While cities used to be planned at the stroke of an architect's pen, a new era of "participative planning" is being sold to us as giving more power over decisions to ordinary people, to disperse more widely the power once held in the hands of "experts" and bureaucrats. But is the role of power missing from this conversation?

In my last article, I wrote about the role of the architect in the power relations that shape cities. But here I will write about the role of the city planner — that means looking at not just the form the buildings take, but also how we arrange those buildings in space.

Participative planning and power an illusion?

Participative planning is a movement that takes a more human-centered and democratic approach to planning urban space, in a bid to "co-produce" the neighborhood. However, if there is one key ingredient that advocates of participative planning often miss, it is power.

Ultimately, planning is about control over land use. Given the finite nature of land as a resource and the historical enmeshing of land, power and conflict, it would be naive to think we could rid ourselves of its altogether. It is at the root of the land-grabbing phenomenon.

The first place to look for examples of how space has been used by those in power is the case of colonial cities. British colonialists in cities like Lusaka and Delhi famously built a "cordon sanitaire," up to 400 meters wide, separating the new Western cities they built for their own people from the tightly segregated indigenous cities where the locals lived. It was an early exercise in exclusion and control through planning in national states.

Because the patterns we use to build cities stay around for a while, post-colonial cities are still struggling with the legacy of this segregated pattern today. Just as the physical footprint of apartheid did not dissolve as soon as apartheid itself was abolished.

Haussman and the legible city

Perhaps the most iconic example of the wielding of urban planning as an instrument came with France's Baron Haussman, who Napoleon III put in charge of revolutionizing the layout of Paris in the mid-19th century.

For some, Haussman was a genius who created the elegant, wide boulevards that visitors flock to Paris to see. For others, he was a megalomaniac who ripped up old, organic Paris and whose only goal was the quashing of political uprisings by straightening out the kinks in the city's crooked medieval streets, starving insurgents of hiding places from the emperor's army.

It is not only in Paris where leaders have become uncomfortable with winding streets. Indeed, Yale's James Scott suggests that the design of cities is one of many ways that states establish control.

Think of the chaotic, informal cities of the 19th century seen from above a tangle of courtyards, neighborhoods, winding streets. Now think of what a bird’s eye view of our cities looks like today neatly divided up into regular blocks or gently-curving suburban cul-de-sacs.

This, according to Scott, is the result of a bid to make our cities legible a quest to achieve an "orderly vision" that makes a population more amenable to taxation, conscription and prevention of rebellion.

The Avenue des Champs-Élysées in late autumn seen from the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.

Urban planning and power in the 20th century

Searching for cases in the more recent history, one of the greatest exercises in power over how space is organized has been wielded by the car industry. In the capitalist 20th century, it was money, not a political title, that talked.

The most famous parable is that of Los Angeles' so-called "streetcar conspiracy." So the story goes: Investors, including General Motors and Standard Oil of California, bought up the streetcar network in order to deliberately dismantle it and trigger the onset of the automotive age.

Despite the more complex reality behind the conspiracy, decisions made at the time laid the groundwork for an infrastructural shift that would shape the very identity of LA for generations to come. The keys to the city were now your car keys.

Around the same time across the Atlantic, London too was banning trams from its streets, as they were deemed to "cater to an undesirable class of person" who had no place in the modernizing city center.

From a blunt tool to a sharp one

Many see the spirit of Haussman as guiding the changes being made in many global cities of today. Like in Amsterdam. where modern-day Haussmanization is seen by some as a bid to "keep out the riff raff" (as the British would say) from a fetishized city center.

In this view, our city centers are white-collar public spaces, designed implicitly to keep certain pesky social groups out of the city center and banish them to the periphery. In fact, the mushrooming of privately owned public space (or POPS) in our city centers physically reduces the space where political protests can be held.

The power dynamics in cities are complex more complex than simply GM pitted against the people. While the controlling intentions behind megalomaniac architecture might be plain to see, what is perhaps so powerful about using space for control is that it tends to slip under the radar. We don't see it until we look closely enough.

Where architecture is a blunt tool, control of space can be a sharp one.