Using Technologies: Analysis and Simulation New Technologies (NT) and the professions of Town and Regional planners and the like

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Using Technologies: Analysis and Simulation

New Technologies (NT) and the professions of Town and Regional planners and the like

by Arnaldo Cecchini

1.How the NT influence professions of Town and Regional planners

1.0 Excusatio non petita, accusatio manifesta

I’ve felt the need to propose a whole of reflections of general, methodological, operative kind, in relation to “the state of the art” of the town planner’s “craft” and to the impact that New Technologies1 had , has and will have on the features of this profession and on the town planner’s role, both from a technical point of view and from a social one.

I chose this theme, but in the words of the famous Hercule Poirot, who, having the accent and mannerisms of a Frenchman would be mistaken for such, said “But I am Belgian”; I am not a town and regional planner. I am a town and regional planner neither academically (the town and regional planner usually has a degree in Planning, Architecture, or Engineering), nor as a “practitioner” and in none of the accepted meanings of the term (planning, analysis, management).

I’m sorry for this “field invasion”, but I think I can advance three good reasons:

  1. I’m going to try to demonstrate how the fanning of the whole of activities in which today’s town planner is involved allows to different skills and professionals to “be in their own home” in many of these activities.

  2. The same fanning imposes interdisciplinary knowledge: town planners will have to learn even “other things”, and who knows these “other things” will have to learn about town planning, being anyway in his/her own home.

  3. I’ve been working on the use of simulation techniques applied to urban, territorial and environmental dynamics for years, then many friends and colleagues of mine are Belgian. And now, with the European Union, being or not Belgian is much less important.

1.1Why the professions

In actual fact, if ever there has been a profession of town and regional planner at all, we should recognize that now there are, in fact, many.

The changing role (and self-perception) of the planner has deep-rooted reasons and implies a real “metabasis eis allos ghenos” (besides the following quotations see also: Belli 1970, Rowin 1989, Secchi 1989, Balducci 1991, Thomas and Healey 1991, Palermo 1992, 1994, and 1996, Friedman 1993, Indovina 1994, Maciocco 1996).

“Town planning came about with the Industrial Revolution, when for the first time in human history, society appeared to be organized definitively in the concrete form of the Nation State, a system which provided protection for its citizens in the form of the so-called Welfare State. It has since developed as an independent discipline (independent from architecture and economics) that deals with the structuring and usage of physical spaces for the safeguard of health, social assistance, education, and ever-widening social policies. A discipline, therefore, inherently reformist, and characterized by a utilitarian view (enlarging, edifying, measuring, rationalizing, beautifying).


The first town and regional planning laws are in fact concerned with expropriation for public utility, which is a question intrinsically linked to the role and the function of a modern State that puts collective benefit above the albeit legitimate interest of the individual.

As a discipline in function of the social compromise between productive bourgeoisie, waged workers and the middle classes, town and regional planning has indeed played a decisive role in the organization of physical space, but now perhaps that role has been exhausted in that modern society is increasingly less representable.

Town and regional planning has designed cities on a Ford style model of productive and social organization; a model that has since changed greatly: the organization of labour has changed, as has the conception of nature, and finally, what else has changed is the model of scientific rationality elaborated by Galileo and Newton that led us to believe (and hope) that we might be able to predict and govern (control) the world; the secret certainty in the magnificent destinies and progress of humanity.”

(Scandurra, 1997, p.16-17)

“We have usually thought of city planning as a means whereby the planner’s creative activity could build a system that would satisfy the needs of a populace. Perhaps we should think of city planning as a valuable creative activity in which many members of a community can have the opportunity of participating - if we have wits to organize the process that way.”

(Simon 1981, p. 151)

In fact, even without going into this sort of level of questioning, (and we cannot, however, not consider the question in the era of post-Ford globalization2, in the era of the loss of political weight of the Nation-States, of the crisis of the Welfare State and of the traditional and consolidated models of democratic participation, so we do take them into consideration) there has been a change in the practical functions of the town and regional planner's activities due to various factors, as we shall see (changes in the objects and instruments of investigation and intervention, and increase in specialization, due primarily to technological development). Therefore the town and regional planner is no longer only or principally a planner, but is also a consultant, an expert in information and communication systems, an expert in GIS for analysis, in GIS for management, an evaluator, negotiator, etc..

