In the years after the publication of Death and Life of Great American Cities, different critical voices within and outside the urban planning field critically discussed the points so clearly highlighted by Jane Jacobs, in some cases in direct connection with her thought, in others independently: among the many interesting ones, we will discuss in particular Davidoff’s, Barker and Banham’s, and De Carlo’s ones.
Paul Davidoff’s very famous and extensively quoted article on advocacy and pluralism in planning, appeared in the Journal of the American Institute of Planners in 1965, the same year of Alan Altschuler’s critique of planning theory and practice in the US (Altshuler 1965). Its content is significantly influenced by the racial and class tensions emerging in American society and politics in the first half of the 1960s, as well as by classical pluralist though (as expressed for instance by Dahl 1961). The core of Davidoff’s critique to technocratic planning is at the same time epistemological and political, or to put it more clearly, it is political insofar as it is epistemological. Davidoff criticises the traditional planning routine which brings an individual planner or planning office to develop different alternatives, because each alternative course of action should be connected to underlying goals and value systems: ‘Appropriate planning action cannot be prescribed from a position of value neutrality, for prescriptions are based on desired objectives’ (Davidoff 1965, p. 331).
The pretended neutrality of the rational model, based on the careful analysis of urban issues and problems, the development of a set of alternatives and the choice of the best alternative according to sets of ‘technical’ criteria unveils here its intrinsic political dimension: if values are not made explicit, they will tend to correspond to the value systems of the government or public agencies. Hence the proposal of an adversarial planning system, in which plans are designed on the basis of explicitly different interests and values, and are subsequently compared and defended in a public discussion arena: ‘In plural planning the alternatives would be presented by interest groups differing with the public agency’s plan. Such alternatives would represent the deep-seated convictions of their proponents and not just the mental exercises of rational planners seeking to portray the range of choice’ (Davidoff 1965, p. 333).
The intrinsic quality of each different plan proposal would be much higher, because they would be the result of specific decentralised knowledge gathering efforts, thus relying on the mobilisation of situated, tacit and dynamic knowledge (to use Moroni’s criteria), and because they would propose solutions consistent with the underlying value systems of different actors, so that goals would be connected explicitly to the means employed to reach them.
A quite different stance characterises the Non-Plan proposal, advanced in 1969 on New Society by four British intellectuals active in the fields of sociology, architecture, urban design and geography. The style of the article is ironic and paradoxical, as the proposal advocated is to leave parts of the UK territory unplanned, and to subsequently check, after some time, the results in terms of quality of the built environment and quality of life of local communities. Such an idea is to a certain extent extreme, but the core of the argument stands out quite clearly:
“… physical planning, like anything else, should consist at most of setting up frameworks for decision, within which as much objective information as possible can be fitted. Non-Plan would certainly provide such information. But it might do more. Even to talk of a ‘general framework’ is difficult. Our information about future states of the system is very poor” (Banham et al. 1969, p. 442).
The critique to the actual epistemology of planning clearly emerges here, but the evaluation of the very poor results of planning control in the UK brings the authors one step further, to question the legitimacy of (urban) planning at all, and to ask themselves if lifting planning restrictions and leaving land use and design decisions free would in the end produce an environment worse than the one they were witnessing. After a fictional application of Non-Plan to three actual areas, the final part of the article summarises the main lines of critique to technocratic planning, as it has been developing in the UK in the interwar period and after WW2 (especially after the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act). The main critique here is about the pretence of planners to impose value-based and aesthetical judgements on other people’s decisions: such imposition is problematic, because even planner’s judgements are approximate and not founded on sound and reliable evaluations. Reflecting on the effect that Jane Jacobs’ positions on the rigidity of technocratic planning should have had on planning culture in the UK, but in fact had not, the authors thus observe:
“The planning system, as now constituted in Britain, is not merely negative. It has positively pernicious results. The irony is that the planners themselves consistently talk – since the appearance of Jane Jacob’s Death and Life of Great American Cities – about the need to restore spontaneity and vitality to urban life. They never seem to draw the obvious conclusion – that the monuments of our century that have spontaneity and vitality are found not in the old cities, but in the American west” (Banham et al. 1969, p. 443).
