GaWC Research Bulletin 385

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A shortened and revised version of this Research Bulletin has been published in Journal of Planning Education and Research, 31 (4), (2011), 416-422, under the title 'Commentary: Toward the Making of a Transnational Urban Policy'.


Please refer to the published version when quoting the paper.


Strategic Urban Planning: Towards the Making of a Transnational Urban Policy?

C. Parnreiter*


Strategic planning is spreading. Additionally to well known examples such as Londonand its Docklands Strategic Plan, San Francisco’s strategic plan Making a Great City Greater, and Barcelona’s Social and Economic Strategic Plans, countless cities around the world have turned to strategic planning. UN-HABITAT (2009a) praises this method and concept as a new, innovative approach which has found its way to the world, and United Cities and Local Governments, an organization that promotes the interests of local governments, claims that local authorities ‘(r)egardless of culture, region or language’ have employed strategic plans (UCLG 2010, 6). Burgess and Carmona (2009, 12) conclude their review of strategic planning experiences in 43 cities around the world stating that ‘(e)verywhere there have been significant changes in the theory and practice of urban planning … One can identify these changes as amounting to a fundamental paradigm shift in urban planning which can be characterized as a universal shift from master planning to strategic planning’.

Certainly, planning ideas have travelled across borders for a long time. They were exported by colonial powers to or even imposed on the dominated territories (King 1980), they were exchanged between urban reformers and municipal officials from European and North American cities at the turn of the 19th to the 20th century (Kenny 2009), and they were brought by national governments and development agencies to the now postcolonial cities after World War II (Ward 2010). Yet, since the 1980s important differences have emerged, partly due to technical reasons (think of the new information and communications technologies and of fastened and cheapened transportation), but mainly because of the political reshaping of the relationships between capital and planning, architecture, engineering and real estate firms (Knox/Pain 2010). One aspect of how globalization and planning are specifically tied together (cf. Pezzoli/Afsahr 2001) is that the travelling of planning ideas has speeded up and won intensity, up to ‘historically unprecedented’ levels (Tait/Jensen 2007, 107). Another feature is that ‘planning ideas and practices are not just diffusing from the ‘West to the rest’, or from the ‘developed’ to the ‘developing’ world, or the ‘global North’ to the ‘South’. There are all kinds of cross-movements’, as Healey (2010a, 7) notes. This implies, according to Ward (2010, 66), that planning concepts came to accumulate through their journeys ‘a complex international history that reflected more than one national tradition; they were synthesisised products of an international planning community’ (Ward 2010, 66). Building on these notions and on the evidence on the spread of strategic planning, my contention is that this planning approach is ‘universal’ (Burgess/Carmona 2009, 12) not only in the quantitative sense of its worldwide proliferation. Rather, I posit that it is ‘universal’ also in the qualitative meaning that it has emerged out of more than one national tradition.

Yet, how is this multi-traditional character best conceptualized? Both Healey and Ward employ the word ‘transnational’, as do others in the planning literature. In most of these accounts the use of the term remains, however, casual. Some apparently denote any cross-border interaction as ‘transnational’, while others (such as Ward) use ‘transnational’ and ‘international’ interchangeable. Both is imprecise, as we can learn from the distinction between inter- and transnational agents and interactions established in migration studies and in economic geography. ‘Transnational’ are those social processes, which are both anchored in and transcending one or more nation-states, and in which the localities, where the cross-border relations touch down, are strongly interdependent (Kearney’s 1995; Bartlett/Goshal 2002). As one of the few in the planning literature who applies the term ‘transnational’ thoroughly, Anthony King (2004, ch. 5) suggests the writing of ‘transnational planning histories’, because cities have ‘to be understood not in relation to one, but rather two or more societies, by which … I refer to territorially based ‘nations states’’ (ibid., 82).

Unfortunately, in further writings King has not followed his own agenda, and that is why his critique that current theorizations of the transnationalization of the urban are ‘seriously underdeveloped’ (ibid., 92) is still valid. To overcome this flaw and to get a better grasp of what it means that (some) urban policies arise out of more than one national setting, I propose to draw on the literature of transnational urbanism. I claim that its conceptualization of transnational cities as ‘human creations best understood as sites of multicentered, if not decentered, agency’ (Smith 2001, 70) is appropriate to sharpen our understanding of what makes the new quality in the cross-border journeys of planning ideas, to which both Healey (2010) and Ward (2010) allude. My argument is that strategic planning is more than a ‘travelling idea’ (cf.Tait/Jensen 2007), which is‘crossing borders’ (Healey/Upton 2010). Rather, I suggest that due to the specific constellation in which its cross-border circulation is organized, strategic planning has detached from its origins and thus its ‘original’ identities. It has assumed a transnational character, in the sense that it is the result of multicentered agencies.

