LIMITING URBAN FUTURES


All planning can be considered as an attempt to restrict possible futures. Usually this is not stated explicitly. However, 'futures scenarios' are explicit rejections of other possible futures. They have become fashionable again, as they were in the 1960's. Usually, a small number of alternative scenarios is presented: they indicate the range of futures considered acceptable. In other words, the range of acceptable future cities is made visible by the choice of scenarios. 'Acceptable', that is, to the people who prepared the scenarios. That is usually the city or regional government: sometimes, a private organisation funded by local elites. The Amsterdam study TVA is used here as an example of how such future studies limit urban futures. Originally written 1998, some later revisions.

There are three main limiting factors. First, such studies use of a small number of scenarios, all based on the same assumptions about the future. These assumptions imply that the existing society, economy, and culture will continue. Second, the process of defining the scenarios is elitist and exclusionary. Third, the scenarios are usually subject to debate among local elites. That reflects a basic belief about cities: that future cities should be the result of processes among the present inhabitants. In other words there is an implicit prohibition of 'ideal cities' and urban utopias. Implicitly, also, this belief limits 'xeno-urbanism', the import of urban models unfamiliar to any existing residents.

The next three sections explain this limiting of possible futures, in more detail. To understand how this works, consider the effect of two 'scenarios' for the future of Amsterdam: demolition, and change of name. A completely open and accessible futures study, would include the demolition scenario: the TVA study is not open in this sense. In fact even a cosmetic deviation from the existing city, such as a change of name, can not fit into the study. In other words, it is restrictively conservative: the TVA study is a filter. The project staff say, that considering different futures is "pointless". They claim, that open assessment of the future would "undermine every serious public discussion about the future of Amsterdam". The concluding section gives an indication of possible futures excluded from the TVA study.

The implications for urban theory are simple but controversial. Current theory (especially of urban politics) is dominated by metaphors of interaction, dispersal, plurality, network, web, contest, negotiation and arena:

...the context of relational webs structured by economic, political and cultural forces....to be understood as intersecting and actively negotiated relational webs, within which the tensions of conflicting demands are actively worked out....an appreciation of what are the critical relations, the key links....strategic consideration of the evolving relations within an urban arena....dialogical and argumentative conceptions of policy processes....In such conceptions the task of urban governance moves beyond that of a provider of welfare and support services for economic activity, to that of a strategically shaping enabler of the lively coexistence of multiple relations.
(Patsy Healy et al. 1995 Managing Cities: the New Urban Context Chichester: Wiley. pp. 281-2).

The TVA study, and similar studies, show a different reality: a homogeneous rejection of possible futures. It is an example of urban governance as a single monolith, implementing ideologies from the 18th and 19th century. And not just in Amsterdam: the limitations are inherent in the model (scenario-based urban futures studies, post-assessed by specialists). The appropriate metaphor for urban governance is the Great Pyramid: large, ancient, and designed to be immobile. But would any urban theorist in Europe accept that metaphor - in preference to the others quoted above?


1. Limiting the scenarios and assumptions

The Amsterdam futures study TVA is set out in 3 Interim Reports, an Atlas, and a report from a 'think-tank' organised by Alderman Duco Stadig (responsible for planning). The study is run by the Amsterdam city planning department (DRO), but covers a region extending beyond the city boundaries. Nominally the TVA has concluded with a conference in February 1999, but the planning department continues to work on the issues, using the study as a basis.

The Interim Reports start from scenarios prepared by: the National Physical Planning Agency RPD; the Province of Noord-Holland; and two academic specialists. From these studies 9 'tasks' and 3 'issues' are taken. The most comprehensive are the four RPD scenarios, of future spatial development in the Netherlands, Nederland 2030. These are summarised in English by Edwin van Uum, in Tijdschrift voor Economische en Sociale Geografie 89 (1989) 1, 106-116. In turn, these are based on three future models from the national economic planning bureau: 'Global Competition', 'European Co-ordination' and 'Divided Europe'. (The Provincial scenarios are also based on these three).

Despite the names, all assume a Europe of essentially liberal-democratic nation states, trading with each other. They assume that the Netherlands in 2030 is still a constitutionally established liberal-democratic state, with a free market economy, inhabited by the Dutch nation. (The typical worldview of the scenario authors, is indicated by the Provincial futures study. It takes its global assessment from Benjamin Barber's Jihad vs. McWorld).

