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

01- Inertias

by Bernardo Secchi

I'm currently working with Paola Viganò in a sensitive neighborhood. It is a grand ensemble built between the end of the '50 and the beginning of the '60s and is now inhabited by non-European - mostly North African - immigrants: low incomes, large families, high youth unemployment, bitter internal conflict tied to the story of each group, high resident turn-over and widespread violence against people and property. Areas like this one are common throughout Europe.

Obviously it is a publicly owned and subsidized neighborhood; divided into sections with a few thousand residents in each one. Sited in a quality environment, the neighborhood is designed according to what I was taught during my studies. Ample open space, generously dimensioned and efficient public areas, road network, well thought out green and recreational areas, properly oriented buildings - higher towers and lower blocks, clear and strong urban geometry; expression of the idea that the city is composed of large social aggregations characterized by uniform needs: nuclear families, two parents, two children, blue collar or clerical workers with basically homogeneous behavior and consumption habits. Today quite a different population resides in the neighborhood, and where differences are more intensified, so is the distress.
Situations like this one were the sources of the fierce criticism directed at the Modern Movement's planning premises; such criticism has become so widely accepted as to have almost become a cliché.

Today the neighborhood, at least implicitly, is the object of a series of proposals which, in their basic terms, can be understood through words of residents, their representatives, administrators, the various experts called upon to intervene, and their commentators.

For example, one proposal might be to gradually empty the area of its current residents, without occupying the empty apartments, demolish empty buildings if necessary, and wait until the characteristics of the critical mass shift and current residents become an unsubstantial minority - a policy of social and physical dilution that was often utilized in ancient cities. In fact, most of the residents were effectively expelled from the historic center of the city. This policy is a vestige of a disciplinary society: separate and distance - activities and social groups. Modern urbanism's great paradigm.
Another alternative might be to work with the idea of a multi-ethnic neighborhood renouncing widespread and homogeneous integration, and reinforcing neighborhood-scale identity by conceiving of integration as a set of relationships among different groups and individuals within a metropolitan area or region. Or allowing, as in many European cities, lifestyles and activities to develop coherently with the cultures of the neighborhood's population so that they filter, like a process of percolation, into the geometries of the original design incrementally bending and deforming them, modifying functions, adding or subtracting building volume, densifying the original orthogonal layout and rendering it less rigid.The city, and I take this image from Richard Sennet, is no longer a melting pot, but a salad in which various ingredients are mixed while maintaining their own identities. This is a transformation that requires a great leap of faith and policies to address the long-term and mobilize those directly interested without posing deadlines, themes or leadership. Various examples show that things are possible; different parts of the contemporary city have undergone similar transformations. Yet, it is embarrassing to observe the multiplication of exotic places in the city's wealthier zones - "moralized" cultural differences that quickly become the object of new consumer attention. 
Or modify the image of the neighborhood by introducing, or more probably, juxtaposing, new, clean and technologically advanced activities housed in buildings immersed in green areas that are well connected to major transport infrastructure. The rhetorical strength of this image is often associated with its self-realizing capacity, with its power to make real what was initially only represented. In recent years, changing the image of the city, or part of it, has become, with various degrees of success, the scope of many urban policies. And it is only even more recently that we have become aware of the importance of the imaginal in constructing and ordering the demand by individuals and groups regarding the city.

In the second half of the twentieth century, a set of transformations has involved the fields of reflection, research and action relating to planning - a field, in the words of Pierre Bourdieu, that is open, vaguely delimited and subject to great variations over time. On the on hand is change in society, in its structure and configuration, in the identities of its different groups and individuals and of their imagery and behavior, in their desires and requests; on the other is the transformation in the techniques affecting the city and territory which are pushed in certain directions, and not in others, due to the very pressure exerted by the city and territory themselves. This change is manifested in the concrete modifications to the physical, functional, aesthetic and symbolic order of the city and territory, to the transformations and innovations in their component materials and to the criteria used for their composition.

Anyone who stops to think in detail about the processes producing these transformations must recognize the impossibility of their complete adherence to one another. They are generally processes of cumulative selection, by which something remains over time while something else is negated, rejected and abandoned. They have different origins and time frames. Their rhythms vary as do the inertias to which they are prone. These are differences that render the relationships between city, society and the set of practices that we usually refer to as planning perennially unstable and conflictual. Never allowing us to state that the transformation of planning and urban design practice is the unmediated result of social transformation, just as the transformations of the city and territory are not, and vice versa. And never allowing us to live in a city that is perfectly coherent with its society. 

Some reasons lie in the fact that each of the transformative processes to which I referred coincides with an often radical redrawing of entire maps of values - redistribution of symbolic capital and values - aesthetic and positional and thus monetary - regarding the transformation of the city and territory; redistribution of scientific/professional value and capital regarding the transformation of theories and techniques; redistribution, at the very least, of civic values regarding the transformation of society, its groups and individuals. Obviously these redistributions must take into account many and different kinds of inertias.

During the first half of the twentieth century, the avant-garde and their followers well understood the urgency for radical modification of the figurative world of the previous century in order to transcend 19th century pastiche through a careful and rational reconstruction of spatial relationships representing more open and egalitarian relationships between individuals, techniques and institutions. They were not able, or perhaps they did not know how, to foresee the social changes that would follow WWII. Theirs was still a spectatorial epistemology which continued to emphasize the value of continuity To find, during the first half of that century, hints of what was happening - discontinuity, fragmentation, the glance in movement - it is necessary to look to the world of music, and the figurative and literary arts. The important achievements of modern urbanism, delayed by the war and the regimes that produced it, found themselves in a moment of passage between two societies - a rapid passage that encountered an often underestimated inertia of the physical city and design practices.

It is certainly not the first time in the history of the European city that the urban image and the figurative horizon change, but the preceding changes within more compact social and power structures, were produced, albeit radical and well-pondered, as passages from one horizon to another. Today, our more open and segmented societies are faced with an extraordinary multiplication of individual and collective imagery and with an explosion of figurative horizons of references and consequent proposals. Paralyzed by this multitude, those with decisional responsibility often seek an intermediate line - fuzzy hypotheses which adapt to the mediocrity of the common experience. We owe much to the images which have emerged in recent years; they have forced us to give a new and more careful look at the city in all of its dimensions. But today, we also grasp their often evasive nature, and inability to face concrete technical, economic, institutional and political problems posed by the contemporary city, for example in the neighborhood I spoke of at the outset. Projected towards a future which is vaguely described as dominated by uncertainty, the images lose contact with the inertia of the world of tangible objects, behaviors and their different temporalities. And this also produces an idea of their substantial irrelevance, inducing rapid consumption and abandonment before they can be concretely tested.

To face the problems posed by the city, we need to muster our entire imaginations. But just because the contemporary city is, and must be, different from the ones of even the most recent past, we should introduce - into the crevices created by the instability in the relationship between city and society - design/planning practices which, without eluding the problems posed by different inertias, seek to fill the gap between the different temporalities of change regarding object, behavior and image.