After a short introduction into key ideas of strategic planning, I will back this claim with an examination of the worldwide proliferation of strategic planning, paying particular attention to the agents and channels through which it is achieved. I will also ponder on the nature of the exchange: Are we dealing with an export of urban policy from some Western / Northern cities to ‘the world’, or does its travelling (and trading) conform to a multidirectional exchange? N order to answer this question, I propose that the lens developed by the transnational urbanism literature is appropriate. In the final section of this commentary I will connect my analysis to a particular case, namely the gradual displacement of master by strategic planning in Mexico City. My goal is to exemplify the conceptual argument that the worldwide shift to strategic planning has been instrumental in governing the production of global city spaces around the world.

Strategic urban planning

Strategic urban planning emerged with the deep crisis of cities generated by the crisis of the Fordist system of accumulation in the turn from the 1960s to the 1970s. As part of the subsequent social and geographical restructuring of economic activities, the regulation of urban development changed ‘from managerialism to entrepreneurialism’ (Harvey 1989). Among its key features are novel methods of organizing and financing urban projects, new actor constellations, and a redefinition of the tasks of urban planning, which should turn cities (again) into growth machines. Planners were thus requested to create an urban environment encouraging for economic growth – ‘by any and every possible means’, as Hall (2002, 379) notes. Originally re-active, this agenda of enhancing the competitiveness of a city through strategic planning soon assumed a pro-active character. Economic goals appropriate to (better) position a city in the world economy are, thus, at the core of strategic planning.

A second and related aspect is the rise of new actor constellations. Due to the urban fiscal crisis, local states were forced to search for new forms of financing urban projects. These were found in public-private partnerships, which became primary vehicles to promote, organize and finance urban development (e.g. Fainstein 2001). One effect was that urban development became ever more marked by mega-projects (e.g. Díaz Orueta/Fainstein 2009), while another consequence was that the planners’ role changed. He / she became, as Hall (2002, 379) puts it, ‘increasingly identified with his (her, Y.Y.) traditional adversary, the developer’. Strategic urban planning is, thirdly, spatially more selective (and thus prioritizing) and more flexible than master planning. Generalizing from the Barcelona experience, it became widely accepted that an urban strategy was best expressed not through a general morphological plan for the whole urban area, but through major strategic projects (Healey 2010b, 170). This ‘planning through projects’ (Carmona 2009) implies a move from a territorial to a network approach to the city (Burgess/Carmona 2009, 26), with interventions being limited to those areas and / or aspects which have the potential to make ‘a difference to the fortunes of an area over time’ (UN-HABITAT 2009a, 19). Because the goal to (better) position a city in the global economy is a major political and organizational enterprise, it demands an idea for the future development of a city. This in turn requires addressing objectives cross-sectorally, and it calls for a political and social consensus beyond an agreement on technical planning details. From that result the fourth and the fifth characteristic of strategic planning. It entails a holistic attitude, and it shifts the focus from the governance of urban processes to their governance (Albrechts et al. 2003). Because ideas about the future development of a city must become ‘lodged in the ‘hearts and minds’ of the actors who command key resources’ (Healey 2010b, 170), a strategic planning process is said to create a more cooperative approach to urban policies and new agencies in the planning.

Policy tourism, city-networks and informational infrastructures

The worldwide dissemination of strategic planning mentioned in the introduction is achieved, firstly, through ‘policy tourism’ (González 2010) of mayors, municipal officers, planners, urban professionals, private consultants and civil society groups to the ‘meccas for urban regeneration’, (ibid., 1) and innovative urban management practices such as Barcelona, Bilbao, Vancouver or Porto Alegre. Barcelona, for example, had at least one foreign delegation visiting every working day between 2000 and 2008, what adds up to at least 4,000 policy tourists annually. Through these visits, the ‘Barcelona model’ was established as a ‘general transnational consensus on ‘what should be done’ in terms of urban policy’ (ibid., 15).

Other facilitators of ‘urban policy mobilities’, as McCann (2011) has recently called the cross-border teaching and learning processes in urban planning and management, are the countless professional and city networks.1 In these networks, ‘best practice’ cases of strategic planning are being showcased, key texts diffused, and multilateral learning is promoted. One of these city networks is the Iberoamerican Center for Strategic Urban Development (CIDEU in the Spanish acronym), which was created to export the ‘Barcelona model’ to Latin America (Salomón 2009). CIDEU, which has more than hundred member cities from Ibero-America, which all have applied the ‘Barcelona Strategic Urban Planning methodology’, disposes of a data bank containing information on 360 strategic projects and 165 best practice cases in its member cities. CIDEU also maintains a virtual university for its members as a tool of mutual learning, which offers on-line formation in strategic planning, a training tool to get familiar with prototypical projects, and the so-called ‘Strategic Plan online’, a system for interactive assistance in the elaboration and implementation of strategic plans. Finally, CIDEU also assists directly strategic planning processes, as for example in Córdoba (Argentine) and Havana (Cuba) (Steinberg 2005).

Barcelona’s municipal government has also been involved in the constitution of United Cities and Local Governments, which has currently more than 1,000 member cities. One of UCLG’s 12 committees is devoted to the campaigning of strategic planning, for example through a recently published guidebook which contains detailed recommendations for the implementation of strategic plans (UCLG 2010). UCLG also seeks to influence international institutions such as the World Bank, the IDB, the IMF, several UN organizations or the Commission of the European Union, requesting them to ‘encourage strategic planning processes providing human, financial and technical resources primarily to small and medium sized cities’ (ibid., 21).