From all possible future worlds, three similar worlds are selected. From all possible futures of the Netherlands within these worlds, three similar national futures are selected. From all possible spatial developments within these national futures, four are selected, These four are the starting point of the TVA study. (The provincial scenarios do not deviate from the national planning framework: the academic scenarios describe some political issues in Dutch planning).

In other words, before the TVA study even started, almost all possible futures for Amsterdam have been excluded. The study then further restricts the remaining possibilities. The restrictions within the study include:

This limited range of urban futures will be assessed (see the next section), but not the restrictions themselves. The reports, and scenario choices, are already fixed. The TVA process will be largely complete with the publication of the third Interim Report. The assessment is likely to limit urban futures even more, not to re-open the selection process.

The historicism of the study is most visible in the Interim Report The Dynamic Region/De Dynamische Regio. As in many planing studies, the history of the city region is summarised. And, as usually the case, it is a rigid linear history. Amsterdam is presented as the inevitable result, of a singular inevitable history. In turn, this history is stated in terms of a rigid metaphor of layers (the palimpsest metaphor of history). The report even claims to "distil long-term elements" out of this model, which determine the future. Alternative futures of alternative pasts are not considered: there are no 'what-if' questions. In other words, this linear history is in itself exclusionary. It is implicitly used to legitimise the existing city. Then, claims of deterministic historical patterns are used, to legitimise one future scenario against another. And finally there is an implicit preference for historical continuity, for a 'no-break future'.

The 'tasks and issues' from the various sources overlap: but they are also restrictive. They are a fixed choice for the TVA study. The 6 tasks of the national (RPD) scenarios are: the spatial claims of counter-urbanisation, the effects of transport infrastructure, sustainable development, social diversity and segregation, the legitimacy of governments and governance, and the definition of the value of nature. The academic scenario names as central issues: economic efficiency, social justice, and sustainability. The second Interim Report lists: accessibility, spatial diversity (the sprawl issue), security, and long-term economic strengths. All of these are familiar themes in planning and urban theory: that emphasises the lack of originality in the TVA study. Again, it is not possible, in this limited range of conventional themes, to ask the fundamental question: "Should Amsterdam exist?" The two development options, finally, indicate that there is just one real issue in the TVA study: how much sprawl, how much suburbanisation, de-concentration and/or counter-urbanisation. That is an interesting planning issue: but it is not a survey of possible futures for Amsterdam. The TVA study is not even about the future, in the sense implied by its name (ToekomstVerkenningen Amsterdam, Future Prospects Amsterdam).


2. Elitism in the preparation of scenarios

The study consists mainly of the reports mentioned, and it is largely internal to the Amsterdam planing department DRO. However, there was a more general 'debate' on the reports (an assessment procedure), and some debate in the democratically elected city council. (The Council does not have the time to debate general planning issues). I will explain the philosophy of this in the next section: this section is about who influences the study, in practice. And about who is excluded. This exclusion, of persons and groups, is related to the exclusion of possible futures: but the two exclusions are not identical in operation. For instance, employing women as planners does not guarantee that they plan feminist cities - as some feminists had hoped. However, employing men only, would make feminist cities even less likely. Barriers of gender, age, ethnic group, culture, nationality and class make it easy for some people to influence planning, and make that difficult for others. Such discriminatory barriers help to preserve the more 'ideological' exclusions.

To start with, the process of the TVA study is bureaucratically secretive. To get the information in this text, I needed more than 30 telephone calls, and 4 letters. I visited the planning information centre 3 times, and spoke personally to Alderman Stadig. (Fortunately it was election time, otherwise he would have been inaccessible). To obtain the full text of the reports, I had to start a formal procedure under the Open Government Act. Otherwise, only one copy of each report is available for public inspection - for a regional population of over one million.

The final phase of the TVA study is a 'debate' on these reports. However, the real 'debate' is a parallel private assessment procedure, conducted by the Amsterdam Council for Urban Development. Even this closed 'debate' for professionals (architects, planners, economists, geographers) collects reactions only. It does not initiate new TVA reports. The (otherwise inaccessible) TVA reports were circulated to these professionals, and within 'civil society'. The circulation list is secret, but the Council on Urban Development itself indicates the approximate composition of 'civil society'. This quango represents the Chamber of Commerce, housing associations, neighbourhood centres, the official Women's Advisory Commission, the airport and rail companies, trade unions, property consultants, and the universities.

