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Thread: Political systems and how they influence (or not) the built environment.

  1. #1
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    Political systems and how they influence (or not) the built environment.

    I am interested in discussing political systems in light of the built environment on this thread. To place this in the form of a question (or two): Are there differences in outcome for the built environment because of the political systems in place? And if so, are these outcomes of an obvious general nature or of a specific nature? With Cyburbia members probably located in many different nations, we should be able to have an interesting discussion.

    Let me start out setting this up, but not necessarily declaring the rules.

    I came up with the following set-up of political systems. But first, let me mention that in our globalized and further-globalizing world it is probably smart to state how all nations are influencing each other now and that they do so in faster and more detailed manners. Information and innovations can travel at the light of speed, but possibly there are outcomes in specific that belong or not-belong to specific political systems. Here are the four groups I view as distinct and they are ranked from least open to most open, politically.

    1/ nations with a single person or group in control (think communist nations, religious nations, dictatorial nations).

    2/ nations with two parties.

    3/ nations with a limited number of parties (but with more than 2 empowered parties, i.e. coalition-forming governments).

    4/ nations with a large number of parties (6+).

    As mentioned, international organizations (EU, NAFTA, OPEC, ASEAN, WTO, etc) influence the outcome of these nations, and possibly having an empowered president or not could influence the outcome, too (with building a city like Brasilia coming to mind as an important political step, plus the question if that same choice would've been made if Brazil had not had a president).

    I welcome talking about ideas such as capitol cities being larger when based on centralized or imperial systems (think London and Paris), or on decentralized/divided political entities (think Berlin, Rome, Washington). Yet specific outcomes in the built environment being different in different cities because of political choices/political systems come to mind, too (think for instance of places having lots of money for bicycle lanes and places desiring -but not having much money- for bicycle lanes).

    As far as I am concerned, anything goes for this discussion as long as the outcomes point either to the political system in place actively-achieving or neglectfully-achieving specific outcomes in the built environment. The more (or the stronger the) sources you bring to the discussion, the more likely all will share your point of view.
    Last edited by Fred-Rick; 31 Aug 2011 at 9:12 PM.

  2. #2
    Cyburbian Tarf's avatar
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    In my mind, history plays a much larger role in the built environment than the political system. London, for example, is London because it developed that way over a long period of time - mostly under monarchy, but not totally. Los Angeles is Los Angeles also because of history - settlement patterns, plus the introduction of the automobile (and systematic destruction of public transit by big business).

    However, I can see political systems absolutely having a huge impact - just look at China in comparison to the US in terms of planning. When you throw people in jail for protesting your project, you get a much different project than you do when you have to alter your project to make those people at least somewhat quiescent.
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  3. #3
    Cyburbian
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    Cities are built by million’s different people making million’s of different individual decisions. The political, social, religious and economic background all play an important part in each of those small decisions, so inevitably it they will affect how a city evolves physically.

    This is playing out right now in Toronto, where we are about to get into a new debate about what our city’s waterfront will look like. For the last decade planners, architects and politicians have developed a plan, under the “Smart Growth” philosophy, that maximizes the value of the land for the entire community. It will create a series of well-rounded, complete, mixed-use, transit-oriented neighbourhoods that will become part of the fabric of the larger city. Construction has already started on some of the projects. However, the current mayor was elected on a very right-wing “stop the gravy train” platform and is ideologically opposed to anything the previous "liberal" administration was in support of. Therefore he is putting forward a plan (yet to be officially released, but leaked to the press) that calls for the waterfront to become a Las Vegas style tourist area, complete with gondolas for public transit and a Ferris wheel bigger than the London Eye. Of course there would also be casinos, mega hotels, an NFL-sized stadium and a mega mall for all your shopping needs. The political debates and public outcry that are likely to occur over the next few months will ultimately determine the character of the city’s waterfront, and the entire city, for the next century. The vote of one city councilor could sway the decision one way or the other.

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    Cyburbian michaelskis's avatar
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    Interesting concept and I agree in part, but believe that technology plays a bigger role. 200 years ago, we did not have cars, so things were very compact. Horses could only go so far. 150 years ago, we did not have AC or elevators, so buildings were constructed with particular constraints to accommodate human uses.

