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Conference review: AESOP Annual Congress 2019

23 August 2019 Author: Andrea Pandolfo

Attending the Association of European Schools of Planning (AESOP) conference four years ago on the theme Definite space - Fuzzy responsibility, the RTPI’s former Deputy Head of Research Dr Mike Harris commented that it was ‘fuzzy’ not only in name, but also in nature. Faithful to this tradition, this year’s AESOP conference, held last month at IUAV in Venice and attended by myself, Dr Daniel Slade (Research Officer) and Dr Michele Vianello (International Officer), was titled Planning for Transition. According to the organisers, the mentioned 'transition' embraces all the:

“...significant challenges - natural disasters due to climate change impacts, ecological crises, growing socio-economic unrest, global migration, political rifts including a rise of right wing factions, ambitious public works and mega-projects – all of which require new capacities in dealing with such individual and multiple groupings of such challenging and profound changes.”

Fuzzy to say the least. However, Venice itself offered the participants a unifying key, transitioning from a potentially devastating storm to bright sunshine and back multiple times during the conference week. Venice, a city whose very existence rests on a fragile equilibrium of environmental, social and economic factors.

Unpacking transition

During the opening ceremony, three keynote speakers tried to unpack the meaning of 'transition' and its relation to planning. Prof Paolo Costa, former Mayor of Venice and former Italian Minister for Infrastructure, introduced the complex and multi-scalar nature of transition by taking the example of Venice. Venice is undergoing a double transition (ecological and economic), and this endangers the delicate ecosystem of the lagoon while posing new governance challenges across different scales.

Dr Leonie Sandercock followed with a passionate call for a transition towards a more radical form of planning - one that involves communities at his heart and goes beyond the (neoliberal) 'planning machine' - a computer-like entity that just processes data to offer “solutions” for the powers that be, reproducing patterns of exclusion and control.

Closing the session, Prof Alessandro Balducci pointed out the necessity to understand the links between the different dimensions of change to determine spaces for transformative action. While the interventions did not provide a conclusive definition on what ‘transition’ was, three great axes were traced: transition as a multi-scalar challenge for governance, as a challenge for planning itself to open up to the communities, and as a complex machine, the function of which must be uncovered.

Scales, communities and complexities

Following those inputs, the congress covered the question of the scale of planning, of planning and communities and on the complex network of factors that make up the transition.

The case for a stronger regional dimension for planning was made by Mina di Martino and Stefano de Vita, presenting an ongoing project that explored the possibility of 'region-making' in the same way as we think of place-making. However, Rozana Darwich argued for caution when importing piecemeal governance tools across complex cultural geographies. Her analysis of the attempt to implement strategic planning in Lebanon showed how it failed to overcome old practices, hyper-local interests and cultural and religious barriers. This resounded with Lila Leontidou’s call for a 'Mediterranean' concept of planning - where 'Mediterranean' refers more to a third-place point of view, between 'Global North' and 'Global South' than to a strict geographical definition.

The role of planning and public space design in fostering cohesive communities is discussed in a new collective book edited by Patricia Albrecht and Quentin Stevens on Public Space Design and Social Cohesion that was presented at the conference. Nihan Oya Memelük deconstructed the concept of accessibility and showed how inclusivity varied over time in the case of Gençlik Parkı in Ankara, while Sandra Guinand and Susana Shaller defended the role of pop-up designs in creating inclusive spaces in Philadelphia.

Questions were raised nonetheless on the cultural bias that characterises the concepts of 'inclusion' and 'social cohesion'. In this same spirit, Pablo Sendra asked what is meant by the umbrella-term of 'community', and the role community-based organisation has in planning.

The complex nature of the 'transition' was also discussed, with analyses, for instance, of the gentrification-tourism nexus in Lisbon; of the increasing financialisation of the provision of housing; and of how different geographic, cultural and social factors have prevented a strong anti-tourism social movement from developing there.

Planning for a fragile environment

The complexity of this transition is amplified by the fact that the environment is more and more precarious. Global migration, climate change and a fragile social tissue are interconnected challenges that do shape the transition and the forms it will take.

In his presentation, Dr. Michele Vianello (RTPI International Officer) raised the question of the lack of strategic planning for refugee camps, a form of dwelling that is more and more common as the figures of world-wide displacement soar to record heights and as climate change causes an increasing number of climate refugees.

Dr Daniel Slade (RTPI Research Officer) then examined how the Liverpool City Region is using strategic planning tools to improve climate resilience. He made the case that acting quickly on climate change is an ethical imperative, and that this imperative is little considered current academic understanding of climate justice.

The urgent dimension of tackling climate change is demonstrated by Venice, a fragile city that risks being submerged by the end of the century as an effect of the relative sea-level rise, while being already at pains to accommodate the mass tourism and the high-tonnage cruise ships, both faced with a growing resistance among the local community.

AESOP 2020 - Boundaries and Connections

A long-running critique of academia is that it rarely offers practical solutions to planners. Yet, if one contribution can be singled out from the conference, this would be its stress on the complexity of the elements that make coping with a precarious environment the priority for planning anywhere - something that cannot be done without a clear grasp of its multidimensional nature.

In her presentation, Leonie Sandercock invited planners to adhere to a fundamental value in the Nuu-chah-nulth culture, Heshook-ish tsawalk - 'all is one'. Future planning must make room for hybrid concepts bridging the boundaries between economy, ecology and society.

'Climate justice' is one of such connecting concepts, and more connections are to be found and adopted in research and practice alike. It is only fitting then, that UWE Bristol, organising the next AESOP conference (7-11 July 2020), chose as its guiding theme Boundaries and Connections.

Andrea Pandolfo

Andrea Pandolfo

RTPI Research Assistant