Symbolic planning or simply unnecessary?

By Mihalis Kavaratzis

In a series of vivid and well-argued recent posts to this blog, Ares Kalandides has talked about the relationship between urban planning and city branding using the city of Athens, Greece as an example.  There was a distinction between symbolic planning (i.e. the shiny projects with obvious city branding potential –  in this case Panepistimiou St.) and local-improvement planning that is attempting to solve ‘real’ problems of the city in the sense of making life for (part of) the city’s population better (in this case Phylis St.). Let me start by stating my agreement with the argumentation and, to an extent, with the distinction. I will also state my attachment to the examples, as Athens is my hometown and the place-brand of which I will always be a fan. The city and the street names are purely indicative, however; these are choices that are made regularly in most cities in this world.

As a fan of ‘no cars in city centres’, the pedestrianization of Panepistimiou St. sounds to me like a good idea. The problem is that in Athens, pedestrian zones only mean more space for cars to park and more space for motorcycles to threaten your life. As a fan of trams, I find the suggested tram line through Panepistimiou St. also  a good idea. The problem is that few Athenians are fans of the tram, perhaps due to unfamiliarity and the unfortunate dysfunction of trams in Athens. Furthermore, Athenians are addicted to their cars in a way incomprehensible to the Dutch for instance, or in a way very different from Londoners’ addiction to their cars. As a fan of small-scale, local improvement planning, the suggested redevelopment of Panepistimiou St. does not sound like a good idea. I like projects that, even slightly, improve the quality of life of the residents.

I am certainly a big fan of city branding. But only as I understand city branding – and actually spend a large part of my time trying to explain and justify. This is obviously radically different from other peoples’ understanding and has nothing to do with ‘firework’ projects. As Ares – indirectly – writes, all planning is symbolic. The big, obvious, shiny projects that intend to be symbolic, as well as the small, non-shiny that do not. The redevelopment of Phylis St. is also symbolic. It stands for a slight improvement of the quality of life of the residents in this area.  These are people who need this – you don’t choose to live on Phylis St.; circumstances force you. It also stands for the effort of authorities – in this case national, in your area it might be local – to do something about the city’s ‘real’ problems.

As Ares also writes, the Panepistimiou St project is symbolic. The problem, though, is not that it is symbolic. The problem is that it is ONLY symbolic, in other words unnecessary. Especially in the current circumstances it does not serve anyone’s needs (I deliberately use here needs instead of interests). Panepistimiou St. – as it is – is a very enjoyable street in my view. It makes you feel alive and part a dynamic world. It is very cosmopolitan but so quintessentially Greek. It could, in principle, be anywhere but when you’re walking it you simply know you are in Athens. So there’s absolutely no need to prioritise its redevelopment over any other planning project. That’s the essence. It is unnecessary planning – or a ‘firework’ project. The problem with it is not that it is symbolic, neither that it intends to be symbolic. The problem is that it is unnecessary. I’m certainly not a fan of unnecessary planning.

There’s so much to say about city branding (which – in theory – is not about the shiny, firework projects) and how it relates to symbolic planning but I’ll come back to that.

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