brasilitius | a British disease too ?

Brasilia, courtesy of Google Earth

Brasilitius: the clinical condition for civil servants living in Brasilia, who have work, home… and nothing else. ‘A beautiful plan, but an abject human failure’, to quote Professor James C Scott of Yale University at his recent lecture in Glasgow, kindly hosted by the Glasgow Centre for Population Health.

Prof. Scott’s premise was that large scale utopian schemes, from the planning of new cities to building of new dams, inevitably fail. Despite being intended to improve lives, they have inadvertently brought disruption.

As The Guardian said recently, Brasilia was the spectacular creation of a modern utopia: in the heart of a continent, built from scratch with daring architecture and urban planning, arose a city like no other. It astonished the world. Brazil’s purpose-built capital of perfect grids and avant garde buildings exuded wonder and optimism, control and beauty.

Prof. Scott does not deny this. But he does point out that 60-70% of the city is unplanned and informal, and without that huge informal population, the city as a whole simply wouldn’t work.

What has Brasilia got to do with planning in the UK?

Brasilitius is not just a Brazilian disease: it can potentially be found everywhere there are planners. And the more that we as a profession deploy new tools from Health Impact Assessments to Strategic Environmental Assessment, the more we risk catching the disease. Of course, as a professional planner, I understand the rationale for this rash of Assessments – they are intended to ensure that these issues are taken seriously. And sometimes we are legally obliged to use them, like Strategic Environmental Assessments.

But at the same time, I worry about this trend. What happens to local distinctiveness? What about local communities’ ‘vernacular knowledge‘? What about our responsibility to make livable, sustainable communities?

We’ve got a long way to go before we can claim that we’re really creating communities rather than just places. I’m not saying it’s an easy aspiration to achieve: if it was simple, we would have got there long ago.

There are signs of change – particularly the ever-increasing vibrancy of the community development sector (as documented by the Development Trusts Association and its Scottish equivalent, with well-known examples from the Isle of Eigg Trust in the Hebrides to Coin Street Community Builders in London). A fascinating example of creating local distinctiveness and character in the form of a social media cafe in London is wonderfully described in a recent post on David Wilcox’s blog Designing for Civic Society.

It’s 40 years since Jane Jacobs criticised the planning profession for not creating communities. I can’t help but think that closer collaboration between the community development and urban planning sectors would be a big step towards achieving that holy grail of sustainable communities.

To read a summary of Professor Scott’s lecture or listen to a podcast of it, go to the Glasgow Centre for Population Health website.

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