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20th century planning heritage: pretty theories and ugly practices

Most planning history books tell us of the planning ideas of rebels, anarchists, federalists, visionary architects, religious fundamentalists , journalists and novelists. All this under a genre of royal indifference to the mode of construction of the real city, where billions of us live today. It is not necessary to look to urban utopias for this purpose. We can limit ourselves to analysing some of the main slogans, or should we call them theories, which accompany the 20th century city, such as the garden city, the historic centre, and the global city. At the turn of the 21st century, it is appropriate to reflect on the gap which exists between planning ideas, and their description, their use in marketing the 20th century city and planning ideals they vehicle. Most planning achievements cease to exist as new problems appear.

1. There are different definitions of the 20th century. The shorter period espoused by E. Hobsbawm spanning from 1914 to 1989 and the longer version of Ch. S. Maier sets from 1860 to 1980. The latter is more relevant to planners, because we locate modern planning in this same interval. Such planning is based on land, not on the city form. It is land, urban land, which plays the central role in the great undertaking that is the construction of the industrial city. Reorganisation of urban land is the object of many professions. Land speculation is one of the main forces determining the configuration of the modern city. The task of public authority is to delimit territory, to assign appropriate functions to every parcel, and to ensure to any parcel the certainty of rights and therefore market value. Producing wealth, within the public realm, is up to the private sector. German textbooks, where for the first time urban issues such as circulation, environment, land use- are dealt with systematically, establish the foundations of modern planning. They do it in a more convincing and comprehensive way than the much quoted British town planning acts, which were not that different from the many pre-industrial European urban regulations.

2. Such a disciplinary approach, culminates in an urban master plan, fully coherent with principles of responsibility, enlargement of rights, and definition of territorial and institutional boundaries that characterise the new central Nation-state. In the struggle among professional corporations to get hold of the new operational field, it was the logic of the "scientific" professions that won, especially that of "engineers", after the first harsh confrontations with medical doctors, surveyors, agronomists, and architects. It went this way in France, Germany, Italy, Spain, where the central States dominate. That kind of systemization became "planning". It developed more and more as a normative body, within which planning that followed had to adapt.

(1) * This is a revised (and shortened) version of a paper presented at an international conference in Bled (Slovenia) in December 2000.