6 reasons for mixing politics with spatial planning and development

Politics – one of the reasons the world goes round, or is it just a result of the world going round? Not really an easy question. One thing that anyone agrees upon though, is that politics (good or bad, doesn’t really matter) can make or brake economies (whatever the level: global, European, national, local, personal), and with these any chance of future spatial development.

Politics, in our context, are not a result of social relations, but the compound formed by social relations which involve power and authority, and the use of the latter in designing and implementing policies. Why is this important in the context of spatial development? Simply put, because economic growth is usually the desired result of spatial development (if this is always ethical is another matter, which I will discuss some other time) and it depends on the efficiency of economic policies to deliver positive results. Economic policies are nothing more than the results of strategies formulated based on political ideologies.

Last December I had the opportunity to participate in a lecture held by Andreas Faludi at the Urban Planning Faculty of the “Ion Mincu” University of Architecture and Urban Planning in Bucharest. In his short presentation Faludi made reference to politics, and their role in spatial planning and policy, specifically European spatial planning. The reactions were mixed, some grunts floated around and a combination of denial and frustration could maybe characterise the general atmosphere. This is not something that planners (urban, regional, spatial; you can pick your scale or type freely) generally feel comfortable talking about.

Do politics and (spatial) planning really mix?

Considering the issue in our present context is rather important, as the planning “mythology” generally (until recently at least) discards politics as a major issue in the process of planning and subsequently excludes it from the process of development. The general consensus is that planning usually takes place on an imaginary plane which floats independently above the dirty world of politics, and this is how it should stay. Planning should not be tainted by political interests. To this, I would have to say: (Dangerously) Wrong! This view is more than unrealistic, and at some degree not even recommended as a conceptual thinking perspective. I’m not saying that this utopian view is not desirable, but rather that it is flawed in it’s core. I say this because of 6 main reasons, which I believe make politics important in the context of spatial development:

  1. Political ideology. As I’ve already written above, in the given context in which economic growth is the main purpose of spatial development, ignoring that economic strategies are built upon political ideologies can prove to be destructively foolish. Considering the current economic state of the EU for example, ignoring that national governments, which have different political majorities (in terms of ideology) and agendas can be fatal. Disjointed national development oriented interventions with no clear common strategic objectives will not be able to insure economic growth, or reduce national and regional disparities.
  2. Lobbying. Political and non-political actors will lobby in favour of their direct interests and priorities to the closest influential power figure or institution. Not all stakeholders in the development processes are lobbyists, but considering common areas of interest can allow for future developments to benefit from lobbyist support or provide support for opposition, whatever the case.
  3. Relative values (viewpoint alterations). Politics hold a strange power, that allows the alteration of economic and social values of past, present and future developments. Imagine a change in government from party A to party B. When aspiring to power party B will usually try to prove that all that which is being done by the current government (party A) is either flawed or dead wrong. After the change in power, party B will assess current policies and developments and only support those changes which favour themselves, and will promote *better *(I use the term loosely) strategies and policies than those of the former government (party A). Party A will take the place of party B as the opposition, beginning the opposition of the latter’s policies and so on. So, the economic and social values of development change their relative value based on how well they emulate the political interests and priorities of those in power.
  4. Development typologies. Political economy, resulted from the development of political ideologies has a direct influence on the type of development (e.g. socialist or liberal development policies) that is being promoted, and will usually serve the interests and priorities of those in power.
  5. Power inequality. By definition, politics imply that power and authority are not divided equally between political actors and stakeholders. This is held to be true, as empirical observation can easily assess that not all actors or stakeholders have leverage when entering negotiations concerning their development priorities. Thus those in power or those who hold a powerful leverage can influence the outcome of the negotiations in their favour.
  6. Cultural differences (political or otherwise). This is more of a delicate subject, as nobody likes to acknowledge the problem. Planners (or any other professionals for that matter) can’t always be neutral, even if the wish to be so. Lay-knowledge resulted from professional and life experiences will influence the decision-making process in one way or another. This is not always voluntary. The personal values of each individual are built throughout his or her life, and these cannot always be deemed right or wrong. But these values will, without a doubt, have an influence in their work, if these values are not consciously evaluated and related to the context.

Conclusions

I want to be clear regarding these reasons, which I listed above. I do not believe that these are flaws induced by politics in the decision-making processes of planning and development, which should be fixed. I consider these natural, and at some extent normal social phenomenons which affect decisions, and thus should always be considered.

The purpose should not be to take politics out of the development processes, but rather build an inclusive methodology for policy-making and implementation, which can adapt to the continuous and inevitable changes of political ideology of power and authority, and perpetuate a set of common objectives which can evolve despite political change.