The Beginnings of Enlightened Planning?

by James Tayler

Focus group discussion in Arua

By Skye Dobson, SDI Secretariat

In a previous piece on the Makerere/SDI partnership in Uganda, Noah Schermbrucker, questioned the sources of knowledge that guide urban planning. In this second installment I would like to continue that discussion. When considering the planning profession I am often reminded of Michel Foucault’s account of the clinician and the evolution of scientific empiricism in The Birth of the Clinic: An Archaeology of Medical Perception (1963).

The “gaze” of the planner these days is often perceived to possess the same objective and rational wisdom as that of Foucault’s clinician. In urban development circles urban planners are believed capable of revealing the city’s hidden truths and taming urban unruliness through a classificatory kind of wisdom, which enables them to identify nodes of dysfunction with supposedly enlightened and absolute objectivity. The planner, like the medical clinician, is believed to possess no agenda and seek solely to maximize efficiency.

Such scientific empiricism, Foucault explains, abstracts knowledge from the subject. This, I believe, is the danger of modern urban planning and the reason SDI, with support from AAPS, is eager to ensure the planning profession reconnect with the subject of analysis.

In this, the second phase of the partnership, Uganda’s future planners ventured into the field with their community professors – placing the “knowers” firmly in the realm of the “known” – to use Foucault’s terminology. Groups of approximately 10 students boarded buses on the 5th and 6th of  March bound for the 5 secondary cities in which NSDFU works. From Arua in the country’s north-west, to Mbarara and Kabale in the south, and Jinja and Mbale in the east, the students secured a rich exposure to the urban challenges facing Uganda.

These 5 cities, part of the Cities Alliance-funded Land Services and Citizenship (LSC) program (called TSUPU in Uganda), have a strong federation presence that is driving community collected information gathering, forging deep and productive partnerships with municipal government, and launching community managed development projects in slums. This new partnership will certainly contribute toward strengthening and deepening this ongoing initiative.

When the students arrived in each of their respective cities they first met with federation leaders who debriefed them on the urban reality in their municipality, the work of the federation, and the enumeration process. The students asked these members many questions and engaged them in rich discussions on issues of land tenure, services, and housing.

The groups then paid a visit to the Municipal Council to meet with various political and technical municipal officials. The federation introduced the students and partnership to the municipal officials and its links to the LSC/TSUPU program. In each city the officials, most of whom had been part of the enumeration effort, praised the new partnership and expressed commitment to supporting the initiative as well as incorporating federation enumeration data into the municipal planning process.

Following the visit to the municipality, students ventured into the settlements in which the federation members live. Armed with the enumeration data the students were able to interrogate the data and enrich their understanding of its meaning. In focus group meetings and one-on-one interviews life was breathed into the data. The stories of members about eviction, lack of services, and housing conditions ensured the students would see the data for what it is: an account of life in slums and an essential ingredient for effective urban planning. They also came to see the local community for what it is: the best resource for local knowledge and the most invested in the urban development agenda.

For most of the Makerere students it was their first time to visit these cities and as the country’s future urban planners they expressed gratitude for the opportunity to see that Kampala’s urban planning needs are not the same as those of secondary cities.

In Kampala, each of the capital’s 5 municipalities (formerly divisions under Kampala City Council, these are now municipalities under the newly formed Kampala Capital City Authority) played host to a group of about 10 students as well. The federation first took the students to the Municipal Offices in Nakawa, Makindye, Rubaga, Kawempe, and Kampala Central. Like they did in the secondary cities, the Kampala students were able to meet officials from the Division and introduce the program as well as ask questions.

The students then split into smaller groups in an effort to verify federation profiling data on each of the parishes within the 5 municipalities/divisions. This was a massive undertaking and one that involved the students covering great distances each day. Though they live and study in Kampala, many of these students had not ventured so deeply into the city’s slums nor examined so closely the socio-economic realities therein.

With their community professors leading the way and the blessing of municpal officers, the students were able to move freely in the slums, ask questions, make notes, and take photographs to enrich the profiling data collected by the community. These observations were critical for the students as it enabled them to problematize the certainties of planning they have learned in the academic world.

The students will now take the data – hopefully no longer abstracted from the subject – and analyze it further in order to compile reports that will be returned to the federation for verification in the next phase of the partnership. After verification, the students will finalize the reports in a uniform format that will be published. In the final stage of the program students will return to the municipalities in which they worked and assist the federation to present the information to local authorities and discuss the critical contribution such information should play in the planning process. They will also share lessons on the way their conceptualization of what it takes to be an effective planner has changed during the program.

In Noah’s blog post he correctly pointed out the power that comes with knowledge. Foucault argues the reason the myth of the clinician’ s objectivity survived for so long is because, “the gaze that sees is a gaze that dominates.” In this first field visit as part of the urban studio, the gaze of the planner was brought closer to that of the subject, which we think is a positive step toward making the planning profession more responsive and more capable of executing its duties.

SDI will keep you posted as the workshop in Uganda unfolds.