Perhaps surprisingly, in the defence of the spatial and formal effects of the diffusion of pop culture, the example mentioned is that of Las Vegas, 3 years before the publication of Venturi and Scott Brown’s pamphlet (Venturi et al. 1972). Interestingly enough, significant links between Venturi’s perspective (in particular in Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, 1966) and that of Jane Jacobs herself have been explored in literature, for instance by Peter Laurence, who argues that Venturi’s book can be seen as a sort of sequel to Death and Life of Great American Cities (Laurence 2006, p. 49).
Going back to re-discuss the Non-Plan proposal after 30 years, and re-examining the main features of the British suburban landscape in a Non-Plan perspective, Paul Barker confirms the validity of the original approach when he writes:
“I have increasingly come to endorse the conclusions we came to, all those years ago. Growth that happens without too much prescription is best. It is, of course, fine to lay down some very basic negative rules, and Non-Plan was never hostile to this; for example, this belt of land shall not be built on; or no building in this city centre shall be higher than ten storeys.
But, outside that, as little should be done as possible. Positive planning is all too often a disaster. For a start, it is usually based on incorrect forecasts about the future. No one is clever enough to know, in advance, how cities will grow” (Barker 1999, p. 108)
Here again we can find echoes of the post-positivist epistemological critique that so many authors have been proposing.
Finally, Giancarlo De Carlo in a 1969 conference (later published in English) (De Carlo 2005), vibrantly criticises the social role and the technical legitimacy of architecture (and hence urban planning), paying a specific attention to the educational dimension. De Carlo belongs to a quite heterogeneous group of architects and planners who worked through the 1960s to a critical approach vis-à-vis mainstream urban planning in Italy; among them we can also mention Ludovico Quaroni and Giuseppe Samonà, both of whom tried to introduce innovations and different perspectives in planning, mobilising different knowledge forms, paying attention to the societal aspects and fostering a stricter relationship with the urban design dimension, compared to mainstream contemporary planning (Di Biagi and Gabellini 1992).
Uprisings and revolts in universities, diffused on both sides of the Atlantic in 1967–1968, had been in fact anticipated in Italian Schools of Architecture as early as 1964 (De Carlo 1968; Granata and Pacchi 2009). This anticipation can be connected, according to De Carlo, to the lack of legitimacy that architectural knowledge had in the eyes of students in the 1960s, due to two unsolved problems: the substantial failure of a never perfectly matched merge between Beaux Arts academic education and technological education on the one side, and the very old and conservative attitude of such schools, which resulted in their inability to tackle the most pressing societal problems.
The main point of De Carlo’s critique focuses on the artificial and oppressive distinction between designer and user, both at architecture and urban planning scale ‘Architecture has become too important to be left to architects’ (De Carlo 2005, p. 13). Such distinction should be blurred in a very different design process, able to actively involve a variety of actors and stakeholders:
“But identifying with the user’s needs does not mean planning ‘for’ them, but planning ‘with’ them. In other words it means enlarging the field of participation through the definition and use of the plan, introducing into the system a whole set of complex variables which could never be composed into balanced situations except with procedural systems based on a continual alternation of observations, propositions, and evaluations; i.e. the use of scientific method” (De Carlo 2005, p. 15).
At the heart of De Carlo’s proposal there is an idea of process planning, based on complex and iterative interaction patterns between designers and users, with the objective to blur this divide and more effectively (and justly) develop design proposals. The relationship between technical knowledge and other knowledge forms (milieu, local, daily knowledge) can be described here as a continuous tension between different polarities, very different from the traditional technocratic models as well as from the most banal interpretations of participatory planning.