The other 'public debate' on the TVA, the one publicised in the media, is therefore very secondary. Even if it was totally open, it could have very little effect on the TVA study. But even this debate is largely oriented to civil society: 'social organisations' were encouraged to hold internal meetings on the TVA, and send a report to the TVA organisers. From these, a selection has been published be published (another filter process).

Then, only after all important documents have already been submitted or published, the intention was to hold a 'City Conference' (Stadscongres). It was first planned to be open to the public, or at least, those who applied for a ticket in advance. However, even this idea was too dangerous for the organisers: in its final form, the conference was not a discussion. Instead it consisted of discussions among elites, with the public as spectators. At most they could attend a 90-minute round table, where they may comment to city councillors, on themes chosen by the organisers: it was forbidden to discuss any other matter. A report on this pseudo-conference is published in issue 4/5 of the journal Plan Amsterdam.

The speakers at the conference also give a good impression of the elites involved in the TVA study: the mayor and seven aldermen of Amsterdam; the mayors of Hoofddorp, Zaanstad and Amsterdam Zuid-Oost; the Governor of Noord-Holland; academics; local and national planning organisations; the director of the National Planning Agency; the director of the elite new media centre MNOM; the Council on Urban Development; the Chamber of Commerce; NGO's, consultants, and architects; and the planning students association ASAP.

Even this spectator-only meeting had no formal status. Legally, the entire TVA procedure is constructed, so that there is no legal claim to participation. It is kept entirely separate from the normal planning procedures. There is a clear priority for consultation with local/regional elites. According to the TVA study coordinator, "debate about the city takes place in three circles: social organisations, professionals, and policy makers." This priority is also visible in the 'think-tank' organised by Alderman Stadig. It included architects, housing and economic policy officials from Amsterdam and Rotterdam, and local politicians (with the emphasis on Stadig's own party).

There is nothing unusual in this. All planners in Europe will be familiar with this kind of elite in planning process. The point is this: of all the people in the world, these elites are least likely to have radical ideas about the future of Amsterdam.

The more general exclusions will also be familiar: ethnic origin, nationality, language. The participants in the think-tank are, so far as I can trace, all ethnic Dutch. No-one from the two largest ethnic minorities in Amsterdam (originating in Turkey and Morocco) is apparently involved, anywhere in the TVA study. The full texts of the Interim Reports are in Dutch, but a summary in the planning department journal is in English also. This journal is aimed at the planning profession, national and international: public material for the TVA is all in Dutch. The "multi-cultural Amsterdam" described in the TVA study is, in practice, a bilingual city (Dutch and English). This Atlantic orientation determines the accessibility of the TVA material. (According to the journals editor, "all urban planners speak English").

The sources of the studies are also clearly national. The spatial development scenarios are those of the Netherlands. All documents and scenarios quoted in the report originate in the Netherlands. The two academics who wrote an extra scenario for the study are Dutch. Both were involved in a previous 'Metropolitan Debate' on the future of Dutch cities, which itself inspired the TVA study (and both advised subsequent studies as well). That debate was also strongly national in character. (The map in its logo shows the Netherlands as an island, a typically nationalist iconography). Amsterdam is one hour and 14 minutes by train, from the German border: but this proximity is almost ignored in all these studies. And for western European planning in general, eastern Europe simply does not exist.

Again, all of this is so familiar in planning studies, that no-one notices it. Urban planners take it for granted that they make plans under national laws, in a national context, with national citizen colleagues from the majority ethnic group. Despite all the EU urban policy proposals for cities, in reality 'Europe' does not exist, for urban planners. For them (as for the EU), the word designates a collection of nation states. It is still unthinkable, that a plan for Amsterdam is published in Minsk, in Portuguese. The future vision which emerges from the TVA study will be a Dutch city. Like the existing Amsterdam, it will be 'European' only in the sense that it is located in Europe. A very large category of possible future cities, including all specifically European cities, is excluded by the pervasive nationalism of the TVA study.