Actually, these institutions constitute a third important arena for the spread of strategic planning. They perform, according to McCann (2011, 114), ‘clearinghouse functions … they confer legitimacy on certain models and certain cities through reports, awards, and decisions about where to hold conferences’. UN-HABITAT is of particular interest here, because this organization has since its foundation asUnited Nations Center for Housing, Building, and Planning (1962; later renamed to United Nations Centre for Human Settlements an in 2001 to UN-HABITAT) an explicit focus on policy transfer in the field of urban planning and governance (Ciborowski 1974). Today, the organization seeks to shape urban policies around the world (and particularly in poorer countries) through its ‘Best Practice Data Base’, the ‘Best Practice’ awards, the Local Leadership Programme, and its co-organization of the World Cities Summit Expo, where ‘model cities’ are showcased. One of the ideas promoted is strategic planning, which UN-HABITAT (2009a) lists in its most recent ‘Global Report on Human Settlements’ as the first of seven ‘innovative approaches to urban planning’. Though declaring that it does not want ‘to suggest models or solutions’, UN-HABITAT encourages the ‘borrowing’ (ibid., 59f, 15) of strategic planning ideas. As Irazábal (2009, 57) notes in a regional (Latin America and the Caribbean) background paper to the UN-HABITAT report, the organization’s agenda is ‘designed to influence planning in the region’. UN-HABITAT also actively supported the African Network of Urban Management Institutions in drawing up strategic urban plans in Francophone African cities (UN-HABITAT 2009a, 61f). Finally, the organization’s experts have, backeb with funding from the European Commission, national governments and international organizations, encouraged the drawing of strategic plans in several Somali cities, in order to enhance commercial development’ (UN-HABITAT 2009b, 16).

How serious UN-HABITAT takes its mission to bring strategic planning to Latin American, African and Asian cities can be seen from the diverse manuals it has brought out. In 2010 the organization published a ‘user-friendly and step-by-step’ guide (UN-HABITAT 2010a, 5), which addresses urban planners and decision makers at the metropolitan level, national governments, partners in development cooperation and grassroots communities. In ten steps, broken down into 32 activities, the agents involved in planning cities in poorer countries are escorted through the formulation of a strategic plan – from getting political support and achieving leadership at the beginning to the need of regularly updating the plan after its finishing. Nothing is left to chance: UN-HABITAT reminds urban leaders in poorer countries that the relevant stakeholders’ commitment to the strategic planning process should be gotten ‘preferably in writing’, it suggests that the technical core team should include ‘a mix of knowledge on planning, participatory methods, socioeconomics and project management’, and it requests: ‘Review of relevant legislation concerning e.g. planning, land use and land administration. If there is need for additions or new bylaws in order to continue the planning process, it should be addressed as soon as possible (but avoid lengthy and complicated revisions; at this step it is more about quick fixes)’ (UN-HABITAT 2010a, 10, 11, 13). Similarly, in a five volume publication called ‘Promoting Local Economic Development through Strategic Planning’, UN-HABITAT (2005 a, b, c, d, 2009c) fastidiously advises local governments and businesses and civil society organizations how to initiate and implement a strategic planning process. Volume 3, for example, the ‘toolkit’, is made up by four modules, nine steps and 34 individual tools, which go into such details as noting which materials are necessary to successfully work through the process. For tool 1a (‘getting organised’), only ‘pens and paper’ are needed, while in tool 3b (‘local area assessment overview’) ‘pens, copies of worksheets for participants, flip charts’ are needed (UN-HABITAT 2005c, 6, 20).

Export or multidirectional exchange?

After having shown that and through which channels strategic planning is travelling, in this section I will assess the question whether its worldwide proliferation corresponds to a unidirectional export, or whether it is better understood as a multidirectional exchange,  in which lines between ‘senders’ and ‘receivers’ are being blurred? In line with Ward (2010), who asserts that the channels for urban policy exports have become broader, the sources more diverse and the transmissions more complex, I will argue that the latter is the case, despite the undeniable fact that in Latin American (and elsewhere), imitation of ‘best practices’ is usual (UCLG 2010). As González (2010, 13f) notes, a ‘unidirectional flow is particularly true for the case of Barcelona where consultancies have effectively ‘sold’ the model to mainly Latin American cities’. Yet, González also stresses that she is not concep­tualizing Barcelona as a starting point of unidirectional transfers. Rather, she depicts the Catalan capital as a node in the ‘space of policy flows’ (Peck/Theodore, 2010, quoted in González 2010, 4), what implies that Barcelona has been a receiver (basically from the U.S. and Canada) as well as a sender of strategic planning ideas and practices. Accordingly, Marshall (2000, 312) calls the city a ‘pioneer borrower’, with the ‘Barcelona model’ emerging from a ‘particular combination of borrowings and innovation’. Similarly, Monclús (2003, 417) sees Barcelona’s reputation based mainly on the city authorities’ capabilities ‘to borrow, adapt and elaborate original syntheses relating to the most advanced formulae of international urban planning culture’.

