2002, Congress Report, 38th ISOCARP Congress, Athens/GRC

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2002 ISOCARP Congress Report, Athens, Greece

“The Pulsar Effect in Urban Planning”

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2002 ISOCARP Congress Report, Athens, Greece

“The Pulsar Effect in Urban Planning”

Similar conviction and energy was required to deal with ‘pulsar‘ effects, whether they emanated from specific political decisions or derived from more diffuse development strategies with less immediate and visible consequences.  Interestingly, pulses initiated by local people, such as the revival of Genova differed from those imposed from the outside, for example by opportunistic developers.  Mega-pulses included big bang or recurrent world events such as Olympic games, or mega-infrastructure projects like the channel tunnel or the Messina bridge.  One-off events like World Youth Day could also act as pulses locally.  Serial pulses took place in Canberra, while mass tourism or second homes provoke recurrent seasonal peak and trough pulses.  Each of these types of pulsar events require different planning responses.  There was a need to develop adequate planning tools, building on risk assessment and management techniques while combining planning for pulses with ecologically sustainable development requirements.

‘Pulses‘ were defined as ‘peaks, troughs and recurrent or repeat events which have a distorting effect on the day to day operations of the modern city‘.  The planning challenge – not much explored by research – was how to cope with ‘pulses‘ and their impact on the provision of urban services, facilities and infrastructure.  A the common feature of pulses was uncertainty, despite increasingly sophisticated predictive tools.  Traditional planning method of survey – analysis – plan did not lend itself to intense political pressure, sudden climatic or seasonal change, cultural upheaval or economic turbulence.  Pulses seem to build up to climax and heightened anticipation often rapidly followed by anti-climax with negative often pervasive and long term consequences.  Conversely, pulses are able to generate high levels of innovative and imaginative thinking without traditional institutional hindrances.  As reflected in many case studies pulses make it possible to explore unorthodox and untested approaches which, in turn, present high risks.  A win brings glory, failure brings ignominy, but mainly adverse effects on the weakest unwilling recipients.

The case of hosting the 2004 Olympic games in Athens was a graphic demonstration of how overstretched a city and its population can become because of such a decision which brings prestige to politicians but may have dire repercussions for a long time on the local citizenry and their livelihood.  The idea supported by the Olympic committee is that such an event should bring long term benefits to the host city.  Unfortunately, the consequences can only be assessed after the event in real terms and they often contradict optimistic political predictions.  In his recent book, the question of urban development from the citizen‘s point of view, the case of Athens, Aristides Romanos‘ who was actively involved in the design of the Olympic village concludes, that the only way to amortise this enormous economic and social investment was to hold further Olympic games in Athens.

Arguments for big bang projects omit negative consequences.  They focus on prestige and image of cities and nations, assumed to increase competitive advantage, attract inward investment and improve their position in the global market.  Financial gain is also invoked but without specifying the beneficiaries.  In reality pulsar effects of big bang events mean short lived intense activities for the benefit of the world community, but great disturbances to the locality during their preparation and massive collapse in local demand for services, oversized or specialised infrastructure and temporary labour after the event.  An overall cost benefit analysis is rarely undertaken and externalities remain ignored.  But the show must go on.  Are their ways for planners to attenuate pulsar effects?

Case studies showed that little attention was attributed to sustainability requirements, as the created spaces were rigid and mono-functional instead of adaptable and re-usable.  The big bang events were energy wasteful and contributed to urban pollution and the reduction of natural habitats.  Only one off events seemed to be able to satisfy some sustainability requirements.  Some saw the objective exposure of pulsar effects an ethic imperative for planners, as well as the task to minimise public expenditure and maximise local public benefits.  However, this was difficult in circumstances where politicians considered the voice of people irrelevant in the light of higher order achievements.  Concentrating expenditure into monuments and persuasive visual promotion was often to the detriment of local amenity needs.  Increased property values provided high status infrastructure for the wealthy and displaced the local communities and businesses.  Experiencing such exceptional planning circumstances which created new operational arrangements and forms of governance, as well as new approaches to participation and partnership forced planners had to resort to unproven methods and tools and cooperate more widely with other professionals in multi-disciplinary teams.  Hopefully, this process generated insights and skills which will be beneficial to mainstream planning.

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