So, in general there will be a 'centring effect' because of the multiple exclusions. Those involved in the TVA study and 'debate' will be generally ethnic Dutch, Dutch-language, predominantly male, with a tertiary education, from families where at least one parent also had a tertiary education. The participants will be geographically limited: most, residents of the Amsterdam urban region, almost all born and resident in the Netherlands. The TVA study will largely be for:

Most of these people will already have been through many selective filter processes, at university, on committees, in their company. The chance, that such a group will envision a radically different future for Amsterdam, is effectively zero.

And even if they did, the TVA study is subject to the constitutional-legal framework of the Netherlands. That includes more general rules of exclusion, relevant to visions of a future Amsterdam:

Finally, although this is implicit in the rest of this section, there is another inherent limit. It too is so obvious, that is generally not noticed: the TVA study is singular. There is only one of it. There is only one city council, one responsible politician, one planning department, one study, and one debate. This is not self-evident. Amsterdam has Islamic schools, Jewish social work agencies, Catholic hospitals, and Surinamese-Hindustani local television. But, this (limited) plurality is unacceptable in political decision-making, and in planning. I know of no separate futures studies, in planning (separate by gender, or ethnic group or religion). The unified polity of the nation state, can accept a Catholic or Islamic or women's hospital, but not a Catholic or Islamic or women's plan for Amsterdam. The next section explains the implicit philosophy of this approach.


3. Present process determines future?

Suppose the TVA study was the subject of a referendum in Amsterdam. Would that be legitimate? The clear answer is: no. Even the most democratic referendum, would give present inhabitants a monopoly of decision, on future Amsterdam. Yet for many people (including Amsterdam activists), the local referendum is the essence of democracy.

There are two separate principles here. The first is the liberal principle, that a city (or society) should be the result of processes, among its inhabitants. (Market liberals emphasise market processes, political liberals emphasise democratic debate: both reject the imposition of ideals). The second principle is, that the present inhabitants of a city should determine its future. The TVA, and similar studies, combine these two principles. In general, in liberal-democratic societies, a combination of local politics and market forces, in the existing city, determine the shape of the future city.

Some theorists of liberalism explicitly describe it as an anti-utopian philosophy. For future cities, liberal societies do effectively prohibit urban utopianism. 'Ideal cities' are now considered typical expressions of absolute monarchy, which European liberalism historically rejected. In one of the few notable contributions to the Stadscongres, the planning students' association ASAP formulated a neoliberal version of this ethic. They suggested abandoning any attempt to reverse the collapse of the central city, to promote public transport rail transport, or restrict the growth of the Schiphol airport zone:

Amsterdamse plannen gebaseerd op dit soort idealen gaan in tegen maatschappelijke ontwikkelingen binnen de regio...Idealen voor straks moeten getoetst worden aan de realiteit van het heden.
A perfect example of the symbiosis between liberalism and conservatism: if the future must be determined by present market forces radical innovation is excluded. By definition innovation is a break with 'the reality of the present'.

It would be impossible now, to replace Amsterdam with an ideal city, designed against the wishes of its inhabitants (and against market forces). That would be called a design dictatorship, and would be considered 'arbitrary'. "Avoidance of arbitrary decisions" is often given, as a legitimisation of democracy. Yet, it is as arbitrary for the present inhabitants to determine future Amsterdam, as for a present dictator to determine present Amsterdam. By 2030 some will be dead, some will have moved, others will have been born, or moved to Amsterdam. (In a reaction to first version of this text, the project coordinators accepted that there is migration to Amsterdam. Yet, they have no intention of approaching the probable migrant groups, or even providing them with information). The boundaries are equally arbitrary. A housing planner from Rotterdam is part of the TVA think-tank, but Rotterdam voters can not vote in Amsterdam. The TVA study gives much attention to Schiphol airport, but it is outside the city boundaries. And its users come from all over the world. This is a general problem of local democracy, not specific to futures studies.

Is it (for instance) democratic, to hold a referendum on the number of aircraft movements at Schiphol airport? This has been suggested by environmental groups and at first sight, it is democratic. But remember: the aircraft also take off or land at another airport. By definition, only half of those affected by aircraft noise can vote, in such a referendum. Residents near the destination airports can not vote - no matter how fair the boundaries in an Amsterdam referendum. They will be subjected to an arbitrary decision by others - just as if they lived in a dictatorship.