As to UN-HABITAT, McCann’s (2011, 114) designation as a ‘clearinghouse’ suggests that this organization also is as much a receiver of urban policy ideas as a sender. The organization serves as an idea sharing network for the compilation and the exchange of planning experiences. The Best Practices Database, for example, recommends over 3,800 ‘proven solutions’ from cities in more than 140 countries in order to inform ‘how best practices can help your community’. For the very best of these best practices, since 2004 48 awards have been granted to cities in 32 countries. Another example of UN-HABITAT’s functioning as an exchange platform is the World Urban Forum, whose intention is, according to the self-profiling at the website, to bring together all possible ‘partners working for better cities’. The 2010 meeting in Rio de Janeiro was attended by 10,634 participants from a wide range of institutions and organizations, with national governments (17 per cent), non-governmental organizations and academic institutions (16 per cent each), local governments (12 per cent) and the private sector (9 per cent) being the most important ones. With its 150 networking events, 7 special sessions, 2 seminars, 24 training events, and more than 110 displays from cities in 35 countries (UN-HABITAT 2010b), the WUF can be seen as a trade-fair for urban policies, as a ‘node, or globalized microspace’ (McCann 2011, 119) for their mobilities.

UN-HABITAT has thus positioned itself as a ‘key global informational infrastructure that mediates urban policy mobilities and constructs global spaces of comparison and commensurability’ (ibid., emphasis added). Put differently: Through compiling, interpreting, framing, packaging and representing information about strategic planning and other urban policies, UN-HABITAT serves as a facilitator of and catalyst for their mobility. One can conclude, therefore, that neither the cross-border dissemination of the ‘Barcelona model’ nor UN-HABITAT’s promotional activities conform to the conventional idea of unidirectional exports (as classically expressed in economics as Portuguese exports of wine and English exports of cloth). Rather, both correspond to more complex systems of exchange, similar to the value chains of contemporary economic globalization, in which commodities are imported, processed, and then re-exported.

The making of a transnational urban policy?

The chain-metaphor is appropriate for yet another reason. Referring to Latour’s concept of translation, CzarniawskaandJoerges (1996, 34) have theorized the travel of ideas as a ‘chain of translations’ – sequences, in which the disembedding of an idea from moment / place A is followed by its sending and translation and its reembedding in moment / place B. Ideas that travel are therefore in flux, they become interpreted, adapted, modified. From that follows that strategic planning ideas that travel through policy tourism, city networks or the UN-HABITAT platform are likely to mutate during their journeys. It is therefore no wonder that strategic urban planning initiatives take many different forms (Albrechts et al. 2003). There is, yet, another consequence, namely that ‘(s)omething happens to policy knowledge along the way’(McCann’s 2011, 117). Through their journeys, travelling ideas gradually detach from their origins and thus also from ‘original’ national and / or local identities. Even the often sold ‘Barcelona model’ is, strictly spoken, not existent as such – there are, ‘a handful of models’ (Marshall 2000, 315) whose nature depend on who is its buyer (González 2010).

Such perceptions lead to concepts as ‘hybrid planning cultures’ (Sanyal 2005), planning tools as ‘synthesisised products’ (Ward 2010, 66), or, as I suggest, strategic planning as a transnational urban policy. The strength of the transnationalism paradigm is its conceptual sharpness to grasp the relationships between the multiple cross-border interactions and ‘the national’. Critical to this understanding is the idea of the multi-centeredness of transnational processes, which is emphasized both in migration studies and economic geography. Rather than having geographically clearly identifiable origins and destinations, transnational activities, ideas, communities or organizations develop in a ‘state of ‘betweenness’’ (Smith 1995, 255). They are created in and sustained from specific locations in several nation-states as well as through exchanges in the networks between them. Rather than being footloose, transnational agents and their activities are bound, but to more than just one place in one nation-state, and to the cross-border spaces made of the flows of people, capital, information, etc. that connect these places. Transnationality is, in short, about the here and the there and the in-between.

The literature on transnational urbanism particularly emphasizes the importance of cities as ‘sites of transnational practices’ (Smith 2001, 19). Cities are, firstly, the places where local economic, social, cultural and political practices become transnationalized, and cities are, secondly, themselves the results of such transnational activities (see also King 2004, ch. 5). Building on Kearney’s (1995) conceptualization of transnational migrants as being anchored in and transcending one or more nation-states, and focusing on the place-making practices of these migrants, Smith sees novel urban places emerging - the ‘transnational cities’. These are theorized as ‘human creations best understood as sites of multicentered, if not decentered, agency’ (Smith 2001, 70). This notion implies more than just foreign influence (or domination), for example through FDI into the built environment. It highlights that the sense of the relevant agents’ belonging is changing, so that the line between ‘domestic’ and ‘foreign’ gets blurred.

