Klaus R. Kunzmann

Giving Birth to AESOP


When attending the Annual Congress of the American Association of Planning Schools (ACSP) in Atlanta in 1985, Patsy Healey and I regretted that Europe did not have such a forum of exchange. We both were impressed by the flourishing annual jamboree of members of planning schools in North America, presenting the results of their research and exchanging their experience in preparing planners for practice and research. Upon return from Atlanta we immediately explored possibilities of establishing a similar association in Europe, in a continent divided by languages, religion, culture and political traditions. It took a while, until in February 1987, with the help of Patsy Healey, I invited a small group of academic planners to Dortmund, to discuss, whether it would make sense to establish a European association of planning schools. Searching for a location with genius loci. I selected Schloss Cappenberg, a castle North of Dortmund, (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cappenberg_Castle). During World War II Cappenberg Castle served as a place of safety to protect works of art from Allied bombing, Later, in the 1980s the castle had been turned into the cultural centre of the County of Unna, a suburban county to Dortmund .The main hall in the first floor, which had a huge terrace overlooking the suburban landscape below the hill, was offered to us for the inaugural meeting.

Three reasons caused me to select this location. First, I wanted to plug-in the cultural history of the place, which goes back to  the 12th century, when the country house of a regional noble family was turned into a Premonstratensian monastery- Second, The castle was owned from 1824 to 1831 by Freiherr vom Stein 'A Prussianstatesman who introduced the Prussian reforms that paved the way for the unification of Germany. He promoted the abolition of serfdom, with indemnification to territorial lords; subjection of the nobles to manorial imposts; and the establishment of a modern municipal system.'  He lived there until his death in 1831. I felt that the innovative and forward-looking spirit of this Prussian landlord and statesman had much to do with planning and cities. Third, I had been involved in the activities of a local action group, defending the place against the appetite of the coal mining corporation, who wanted to exploit coal under the Castle, a project, which threatened to demolish the baroque building, We lost, though ironically, coal mining in the region was stopped soon thereafter, not because of the opposition of the local civil society, but for overriding economic and political reasons.

The representatives from planning schools across Europe, Patsy Healey and myself had encouraged to attend the meeting in Cappenberg were, David Massey, (Liverpool), Dieter Frick (Berlin), Giorgio Piccinato (Venice), Dieter Bökemann (Wien), Willy Schmid (Zürich), Andreas Faludi (Amsterdam), Jean-Claude Hauvuy (Paris) and Luigi Mazza (Turin) In addition Michael Wegener and Gerd Hennings of the Dortmund School of Planning joined the meeting, as well as Kwasi Ardakwa, who happened to be in Dortmund in the context of SPRING, the Dortmund-UST-Kumasi cooperation programme to train planners for developing countries, which had I had initiated and established in 1984. They are all shown on the famous AESOP picture on the terrace of Schloss Cappenberg. It has been a day, when the sun had hidden behind low clouds.

Not many arguments were needed to convince the participants, who were present at this meeting that it makes sense to follow the North American example. A draft charter of the association and essential next steps to bring the idea into life were discussed. Faludi, an enthusiastic supporter of the idea, suggested that the first congress of the association could take place in Amsterdam. Obviously, his spontaneous invitation was unanimously cheered. One more name should be mentioned in this context. Richard Williams from Newcastle, who passed away much too early, has not been present in Cappenberg. He has been an enthusiastic supporter of AESOP from the very beginning, backing the idea of a European network of planners, Later he followed David Massey as AESOP Secretary, who, based in Liverpool, helped with all his institutional experience to get the AESOP project working.

In Cappenberg we soon agreed on the name AESOP, which I had suggested for the Association of European Schools of Planning to be established. AESOP is the name of a Greek philosopher, a slave and story-teller, who as have lived in ancient Greece between 620 and 560 BCE. He wrote popular fables (AESOPICA), which we would call narratives today, where he made use of humble incidents to teach great truths, and after serving up a story he adds to it the advice to do a thing or not to do it. (Appolonius of Tyana). Aesop's remain a popular choice for moral education of children today. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aesop's_Fables). Again, I thought this name is linked to ambitions of planners, to plan for people, to communicate with people, and to use narratives and story telling in planning and decision-making processes, not just plans and maps.

Unfortunately, the paper, which formulated the expectations of launching a European association of planning is not any longer in my hands. The files have disappeared, when the Dortmund School had to move within the university, a move, which caused the dumping of tons of files and papers. Being abroad during that time period, alas, I could not intervene. Though the first drafts may still to be found in someone’s archive.

My own aims and expectations 25 years ago were ambitious. In my memory they were:

  • Given the fact that planning, maybe with the exception of Great Britain, have a kind of Cinderella status in their home countries, I expected that an association of planning schools in Europe could provide a transnational, respectively a Paneuropean academic community of scholarly exchange.
  • Experiencing that the planning community in Germany was very much inward looking, I hoped that an international networks could open the window to a European wide perspectives of the discipline, and prepare the grounds for a next generation of f much more international planning educators.
  • Being strong a advocate of planning education as an academic discipline, independent from architecture, civil engineering, geography, and other more established academic disciplines, I had expected that a recognized international association would offer a Paneuropean support for planning education as a discipline in its own right.
  • I was quite convinced that being a member of a European association of planning schools would strengthen the reputation and the status of a planning school within the home university.
  • At a time when the ERASMUS exchange programme was just about to start I anticipated that the existence of a European network of planning schools could facilitate and promote the exchange of planning students.
  • Last but not least, I hoped that the international community of planning researchers could benefit from the network by providing an exchange platform for joint and comparative research planning research.

Such a similar expectations were expressed during the Cappenberg meeting and unanimously shared by the participants. Most of these ambitions have been achieved. In fact, more than that. The vitality of AESOP is represented by the many activities, which the association has successfully carried out since. The continuos commitment and passion of many planning educators across Europe makes the association an indispensable stakeholder of the paneuropean planning community.

One of my ambitious aims has not been reached. Planning as an independent discipline is still not fully recognized. Very few planning schools in Europe are independent from other disciplines, and very few new independent planning schools have been established since. In 2012, for multiple reasons, most planning schools are still under the umbrella of schools of architecture, geography or civil engineering, and it seems that there is no chance that this will change in coming decades. It is even more likely that zeitgeist urbanism will replace planning as a scientific label within and universities and in wider socio-political arenas, as urbanism apparently sounds more sexy and scientific in mainstream market led economic environments in Europe.

In contrast, the AESOP network has served as an excellent information and communication base for all the European basic and research projects in the European Union, which were initiated in the last two decades by the European Commission, by ESPON, European foundations and national governments. Two established and widely read European planning journals, European Planning Studies and disP: The Planning Review are linked to AESOP, serving a Europe wide readership with up-to-date planning research. Today, 2012, 25 years after the Cappenberg meeting, AESOP is an established association, with 162 institutional members in 38 countries. It has been worthwhile for all, who shared the vision of a European network of planning schools to invest time and efforts in establishing the association.


Potsdam, 06-01-2012

(text published in disP: The Planning Review No 188, 1/2012 and in AESOP Yearbook 2012)