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Who Watches the Planners?

In her 1998 book Towards Cosmopolis, Leonie Sandercock deconstructs what she calls the “heroic” story of planning history as found in leading texts. These mainstream histories, she says, may champion various (male) heroes such as Ebenezer Howard, Patrick Geddes or Daniel Burnham, but the real hero, she observes, is the planning profession itself.
Michael Dudley | February 20, 2009, 8am PST
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In her 1998 book Towards Cosmopolis, Leonie Sandercock deconstructs what she calls the "heroic" story of planning history as found in leading texts. These mainstream histories, she says, may champion various (male) heroes such as Ebenezer Howard, Patrick Geddes or Daniel Burnham, but the real hero, she observes, is the planning profession itself. Planning is seen to be "battling foes from left and right, slaying the dragons of greed and irrationality and, if not always triumphing, at least always noble, on the side of the angels if battles are sometimes, or even often, lost, it is not the fault of the hero but of the evil world in which he must operate." (p. 35).

The alternative, insurgent, planning histories Sandercock offers in the place of traditional "heroic" ones reveal the problematic nature of planning, and how dominant philosophies of knowledge and action in planning have sometimes contributed to social dysfunction and repression.

Sandercock's analysis has been on my mind as I've been re-reading Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon's 1986 graphic novel The Watchmen, the film version of which opens March 6th. Named by Time Magazine in 2005 as one of the 100 most important novels published since 1923, The Watchmen is widely considered the greatest graphic novel (OK, comic book) ever written.

Just as Towards Cosmopolis challenges us to re-think our understanding of planning as unproblematic and even heroic, The Watchmen "unmasks" our notions of heroism altogether, showing that the world is too complex, and its problems too "wicked," to be sorted into simplistic conceptions of good and evil.

The book, set in alternative 1985, asks: What would the world really be like if there were masked heroes – vigilantes – running around fighting criminals? What if one of them actually had god-like powers, and was employed by the United States government? How would society respond?

The answer: Not well. Urban life in this 1985 is dismal, and New York in particular has never really recovered from the anarchy and riots of the late 1970s, when the police – fed up with masked vigilantism – went on strike. Decay, drugs, gangs, corruption and crowded tenements are everywhere, and not even ubiquitous electric cars can make up for the general sense of unease.

Watching from the margins are yesterday's heroes, most of them now banned under federal law. Until, that is, one of them is thrown from a skyscraper by a mysterious assailant, and the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. begin to ratchet up their rhetoric, leading to widespread fears of imminent nuclear war.

What makes The Watchmen particularly fascinating is how Moore and Gibbons have used their characters to personify various philosophical perspectives. While it is obviously not about city planning per se, The Watchmen is about the desirability – and morality of planned intervention in society, and, like Towards Cosmopolis reveals such plans to be highly problematic.    

The most powerful of characters is Jon Osterman, a physicist whose nuclear accident in 1960 transformed him into a super-being that the U.S. government dubbed "Dr. Manhattan." Living outside of linear time, able to transport himself anywhere in the universe and to re-arrange matter at will, Dr. Manhattan is objective to the point of indifference, and while he works for the government feels no moral foundation for his actions. In terms of planning theory, he is Rational Comprehensive Planning taken to its ultimate form: completely positivist, unemotional, detached and possessing unparalleled ability to assess data and build anything he desires – even life itself.

The remaining characters have no actual superpowers, but either possess the wealth, intelligence or perseverance to compensate for their own mortality. Adrian Veidt, aka Ozymandias, cashed in on his years as a masked adventurer to build a highly profitable multinational corporation. Physically fit and considered to be one of the most intelligent men on Earth, Veidt is obsessed with saving the world, and is prepared to use his vast wealth and power to accomplish this, whatever the consequences. He is utilitarian in the extreme; instrumental rationality personified.    

Dan Dreiberg is the Night Owl, a scientist who once brought to the battle against crime an array of high-tech gadgets and vehicles. Now in forced retirement and paunchy, he contributes scholarly articles to ornithology journals, encouraging his peers to soften their positivistic approaches to science by paying attention to more qualitative attributes such as beauty and poetry. His is a balanced epistemology, one that moderates between nature and technology, data and emotion.

No such balance exists for Rorschach, a mentally disturbed vigilante once known as Walter Kovacs. Having faced down the most brutal cruelty in the criminal underworld, he is unable to turn away from it, and is compelled to punish evil and to tell the truth, even if it means Armageddon. He represents a deontological libertarianism, refusing to accede to either the laws of government or appeals to moral relativism.     

A regular government paycheque was the mainstay of The Comedian – a hyper-violent and cynical "hero" whose murder in the opening scenes sets in motion the events in the story. Fighting in the Pacific in WWII and in Vietnam, Edward Blake, the Comedian has committed wartime atrocities – which he later regrets and it is even suggested that he assassinated President Kennedy. He has willingly relinquished his agency to the state, regardless of what it asks of him, and his response is ironic detachment.

A loss of free will afflicts Laurie Juspeczyk, the second Silk Spectre – the first having been her mother, who groomed her to become a crimefighter. Having never decided or planned anything for herself, she is experiencing a crisis of identity that nonetheless inspires Dr. Manhattan to abandon his own detachment and intervene in humanity's affairs.

The search for Blake's killer under the doom-laden atmosphere of impending nuclear war brings these characters together in a horrific and morally ambiguous climax that asks fundamental and difficult questions about the extent to which any actor – sanctioned by the state or not – may go to achieve what they believe is a greater good. Furthermore, it echoes Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber's famous formulation of "wicked problems" in that every solution sets in motion a series of consequences, so that there is definitely "no stopping rule" to a planning problem. As Dr. Manhattan puts it, "nothing ends nothing ever ends."  

As such, the ending of the book may be nominally a happy one – global peace ensues – but the final image of The Watchmen unsettles the prospects for this supposed utopia and effectively places its future "entirely in your hands" as a reader.

For those of us professionally involved in helping to "shape" and "guide" the future, the questions asked by The Watchmen are timeless and important. Who has the right to intervene in human affairs? What sorts of interventions are morally defensible? From where does the authority to act in this way arise? How should those who intervene be held accountable to society? (A repeated graffito asks, "Who Watches the Watchmen?") What criteria and values should guide interventions? Under what circumstances -- if any -- are extreme interventions justifiable? Finally, what is our responsibility to exercise our own free will, or to submit our will to higher authorities? (Of course, The Watchmen goes even further to question if we have free will at all, but that's another matter!)

While these have always been core planning questions, they will likely take on ever more urgency as global economic, social and environmental conditions continue to deteriorate. The Watchmen provides no easy answers, but its humanist philosophy is effectively summed up by Rorschach, who observes: "This rudderless world is not shaped by vague metaphysical forces It's us. Only us."


(For more on the philosophical implications of The Watchmen, check out Watchmen and Philosophy: A Rorschach Test edited by William Irwin and Mark D. White.)

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