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Robert A. Beauregard, Planning matter. Acting with things

Magda Maaoui
Planning Matter
Robert A. Beauregard, Planning Matter. Acting with Things, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2015, 264 p., ISBN : 9780226297392.
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  • 1 Jameson, Fredric, ‘Future city’, New Left Review 21:65-79, 2003.

1Materiality is not "a mere pretext for our exercise of mental pleasures" (Jameson 2003)’ (p.4)1. What is materiality then? In the 1960s politically left-wing activist planners denounced planning practice, seeing it as a technocratic, apolitical material determinism that only perpetuated the segregation of marginalized urban communities. They targeted hygienist methods to solve urban poverty, seen as a response to fixed categories, not actual people or contexts. They replaced it with a Marxist-based historical materialism. Beauregard presents here a third kind of materialism which he hopes will bring ‘theorists and practitioners closer to the material world they wish to change’.

  • 2 Beauregard, Robert, Voices of decline: the postwar fate of US cities. New York: Routledge, 2003.
  • 3 Beauregard, Robert, When America became suburban. University of Minnesota Press, 2006.

2This collection of essays by Robert Beauregard opens new paths for research in planning. Beauregard is a professor of urban planning at Columbia University, who obtained a PhD in city and regional planning from Cornell University having previously trained as an architect. His research focuses mainly on American urbanization processes and he has extensively contributed to the debates on industrial city decline2 as well as suburbanization3, offering a counterpoint to their well-known narrative.

  • 4 Latour, Bruno, ‘Biography of an inquiry: on the book about modes of existence." Social studies of s (...)

3His new materialism refers to a trans-disciplinary body of literature more or less embedded in planning theory. It borrows from actor-network theory developed by Bruno Latour4 around the technological arrangements in which human life is entangled, despite the large modernist divide between culture and nature. In this theory, fluidity, heterogeneity, hybridity, assemblages and networks can help create a bridge between the physical and the nonphysical. The examples from which his analysis stems are taken from historical and actual instances of contemporary American city planning, and can be translated into other contexts.

  • 5 Fainstein, Susan, "New Directions in Planning Theory." Urban Affairs Review 35:451-478, 2000.

4Although the material world has always been acknowledged in urban planning, it was essentially reduced to its epiphenomenal form. In the 1980s, the communicative turn that put an emphasis on process-oriented planning and planning theory was also criticized for paying too little attention to the material world (Fainstein 2000).5 The shifts in the role and degree of importance given to materiality are important because of the interconnectedness of material and nonmaterial in the very definition of planning: a balanced equation of collective projections and aspirations on the one hand; more tangible physical attributes on the other. Both are important in the realization of the planning project.

  • 6 A list randomly structured that is supposed to be a mere description of things, their nature and es (...)
  • 7 Latour, Bruno, We have never been modern. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993.

5The essay form the author opts for throughout the eleven chapters resonates with the concepts of fluidity and hybridity, working as a kaleidoscope of case studies. The first step of the analysis, which sets the background for the ensuing discussions, enquires into forms of ontography6 (Chapter 1). Beauregard proposes four ontographies that work as quasi-incantations such as can be found in Jorge Luis Borges or Italo Calvino's writings, and recall Latour's lists in We have never been modern.7 The core qualities of ontographies (heterogeneity, symmetry, contingency) illustrate the key concept of assemblage, and underline how planning assemblages differ mainly because the material elements of such assemblages are a subordinated resource whose function is to support nonmaterial elements.

  • 8 Forester, John, The deliberative practitioner: encouraging participatory planning processes. Cambri (...)
  • 9 Fainstein, Susan, "The egalitarian city: the restructuring of Amsterdam." International planning st (...)

6The following chapters consider the ‘micropolitics of planning’ (Forester 19998) by first reminding us of the lack of literature on the objects of such micropolitics. Chapter 2 takes on the debate about planners’ aftermath responsibility, by exploring daily activities involved in implementation. Case studies range from the politics of planning in Minneapolis and St-Paul (Minnesota), Aalborg (Denmark) and the Port of Oakland (California). They help ground Beauregard’s definition of talking as action, and how it is linked – though not in a linear manner – with intentions, knowledge and consequences. Actions in planning have attributes: they are distributed and networked. They also have qualities: intentionality, reflexivity, accountability and responsibility. Chapter 3 presents an overview of the importance of objects in planning history (namely things planned, tools deployed, settings where practice occurs). We must distinguish between two categories of objects: objects being planned and objects being used to plan. In a planning story on transactions about a proposed apartment complex, the site plan, three-dimensional model and photographs are for instance the media through which the project both represents and actualizes itself. In Chapter 4, Beauregard introduces places which are also defined as things, and he discusses their part in planning. Case studies which help us reflect upon this include the Marieberg shopping area on the outskirts of the Swedish town of Örebro, and Susan Fainstein's Amsterdam-model for the just city.9 Place is defined with three different focuses: the place being planned (1), the context of planning (2), the deliberations as opposed to the place where they occurred (3). Places certainly matter in planning, as much as voices.

  • 10 Marcuse, Herbert, One-dimensional Man. Boston: Beacon Press, 1964.

