PRACTICE | Power, Value & Equity

Posted on 05/11/2012


As my earlier post noted, there is a weariness and wariness of regeneration initiatives that tend to displace the most vulnerable and overwrite the symbolic capital of a place. The rhetoric of healthy, inclusive and thriving communities often doesn’t seem to match the practice. In part, I suspect, that’s because planning continually refuses to acknowledge and address power. Consequently, the discourse of planning, or planning as discourse, constructs power in ways that continue to preserve the primacy of some interests over others; strangely in the name of consensus building. The rhetoric of regeneration is a coercive discourse in which a forced, even perverse, language of equity or placemaking can cloak unsustainability and preserve private interests. Planning should be all about power. Not just the power implicit in property development, but power in that broader sense that Foucault describes: ‘power is diffuse rather than concentrated, embodied and enacted rather than possessed, discursive rather than purely coercive, and constitutes agents rather than being deployed by them’ (Gaventa, 2003, p. 1). For Foucault, power is productive: ‘In fact power produces; it produces reality; it produces domains of objects and rituals of truth.  The individual and the knowledge that may be gained of him belong to this production’ (Foucault, 1991, p. 194).

There’s a rising tide of critique about ‘creative placemaking’ and what that really means. In Next American City, Neeraj Mehta asks “For whom are we trying to create benefit when implementing our creative placemaking strategies?”  More importantly, Mehta says, “When we talk about creative placemaking and its role in increasing vibrancy and revitalizing neighborhoods, we need to ask much deeper questions and strive for much more explicit goals. Specifically, how is our creative placemaking benefiting low-income communities and communities of color?” Mehta argues that there is a need to ensure that equity is part of the discussion about creative placemaking with a clearer sense of who benefits. Creative placemaking can’t be paving out the old to create nice places for the well off to drink coffee and enjoy cultural experiences provided by artists who live in subsidised spaces that were once cheaply rented by low income earners. For Mehta, this is tied to evaluation and metrics that are clearly targeting particular program logics and outcomes: “if we’re working in communities that are distressed, poor or have been historically populated by communities of color, then we need to make sure that whatever strategies we design, or investments we make, are creating benefit for them”.

And then, there’s the kind of revitalisation project described by Kaid Benfield in Atlantic Cities, where an intensive and extensive community planning effort is underway, involving a broad range of partners. Community development organisations are playing an active leadership and negotiating role in this process, harnessing the innovation and vision of a community located six miles (9.65km) from Boston’s downtown. This seems to exemplify the process of actor-consulting discussed in my earlier post. And while it all sounds good, you can’t help but wonder how the low income earning families and residents fare in these kinds of Smart Growth programs.

A joint research project of CABE and UrbanLab, Creative City Limits, is investigating the urban cultural economy in an era of austerity, recognising the limits of the creative city discourse. Austerity measures in UK urban centres are catalysing neoliberal responses and Owen Hatherley has offered a searing critique regeneration’s ruins, while Angela McRobbie, an ascerbic commentator, questions the real goals of ‘creative cities’ agendas (which can sometimes seem more like marketing than economic development or planning). The project identifies an “urgent need to reformulate and reclaim the notion of the creative city”. Creative City Limits argues that “what is required is not to revoke the possibilities encompassed by urban creativity but to problematise the way it has been celebrated, shaped and institutionalized by policy-makers, consultancy advisors and indeed academic researchers”.

This kind of creative placemaking and revitalisation results in place capital or spatial capital. Ethan Kent at the Project for Public Spaces describes place capital as “the shared wealth (built and natural) of the public realm – and it is increasingly becoming society’s most important means of generating sustainable economic growth for communities”. Marcus argues that typologies and normative ideas of urban form often have weak ties to urban life. He offers a formulation of a theory of spatial capital: “urban form generates variations in spatial accessibility and diversity, with direct effects on social accessibility and diversity, which are possible to measure, whereby, in turn, it is possible to measure variations in urbanity as a socio-spatial category (Marcus, p. 11)”. Marcus also addresses spatial capital’s exchange value, being the value of urban form in creating economic capital, and use-value, being the value of urban form in everyday social and cultural life, considering the impact of land use and strategic planning on the market and in the creation of thriving communities. Additionally, environmental value requires support and service to natural systems and the environment (2007, p. 87). This is exemplified in this article about the way placemaking increases property values and rents, while saving government expenditure in infrastructure etc. The article also addresses the social and health benefits of walkability and other placemaking initiatives.

Planning, design and art all play a role in the creation of capital and value and, the Creative City Limits project recognises that “the general emphasis on urban economic growth rather than social and geographical disparities has meant the Creative agenda has become complicit in new invidious forms of urban inequality and marginalisation”. While letting places degrade is not an option, renewal can’t just be about real estate, or design for that matter. Kent writes that “The various disciplines, institutions and government agencies charged with shaping this public realm, along with the forms of capital that they build, have all been siloed, isolated from one another and from their relationship to Place Capital.” While these practices can be platforms for change, ostensibly to make the urban environment better, we still need to reclaim the creativity of those practices in ways that enhance our awareness of who benefits and what equitable development means.

Posted in: community, planning