Planning Without Borders
(Oregon Planners' Journal, March 1997)
By Richard Carson
The denizens of the Portland metropolitan area are about to witness maybe even participate in an important moment in the history of human settlement. Metro is finally asserting and consolidating its regional planning authority. This is a form of governance unheard of in the United States. With the dawn of the third millennium before us, we are about to witness the birth of the "city-state." Just as important, this event is the harbinger of an equally great human possibility planning without borders.
I say rebirth of the city-state because they once flourished on this earth. Even now they can be found in some of the more remote comers of the earth. Corners where the twin powers of civilization society and government have not beaten them into temporary submission.
Once humans got tired of taming nature, they decided to tame their own miserable environments. They turned to the chaotic and organic city-states, and turned them into nation-states. This was done during the long years of the consolidation of political power. This was the human settlement version of merger-mania.
The established American hierarchy of nation, state, county and city was physically imprinted on the ground. The land was dissected and reorganized into a new urban landscape so that a greater span of control could be exerted. A national span.
However, there was one flaw in the new theology of national governance. It over looked the fact that such an arrangement could never control or influence the powerful forces that define any great civilization: nature, economy and culture. Each of these powerful forces embraces the city-state because the city-state is their child.
Nations have been forced to be less and less introspective and isolationist. The Information Age has made it impossible for nations to control the flow of information or commerce. One of the results of a new world order is that national borders are becoming as irrelevant as the national assemblies that maintain them. The reasons behind the creation of NAFTA or the European Economic Community has more to do with economic necessity and survival, and less with political enlightenment.
Put simply, it is the city-states that are the new economic engines of civilization. The fact is, humans have never been able to control their own urge to buy things. It is like we are born with a genetic code much like the sex drive. It calls out "shop till you drop." The Communists found this out the hard way. They could control almost every aspect of a human life, but the more they tinkered with the economy, the more they lost control of it.
Planning for human settlements within an artificially defined border is a stupid and futile idea. The great forces of nature, economy and culture will just ignore our puny efforts and sweep them away. City-states straddle nationalistic borders and overwhelm nationalistic policies. As evidence of this thesis I submit the following:
1. Berlin, Germany. The fall of the Berlin wall was much more than a political event. It was the rebirth of Berlin. It is a city-state that would not be divided not by communism and not by national enemies.
2. Guangzhou, Peoples' Republic of China. In what was old Canton, you can find Kentucky Fried Chicken and McDonalds just down the street from the open air market selling snakes and rats for dinner. Here, in one of the oldest city-states in the history of civilization, and the most communist of countries, shopping rules.
3. Los Angeles, California. The Los Angeles metropolitan area will be the 4th largest economy in the world by the year 2000. This metroplex has become predominantly Mexican-American so that the economy is rooted in two countries. A similar phenomenon is occurring to the north between Seattle and Vancouver, B.C.
So what does this portend for the people who plan for the physical and social aspects of cities? I believe it means planners must forget political and geographic boundaries, and work to define and plan places be it a neighborhood, community or region by a new set of criteria. We must look to how the people of a place define where they live, according to the natural, economic and cultural forces that define that place. In other words, what are the similar perceptions that make a place, and the dissimilarities that argue against it.
Richard Carson is the Director of Oregon City's Community Development Department.