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Once in a Lifetime / Unortodox Report about a European Atelier on Urban Foresight

September 26, 2011

On September 15th I was in Brussels for commitments at the Architects’ Council of Europe and I took the opportunity to participate to the Atelier of the Committee of the Regions “URBAN FORESIGHT AS A TOOL FOR TERRITORIAL GOVERNANCE”. Unfortunately I could attend only partially the Atelier and I missed the presentations in the morning which might have been the most relevant, setting the framework of the discussion that followed. Nevertheless the feeling I got in the afternoon is rather precise and confirms the feeling I had when reading the background note that you can download clicking here.

My immodest and partial impression is that the concept of Urban or Territorial Foresight has no relevance in the current European discourse on the urban dimension of territorial cohesion policies. It is a misleading and distorted reflection of the shift from a prescriptive planning approach towards a strategic planning approach that is happening in some European countries for various reasons.  One of these reasons is the slow but steady establishment of a European urban development culture, something which is rooted on the Urban Aquis, whose main cornerstone is the integrated and bottom-up approach and that at the Informal Ministerial Meeting of the German Presidency 2007 found a first institutional formalisation in the Leipzig Charta. The main reason for this shift is the failure of most of prescriptive town planning approaches due to the tumultuous and uncontrolled growth of many European cities, or their rapid decline. These and other phenomena (urban sprawl, urban shrinking, migrations, ageing etc.) have demonstrated the scarce reliability of urban foresight and have convinced most planners that foresight it is a useless if not harmful tool. Uncertainty is what we have to deal with when we think about the future of our cities.

To this extend another fundamental element emerged in the Atelier about Foresight: the fact that in many cases we know a lot about the current state of our cities and we have to choose between alternative approaches to try to manage their development, betting on the one or the other scenario. There is a solid and well known literature about trends in urban development trends (Sir Peter Hall, for instance), but their relevance to everyday town planning practice is rather modest. In the Atelier at the Committee of the Regions I had the opportunity to listen to presentations about town planning experiences in different countries and contexts: San Sebastian, Rennes and Brussels. Examples showing that there is engagement, skills and vision at the local level, something which has not still any reliable institutional counterpart in the European institutions. The EU has done well with the Urban programmes, but it is long time ago. Today we see every DG of the Commission going along on his own way, building his own pieces of urban policy without any overall vision.

I would like to be convinced that I am wrong, but when – in a single afternoon – I listen about the Joint Programming Initiative Urban Europe  running parallel to the Framework Programmes by DG Research, the Cities of Tomorrow Initiative  by DG Regio who manages the whole Territorial Cohesion Policy, the Smart Cities and Communities Initiative  promoted by DG Energy, the Eye on Earth Initiative  started by the European Environmental Agency in a joint venture with Microsoft… well I think there are many good intentions, a lot of work and significant resources involved, but I do not see any integrated or holistic approach.

No red thread linking this initiatives, no clear idea what we are talking about.  It feels like David Byrne in one of my favourite songs

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