Top down vs. bottom up — a brief critical history of urban planning

How different configurations of power result in differently developed cities.

We began our first fellowship meeting with some basics: placing urban planning theory and practice in historical context. With printed images of contrasting urban settlements at hand, we discussed and pinned each along a timeline sketched on the wall, outlining a visual history of urbanism. A middle line prompted an above-or-below choice based on who decided how the city was to be (re)built − authority-led development pinned above, citizens-driven growth below.

A wall turned cluttered multimedia display.

In a historical incursion that took us from Hippodamus’ grid plan for ancient Greek cities, the European medieval pattern of concentric growth around fortified churches and the Renaissance star-shaped Ideal City to the quintessentially modern planning of Haussmann’s Paris, Cerdà’s extension of Barcelona and Moses’ infrastructure dominion of New York, we talked key figures, competing visions, historical circumstances and resulting socio-spatial arrangements.

Snippets of documentaries about twentieth-century struggles for civic rights and debates about socially just urban development gave a face and a ”street view” to the sharp aerial perspective of cities represented in master plans.

”The bottom” takes the stage: Jane Jacob's activism against urban renewal, the US civil rights movement and Europe's protests of 1968.

What a difference power makes

Questioning whose was the vision for the city and what other voices had a say in the planning of its development can tell us a great deal about the way the city looks and functions today.

Was it the whim of a ruler who wanted to project power onto the governed land, building a town after his image? Was it the conception of a luminary urbanist who persuaded decision-makers to act upon his view? Was it an organic development where inhabitants had a say in the design of streets, houses, neighbourhoods and services that responded to their needs, not only to that of authorities?

Power is central to this debate. As cities grew in scale and complexity, the need to accomodate more people and functions demanded some sort of spatial organisation. Yet planning could and did reflect very different understandings of what is desirable in an urban setting.

Building a timeline spanning millenia of urbanism theory and practice.

A town might ”embody and clarify a rational social order” where social hierarchies would be translated spatially, from access to spaces or services limited by differentiated civil rights to subtler forms of discrimination. Or it might, say, recognise the precarious living conditions of industry workers and address them by designing neighbourhoods with decent social housing and public amenities. Planning could also give different weights to different functions, prioritising defence, mobility or sanitation needs, for instance, over those of socialisation, shared space or public services. What got built was a function of who held power.

Meeting at the middle

A top-down vs. bottom-up opposition might seem reductive to some. Throughout history, there were indeed in-betweens, when inhabitants had more agency in how their built environment changed − through social pressure, economic force or strategic alliances.

We used this broad-strokes exercise to explore how planned development, while necessary in the fast growing urban conglomerates of our age, should be mindful of the pitfalls of spatial planning that does not take into account the many categories of city users, each with very diverse, at times conflicting needs. Social tensions, ecological pressure, displacement, segregation, sprawl, impoverishment and poor health are some of the ailments to which top-down planning has often contributed to, a legacy today’s professionals and citizens must work to counter.

The visual timeline approach also served as a storytelling device to trace the emergence of urbanism as a field of theory and practice and of urban planning as a profession, as well as of its subject of work: urbanisation, a phenomenon both planned and disorderly.

Page views of the resulting timeline — historical context matched with decision-makers and influencers.

As forms of government changed and democracy came to be the predominant political system in the second half of the twentieth century, urbanism also adapted. With citizens having been granted equal civil rights and power distributed among the many, some schools of urbanism began to consider issues of socio-spatial justice and of public participation in the making of the city as new imperatives.

We referenced two guidelines of such meet-at-the-middle ideal practices. The European Charter of Participatory Democracy in Spatial Planning Processes, a general principles approach to urbanism − paired with the EU carrots-and-sticks financing policy, where engaging the public either wins extra points in grant applications or is a sine qua non condition for funding. And the UK model of neighbourhood planning, government designed facultative mechanisms that encourage residents to collaborate with town councils, local businesses and other stakeholders to decide in matters of spatial and community development. Both suggest a synthesis where ”the top” designs processes for ”the bottom” to engage in co-producing urban space.

As young professionals interested in working with the city, we want to equip our first generation of fellows with an understanding that urbanism is a field of research, of practice and also of participation. And that city-making is a multiplayer, continuously deliberative game.