Contention and conflict around urban development policies and plans are recurrent features of urban life, and cycles of contention and social mobilization are important factors in shaping urban societies.

There are several reasons, from both a scholarly and a normative perspective, for systematically putting planning conflict – again – at the centre of attention and for promoting a constructive dialogue among different strands of critical research dealing with conflict.

In a scholarly perspective, it is apparent that the factors, mechanisms and dynamics that define planning conflicts today intersect a several key areas of critical urban research, such as:

  • research on neo-liberal trends in urban policy, on their local interpretations, on the contradictions they embody, and on new forms of identity- interests- and even ideological struggles and related mobilizations they originate;
  • research on urban governance practices and instruments and on their potentials and contradictions in redefining public policy approaches to urban development and transformation;
  • research on the ‘production of space’ as a relational process and related critical theories and alternative practices;
  • research on the effects of ‘glocalization’ in terms of reconfiguration of scales, of contradictions between the local / translocal dimensions of policies, of their potential conflicting outcomes, as well as of their impact on the redefinition of forms of social mobilization;
  • research on the potential integrative capacity of strategic and interactive approaches to urban development and transformation.

In a normative perspective, on the other hand, there is evidence of resurgence of planning conflicts and of apparent constraints faced by policy-makers and planners in pursuing their effective ‘resolution’. The significance of such conflicts – and their sometimes disruptive local effects – are reasons enough for questioning the legitimacy of urban policy-making as well as our beliefs in the capability and means to deal with them within planning practices. In both mentioned perspectives, inquiring into the emergence and development of planning conflicts bears therefore a significant importance: it bears potential for interdisciplinary dialogue as well as for a constructive exchange between analytical-interpretive and projective-normative disciplines of spatial research.

Why ‘planning conflicts’?

The issue of conflict is anything but new to planning. Planning theory and research have since long recognized the significance of conflict. Research on urban conflicts has played a key role in urban policy studies. The contribution of policy analysis to understanding conditions of social rationality, public policy effectiveness and democratic legitimacy in planning processes has exerted a significant influence on planning theory. This is particularly the case since critical pragmatism and the ‘argumentative turn’ in planning theory have led to viewing conflict as the marker and the paradigmatic manifestation of the inherently contentious and often overtly contested character of urban policy and planning processes, understood as a struggles which involve controversies over knowledge, values, meanings and the way these are dynamically related to the constitution of social relations and the enactment of power effects.

Reflecting upon the contentious character and the conflict potential of planning practices has thus constituted an important terrain of dialogue between planning theory and culture and a constructivist, post-structuralist view of social relations grounded on a post-empiricist understanding and a critical-interpretive orientation of social science. Therein also lays the interdisciplinary potential of the issue.

From a reflection on the contentious character of planning processes, important consequences have been drawn in terms of a critical understanding of the role of planning practices in conflict situations. Nevertheless, despite this long scholarly tradition reflection and its practical spin-offs, there seems to be scope as well as need for yet more critical self-reflection. In particular, the idea that planning may develop a key role in effectively dealing with conflicts stands in harsh contrast to the fact that, on the one hand, social conflicts in the city are often co-constituted by the very features of planning practices, and that, on the other hand, these practices are undergoing significant changes for both endogenous and exogenous reasons. Acknowledging this is anything but trivial, since a focus on embedded practices of conflict resolution has apparently led to progressively neglecting the factors for social conflict that are endogenous to the logic of planning practices, but also the dynamics of change in the framework conditions which define the logic of planning practices. Paradoxically, the ‘routinization’ of conflict resolution techniques and instruments in planning which has occurred in recent decades might even have led to a relaxation of critical self-reflection, and may be possibly seen as one of the reason for an increasing divide between planning discourse and critical urban studies. From these observations, two issues emerge: on the one hand, there seems to be a need for rethinking planning conflicts in a multidisciplinary perspective in face of changing conditions and emerging phenomena; on the other hand, there seems to be a need for reflecting on the actual purchase our actual understanding of urban conflicts in terms of effectiveness and concrete outcomes of planning practices.

