Putting planning back together with politics

Most of these achievements [in early town planning], even the most purely technical, had their roots firmly planted in matters of ideology, which in turn corresponded largely with the beginnings of modern socialism, so much so that the history of these early stages is to be sought in works on the history of economics and socialism, rather than in specialized technical studies.

But this connection lasted only until 1848, the moment when the working-class movement began to be organized in opposition to the parties of the bourgeoisie; indeed, planning experiments of the time were influenced by a wide range of ideological trends, from the egalitarian communism of Cabet to French neo-Catholicism.

The working-class movement reached its decisive turning-point with the advent of Marx and Engels, and Marxist Socialism, intent on explaining the 1848 Revolution and its failure in strictly political terms, stressed the contradictions of the earlier movements but completely lost sight of the link between tendencies in politics and in town-planning which, even if formulated in over-simplified terms, had previously been firmly maintained.

From that time onwards political theory almost always tended to disparage specialist research and experiment, and attempted to assimilate proposals for partial reform with the reform of society generally. Town-planning, on the other hand, cut adrift from political discussion, tended to become increasingly a purely technical matter at the service of the established powers. […]

This is the book’s main thesis which is not without relevance to present-day problems. For progressive tendencies of modern planning can be practically realized only if they make contact once more with those political forces which tend towards a similar general transformation of society.

The last thirty years have taught people to recognize the essentially political nature of all decisions taken in town-planning, but this recognition remains purely theoretical as long as town-planning is thought of as an isolated set of interests which must then be brought into contact with politics—a view which grew directly out of the gulf which opened between the two in 1848.

Although their ideas of planning were somewhat rudimentary, Owen and Chadwick did demonstrate the simple truth that town-planning, though it is a part of politics, and thus necessary to the realization of any effective program, cannot be identified simply with planning in general.

To achieve a more satisfactory distribution of human activity throughout the country, there must be an improvement in the economic and social relationships on which such activities depend; on the other hand, improved economic and social relationships do not automatically bring with them a satisfactory utilization of space—on the contrary, a planned use of space is rather one method, inseparable from any other, of creating the over-all balance which his the aim of all political action.

Leonardo Benevolo, The Origins of Modern Town Planning. Trans. Judith Landry. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1967 [1963], pp. xii–xiv.