Capabilities in urban planning. a theoretical framework.

Schade, Christina (2019). 'Capabilities in urban planning. A theoretical framework.' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA 2019, London, UK.


“the relationship between resources and poverty is both variable and deeply contingent on the characteristics of the respective people and the environment in which they live – both natural and social.” Amartya Sen (Sen 2009:254)

In his specifications on contingencies to reach characteristics of a good living, Amartya Sen points out the connection between the environment and opportunities to realise functionings, which are valued activities or states of being that are constitutive for personal well-being. He states that “environmental conditions, including climatic circumstances, such as temperature ranges, or flooding […] could be improved with communal efforts, or worsened by pollution or depletion. But an isolated individual may have to take much of the environmental conditions as given.” (Sen 2009:254f)

Reasoning on obligations from effective power, he encourages persons capable to enhance freedoms of others to consider the possibility of acting. (Sen 2009:205ff) If an individual has limitations in influencing the environment, it can be argued that planners have the obligation to consider to organise communal efforts to promote freedoms of persons living in unfavourable environmental conditions. It is therefore necessary to understand interventions in the physical environment in terms of opportunities provided to local individuals to realise valued functionings.

International policy agreements recognise the importance of the connection between physical interventions and human well-being and propose development strategies: In 2015 the General Assembly of the United Nations approved the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), stating that “sustainable urban development and management are crucial to the quality of life of our people” (United Nations 2015:13). One of the goals explicitly addresses parameters for urban development, that are complemented through implicit obligations for urban planning and management to meet other SDGs. To support the local implementation of the goals, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) launched a pilot programme in 2018 with the intention to “contribute to assessing the context specific conditions and inequalities of different people and places” (OECD 2017:4) by disaggregating data, creating territorial indicators and enhancing local steering capacities at all levels in identifying development priorities and challenges. From preliminary results, the OECD-working group concludes that a “comparable localised indicator framework is still missing” and that “cities and regions […] need tools and guidance to effectively implement the SDGs” (OECD 2019).

Considering the fact that many of the targets require consideration of local circumstances or depend on value judgements that require local definition, it is argued that this standardised framework with quantitative indicators will likely fail to constitute an instrument able to effectively “ensure that all human beings can enjoy prosperous and fulfilling lives” (United Nations 2015:preamble): A person from a country in a moderate climate zone in the Global North might have quite a different conception of “sufficient living area, and durability of housing” to ensure “access for all to adequate, safe and affordable housing and basic services” (United Nations 2015:26) than a person living in tropical climate conditions in the southern hemisphere. Therefore, the attempt to create a standardised framework with uniform indicators will either result in predefined categories unable to fully represent the plenitude of personal context specific conditions and specific needs of different people for a fulfilling life, thus lacking data to develop effective strategies that work for all. Or exhaustive data sets are created that run the risk of being too complex for local administrations to manage and obtain comprehensible information.

Responding to the need for effective guidance in local development efforts, the author has used an existing regional planning methodology to develop a theoretical framework in order to orient planning interventions that increase individual and collective opportunities to valued functionings.

Instead of specifying universally valid means – e.g. adequate, safe and affordable housing – focus is on defining desired functionings constitutive for a fulfilling life – e.g. to live in a physical environment, that safeguards bodily integrity. This allows for local specification of characteristics and necessary prerequisites to reach the respective end, thus increasing the sensibility of the framework to grasp locally different opportunities of persons to make use of commodities like income and transform them into valued functionings.

Acknowledging human multiplicity and diversity in the perception and definition of personal well-being (Sen 2004:77–78) and respecting individual priorities of different persons for a fulfilling life, the framework does not propose a definite list of important functionings but reinforces Sen’s argument for local specification through democratic procedures containing public discussion and reasoning (Sen 2004:77-80). From this perspective, to ensure that all inhabitants of a specific place can enjoy a fulfilling life means to locally specify and prioritise the kind of functionings different persons value to realise, and remove obstacles that impede the realisation. As each locality is a compound of natural conditions and a society’s metabolism with unique characteristics that react differently to external influence, the developed framework proposes to first localise obstacles within the compound to then develop adapted strategies to enhance individual and collective opportunities through interventions that influence entities of the locality capable of effectuating change.

To investigate the connection of internal and external requirements for desired functionings and precisely localise obstacles within the natural-social compound, capabilities can be systematically specified using a model of human behaviour within the environment developed by Claus Heidemann, that differentiates into type, time and place of activities (Heidemann 2004:R49). Sen’s definitions of types of contingencies (Sen 2009:255) can be amplified using Heidemann’s reflections on regime-budget-interrelations, specifying personal or collective budgets of tools, knowledge, and time to realise an activity within a framework of valid regimes constituted by standards of social interaction, rhythms of time, and distribution of places (Heidemann 2004: R36). After localising obstacles, entities that have an influence can be specified following Heidemann’s definition of components of regions (Heidemann 2004: R09) as base to develop step-by-step instructions to influence the obstructing entities through their individual composites.

The theoretically established categories to structure the localisation of obstacles and guide the development of interventions are currently validated and amplified in an empirical case study in a peripheral area in Salvador da Bahia in Brazil.

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