. The void in the Triennale exhibit is an implicit condemnation of rhetoric concealing so many mediocre ideas.
Sooner or later, the void will have to be filled because it is an indicator of the great detachment of market and institutional dynamics and behaviors from the behaviors, desires and images of most of the European population. And now the European reformist program, which has always inspired planning, is paying for this detachment in very harsh political terms.

If we look carefully at the proposals made for the European city over the last decades, we realize that every project and every discourse can be traced back to two fundamental positions, both of which I think are inadequate if we look at what happened. The first held that it could do without a comprehensive vision - any plan or project for the city, any urbanism that would build a tie between the two levels of reality through a policy of renovatio urbis, of limited and precise projects, of architecture that could colonize its context giving it new meaning. Aside from a kind of heroism devoid of humor, the limits of this position, in my opinion, lay in letting itself be seduced by, and take courage from, important examples from the past; and by not having understood the scale of contemporary urban phenomenon, its propagation and dilution within an ever-widening context that reacted ever less to the single urban fact, just as today power and its techniques of self-representation are ever more invisible and impenetrable. The result was the withdrawal of architecture to occasions created around specific individual or collective actors, the cultivation of a kind of self-referentiality that was incomprehensible to most of the citizenry, and the abandonment of playing an even cautious social role. The second position, substantially intolerant of spatial and temporal discontinuity, maintained, not without motivation, that the city, between the 18th and 19th centuries, was one of the great products of European culture. It held the city to be the result of a long "decanting" process of materials, grammars, syntaxes and forms with which the continent, and each of its regions, developed its very clear social and figurative identity. For this reason, it considered those materials, grammars, syntaxes and forms the city's "normal" conditions and presented, albeit with myriad variations, a return to that same logic: large blocks, maillage, moderated street hierarchy; repetition of well-established urban materials - the cours, the boulevard, the rambla, the esplanade etc. Thus, this point of view refused to take into account both the discontinuity produced by the different rhythms with which society, economies and territories evolve, and the set of "fault-lines" that consequently traverse contemporary society and territory, refusing to make these into the materials of a new project. 

Both positions obviously, for opposing reasons, considered "sprawl" to be garbage. It was field that could not be governed within these schemes and in which design heroism became a useless gesture and where deviance from good manners became the rule. The devastating response of most of the population to a city and to institutions which did not consider the changes in their daily practices, their necessities, desires and images led both positions to disregard the possibility of considering settlement forms different from the metropolis or hierarchically organized urban grids. It impeded them from understanding that different forms of widely inhabited territories are, in the history of the European territory, much more frequent than one would suspect.

Evaluating the situations and conditions within which these two positions succeeded or failed in reaching their goals is of the greatest interest, if not for any other reason than to understand that much of the problem lies elsewhere: in the almost three-decade long silence of a comprehensible program of reform and in the need for its urgent reconstruction. 

I think that a question should be placed at the center of this reconstruction - at least regarding urban and territorial policy, which I consider quite central to the very program itself. The question is not a new one, but today perhaps its color is more clear and new. It regards risk - the other side of the coin from innovation. It regards the different dimensions of risk and the different dimensions of innovation. It regards a kind of risk that is perceived as more imminent in relation to the rapidity with which the context evolves towards profit and consumer behavior, towards life styles and social relations perceived as innovative; or in relation to the degree to which innovation leads to clearer asymmetries in the distribution of power and of the resources it mobilizes.

Past reformist policy considered risk prevention to be a public issue. Somewhat successfully, a public ethic was constructed giving the state the jurisdiction to propose and manage measures to reduce, if not eliminate, its most serious forms whether they be famine, aggression, floods, unemployment, illness. This gave way - at least in Europe - to two fundamental declinations within the reformist program which can, in Michele Salvati's words, be indicated as a "Mediterranean" outlook based on monetary transfers between accurately defined parts of society and a "Nordic" one, based on the state's generalized provision of goods and services funded by taxpayers. The second model, as is well noted, placed the city and territory, in their different aspects, much more at the center of attention than the first. But both led to the division of the city's spaces and the behavior of its inhabitants into private spaces and behaviors, on the one hand, and public ones on the other. 
Both versions of this program today find serious obstacles in the fragmentation of society, the economy and the city and in the waning of a shared public ethic. What appears evident and practicable today might be a gradation of degrees of consensus; the construction of sequences which -from behaviors and spaces corresponding to minimum consensus - reach spaces and behaviors which are more widely shared, even if never totally and definitively.

Contemporary urban society lives in between, in a state of perennial oscillation between different degrees of sharing; and this continuous oscillation in the terms and limits of the sharing of behaviors, practices and spaces, of values and images seems to me to imply a general rethinking of a project for the city. Only when there will be a sufficient degree of coherence between the momentary practices of individuals and groups and the degree of sharing of spaces that are involved each time will we be able to say that we have reduced the risks characterizing our epoch. The issue, which cannot be reduced to the defense of the role of the public sector or the privatization of every activity and place, appears to me to be much more complex than what was believed by the two positions that I mentioned previously. But the descriptions developed over the last few decades might truly help us face this issue.

Today however, the reformist program is also finding an obstacle in the idea that an excess of attention to risk prevents innovation or in the idea that asymmetries generate competition and this in turn generates innovation. The contemporary world seems obsessed by innovation and for this reason, can underestimate risk. Those who study the history of the European city must also agree that the past centuries have been more generous with the city and territory. They must also agree that investment in basic infrastructure - the set of measures which allowed, within different historical conditions, processes of social reproduction - was much greater than in the twentieth century, especially the last part of it. They must agree again that the same investment was often the motor for, rather than the consequence of, technical progress and fundamental innovation. This issue should not be schematized; I consider infrastructure to be the places and monuments of "civic magnificence" as much as the canals, dams, railroads, road systems, reclamations, theaters, boulevards, low cost housing projects, hospitals, orphanages, parks and public gardens. Perhaps their construction did not only produce the very important artifacts, but entire sectors were organized, managers were chosen, entire technical and disciplinary areas were redefined. It was through these investments, and the long critical evaluation of their results, that the public ethic that I mentioned was constructed. Tremendous resources were poured into the city and territory during the last decades of the 20th century, but within different programs, the results and perspectives of which appear more clear today.

Technical progress today finds its motors in other fields: in the engineering of life and death. And yet the contemporary city, because of its very variety, offers incredible occasions and stimuli for technical progress - from technologies to address the forthcoming energy crises to those regarding mobility and communications as well as environmental control. The solutions that will be proposed for the resolution to these problems in the near future will have profound consequences on the city and territory. If we look to a kind of thinking that avoids technological or conservative rhetoric and that can correctly face the issue of well-defined and flexible sharing of spaces and places, these very solutions might properly be directed towards joining a serious reformist program.