Relational Urban Planning and Infrastructural Organization Models: implications for equity, democracy, and rights

Addie Johnson
5 min readDec 10, 2018
Photo by Jesus Kiteque

In an increasingly occupied world, cities and infrastructures must simultaneously evolve and grow to accommodate much more dense populations. However, we as a society still rely on our traditional ideas of what it means to exist in a ‘dense’ city — this traditional concept, known as “Euclidean” space, references absolute static environments that are measurable, tangible, and one-dimensional. Euclidean space is the dimensions of height, depth, and width within which all things reside. It is the ‘stuff’ physically around us. However, this idea of space is out-dated and does not reflect the non-tangible elements of human existence.

Each individual country or community has unique cultures and politics, and the inhabitants not only adapt to but also change them over time. By understanding political, contextual, and cultural dimensions, urban planners have begun to view space as something that is socially constructed; in other words, we are slowly evolving into a “relational” space model. Such a model is defined by the relations that comprise the material and social reality of our times. This notion of constructed dynamic ‘social space’ has been conceptualized in terms of a process of ‘becoming,’ as opposed to physical static containerized space conceptualized in terms of objects and things in a state of ‘being.’

Our views of space were informed initially by imperialism and colonialism. Nayak and Jeffrey explain the immense power that certain individuals had over the rest of the world’s interpretation of its boundaries and dimensions: “the prominence given to certain theoretical or methodological perspectives is not always a reflection of consensus, but rather of the power of certain individuals and institutions to define what counts as geography” (Johnston 33). Imperialist leaders highly influenced their conquered spheres and further controlled how their conquered groups delineated sections of space. Imperialism encouraged a new worldly perception “which saw the universe as mechanically ordered and hence susceptible to scientific discovery of the causes and functions of its parts without having to be concerned about the purpose or meaning of the whole,” focusing on the impact of one individual or one source of authority (Davoudi, Strange 16). As imperialism declined, and industrial development and urbanization began to increase towards the end of the twentieth century, policy attention more explicitly to space as a primary focus. Socio-economic, lifestyle, and cultural changes diversified and became more varied, which accompanied the new economic and governmental systems emerging in Europe. As this diversification occurred, “national governments now look[ed] increasingly to regional economies, the private sector, urban partnerships and citizen activism for securing their position as key elements of advanced industrial society,” demonstrating that even the economy was becoming more highly culturally connected (Davoudi, Strange 10).

Furthermore, with the increased interest and influence of social and cultural studies, urban planning needs to experience this newfound connectedness and emphasize community engagement, as well as “move from a land use planning tradition to a spatial planning practice” (Davoudi, Strange 14). With this transition to a relational model, theorists were able to fully study and research the “production of space even in a complex, multi-scale, and globalized urban world” (Suitner 25). Relational urban models are interactive design platforms that aim to share evidence about a design but remain ‘open’ so as to serve as a catalyst for negotiation and the creation of shared values between many communities. Most architects and surveyors from the Euclidean time period were known for designing from a distance, similar to the imperialist leaders who led their conquered colonies yet had never visited nor understood their cultures. However, today many groups of urban designers use relational urban models to approach local communities and accomplish more effective problem-solving. By working side by side with residents and inhabitants, planners can build the identity of a place together much more effectively.

Even with the initiation of relational models, cities are still designed mainly following private interest today. The extensive and large corporate purchases of urban infrastructures after the 2008 crisis is eerily comparable (in terms of higher economic and authoritarian control) to imperialism of the late 1800s. The surge in large-scale corporate re-development of cities has catalyzed a systemic transformation in the pattern of land ownership in cities: one that alters the historic meaning of the city. Such a transformation has deep and significant implications for equity, democracy, and rights. One key transformation is a shift from mostly small private to large corporate modes of ownership, and from the public to private. This is a process that takes place in bits and pieces, some big and some small, and to some extent, these practices have long been part of the urban land market and urban development. But today’s scale-up takes it all to a whole new dimension, one that alters the historic meaning of the city.

Large corporations are swallowing up small or public properties embedded in city areas. These acts privatize and de-urbanize city space no matter the added density. Corporate buying of urban space is not adding to the diversity. Instead, it implants a whole new formation in our cities. This reality contrasts the underlying philosophy of relational planning, which explains that the “social world must be understood from within rather explained from without. Instead of seeking the causes of behavior, we are to seek the meaning of action. Actions derive their meaning from shared ideas, rules of social life, and are performed by actors who mean something by them,” (Davoudi, Strange 21).

We have manifested an unsustainable infrastructural organization model that will eventually collapse. This is why we need instruments — and, more importantly, advocacy — for those that are able to measure individual values against common interest, and why relational planning models allow us to connect people and the environment and values from all interests. By essentially ‘crowdsourcing’ the urban design of our cities, we can collaborate upon a model that incorporates our community’s understanding of its highly complex systems of planning.

Works Cited

Bylund, Jonas. “Plassein: On the Fluid Mobility of Place and Urban Qualities in Planning.” Planning Theory, vol. 12, no. 3, 2013, pp. 244–266. JSTOR, JSTOR, Web.

Chettiparamb, Angelique. “Fractal Spaces for Planning and Governance.” The Town Planning Review, vol. 76, no. 3, 2005, pp. 317–340. JSTOR, JSTOR, Web.

Davoudi, Simin, et al. Space and place in the twentieth-century planning: An Analytical Framework and a historical review, in Davoudi, S. and Strange, I. (eds.) Conceptions of Space and Place in Strategic Spatial Planning London: Routledge, 7–42. Web.

Johnston, R. (2012), Geographical Thought: An Introduction to Ideas in Human Geography by Anoop Nayak and Alex Jeffrey. Pearson Education, Harlow, 2011, xv + 337 pages 414–416. 10.1111/sjtg.12004 Web.

Suitner, Johannes. “Cultures of Image Construction Approaching Planning Cultures as a Factor in Urban Image Production.” European Spatial Research and Policy 21.1: 39–51. Web

Suitner, Johannes. “Planning for Dense Containers? Challenging Amsterdam’s and Vienna’s Strategic Urban Planning from a Relational Perspective.” From Rethinking Density, by Anamarija Batista, Szilvia Kovács, and Carina Lesky. Volume 20. Sternberg Press 2017. Print.



Addie Johnson

writing about the intersection of design, business, and technology //