With regard to the above observations, the question arises as to whether there is a specificity of planning with regard to conflict, and as to whether our position on this is to be intended as a specifically ‘disciplinary’ position. The answer to this question plays obviously an important role in motivating this initiative and in framing its approach.

Our answer to this is, respectively: yes and no. We contend that there is specificity to planning conflicts: but this specificity should not be intended in a ‘technical’ or discipline-specific way. Rather, its specificity relies on an understanding of urban development policy and planning as mutually co-constitutive practices, as practices co-implying each other. This means, in the first place, that we neither mean to make a generalized reference to ‘urban conflicts’ as occurring ‘out there’ in the ‘environment’ of planning (according to a reductionist, structuralist or deterministic view of societal conflicts), nor to make reference merely to conflicts on ‘urban issues’. Rather, we contend that there is a specificity of urban development policy and planning, and specifically in the way a) they jointly establish a local nexus between development practices, which b) bear a potential for social and political contention, and c) which become contentious in actual and specific terms as they are situated and performed in a concrete context.

In other words, our interest is for urban issues emerging in concrete urban playgrounds and becoming contentious within relational contexts co-defined by urban policy and planning practices. In this perspective, urban policy and planning practices represent a powerful factor in defining the situated character and the local dimension of societal struggles as well as in shaping conditions for their actual enactment. This obviously does not mean that exogenous factors – as, for instance, non-local issues or trans-local urban issues – do not play a role in contemporary urban conflicts: on the contrary. This, however, means that we intend to avoid methodologically exogenist interpretations of urban conflict: rather, it is their dynamics of endogenization, appropriation and enactment within urban policy and planning practices which is at the core of our interest.

In this respect, our approach moves from some key assumptions. First of all, we assume the situationally constructed character of planning conflicts. Our interest is for understanding planning conflicts as the localized-situated fighting-off of ‘urban’ controversies over knowledge, meanings, values which come to be at stake in local development and planning processes and are negotiated in the framework of societal ‘trials of strength’. Secondly, we assume that the conditions for conflict to emerge as ‘constructed’ imply a peculiar duplicity or ambiguity of planning. This means that planning co-defines these conditions in a way which may bear potentials, for instance, for arousing as well as potentials for resolving conflicts, for revealing as well as for disguising, dissimulating, or ‘diluting’ conflicts. Underlining this duplicity or ambiguity has a heuristic meaning, as it directs attention towards three research directions:

  • to critically question the capacity of conflict-resolution approaches – theories and practices – to adequately deal with actual constellations of urban conflicts;
  • to understand different typologies of conflicts and of conflict potentials and dynamics in relation to changing urban politics and policy frameworks;
  • to inquire into the different conditions and factors under which planning and policy making practices co-define the terrain of urban conflicts.

Expected outcomes

The AESOP Planning/Conflict thematic group is intended:

  • to sensitize the scientific community of urban policy and planning scholars about the nature and features of conflicts in urban development policies and planning, attempting at bridging disciplinary divides and research traditions;
  • to follow up closely on developments in theory and scientific research, promoting in particular an on-going overview and an updated information on current case-studies, and favouring by this the development of comparative as well as long-term research programmes on planning conflicts;
  • to enable an assessment of approaches to dealing with planning conflicts in practice with regard in particular to a critical reflection on the effectiveness and adequacy of theory-led methods and approaches.

In light of these overall aims, the AESOP Planning/Conflict thematic group will offer contributions in the scientific field – primarily through traditional channels of scientific communication such as academic publications – as well as contributions to exchange and dialogue between academics and practitioners.

Specific activities of the thematic group – for instance, meetings at annual conferences or workshops – can be devoted to specific case-studies or to question or challenges bearing a distinctive connection to a local situation, bringing together involved researchers and practitioners.

Furthermore, summer schools at graduate level can be envisioned, in which participants are asked to apply their scholarly expertise to a specific situation as a test-case.

Forum 1: Activities

Published at: 23 November 2015

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Forum 2: Themes

Published at: 23 November 2015

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