Though Smith refers exclusively to migrants’ place-making activities and thus to transnational agents ‘from below’, and though he unfortunately cares little about the very material aspects of producing space (for a more detailed critique see Parnreiter 2011), I posit that his account is nevertheless appropriate to more broadly scrutinize urban development under conditions of contemporary globalization: Which of today’s ‘city builders’ (Fainstein 2001) from ‘below’ and from ‘above’ are nationally contained, and which are, due to cross-border practices, characterized by multi- and even decentered agencies? Presas (2005, 4), shifts attention to the multicentered agencies ‘from above’, denoting corporate office buildings in Amsterdam, Beijing and São Paulo as ‘transnational’, because they are ‘often planned by global developers, designers and investors as well as maintained by multinational companies and banks’.Yet other agents are covered by contributions from urban history to the debate on transnational urbanism. Amongst urban reformers and municipal officials in the metropolitan cities in Europe and North America, a common discourse on modernization, sanitation and housing reform emerged at the turn of the 19th to the 20th century. According to Kenny (2009), this discourse was ‘transnational’ because it was produced and maintained cross-borderly, through travels, a shared literature, congresses and other forms of cooperation. The thereby created ‘common set of references’ (ibid., 241) informed the ways in which hygienic and housing problems in European and North American cities were tackled. What emerged was, thus, a cross-border standard for urban reform, which contained, amongst other things, the recommendation to implement sewer networks and water systems (see also Rotenberg 2001).

In sum, the debate on transnational urbanism points to specific actor constellations in and particular conditions of the production of certain city-spaces spaces. Transnational urban spaces have been produced and / or are appropriated by agents who are tied through their multiple social relations to places in more than one nation-state and who therefore lack a clear-cut national identity (Parnreiter 2011). Such spaces can be immigrants’ spaces as well as global city spaces (such as the Torre Mayor in Mexico City). One possible perspective on them is architecture (Sklair 2005; McNeill 2008; Faulconbridge 2009; Grubbauer 20092), another is planning and urban management. That brings me back to strategic planning: I contend that it is emerging as a transnational urban policy, because its conceptual cornerstones and its methodology are shaped in cross-border processes and networks and hence through multi- or de-centered agencies. UN-HABITAT is probably the best case to exemplify this notion, because this organization is, due to its activities in the worldwide dissemination of urban policies (for an overview see UN-HABITAT 2009a, 16f), central to the setting of a global agenda in urban development, management and planning (Leaf/Pamuk 1997). Yet, the important point is that strategic planning and other approaches are not simply exported from Nairobi, where the agency is headquartered. Rather, as an ‘informational infrastructure’ (McCann 2011, 119) UN-HABITAT campaigns its programs both through its inter-national structure and its various inter-urban networks. Therefore, mediation, that is, the absorption, translation and dissemination of ideas, is critical. As already mentioned, the creation of the United Nations Center for Housing, Building, and Planning in 1962 was driven by the wish to develop common views and strategies on housing, building and planning through the collection and release of information on the experiences made around the world (Ciborowski 1974).

Over the years, UN-HABITAT’s character as multi-centered idea-sharing network has won more contour. Since the 1990s, the organization’s initial intergovernmental structure has been gradually opened to local authorities and associations of cities. Exercising today substantive influence on the agency’s agenda and operative structures, city-networks such as WACLAC or UCLG have become ‘key players’ in UN-HABITAT (Salomón/Sánchez 2008, 144). An illustrating case is that the organization is headed since October 2010 by a very distinguished urban politician and lobbyist, Joan Clos. As Barcelona’s mayor (1997–2006), Clos was instrumental in the making and branding of the ‘Barcelona model’, and he has a long record in promoting and leading city-networks. Clos’ appointment is particularly instructive as compared with the biographies of his predecessors as UN-HABITAT’s executive director: Anna Kajumulo Tibaijuka made her career in the UN, while Klaus Toepfer served as a federal minister in Germany.

In sum, because UN-HABITAT is a multicentered agent, its promotion of strategic planning is different to planning exports in colonial and also post-colonial settings. In Latin America, for example, European (mainly French or in France working) architects and planners were trendy in the second half of the 19th and in the early 20th century, because French cities were seen as emblematic of modernity. In many cities, Haussmannian planning left its traces as well as Le Corbusier’s ideas. After World War II, US-American cities became the ‘natural’ role model for Latin American planners, what let to the embracement of Robert Moses’ automobile-friendly urban designs (Silva Leme 2010) or to the construction of large public housing projects (Benmergui 2009). Though certainly not imposed on Latin American cities, the import of these ideas has much more been a unidirectional process than today’s absorption of strategic planning is.

Yet, the hint to multicentered agencies does certainly not imply that the production and dissemination of strategic planning ideas are flat, idea-sharing processes across borders. The state of betweenness in which transnational urban policies are created must not be confounded with evenness. Rather, some ideas are more likely to travel than others, some translations are more often made than others, and some agents are more prone to be senders than others (González 2010; McCann 2011). These differences do certainly not stem from impartially assessable differences in the quality of ideas or translations, but result from specific historic conditions and power relations. ‘Best practice’ cases are always politically constructed, and the drawing of such lists reflects certain actors’ power to impose their interests. Practices assigned as ‘the best’ gain momentum for further dissemination, due to their seemingly evidence-based quality. This has an important impact on local struggles, because, as McCann (2011, 123) evokes, it is ‘more difficult to question or change local policies when they have been branded as best not only by local officials but also by a range of other cities and organizations’. The suggested neutrality of planning tools is thus ‘nothing more than a strategic move to keep politics far from discussions about the city and urban planning’, as Brazilian planner Carlos Vainer (2000) criticizes Jordi Borja’s technical approach.

