June 5, 2012

Why is Post-war Reconstruction and Conflict ignored by Urban Planners

Informal housing adorns Kabul's mountains, complete with no water, no sanitation, and no roads (Photo: Sutika Sipus)
A quick look at some of the more popular urban planning websites and forums, such as Planetizen, Engaging Cities, Cyburbia, or the American Planning Association, and one will discover  articles on a vast array of issues such as rehabilitating industrial sites, methods for inclusive public participation in urban design, suburban sprawl and conservation, and occasionally the generic term "international development."  While I occasionally search these forums to see what new ideas have popped up, its disappointing to find that little of the content relates to my own daily work in cities like Kabul Afghanistan or Mogadishu Somalia, or within future projects in Libya and Nigeria.

Yet whenever I look at these forums, the same question always crosses my mind:

Why are conflict and post-war reconstruction not central to the discussion of 
 Urban Planning as a profession or Urban Planning education?

The Recently Completed Darulaman Road in Kabul (Sutika Sipus)
The topic is rarely discussed, yet reconstruction has been a mainstay of the planning profession throughout history.  One can quickly cite examples of planning and reconstruction, such as the rebuilding of London in 1666,  the rebuilding of Europe after WWII with the Marshal Plan, or the current reconstruction effort in Afghanistan.  Throughout each example there has been a massive demand for skilled individuals with the balanced knowledge of design, infrastructure, economics, and social sciences to design and implement sustainable initiatives.  In Afghanistan alone, USAID has spent 7.9 billion dollars on reconstruction efforts over the course of 10 years, with large portions of that funding directed toward road construction, agricultural development, and education.  Yet where is the discussion of Afghanistan on popular planning forums?  


So who is rebuilding cities in conflict?
In the 6 years that I've been working in urban planning, most of that time has been spent in conflicted or complex territories such as refugee camps, urban slums, or conflict cities.  Throughout this process, I've encountered only 4 other urban planners working in these environments!  There are always plenty of engineers, former military, active military, or aid/developments professionals with social, legal, and political science backgrounds but I've found that planners maintain certain advantages.
  • Planners are trained with a balance of contextual and technical knowledge that promotes clear communication between team members.
  • Planners have an innate understanding of  administrative and management skills
Defensive Perimeter, Kabul Afghanistan (Sutika Sipus)
  • Some consulting firms like to market themselves as skilled in "strategic design" but actually have little or no ability with design-thinking or the design process
  • Architects and engineers rarely have the ethnographic research skills to recognize and integrate subtle social processes into their design
  • Many architects and engineers do realize the value of basic site visits and create plans that are not consistent with the local economy or patterns in land use
  • Most professionals in social or political skills have the research skills, but are weak in areas of communication, presentation, and further more do not have the hard skills to design solutions from the research.  At best, they can only advise on policy or suggest solutions for others to design.
Because urban planners have so much to offer, I've found those working in the field of post-war reconstruction quickly gather respect by their employers and colleagues.  Sure, the sample pool is small, but it has been consistent enough to make me ask, so where are all the other planners?


The career track for most urban planners
Understandably, many graduates from urban planning programs are going to work for local or regional governments or private sector architecture studios.  I know a lot of planners who work for cities like Houston or Portland, and they spend most of their time sitting in public hearings, debating the merits of city zoning changes or traffic plans.  Often this was not the career path imagined while in school, but rather it was the mundane reality they discovered upon graduation.  This isn't unusual as graduate school frequently gives one a false sense of global influence, as if the future of humanity were dependent upon the outcome of your thesis research, but if planning education is so dynamic, why is normative planning practice so dull?  In this case, we as urban planners can blame no one but ourselves.  With so much training and capacity, not to mention an understanding of organizational structure and project management, only to end up working in a field overflowing with of boiler-plated building codes? No one else is at fault.

The more interesting work in the planning profession is frequently undertaken from an architectural perspective, but again, limitations arise.  The world continues to lust for new urban forms and beautifully rendered master plans.  Not a problem.  Yet where is the broader disciplinary attention to healing traumatized landscapes, rebuilding war torn cities, and nurturing emerging economies with scaled, responsive infrastructure?  Typically these sorts of plans are more glitz than substance, and lack the relationship to local informal economic structures or conflict remediation options to be viable.


The Planning Advantage
Art Deco Architecture in Mogadishu Somalia (Sutika Sipus)
Having started my career as an artist and designer, before transitioning into architecture, planning, and refugee law, credit my foundation in creative problem solving as my greatest asset. Working in conflict cities and post-war reconstruction as an urban planner is not a simple task.  It requires flexibility, creativity, and long hours.  It carries personal risks to myself and my family and demands great sacrifice.  

Yet it is also the most rewarding capacity in which I can apply my abilities to facilitate the collective interest of communities around the world.  By working in challenging conditions, I actually have the opportunity to do far more than my teachers in grad school ever suggested was possible.  I have the daily opportunity to work with all facets of planning, to work with people from many different backgrounds, and to creatively explore options for development that might be otherwise quickly tossed out the window. 

Sure, sometimes I have to sit in long meetings, but rarely is it over something as droll as stoplights.  I hope as more planners discover and read this blog they will be compelled to expand their own definition of the urban planning, and in the near future I will have the chance to find more individuals in the field with the sophisticated training necessary to solve some the worlds greatest problems.