Existentialism, the philosophy that life is inherently meaningless and as such only gains value through the efforts of humans to define it, has much to offer cities, the people who inhabit them, and the people who attempt to shape them. Two particularly useful lessons that existential philosophy has for planning are: 1) the notion that all knowledge is perspectival, that few truths hold as universal; and 2) the idea that value, or meaning, can only be created through action.
Let’s begin by looking at the first proposition: that all knowledge is perspectival, that nothing is inherently right or true. How can this be? If there are many sides to any “truth,” then “truth” is little more than opinion! But isn’t it? All the laws and customs that govern our daily lives have been created by humans over the millennia to keep ourselves in check, to create an organized society that would allow more humans to live better, longer lives. Laws were created by humans, not passed down from above. Laws were created by humans, so they can easily be destroyed, modified, and re-created.
If no value is inherently “right” or “wrong,” how do values take on meaning? How do laws form and create the organized societies in which we live? Through direct action and application within a given framework. We have developed laws against killing one another, for example, as a buffer against anarchy; some human laws make sense. But laws and values should be continuously re-evaluated according to how well they fit into our ever-changing society. Tradition grows musty and sickly-sweet if it’s allowed to fester for too long.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the dusty halls of bureaucracy, in the motionless hubbub of the professions. Planning is one such professional bureaucracy. Despite its attempts to follow the times, its arthritis-stricken limbs have choked more than a few young upstarts with bright ideas on how to shape the urban fabric and the people that decorate it.
For too long planners have followed the tradition of their forefathers, valuing quantitative analysis and economic development over authentic engagement with the communities they nominally serve. Who says, other than planners ourselves, that this must continue to be the case? Planning is a human institution; its laws and customs were created by human beings. As planners, we can and should take an active role in shaping our profession; we must re-create the laws that govern ourselves.
Existentialism is a path to freedom, but it is no Schuylkill River Trail. It is a path full of temptations, and many a traveler along it has gotten lost in the dark alleys and desperation. If you can see this path, you must walk it carefully. If you can see this path, call like the sirens to draw some near, and shine like a lighthouse to keep others away. Most people are like sheep, so the brave shepherd who chooses to lead must be aware, and weary, of those who follow.
City Planning is imperfect, and the opinions we as planners hold on its imperfections are as different as the cities and institutions from which we hail. Existential planning, then, is a call to action, an exposé on the virtue of perpetual reflection. As planners, we are bound—by finances, by politics, by tradition, and by ourselves. It is up to us to think while we work, to reflect on our actions, and to decide every day if what we do is worthy of being called City Planning.