“Not in planning’s name”? Lessons from Israel/Palestine

Autor: Marco Allegra

Last year an International Advisory Board (IAB) chaired by Cliff Hague (former president of the Royal Town Planning Institute, RTPI) and working under the auspices of the UN-Habitat, produced a report on planning conditions for Palestinian communities in the so-called “Area C” of the West Bank. The report detailed the asymmetries of planning policies in Israel/Palestine, and highlighted how planning arguments are often used by Israeli authorities to curtail Palestinian development. The publication of the report has stimulated a debate in the planning community: the findings of the report were endorsed by eighteen former presidents of the RTPI in a letter to the Institute’s official magazine, The Planner. Hague himself recently published a commentary in the journal Planning Theory and Practice. Reflecting on his experience, he noted how in the West Bank “‘good planning’ is the rationale for oppressing poor people”, and asked professional bodies to take a stand against oppressive practices in Area C by declaring “not in planning’s name”.

Hague’s call certainly deserves support: indeed, the IAB report is nothing but the last addition to a long series of papers, reports, and books detailing the partisan nature of Israeli planning policies in the West Bank. But his commentary also invites further reflection on planning as a profession: what is “good planning”? And how you do stick to “good planning practices” when operating in politically polarized environments? For at least thirty years, since the publication of John Forester’s Planning in the Face of Power (1982), the relation between planning and politics has been a central concern in the debate of the international planning community. As I have argued elsewhere (Rokem, J & Allegra, M., forthcoming 2016, “Planning in Turbulent Times: Exploring Planners’ Agency in Jerusalem” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research), the reality of Israel/Palestine provides at least two interesting lessons in this regard.

Image 1: House demolitions in East Jerusalem

Figura 2 Allegra.jpgSource: Activestills.org / +972

In the first place, the harsh politics of planning in Israel/Palestine reminds us that rationality, public interest, and planning practices do not exist in isolation: Hague’s quest for “a set of propositions that are defensible in deeply rational terms that can enable planners to advocate for authoritative choices”, is doomed to failure. Whether “good planning” is defined in terms of its potential to deliver rational/efficient solutions, or as a more democratic/participative process, its potential to deliver fair, comprehensive solutions to entrenched political problems is necessarily limited. Just as many of their colleagues all over the world, Israeli planners that I have interviewed in the course of my research like to think that, within the constraints placed by politics, a “safe space” for planners exists to unleash the progressive potential of their profession. But can any participatory planning intervention in East Jerusalem make up for the structural lack of representation (e.g. the absence of voting rights) of the local Palestinian population? The Israeli planning community has since a long time adopted the vocabulary of multidisciplinarity and participation; but to what extent, say, the key principles of the “Charter for Sustainable Planning” of the Israel Planners Association (e.g. commitment to “Community and Society”, to “People”, to “Effective Mobility”, to “Public Participation”) are relevant to the Palestinians in the West Bank? The issue here is not the sincerity of Israeli planners: while this may sometime be the case, IPA members (or my respondents) are not simply making an excuse to justify their involvement in an unethical endeavor. At the same time, it is clear that any notion of “good planning” should be considered against the social and political background in which the planning system operate. In Israel/Palestine, failure in acknowledging the intimate connection between planning and political issues invariably results into a technocratic approach that accentuates the conflicts it is supposed to minimize.

 Image 2: Bimkom architects working with Palestinian local communities in Area C

2 Allegra.jpgSource: Huffington Post 

Is “politics” therefore hierarchically superior to “planning”? Is the planner’s role limited to the professional implementation of political directives? Paradoxically, the case of Israel/Palestine – where “everything is politics” – seems to suggest otherwise. Contrary to the logic of “safe space” (i.e. that planners’ agency is meaningful where political influences are limited), planning practices are effective to the extent they are embedded in the surrounding environment. In other words, planning dilemmas are not so much “compounded by the fact that planners have to operate within institutionally constrained spaces”, as Hague argues; a careful appreciation of the social, political and institutional context is the only genuine way to answer to these dilemmas. I have interviewed senior professionals working in Israeli institutions recalling episodes in which planning and political considerations went nicely together; or in which timely action, coupled with a correct reading of the situation, allowed them to have a decisive and creative influence on important planning decisions. If planning was powerless against politics, how could we explain the large number of human rights NGOs active on planning issues (such as Bimkom or the International Peace and Cooperation Center)? Tangible results of counter-planning activities might be scarce (although not insignificant), but they ultimately are “a form of political representation that competes with other forms of representation” (Cohen-Blankshtain et al, 2011: 637), and might constitute a “quiet encroachment” challenging the planning system.

Mainstream and activist planners in Israel/Palestine would by and large concur on the technical procedures that make up “good planning”; they would certainly disagree on the substance of (almost) every actual planning decision. So what does “good planning” look like? There is, of course, no straight answer to such question. As political theorists have shown, procedural democracy is simply insufficient in tackling substantive issues; planning, having abandoned a purely technocratic, modernistic approach to embrace a more participatory, communicative ethos, is now faced by the same wicked problems of democratic theory. Planning as a discipline does not have an inherent progressive value, but we should be hopeful about the agency of the planning community: “good planning” cannot solve pressing political problems; good planners should certainly try.

This post is a reduced version of a commentary to be published by the journal Planning Theory and Practices as a reply to Cliff Hague’s paper.


Marco Allegra é investigador em pós-doutoramento no ICS ULisboa.


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