Archive for May, 2010

A few times in your life you stumble across something that changes your ideas fundamentally. That happened to me when I was a master student and had to read David Byrne’s ‘Understanding the Urban’ (Palgrave, 2001). Byrne is a professor in sociology at Durham University (UK) but his book goes far beyond sociological observations in the urban. He has the capacity to connect social change from the local to the global with economic change, politics, capitalism and the built environment. As such, it is a must-read for those would like to gain more insight into the dynamics of the contemporary city.

However, his greatest contribution, as far as I’m concerned,  is his theoretical approach that is deeply rooted in complexity science. Complexity science has many merits but one of the most important ones is, in the words of Robert L. Flood, that it “… thus takes issues with grand narratives of strategic planners who think globally and believe that with intention they can create a better future.” (1999: 3) This is an important message to urban planners who may believe that they can create the city from behind their drawing boards. Peter Allen has written the insightful ‘Cities and Regions as Self-Organizing Systems’ (1997) to show the complexity of the city mentioned above. Byrne’s book takes things much further by moving beyond the formal models and looking at what actually happens in cities. I really appreciate his effort because it exposes the many (diffuse) variables that influence the city in complex ways. Having read this book I started to understand the full extent of Flood’s comment on grand narratives about planning.

Thinking about the world in terms of (complex) systems itself is not very new; see e.g. Von Bertalanffy in the 1950s. However, although the complexity of systems was increasingly uncovered, it was not understood that the observer or planner or manager was and is an integral part of this complexity. Thus, systems were treated as something ‘out there’, resulting in approaches like comprehensive planning. Only more recently have we started to understand that the complexity extends to everything and everyone. Every urban planner should therefore read Byrne’s book. It shows the real complexity of cities and makes one aware of the challenges ahead for urban planning. I’m not saying that reading this book is the only way to understand that. It is just that Byrne can explain this with much more clarity than other authors I have read on this subject. To me, it marked a turning point in thinking about cities and planning.

Understanding the Urban - David Byrne


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Much contemporary literature on urban planning deals with the question whether the urban can be shaped from a drawing board or not, in other words: whether urban planners are actually in control of what happens in the city. Experiments in modernist blue-print planning have resulted in some massive planning failures and I’m in the camp of people who think that there are more advanced forms of planning; e.g. by taking advantage of the self-organizing capacity of cities. However, if the picture below is your daily view, it is tempting to think that the city is a large-scale Legoland that can be manipulated at will.

View from the 15th floor of the Rotterdam urban planning department, looking east. Picture taken with my cell phone.

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Over the past months, Bangkok has been the stage of violent clashes between supporters of ex-prime minister Thaksin and elitists and (self-proclaimed) royalists of the current Thai government. The protesters were forced to surrender after the government sent in the army. It may have brought a temporal rest in the Thai capital but the conflict itself is far from over so do not be surprised when the mob returns. The Economist of this week (vol. 395, no. 8863, May 22nd, 2010) has done a thorough wrap-up of the current situation.

However, the current situation has a long history. The fact that the riots took place and the fact that it took place in Bangkok is not surprising if one considers the role of Bangkok in Thai history. After being established as the capital of the current Kingdom of Thailand, it quickly grew to encompass administrations, markets, transports and, more recently, forces of globalisation including global capitalism, information and tourism. As such, Bangkok became the main symbol of power and wealth in Thailand, drawing people from across the country and growing tremendously. It is therefore inevitable that the roads of the rich ruling elitists cross with the (relatively new) middle-classes and the poor who find themselves competing for survival in this city. This is a process that started back in 1932 when the absolute monarchy ended, through the riots of 1992, up until the period after Thaksin was ousted. To understand the current clashes requires understanding the coming of age of Bangkok.

‘Bangkok: Place, Practice and Representation’ by Marc Askew (Routledge, 2002) does a supreme job in showing the anatomy of the city and its crucial role in the changes in the Thai society. Askew analyses how the city developed from an administrative center to the economic powerhouse it is today and does so with remarkable depth. I really admire this book not only because it uncovers the driving forces that make Bangkok and the place Bangkok has in shaping society but above all because Askew manages to cover a wide range of topics without getting lost in the diverse factors that define a city. I started reading this book before the most recent riots took place and it was amazing to find out how much of the current crisis can be understood when going through this book. Recommended reading for anybody interested in Bangkok and Thailand and (even more) for anybody wanting to find out how cities shape society and vice versa.

Bangkok by Marc Askew

Bangkok by Marc Askew

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Hello and welcome to this blog. ‘Cityness’ is about all things urban but focuses on one particular question: what makes the urban tick? This blog will be filled with things that I think are important in answering this question. Updates will be irregular so please be patient. I hope you will enjoy the things posted here.

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