Rather than being neutral, strategic planning is, as has been frequently argued, linked to the advance of neoliberalism (e.g. Burgess/Carmona 2009; González 2010; Knox/Pain 2010). Even UN-HABITAT, that unfailingly advertises strategic planning as a means to build better cities, acknowledges that, because ‘globalization obliges cities to re-imagine themselves’ (UN-HABITAT 2004, 181), the relationship of urban planning to market forces had to be redefined: While the traditional ‘modern city planning took it to be axiomatic that government planning seeks to restrain market forces … with the intent of furthering public well-being’, today there is a general ‘trend away from planning conceived as a restraint on market forces (for example, through zoning legislation) to a kind of entrepreneurial planning that seeks to facilitate economic development through the market’ (ibid., 173f; emphasis in original). UN-HABITAT (2009a, 212f) also admits who commands this shift: ‘Unless the planning system can be seen to provide an efficient and useful service for the private sector (…), it will always be subjected to attempts to bypass, subvert or corrupt it’. Or, as Morçöl and Zimmermann (2006, 28) summarize: strategic planning ‘has merely given back the private sector what it used to have’.

Based on this assessment, in the final section I will expose how the shift from the traditional master to strategic planning in Mexico City was instrumental to govern the production of global city spaces such as the Torre Mayor, an office tower that with 55 floors is the tallest building in Latin America. My purpose is, however, not to present an all-embracing case-study, but to exemplify that strategic planning is being implementedto adjust the development of the built environment to the ‘needs’ of global competition3.

Strategic planning in Mexico City

Urban planning in Mexico City4 was until the 1970s generally dependent from particularistic decision making by politicians or officials (Ward 1998, 159). In 1975, an independent Planning Directorate was established, and in 1976 the Urban Development Law for the Federal District was passed, which obliged each incoming government to elaborate a master plan (or to update the existing one) and also to create plans for the delegaciónes (boroughs). In 1988 however, Camacho Solís, who was appointed regente by president Salinas de Gortari, who in that time prepared the country’s joining of NAFTA, abstained from revising the ‘General Urban Development Program of the Federal District’ of 1987. Proposing that ‘the needs of the real estate market determine the projects to be carried out and the required land use’ (Garza 1999, 165f), Camacho Solís sought a maximum of freedom for urban interventions. Additionally to not issuing a new master plan, Camacho Solís introduced in 1990 the ‘Transfer System of the Urban Development Potential’, which permitted to transfer the right to build up to a certain level from one area (basically ecologically protected areas and the Historic Center) to another, as long as a compensation was paid and the receiving neighborhood was assigned as an area with potential for (economic) development or of metropolitan integration. Interesting enough, such ‘Transfer of Development Rights’ are among the standard instruments of strategic planning and have been widely applied to facilitate the construction of large urban projects (Burgess/Carmona 2009, 33-36).

Another instrument in line with strategic planning was introduced already in 1987. The ‘Specific Zones for Controlled Development’ (ZEDEC in the Spanish acronym) focused on a geographical scale below the boroughs and entailed fewer rules than earlier programs. The biggest project, for which the new instrument has been instrumental, is the development of the new CBD Santa Fe. The ZEDEC facilitated site-specific and ‘ad-hoc’ interventions, as Gamboa de Buen (2006, 5) puts it, who then was the head of the city’s planning department and who today directs Grupo Danhos, a major private property developer. Permitting ‘to adjust the land prices to their potential for development’ (Gamboa de Buen 1994, 130)5 , the ZEDEC turned out to be a proper instrument for the promotion of the real estate economy.

