03 September 2012

The role of urban planner as a metaphorical shaman (draft)

 Fall 2010 Volume X No. 1
(The above image is a cave painting of a shaman found at Les Trois Freres Cave in France dating approximately 14,000 B.C.E., making it the oldest known  depiction of a shaman.  The image and further explanation can be found at :Sofiatopia.org and mask-and-more-masks.com .)

An urban planner works within a complex urban environment, composed of an ever changing physical and human environment and where there are multiple stakeholders at various scales. Within this chaos, a planner must use his/her skills to navigate through problems, perceive the networked relationships, analyze trends, guide/advise decision-makers, challenge the status quo and develop plans and policies to improve the city/region that s/he is employed.

In this environment, the planner cannot have the perception of him/herself as a ‘good soldier ‘merely implementing regulations, objectively presenting data or changes in regulations or implementing directives of decision-makers. S(he) must conceptually and metaphorically must perceive themselves  as a modern day shaman.

A shaman would lead his/her tribe on vision quests.  This can be translated into a planner enabling citizens and decision-makers to think about the present and visualize a better future (not a utopia) that would lead to a better and more just urban environment at any scale; presenting data through spatial technologies and through innovative modeling that may enhance a vision or lead to better policies (the magic of technology); and establishing personal contacts with those at all levels so that he/she can be a translate their interests to others.  Although this process is not new, the concept of a planner being a shaman energizes it beyond mere presentations into a dynamic one.

A shaman provokes his tribe, sometimes also acting as trickster. In a complex and chaotic world, there is a need for persons to create ripples and sometimes disturbances ‘in the vortex’ to cause change. A urban planner thorough by what as seen as foolish by one action can open up new ways.  This could be as simple as riding a bike to work which would appear foolish to some. This one ‘foolish’ action might be the impetus for a discussion about energy conservations and eventually the establishment of bicycle lanes or exclusive bicycle pathways.

Shape shifting is often performed by shamans a means of mediation for members of the tribe.--to become an animal or person that will relate to person for the purpose of  communication. Shape shifting is a metaphor for adaptation and is one to the key concepts in complexity. Urban planners must likewise be adaptive and ‘shape-shift’ to fit their peculiar environment. This may be a simple as ‘dressing down’ or making language approachable when talking to a group of citizens.

A shaman is not a decision-maker, but is nonetheless an important leader in the tribe.  He is also trained through many years to be a servant/leader of his tribe.  Urban planners in turn have at least four years and often a Masters in urban/regional planning.  They also play key roles in the community.  However, a shaman if he is not doing well is often killed   This fortunately is not the fate of the most urban planners as s(he is not held responsible for the to the success of the plans.

In summary, what does using the metaphor of a shaman mean to urban planners?  While many of the methods of urban planning remain the same, the delivery and the ‘aura’ changes because the urban planner will see his/herself in a different perspective. As seeing oneself as not just a public servant, but as leader/servant/visionary/trickster (a metaphorical shaman), this changes the whole perspective of being a professional urban planner. It also takes this role outside of the bounds of modernism and one places it within compatible with complex systems and complexity theory, maybe even within the metaphorical realm of quantum mechanics 

The idea of urban planner as shaman was first introduced in my article, Complexity and Urban Planning, published in Urbana: Urban Affairs and Public Policy.  It was also republished with a collection of articles in the book edited by Michael A. McAdams, Ivani Vassoler-Froelich and Jesús Treviño Cantú , The Geography, Politics, and Architecture of Cities: Studies in the Creation and Complexification of Culture The Edwin Mellen Press. (June 2012).( For more information, go to http://www.mellenpress.com/mellenpress.cfm?bookid=8568&pc=9 .)

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