Besides, the range of problems dealt with by the town and regional planner, whose functions and responsibilities are numerous and diversified, has widened greatly. Regarding this, it is perhaps worthwhile to refer to the latest bulletin of the Association of the European Schools of Planning, a journal for the “practitioners of the profession”, in which there are two articles that deal with the activities of the town and regional planner.

The first of these (Kunzmann 1997) looks into the future of the education of the future planners and identifies five themes central to the activity of the town and regional planner in Europe:

  1. the conceptualization, promotion and inplementation of “sustainable urban development”;

  2. the management of space in fragmented and polarized urban districts;

  3. conceptualization and management of urban and regional policies for the creation of employment;

“Thereby, the multifaceted spatial implications of a redefined work, of new information and communication technologies and of resulting new time patterns in the town and region (paid and unpaid work/labour etc. ...) will be the main concern.”

(Kunzmann 1997 p. 3)

  1. development of the concept of a multi-cultural society;

  2. conservation of city and cultural heritage.

The article indicates the concrete “measures” to be taken and the basic concepts to be redefined in order that a planner may deal with these problems.

The second article (Oc, Carmona and Tiesdell 1997) presents the drawing up of the results of a questionnaire on the profession given to “town planning practitioners”: it is perhaps of interest to note that “negotiation” is considered foremost amongst the professional “capabilities”, and that “social justice” is considered primary amongst “values”.

As Britton Harris writes:

“Planning for new social situations involves more than idealized futures, fixed formulae, or romantic promises. As a first step, planning must get a lot closer to understanding how to serve social needs, and how to measure the prospect of serving them under new plans. It must sharpen its perceptions of new problems and trends, without inflating them beyond reason in imagining the immediate future. But over the future of a century, it must imagine the outcomes of greatly magnified trends and new developments leading to wildly different futures. Then, together with its publics, it must examine the desirability and the probability of these futures, and of their potential redirection or control.”

(Harris 1997 p.7)

This lengthy premise is meant to serve as a guide to a correct approach to the topic of the paper itself, i.e.: whether, to what extent, and how the practice of the profession of town and regional planner has been modified and is still indeed possible with the new technologies, especially those used in territorial analysis (intended as the primary stage in designing and planning).

1.2The future of the professions

We shall also attempt to discuss the future of the professions.

It serves our purpose, however, to start with the affirmation that the profession has changed, and in many ways.

To sum up: how has the work of the town and regional planner been modified?

In practice to a great extent.

But much less in explicit (conscious) terms (see the “tables” defining the University “chairs” in Italy).

Anyhow, the most important changes (both for the best and for the worst) have taken place in ideology and paradigms (see Maciocco 1996, Scandurra 1977).

Essentially, at the level of:

  1. analysis: the concept of forecast is changed (and technologies: starting from evaluation, see Patassini 1997);

  2. planning: the plan becomes “flexible” and involving, transparent in its objectives and methods (see Crosta 1997);

  3. management: monitoring becomes effective with the use of GIS (see Couclelis 1991, Batty 1992, Longley and Batty 1995).

1.3 New technologies (NT) modify the profession

1.3 A. The object of inquiry

NT change the object of inquiry and intervention. In his article entitled The Computable City, Michael Batty (1995) writes:

“This conference is mainly about the uses of computers in understanding and planning cities, and until quite recently, this was the predominant role for computers in planning. But it is increasingly clear that computers are now changing the very systems that we are seeking to understand using the same computers, and this in itself is generating important consequences for how we use computers in planning, consequences which have barely been raised to date. We will explore this conundrum here, suggesting that it is important to examine the ways in which computers are changing the methods for understanding as well as changing the structure and dynamics of the city itself. This is the phenomenon that we will refer to as The Computable City.


Most of our applications of computers for understanding and planning cities have been for purposes of analysis, modeling and design, for storing data, and perhaps more recently for communicating data and ideas. Only very recently has the notion that computers might be more than simply a means for a better understanding and that computation might be more than simply scientific analysis become significant.


Moreover, what is going to be very clear in the future is that to study cities in any manner, it will be necessary to use diverse methods of computation which will vary from the straightforward browsing of digital data to much more sophisticated methods of simulating futures. To plan those same cities, we will have to complement our set of planning tools with those that involve the design, operation, and selection of different types of networks and information.