Opportunities for flexible and site-specific planning were further enhanced by the left-wing mayors López Obrador (2000–2005) and Ebrard Casaubon (2006 to present). Though sticking to the term Plan Maestro, their respective ‘General Urban Development Program’ abandoned the comprehensive Master Plan spirit in favor of strategic projects. Amongst them, the seven ‘Corridors of Investment and Development’ (CIDs) stand out as the areas where the city government seeks to spur economic development. This downscaling of the geographical approach facilitates, according to the planning authority SEDUVI, agile mechanisms of planning, regulation and management and hence concerted and efficient action (Aispuro 2007). The most important CID is Paseo de la Reforma, for long one of the city’s principal boulevards, which lost importance with the demise of import substitution and the earthquake of 1985. Its was only through the construction and successful renting of the Torre Mayor (finished in 2003) that the revitalization of theboulevard began, and today its transformation into a corridor of financial services and tourism serves SEDUVI as a model for the other CIDs. To foster their development, Ebrard Casaubon’s urban development program established more fiscal stimuli, a further simplification of regulations (e.g. one-stop shopping for construction and/or renovation project licenses) as well as their flexibilization (e.g. that decisions on the land use or on building heights should be handled accommodating), and a centralization of decision-making by assigning the authority to approve development projects to SEDUVI (while up to then the boroughs have been in charge) (GDF 2008).
Repeatedly, the Torre Mayor is discursively constructed as a model for the advantages of flexibilization. Arturo Aispuro (2007, 18) for example, then head of SEDUVI, accompanied his promise for the ‘simplification of procedures for the authorization of a project’, given to a Mexican association of architects and consultants, with a slide of the Torre Mayor. Also, the local media frequently reported that the government of López Obrador facilitated permissions for the Torre Mayor for a return service, namely the possibility to buy back to very reasonable prices the lots Reichmann International, the office tower’s developer, owned in the politically contested Historic Centre (on that issue see Davis 2006). One of concessions refers to the building height. Torre Mayor was going to be much too tall with regard to the earthquake protection scheme and for zoning laws. While the city government sought a compromise as regards the earthquake protection (Reichmann International had to employ new damper technology that reduced the load per square meter), with reference to the zoning laws the developer was totally reprieved.

In order to fasten and simplify interventions in the built environment even further, in 2010 the Urban Development Law was revised.  The new law decrees that the city parliament has 60 working days to (dis)agree with changes in the land use proposed by the mayor or SEDUVI. If this period passes by without feedback, the proposition is regarded as approved. The new law also introduces ‘Areas of Strategic Management’ (AGE in the Spanish acronym), which are defined as zones of key economic importance. There, changes of the land use and interventions in the built environment are made possible without the otherwise mandatory consultation of neighbors and the endorsement in the legislative assembly of the Federal District. For the AGEs, decisions will be taken by a newly created ‘Technical Committee for the Modification of the Urban Development Programs’, which is composed of five representatives of the city government, nine deputies of the city parliament, the head of the respective borough, and four representatives of the neighbors, who have voice, but no vote. This centralization of decision-making has been criticized by urban social movements as ‘severe curtailment of the participation of citizens’, as Emilio Pradilla Cobos (2010), a well known urban researcher and co-founder of the NGO Metrópoli 2025, puts it, and also by the right-wing opposition party PAN, that governs the borough of Miguel Hidalgo, where to the detriment of the mostly wealthy residents much of the recent office building boom takes place.

In sum, since the 1990s urban policies have come to rest on the key principles of strategic planning (with the notable exception of its participatory and democratizing aspect). Firstly, through the creation of the ZEDECs, CIDs and AGEs, Mexico City’s governments have fully embraced the prioritizing approach to planning, focussing their interventions on a few selected nodes and corridors. Secondly, since the development of Santa Fe the city strongly relies on property led development and, to facilitate it, on ‘planning through projects’ (Carmona 2009). The current head of SEDUVI, Leal Fernández, promises that ‘property development will be a real instrument for economic reactivation’ (quoted in Galarza 2009). In this discursive strategy, the Torre Mayor plays an important role. Because its office space is fully let, the office tower is celebrated by politicians from the right and the left as a success story, and portrayed as the origin of a true ‘cascade of investment’ (El Universal, 2008 07 22) in Paseo de la Reforma, which until today has generated 14 further projects. Of these, seven are finished or in construction, while the others are being planned or undergoing the process of authorization (February 2011). Through an investment of 15,015 million Mexican Peso (= 1,243 million USD [February 2011]), some 331,000 m2 of mixed use, 162,000 m2 office space and another 120,000 m2 of luxury housing will be added (SEDUVI 2010).

Thirdly, public-private partnerships have become a main vehicle to organize and finance urban development, with López Obrador and Ebrard Casaubon properly hunting for such collaborations. During the former’s mandate, the private sector put, according to SEDUVI (2007, 110), 20 Peso for every Peso the city government invested. Public investment includes the improvement of the infrastructure. Along Paseo de la Reforma, the networks for drinking and wastewater were upgraded, the carrying capacity of the electricity circuit was doubled, street lighting and public transportation were expanded (while microbuses are banned), and garbage cans, benches, sidewalks and plantings were added. Additionally, city governments have shown an increased concern for public security, what led to a growing presence of police and to the formation of special police squads, and to a costly contract with the ex mayor of New York City, Rudolph Guiliani (Davis 2007). His 146 safety recommendations resembled the ‘zero tolerance’ strategy of New York City and finally informed the Law of Civic Culture of 2004. Another prime example for public-private partnerships is the Historic Center, where the city is offering even more financial incentives (including also the exemption from the wage tax for investing firms), and where Carlos Slim, one of the richest persons of the world, became an important partner of the left wing city government.