    Actual building technology has changed too. Many structures were built because of the materials available. Now we can build massive steel and glass skyscrapers because our understanding of the materials is different. Additionally we are able to produce them to accomplish our wants much easier than before.

    I hope we are on another shift that will improve environmental conservation in the structures that we build. When we can get the cost of alternative energy to be less than fossil fuels, we will see a substantial shift. Things like solar, geo-thermal, and wind, along with energy efficient devices, can more than address our energy needs, however the production and installation costs are still too high. When we can figure out how to produce and install these for less cost, they will become mainstream.
    "I learned many great lessons from my father, not the least of which, was that you can fail at what you don't want, so you might as well take a chance on doing what you love." - Jim Carrey

  5. #5
    Cyburbian
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    Howl, I wonder if some if this has to do with political systems at a more micro level than the OP's question, just to echo that these systems do shape results, independent of people's preferences. A couple of questions:

    1. Does the election of a right-wing mayor result in part from the inclusion of many suburban areas into a greater Toronto municipality? I know thinkers on planning often advocate metropolitan government to get over the disconnects in land use & transportation planning as well as (in the US) imbalances between city and suburban finances. But is there a word of caution here - that now fantasies cooked up by someone(s) who can't understand what good urban living is, are attempted to be forced on an urban area?

    2. Was the mayor elected by a majority, or by a plurality? If the electoral system allows for plurality victories, then depending on how the vote is split, a winning candidate may only represent a minority. I lived in a municipality that elected a mayor with less than 30% of the vote in a 5-way race, and not once did our mayors receive majority support.

    3. Is this a strong mayor system?

  6. #6
    Cyburbian ColoGI's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Fred-Rick View post
    Are there differences in outcome for the built environment because of the political systems in place? And if so, are these outcomes of an obvious general nature or of a specific nature? .
    I don't know how a useful discussion can occur without scale and upper and lower bounds on time-history.

  7. #7
    Cyburbian
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    Quote Originally posted by docwatson View post
    Howl, I wonder if some if this has to do with political systems at a more micro level than the OP's question, just to echo that these systems do shape results, independent of people's preferences. A couple of questions:

    1. Does the election of a right-wing mayor result in part from the inclusion of many suburban areas into a greater Toronto municipality? I know thinkers on planning often advocate metropolitan government to get over the disconnects in land use & transportation planning as well as (in the US) imbalances between city and suburban finances. But is there a word of caution here - that now fantasies cooked up by someone(s) who can't understand what good urban living is, are attempted to be forced on an urban area?

    2. Was the mayor elected by a majority, or by a plurality? If the electoral system allows for plurality victories, then depending on how the vote is split, a winning candidate may only represent a minority. I lived in a municipality that elected a mayor with less than 30% of the vote in a 5-way race, and not once did our mayors receive majority support.

    3. Is this a strong mayor system?
    Yes, no and no.

    The current mayor (Rob Ford) was the only right-leaning candidate competing against four strong left-leaning candidates. His voter base is very much the suburban areas. People there are frightened by growth and change. They want more highways so they can drive into the city centre, not transit, and they certainly don’t want high density development. In the past there was an unspoken truce - high density urban development happened in the core and little to no new development happened in the suburban areas except in a few pockets. The problem with that model is the low density suburban areas require lots of car and the high density core areas require a lot of transit – so there is a transportation related disconnect between the two. Over the last ten years there has been a push by the Provincial Government towards sustainable development which meant transit extending into the suburbs in a much more extensive way and more transit-oriented development as a result. The election of Ford was a reaction to that.

    Fortunately, it’s a weak mayor system so he can’t actually get anything approved unless he has council behind him, which only about a third of them are. His strategy is more about destabilizing the existing bureaucratic structure by whipping up bizarre plans in a week or two and springing them on everyone at a big media circus, which results in the established groups having to react without any real preparation or organization. He managed to stall four of the five new transit lines that the Province is paying for.

