In-conflict/Post-Conflict: A role for planning in building peaceful, inclusive and resilient cities?


photo by Roberto Rocco at the Planning and Post-conflict Cities symposium

by Dr. Shipra Narang Suri, Urban planner, Vice-President ISOCARP, Co-Chair World Urban Forum
* pictures taken during the symposium by Daniel Radai

I participated in a symposium on Planning and Post Conflict Cities at the Delft University of Technology (TU Delft) a few days ago. While reflecting on my presentation prior to the symposium, I realised that there was really no single planning approach for cities in or emerging from conflict, which I could enlighten my audience on. I suppose this is in no small measure due to the fact that there is no conclusive argument as to why planning has not worked in the aftermath of conflict. Is it because of the context itself, its fluidity and unpredictability? The vacuum of governance? The breakdown of institutions and rule of law? The impossibility of dialogue? The absence of trust?  All of those are prerequisites to an effective planning process that responds honestly to the needs of all concerned.

Or could it be because of the players involved in post-conflict reconstruction at the present time, the ‘international community’: that indistinct mass of UN agencies, donor countries, international NGOs, private contractors, networks and associations, religious organisations, foundations and philanthropies, researchers? Unlike after the Second World War, when reconstruction was led by national governments, it is now a mosaic of efforts directed by a variety of actors with disparate approaches, none of which include planning. Perhaps because these players do not understand why it is so important. Or even if they do, they are probably vying to demonstrate their utility through visible results, “demonstrable outcomes”, rather than investing themselves in long term change processes.

Or is it because of the nature of planning itself, and its tools, that planning has been ineffective, and thus marginalised, in post-war reconstruction? The type(s) of planning that we usually undertake rely on a fair amount of data, which needs time and resources to collect and analyse. They need sophisticated analytical tools and capacities, and increasingly involve complex participatory arrangements. We speak a language which is often difficult for others to understand. When a conflict is ongoing, or even about to conclude, where is the interest to plan for, or envision the future, especially when no one is able to explain in simple terms why these are important?

It is not as if planning has not been tried in conflict and post-conflict environments. It is also not that it has not seen success. In the aftermath of World War II, Abercrombie’s London plan of 1944 set out a bold vision for London, and its surroundings. In Warsaw, the city centre was reconstructed as an exact replica of its pre-war avatar, combined with modernist expansion. In Germany, the emphasis was on modernisation and functionality of war-destroyed cities. In the US, though not directly impacted by the war, a strategy of defensive dispersal (of populations and assets) emerged as a response to conflict, one of the factors that drove the process of suburbanisation.

In Northern Ireland, planning was very much integral to the peace process, used as a strategy to contain and manage conflict.  In Palestine, it has been used to much more sinister ends, deployed extremely effectively by Israel as a tool to pursue partisan goals, development control as a means of political control. In Beirut, it was used to translate the vision of one man into reality, leading to the reconstruction of the city centre by a private company, in an elitist and exclusionary manner, but effective in attaining its goals nonetheless.


© William Neill – Dealing with the Legacy of the Past: the Role of International Intervention

The international community has also done its bit, mostly led by UN-HABITAT. In Kosovo, UN-HABITAT ran successive programmes that focused on institutional reform and capacity-building, training a veritable army of planners who are now embedded across national and local government institutions there. The aim was not to provide them with fish, in this case the plans for the various municipalities, but to teach them to fish, i.e. to prepare those plans, while creating the conditions to support their implementation. Unfortunately, the emphasis on the process meant that development proceeded apace in the meantime, and changed the face of Kosovo’s towns, newly emerged from conflict, in an irreparable manner – illegal constructions covering the hillsides, building material depots and fuel stations abutting the highways, huge warehouses dotting the landscape.

In Somalia, on the other hand, the approach, was to make “little plans” (disregarding the exhortation by Daniel Burnham a hundred years ago), small incremental steps towards a more comprehensive approach.  The focus was on participatory design and execution of small development projects for improvement of local infrastructure; improving the layouts of IDP settlements; and providing training, hardware and software for the improvement of municipal finance, including property surveying using GIS to increase the municipal revenue base. A comprehensive, inclusive planning process was seen as impossible to implement.

In Bosnia, despite a generous pot of resources made available by the EU, planning for the war-divided city of Mostar was a complete failure, with reconstruction entrenching war-time divisions that have proved impossible to overcome. The EU Administration of Mostar fell into the trap of sacrificing sustainability in the long term at the altar of expediency, focusing on “keeping the peace” instead of “making peace”.  The city continues to be divided in all but name, economically unviable and politically stagnant, twenty years after the war ended.

There are also more recent approaches. In Afghanistan, there is an effort to use data – collected through tools that rely on a combination technology and community input– to build and understanding of the state of cities, which, it is hoped, would lead to a more effective planning process for Kabul and the other urban centres in the country. The State of Afghan Cities report is a huge leap forward in a country where the last census was held over four decades ago. But at the same time, a master planning process has been tried, without any understanding of the real forces that shape a city, which include elites who stand to benefit from the development of extensive swathes of land they own. Needless to say, it is out of touch with reality, and thus doomed from the outset.


So what can be done? And why is this question of planning coming up now?

It is coming up now because cities all over the world are in crisis. They are targets of war, arenas of conflict, destroyed by bombings or guerrilla warfare.

Or, they are bearing the brunt of the outcomes of conflict, taking in refugees and displaced persons that need to be housed, supported and integrated. Mostly, they face a combination of these, further complicated by issues of poverty and exclusion within, with natural and man-made disasters thrown into the mix as well.

But it is also coming up now because there is a renewed interest in planning as an instrument to support development and advance resilience. The newly adopted Sustainable Development Goals include a goal on cities and a target on planning. The Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, adopted in March, also mentions the role planning in disaster risk reduction. The COP21, taking place as we speak, is emphasising the role of cities (and planning) in addressing climate change. The Habitat III conference coming up next year, has included planning as a specific theme in its background papers.

So perhaps, finally, the time is right for rediscovering what planning can do for cities facing all kinds of crises, including conflict. We have to explore what kinds of approaches and tools might work, and what kinds of capacities may be needed. There is a need for a new vocabulary to be able to communicate planning´s original purpose – ensuring equitable access to scarce resources – to a new audience. It is time that it reclaimed its space as a political, rather than simply technical, instrument.  We may need to be humble about our role in building the long peace. But at the same time, we must staunchly guard against the (ab)use of planning to oppress, deny and control. And we should certainly not underestimate its value in creating space for an inclusive dialogue, in negotiating solutions to everyday differences, and in resolving longstanding grievances that can ultimately become the cause for intractable conflicts.


© Anne Feenstra – Inclusive Urban Design

One Comment

Eric Huybrechts

Thank you very much Shipra for this presentation.
In fact planning is more presented than describe in the paper but need to be differentiated between different types of planning tools. Territorial strategies and regulations are not impossible to implement and examples can be documented in a more accurate analysis.
The efficiency of these tools are effective regarding similar capacity of development control contexts (war torn or not).
The question could be how to use planning to support efforts for reconciliation through co-building a vision ? Soft planning is a strong tool to support dialogue between all parties.

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