Financial incentives offered to developers are another form of public investment. According to Gerald Ricker, director general in the Mexican office of Reichmann International, his company was freed from paying land ownership tax for the first five years after the opening of the Torre Mayor, what ‘makes us think about new projects’ (quoted in La Jornada, 2002 06 27). One of these is the Torre Diana, a mixed complex which was approved by the city government in 2009. Other developers could also count on temporary or permanent exemption from or reduction of land ownership, real estate acquisition and other construction taxes and fees, what has, according to Víctor Lachica, CEO of Cushman & Wakefield in Mexcio City, ‘stimulated investment’ (quoted in El Universal, 2008 07 22). Yet, such flows of private investment can, as SEDUVI (2007, 110) reminds, ‘only be triggered by implementing policies that foster urban development’. Apparently, SEDUVI’s conviction is that plans that seek to restrain the dynamics of the real estate economy do not belong to such policies: When a decade ago Leal Fernández led the elaboration of the Master Plan for the Corridor Paseo de la Reforma – Centro Histórico, he justified the limit to building heights with infrastructure problems and promised that constructions following the Torre Mayor would have to attend to the planned height of 25 floors (El Universal, 2001 12 10). Today, ten of the 14 projects under way at Paseo de la Reforma will exceed this limit, and Leal Fernández, as head of the planning authority, speaks of the necessity to upgrade via public investment the ‘underworld infrastructures’ that surround the ‘first world tower(s)’ (quoted in Reforma 2009 10 26). It bears some irony that the left wing city government celebrates the provision of ‘first world infrastructure’ as the creation of ‘a competitive city (with) new investment opportunities’ (SEDUVI 2007), while the conservative media objects these policies as putting Paseo de la Reforma ‘to the disposition of national and foreign investors’ (El Proceso, 2002 12 06).6

Public-private partnerships are facilitated by seesaw changes of key persons from the city’s planning authority to the real estate industry and vice versa. Jorge Gamboa de Buen was, as already mentioned, politically in charge of the development of Santa Fe to then become director of one of the biggest private developer, Grupo Danhos. Even more interesting is the career of Arturo Aispuro, who in the times of Gamboa de Buen served as General Director of Urban Planning at SEDUVI, to change in 1994 as vice-president of development to Reichmann International. In 2006 he returned to SEDUVI, this time as the head of the institution. In this function he announced in spring 2009 that the Torre Diana, developed by Reichmann International, will count on all fiscal benefits the city government offers to projects at Paseo de la Reforma, though this tower is located two blocks away from the boulevard (El Universal 2009 03 02).

Concluding remarks

Building on analysis of the wide-reaching proliferation of strategic planning, and referring to the literature on transnational urbanism, in this commentary I have claimed that strategic planning has not only become universal because of its worldwide spread. Rather, my contention has been that strategic planning is best understood as a transnational urban policy. The specific constellation in which it is cross-borderly shaped and circulated – policy tourism, city-networks, and the UN-HABITAT platform – points to multidirectional exchange and, in particular, multicentered agencies in the policy’s making. In addition, I have argued that being developed transnationally, that is, here and there and in-between, does not imply that strategic planning is an approach created in an even process. Rather, and despite of UN-HABITAT’s struggle for better cities, it is strongly linked to the emergence of entrepreneurial urban governance and therefore bound to private-sector interests.

This notion I sought to exemplify with an examination of the shift from master to strategic planning in Mexico City. After having shown that the latter has become the dominant planning approach in that city, I argued that this shift has been instrumental for governing the production of global city spaces (just as the Torre Mayor and similar complexes along Paseo de la Reforma or in Santa Fe). This conclusion adds to my former research (Parnreiter 2011) that has shown that the Torre Mayor conforms to Presas’ (2005) transnational buildings, because producers (e.g. developer, architects), owners, and tenants are multicentered agents without a clear-cut national identity. This result is also concordant with Sassen’s (1999, 142) notion that it is global city spaces which are likely to be ‘the most strategic spaces for the formation of transnational identities and communities’.


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El Proceso

El Universal

La Jornada

New York Times




* Christof Parnreiter, Department of Geography, University of Hamburg, Germany, email:

1. Bontenbal and van Lindert (2009) estimate that today 70 per cent of the world’s cities are engaged in some kind of cross-border partnership

2. Despite their conceptual similarities, the literatures on transnational urbanism and on the globalization of architecture have so far made little, if any, cross-references.

3. Information was gathered through an analysis of laws, decrees, official releases and other publications of the city government, of the media coverage of Torre Mayor, of websites and other publications of firms involved in the construction, and of information distributed by urban NGOs and political parties in Mexico City.

4. The Metropolitan Area of Mexico City, which is formed by the country’s capital, the Federal District, and 36 municipalities in the surrounding State of Mexico, has no own government. By city government I mean the government of the Federal District, which until 1997 was governed by a regente appointed by the president.

5. All quotes taken from a Mexican source have been translated by the author.

6. It is, however, fair to say that López Obrador’s government did act in some respects according to its motto (‘For the Good of All, the Poor First’). It supported the improvement of low income housing, and provided monthly benefits for senior citizens, medical attention for free in public hospitals, microcredits for unemployed, financial benefits for single mothers and subsidies for public transportation.


Edited and posted on the web on 5th September 2011

Note: This Research Bulletin has been published in Journal of Planning Education and Research,31 (4), (2011), 416-422