Any boundary for local democracy is arbitrary, and this is especially true for decisions with cross-border effects. And even if the whole present world population planned 'Amsterdam 3000', that would still be arbitrary. Unless there are dramatic new medical technologies, they will all be dead in the year 3000. They will have made a decision about other peoples' lives, on the basis of their own preferences. That is exactly the democratic moral objection to dictators.

So, future studies are not appropriate for local democracy. A design dictatorship, enforcing an ideal city, is morally no worse than a 'democratic' vote, where the affected are excluded. The longer the time horizon of the futures study, the more that will be true. The longer the time horizon, the less chance that the group voting, and the group affected, have any common members. And if this applies to perfect referenda, it certainly applies to studies like the TVA, which involve less than 1% of the local population.

However: logic is one thing, political reality is another. Many people do have a fear of ideal cities, a fear of strange new forms. Liberal-democratic local government is generally a guarantee of stability. Rigidly selective studies (like the TVA), simply reflect this underlying political reality. The majority of the population of Amsterdam do not want a totally different Amsterdam, enforced by a dictator or a foreign army. Studies like the TVA protect them against such radically different futures. That is why, despite the elitism, such future studies are generally accepted, in the city or region affected. The only complaint in the Amsterdam media, about the TVA study, was that the think-tank dined in the Okura Hotel, at public expense.

So the priority given to 'present process among present inhabitants' is probably the most effective way to limit urban futures. The ethical question, however, is this: is it morally legitimate to limit urban futures in this way? The legitimacy of future studies such as the TVA is one aspect of this basic moral issue. It is an issue of urban planning and design, and of the liberal tradition which is the basis of all west European societies. And there are many related questions. Were ideal cities wrong in principle? Is it morally imperative to prevent ideal cities? Should that, which is not consented to, not exist? Should ideals exist outside of process?

And: is it the task of planning, to limit possible futures? The organisers of the TVA study clearly think so.


Excluded futures

Because the TVA study is so restrictive, it is easy to give examples of excluded futures. They are unacceptable to the present population of Amsterdam. Although that does not prohibit their existence, they are excluded from consideration as possible futures, in the TVA study.

Some fundamental alternatives, to the present urban pattern in Europe, are listed in An Urban Ethic of Europa:

These imply direct and radical planning innovation. Schiphol Airport Amsterdam, the region's economic motor, is a good example. It is the National Airport of the Netherlands, a nation state in the Atlantic Alliance. That explains its existence, its position, and even its English name. If Stalin had conquered Europe in 1946, Amsterdam region residents would travel by train to an airport in the Groningen gas-field ('the 4th Baku'), better located for flights to Moscow. Political and geopolitical principles such as Atlanticism and de-Atlanticisation translate directly into planning options. The existing Amsterdam is a spatial 'translation' of a political philosophy and geopolitical order. Other philosophies, other orders, translate into different cities.

More abstract transformations also generate different futures:

Some of these abstract principles open the door to violence and war. That is, in itself, a planning option. According to classic theory, the abandonment of the state monopoly of force would lead to a re-feudalisation. That implies the return of fortifications, as urban elements. A move from single to multiple institutions also implies conflict, possibly a city of fortified quarters.

But equally there are urban futures, more homogeneous than the present. A rigid Islamic theocracy in Europe, for instance, would imply the transformation of Amsterdam into an Islamic city. (Some urban theorists, however, dispute that there is any specifically Islamic urban form). In a homogeneous theocracy, one district of one city would look like any other district of any other city. Some sectors of the economy would also disappear (part of the financial sector, and certainly the officially designated 'Sex-Industry' in Amsterdam).

For other examples of principles with spatial planning implications, see my lists of forms and tasks of the state, and alternative Europes. For a different, generally libertarian, perspective, see the Amsterdam 2.0 project. However, even the few examples given here, show that many futures are excluded from the TVA study. This is a direct result of its structure. It was designed to consider some conventional planning problems: not to think about an Islamic Europe - or any other world different from the present world.

Once again: despite the name, scenario-type studies of urban futures are not about urban futures. On the contrary, they are designed to limit urban futures - to limit even thinking about radically different future cities.


Spatial development principles for the European continent