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Thoughts on urban planning, city design, architecture, the built environment, social issues, Seoul, Korea, and soon... London

13.6.04

The Willed City 

The city is willed. That is, the city is formed by the choices of its actors. And these choices are based on their values and corresponding motives. This is the point of the opening chapter of Kevin Lynch's Good City Form (1984). Through the historical examples he has selected, it is quite clear that the wills of those with more power have more influence on a city's form. However, these wills face limits in their influence, as they must contend with the wills of other power holders, those with less power, the physicality of the land itself and the "inertia" of existing city forms and structures.

The issue of value also arises in Richard Sennett's The Conscience of the Eye: The Design and Social Life of Cities (1990). In his book, the eye at once orders the city that is around us and is ordered by it, while those who most influence city form attempt to order the city according to their eye, that is to their values and morality.

Notions of morality, of good and evil, are messy business. One what person may think is good, just, proper or of value, another may think it is bad, unjust, unsuitable and useless. This may explain why cities, despite the intentions of some, are so messy -- as they perhaps should be.

In contemporary times, as most likely in previous times, urban design is most influenced by the wills of developers, governments (usually the friends of developers), certified professional urban planners and architects (who usually work for one of the former two), and to a lesser extend those who will potentially pay for (or consume) the designed spaces (i.e. usually the moneyed). This set of wills constitutes a rather small group when compared to the rest of the actors in a city, who may or may not directly engage in the designed space, but will be affected by it via is relationship to the rest of the city.

In urban design, then, it is important to give 'voice' to a wider variety of wills than is common practice in order to create a city that is "good" for the majority. This then leads to the issues of participatory planning: the time and costs involved; who will pay for those costs; who gets to participate; whose voices are loudest; issues of knowledge among nonprofessionals; incorporating the views (eyes) of those who willingly do not operate within the system (for example, anarchists, some homeless); and others.

Though this will certainly make the process of designing messier, the resulting forms may be considered "good" or "better" by a wider range of people (and by extension perhaps allow them live in closer accordance with their wills). The efforts of participants in the International Network for Urban Action and their affiliated groups are good examples to look at to see ways of making messy planning productive.

City living and city making should be messy, because without it they'd be banal and unlivable.

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