planning as fiction: sustainability/apocalypse

This weekend I had the pleasure of speaking with a good friend, a fellow student, and urban theorist. Whenever we speak, I feel like we have really great discussions about urban theory, planning theory, and about other things we have been reading.  I have also recently been reading Story and Sustainability a book about storytelling, narrative, and planning as a tool for conceptualizing and implementing sustainable cities visions.  I couldn’t help but immediately make the connection during our conversation that long-term, institutionalized planning is really about creating fictions.  Fictions that people can buy in to, that portray a story of the future, one that is mediated by the plan’s creators.  The power of the planner as a storywriter, a storyteller, an author of imaginaries, is not often discussed in these terms, as a work of fiction.  And really, as thinkers about the future, planners can draw on several resources to make those imaginaries, those fictions.  Is it more like sci-fi, tragedy, comedy, or another genre? Does the planner draw on rationality of science or on stories dictated by communities, or both?  What can we learn, as planners, from the phantasmagoria of literature and fiction writing as we craft visions of the future for our cities?

I came across a blog entitled Post-Apocalyptic Cities in which the author discusses science fiction writing that portrays destruction of cities.  He notes that the authors of early science fiction would translate new scientific research and theories into literature, into fictions about the future. This analogy to planning is very clear.  What else is it that planners do in visioning stages? Why can’t these visions be more radical, why can’t they demand more?  As the blog author discusses here, possibility for an emergent imaginary is absolutely possible, but I do not think we have to resort to apocalypse to incite radical visions (do we?) :

As modernity and the fast-paced, industrialized city disrupted tradition and established conventions, literature reflected this transition in the reassembling of genres for a new fiction that focused on fantastic futures. With the advent of Greenwich Mean Time, railway schedules, industrial workdays, and new technology like the wristwatch, temporality became of crucial interest in fiction concerned with alternate presents and futures. Only the narratives enabled by Time Traveler’s time machine or the future historians of London’s and Verne’s stories, therefore, could reassemble the fragmented histories of a modernity still being understood. As novels and stories of science fiction struggled to negotiate a place for themselves, established modes had to be compromised and pieced back together in new ways, to allow a new mode of speculative writing. As a consequence of this, many of these works feature worlds that are literally fragmented, with the defamiliarized ruins of cities such as London and New York standing for the crumbling establishment, with emergent civilizations rising in their place like a phoenix from the ashes. Apocalypse, as with the genre of science fiction, allows for a literature of a remade order, reflecting the shockwaves caused by a transition to a new age of civilization.

The discourse of sustainability was at one time, and I still think so today, a kind of threat of apocalypse. One that warns us of the impending doom of climate change, of ecological collapse, of financial collapse, political collapse, and I do feel these are very real threats, but we have to put these in context. How does this discourse shape our reactions, our ability to imagine new futures, our ability to write new fictions for our cities? How does technology shape our future, or what we can envision it to be? Is urban planning, then, a mode of techno-politics, one that engages in techno-political fictions?


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