7The ultimate exploration of micropolitics takes us through the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 (Chapter 5), defined as a model, albeit extreme, for local vulnerability and the complexity of rebuilding after a catastrophe. Rather than develop an abstract view on moral – and ethical – planning, Beauregard offers a practical political positioning about morality and justice by weaving a body of literature that refers to Iris Marion Young, Michael Walzer and Bruno Latour, and looks at material assemblages of morality. In his view, post-Katrina resilience must spur from a moral assemblage that involves people, but also bodies, symbols and resources (material and nonmaterial). The demonstration then moves on to new materialist views on macropolitics (Chapter 6). The author points to the discrepancy between truths (possibilities) and realities (material manifestations of these possibilities) in planning (Marcuse 196410). Here, Beauregard outlines his first distanciation from Latour, for whom there is no difference between the real and the possible: for the author, stating this would mean there is no more space left for projection, imagination and hope.

  • 11 Law, John, "And if the global were small and noncoherent? Method, complexity, and the Baroque." Env (...)

8The limits to planning complete this proposed new materialism. Chapter 7 defines obduracy as the attribute of realities which resist any attempt at modifying them. By reflecting upon this, Beauregard underlines the political nature – and the conflictual dimension – of planning. Chapter 8 then dissects the way time has been treated in planning practice, drawing upon the history of city planning in New York City to echo the importance of this factor, and builds upon Latour's views on the succession of distinct moments to give depth to this appreciation of time. Temporalities are crucial to forecasting as well as to past history, and are a key element in understanding the gap between planning formulation and planning implementation. Planners must act in the light of temporalities, but without the illusion of defining the future in a normative way. The third limit that is examined stems from the failure of American planning (Chapter 9), defined as a disappointment due to the gap between its promise and its realization. Beauregard points to the lack of debate on the importance of a welfare-oriented state in planning, to counteract the effects of capital mobility in the United States, seen as an obduracy. This attempt to strengthen the state must be a bottom-up, participatory effort in a ‘baroque’ effort where the global is intrinsic to the local (Law 200411).

9The final points raised by Beauregard dive deeper into planning theory, first by defining the figure of the public intellectual and his role in planning, tied with both realms of theory and practice (Chapter 10). The imperatives that make the worldliness of planning – crucial to its legitimacy – are also recalled by exploring the legacy of John Dewey, Peter Marcuse and Leonie Sandercock, among others. In a resounding finale, Beauregard reveals his own version of Latourian actor-network theory. Latour's position regarding modernism is that its attributes of mastery over the natural environment and the crisp dichotomies that do not allow for hybridity were never achieved. Therefore, we have never been modern. On the contrary, Beauregard argues that planning has been, and might always be modern. This premise allows him to propose a new materialist approach to planning. Even if initial modernist planning adapted itself in the light of both the political and the postmodern attacks that powerfully questioned its prerogatives, modernist planning persists, mainly because its qualities are what allowed it to become established as a profession, with legitimacy and influence. Yet modernism has proven to have both bright and dark sides, and so far planning has not managed to annihilate the dark ones. Beauregard recommends that we interpret Latour's stance not as a postulate but as a horizon towards which planning should aim, defined here as a new materialism.

10Beauregard manages to put forward a proposition – not a fixed planning theory – ‘meant to be avowedly (new) materialist, critically realist, morally engaged, politically progressive, and pragmatic’ (p.10). He raises fruitful topics calling for further exploration: the act of contemplation in planners' daily acts, or how places of practice are modeled both by what is said about them and what is said in them. Beauregard praises some of his favorite planning theory figures: John Forester, ‘a collector of planning stories’, and John Friedmann, who ‘took up (the) challenge’ to offer planners a theory of action and decision. In this book, Beauregard takes up the same challenge, and contributes originally to planning literature in three ways: the summing up of 20th century debates which shaped planning; the integration of interdisciplinary arguments that range over urban studies, critical theory, sociology and philosophy; and the enunciation of a discourse that has a strong practical value for both scholars and practitioners.

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Notes

1 Jameson, Fredric, ‘Future city’, New Left Review 21:65-79, 2003.

2 Beauregard, Robert, Voices of decline: the postwar fate of US cities. New York: Routledge, 2003.

3 Beauregard, Robert, When America became suburban. University of Minnesota Press, 2006.

4 Latour, Bruno, ‘Biography of an inquiry: on the book about modes of existence." Social studies of science 43:287-301, 2013.

5 Fainstein, Susan, "New Directions in Planning Theory." Urban Affairs Review 35:451-478, 2000.

6 A list randomly structured that is supposed to be a mere description of things, their nature and essence.

7 Latour, Bruno, We have never been modern. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993.

8 Forester, John, The deliberative practitioner: encouraging participatory planning processes. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999.

9 Fainstein, Susan, "The egalitarian city: the restructuring of Amsterdam." International planning studies 2:295-314, 1997.

10 Marcuse, Herbert, One-dimensional Man. Boston: Beacon Press, 1964.

11 Law, John, "And if the global were small and noncoherent? Method, complexity, and the Baroque." Environment and planning D 22:13-26, 2004.

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Magda Maaoui, « Robert A. Beauregard, Planning matter. Acting with things », Lectures [En ligne], Les comptes rendus, 2016, mis en ligne le 14 janvier 2016, consulté le 17 juin 2019. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/lectures/19870

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Magda Maaoui

Élève de l'École Normale Supérieure de Lyon (2010), Magda Maaoui possède un Master de Géographie, Systèmes Territoriaux, Aide à la Décision, Environnement (2014). Sa recherche de M2 a été réalisée dans le cadre d'un échange universitaire avec l'Université de Berkeley (Californie). Ses thèmes de recherche portent sur la ségrégation socio-spatiale, l'accès au logement, la gentrification, la périurbanisation de la pauvreté, les mobilités, l'urbanisme nord-américain.

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