This is a complex prospect and we need some way of making sense of it all. First let us make a distinction between the material and nonmaterial worlds which in terms of cities we may think of as infrastructure and the way populations behave within that infrastructure respectively. The study and planning of cities has always approached this distinction with respect to how human behavior influences physical form and space although these limits have been the subject of intense debate in the last 30 years. Part of human behavior is our quest to understand and plan the city although many have argued that this activity must be treated no differently from any other type of behavior which affects the city. Nevertheless, a distinction must be made, otherwise there would be no distinct professional activity or concern. When computers were first invented 50 years ago, they gradually encroached upon these professional concerns and by the 1960s had become significant enough to constitute a separate field of inquiry, notwithstanding the controversies such approaches implied. But only recently have computers through networks begun to dramatically affect both the infrastructure of the city as well as those other forms of behavior which planners and urban analysts view as determining spatial and social structures.

In short, computers which were once thought of as solely being instruments for a better understanding, for science, are rapidly becoming part of the infrastructure itself, controlling new infrastructure through their software, influencing the use of that infrastructure, and thus affecting space and location. In one view, the line between computers being used to aid our understanding of cities and their being used to operate and control cities has not only become blurred but has virtually dissolved. In another sense, computers are becoming increasingly important everywhere and the asymmetry posed by their exclusive use for analysis and design in the past and their all pervasive influence in the city is now disappearing.

In both cases, the implication is that computers will have to be used to understand cities which are built of computers. There will be no other way.”

(Batty 1995 P. 3 e 5 (the underlining is mine)

Two years later (1997), Batty goes on:

“As the convergence of computers and communications continues, every aspect of the city is becoming computable. We face the prospect of a world in which the science that we use to analyze and plan is simultaneously changing that very world. In an era of such immediacy, the role of science and of planning begins to change for we can contemplate involving many interests hitherto excluded, previously peripheral to the design of the future. Digital communications, the net and virtual reality systems where the emphasis in on linking all to all through the visual media herald a multitude of opportunities for the many to interact and decide where few have done so in the past. We chart this emerging world where seemingly unlike phenomena and interests can be juxtaposed.”

(Batty 1997 p.13)

In other words, instruments of analysis based on the use of computers will be able to study regional situations which themselves are largely “sustained” by and comprised of computers, with extremely unforeseeable short-circuit effects (see also Meier 1962, Castells 1989, Macmillan 1995).

1.3 B. Working methods (different ways of doing what was already being done)

NT modify the way in which we analyse, plan and manage land transformation.

First of all, it is in some ways similar to the way it was (or at least that is what is said) for literary composition, the possibility of continually modifying projects at all levels of detail makes the process of planning less straightforward, more intrinsically temporary, more and forever in progress: and inevitably this has had an effect upon the contents and nature of the projects.

Secondly, it is at last possible to activate processes of actual and effective participation in planning and evaluation, especially via the use of computer communication systems, and not only via simple protests and direct dichotomy (I do/ do not agree).

Thirdly, documentation becomes more immediate and simple; it is easier to reckon with other experiences, proposals, models, and references (with the considerable risk of being overcome by the overquantity of information).

Furthermore, legislation (often very complicated and at times contradictory), together with the explicit and implicit restrictions subsequent to it, becomes more accessible and it then becomes easier to compare interpretations.

And finally, in accordance with Batty, one might consider some form of integration and “confusion” between a “real” and a “virtual” city; computer networks in fact allow us to have simultaneously “on line”:

  1. data and information on “real” cities

  2. models and simulations of possible cities

  3. learning centres for cities

  4. “real” interaction in “virtual” cities

Confusion between reality and virtuality could indeed become a very real danger.

1.3 C. Work Possibilities

NT modify the models and the instruments with which the transformation of the territory is analysed, planned and managed.

This is, in effect, the basic theme of this paper: the final part of the paper will deal with the evolution of the models made possible by NT (see 2.1).

1.3 D. Relations with client and user and with the specialists

1.3 D1 A scheme

The NT modify the relationship the planner has with those that propose the assignment and the users (a series of people and institutions that together constitute the town and regional planner's “client”).

The availability to all of friendly, low-cost, and accessible technologies and working environments changes the relationships between planners, clients and users, which then become closer, more interactive, more interdependent, more interchangeable, and also changes the relations with the technicians specialised in the NT.

Figure 1, which groups plan / project / strategy, shows the way in which the participation of the commissioning client no longer takes place only in the defining phase of the objectives, nor that of the user only in the evaluation phase, but how the various roles are mixed, and the planner is no longer left on his/her own. This means that s/he must not only share the whole process with his/her “chiefs”, but has the added problem of having to deal with the computer scientists.

World concept



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