Symbolic Planning: Urban Planning vs. Place Branding, Take III

Αthens skyline

by Ares Kalandides

I used the term ‘symbolic planning’ the other day to talk about the type of urban planning that is more concerned with the symbolic value of places than with responding to any pressing needs (s. here). Symbolic planning is very much based on a particular type of discourse, where the communicative act becomes more important that the content. Yes, we are back in Athens.

If symbolic planning is to have some kind of impact, it needs to appear to be answering to some real need. In the case of Athens this was done by a particular rhetoric that has been built up by the media and supported by politicians or even researchers. It is a discourse that presents the city centre as being in a deep, almost insuperable crisis. It is about dirt, crime and disorder. Immigration, homelessness and substance-abuse are all thrown together to create an explosive cocktail of words. The city centre is presented as a “dangerous enclave”, a “no-go area” a “ghetto”. Is it any wonder that against this background any proposed solution will have a messianic effect?

First of all the crisis in not one crisis or at least it is not the same one for everybody. Is the suggested urban planning responding to the crisis of the people who lose their jobs without any real perspective of getting a new one? Is it responding to the crisis of the hundreds of small merchants whose businesses are going bankrupt? Is it responding to the crisis of that segment of the middle classes that see their income cut down by 50%? Or to the  estimated 15,000 homeless who populate park benches and building entrances, wrapped in old blankets and cardboard boxes? Whose crisis are we talking about?

Secondly, such discourse is constructed for a reason. Why is everybody suddenly talking about the centre when until some years ago nobody really cared?  My guess (and not only mine of course) is that after decades of disinvestment the centre once again becomes an interesting area for real estate speculation. Don’t get me wrong; the system we live in is very much based on private investment for the development of our cities. But in this case, it is rather a question of how rather than if.

“Firework-projects” as a friend called them yesterday; ‘symbolic planning’ as I call it, does serve certain needs. I know I am contradicting myself when I said earlier that it does not. My attempt is just to show that it matters very much whose discourse it is, how and why it is constituted in order to understand whose needs it answers to.

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