    Regarding your frist point about the level of political system the OP is referring to, in my mind politics is where the rubber hits the road. If there was one strong political entity (right or left) there would be little planning and little discussion. Things would get done but they wouldn’t necessarily be the best quality or character. If there is too much political wrangling, or partisan politicking, then nothing gets done. The goal is to find a happy balance that allows discussion and debate, but also allows things to actually happen.

  8. #8
    Cyburbian wahday's avatar
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    I think one difficulty in trying to identify a causal relationship between a political system and its resulting built form is that not all political systems take on planning as something to be directed through the government (and I am thinking globally and through time). Also, the influence being exerted may be political in nature, but it also may be cultural. Which is to say, those same built forms may have resulted from a number of different political systems because its a deeper social preference that is influencing style and form.

    Additionally, in many parts of the world, political systems have changed so frequently that identifying these relationships may be very difficult if not impossible. I'm thinking of many places in Africa, for example, where political systems since independence have been widely varied. In places like these, conflict and a lack of stability also play a role.

    All that being said, and to take the African example, in my time in Uganda I have noticed some interesting changes in styles of building that correspond to different historical eras (which also relate to different political systems). For example, pre-colonial development tended to emphasize round structures (and compounds that are often arranged in circular formats), thatched roofing, a highlighting of fluidity between indoor and outdoor spaces, etc. And these tendencies varied from region to region. If you go to the northwest, for example, you will see more traditional syles that are rectangular (which is a result of cultural influence from the west in DRC where many of those population migrated from). This is all especially when looking at the residential level, but also reflected in some of the more dense population centers (Uganda being among the more densely populated parts of the continent). Kampala was a pre-colonial pooulation center and the Kabaka's palace and other large buildings were all circular and thatched (check out the Kasubi tombs where the kings were buried and which is now a World Heritage site).

    During and after colonialism you see the emergence of building styles and materials that are a direct reflection of British influence. More rectangual buildings, increase use of baked bricks and cement, metal roofing, more indoor activities (kitchens that are inside the house as opposed to a separated cooking hut that is still typical of rural areas) and a generally more distinctive demarcation between inside and outside. You also see the emergence of a lot of preformed concrete materials like blocks that are also used as design elements (very typical of the 1960's colonial and post-colonial styles seen at cultural and government buildgins, universities, etc.). Islam also has an influence in building in this arena (and these decorative block styles can also be linked to other Islamic nations of that period). Uganda is not majority Islamic, but it is about 16 percent and the presence of Arab traders there predates European colonialists, so the cultural influence runs deep.
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  9. #9
    Not to get all academic on you, but have you looked at the work of Manuel Castells, Henri Lefebvre and others? All cities are a function of their economies, social structures, technologies, etc.

  10. #10
    Cyburbian craines's avatar
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    Used to watch a show,"All Things Considered" that was hosted by a chap, James Burke, that would show the development of a current component in our modern society and would always end the show with............"It is all ECONOMICS".

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  11. #11
    Cyburbian dw914er's avatar
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    I think the political climate represents part of the equation. The ability to grow and what should stay (and what should go) during any particular era are driven by politics and economics. Consider a pro-development city during an economic boom, and you'll see the built environment change. Or consider the era of machine politics in the US in cities like NYC, Boston, etc. However, as someone pointed out, technology and resources also plays a large role. LA's built environment is a product of the automobile age. The pressure to expand was different than a city built 100, or 1000 years before.

    However, this only contributes to what happened at a given time. London looks the way it does because o0f growth occuring over a span of thousands of years. When a new politcal group takes power, you won't typically demolish everything from the political group leaving power. You might demo some stuff, but it's usually too hard to start anew. So, eventually, you get this collection of buildings, structures, and a city layout combining different era's depending on how old the area is, and how well the buildings survived.

  12. #12
    Cyburbian ColoGI's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by craines View post
    Used to watch a show,"All Things Considered" that was hosted by a chap, James Burke, that would show the development of a current component in our modern society and would always end the show with............"It is all ECONOMICS".

    cr
    That show was Connections, but the point is excellent and germane. The OP is much too vague, but maybe it was enough to narrow the assignment scope to get an idea for a topic direction. Helped by Gotta Speakup's mention of Castells.

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