Social disruption and complexity: Transformative power of crises

Reading time: 10 minutes

Guest authors: Pinar Dörder (chair of the YA Coordination Team; Darmstadt University of Technology) and Flavia Giallorenzo (University of Florence)

The Association of European Schools of Planning (AESOP)’s Planning and Complexity Thematic Group is an open network aiming to explore and debate the connections between complexity sciences and spatial planning. Coordinated by Dr. Ward Rauws, the core components of the discussions are conceptual thinking (reconceptualizing city and planning), modelling (understanding city change), empirical studies (how to respond in a more resilient way), and planners’ response to cascading effects in cities. The discussions in the Thematic Group materialize in the form of publications to reach wider audiences. The 19th meeting of the Thematic Group meeting was hosted by Prof. Camilla Perrone and her team at the Laboratory on Critical Planning & Design, University of Florence, Italy with the technical support of Avventura Urbana S.r.l. (Turin, Italy) and co-organized by the University of Groningen, the Netherlands and Tallinn University of Technology, Estonia. The full summary report of the event is available here. In this blog post, we want to look into the main debates around which this event was shaped, but more importantly, based on the emerging cross-cutting issues, we want to delve deeper into the new added layer of complexity and uncertainty in the planning discipline introduced by the pandemic.

The event welcomed more than 120 participants on ZOOM and reached more than 370 views on YouTube (click here for the recording). It gathered together young and senior scholars from a variety of disciplines including planners, geographers, and political scientists. This alone shows that the event addressed a growing demand in our community and beyond to discuss planning and its cross-cutting issues, e.g. urban spaces, uncertainty, resilience, informality, and planner’s role.

  • Word cloud of the concepts that were most emphasized during the online event

The event started with an “ice breaking” session, a real-time survey for a quick and accurate analysis of the extent and the ways in which pandemic is impacting the participants’ day-to-day work. As it turns out, most participants were scholars and PhD students from Europe, and more specifically from the Mediterranean area. 77 per cent of all participants responded that the pandemic has impacted their work to a moderate or a high degree. Another important insight was the fact that the pandemic is making it impossible to travel and work in groups, a common problem that seems to be mitigated by more frequent contacts with other institutions as well as with colleagues in different countries, as exemplified by this very meeting itself.

Contingencies of social and physical distance

One interesting result from the polls was that, about 57 per cent of all participants see cities not as the problem, but rather as the solution to the problem. Now with the digital space gaining prominence with the pandemic, to what extent can it replace the material space, and not become a privilege? With an emphasis on the emerging conflicts and how they manifest themselves in cityscape, Prof. Richard Sennett addressed the unforeseen contingencies in his thought-provoking keynote speech.

Let’s take density as an example. We are discussing the 15-minute-city concept, an official policy emerging from Paris, where the goal is to even out the extreme pressure in city centers and redistribute it by promoting multi-nodal urban structures. Or in the context of the slums of the Global South, debates around redistributing density are now getting even more complex, as such informal settlements have always been ‘physically’ and ‘socially’ distant. Or introduced by the pandemic, if ‘distant’ becomes a synonym for ‘healthy,’ this may imply an entirely new definition for what a ‘healthy city’ is. Generally speaking, in the pre-pandemic world, we were used to imagining healthy cities as pleasantly dense, human-scale and green cities primarily supported by a well-functioning mass transit system. Will the automobile city have the upper hand in a post-pandemic world?

The challenge is that the planning as a profession needs “openness.” It cannot respond well to sudden changes if it operates in a rigid, heavy, and closed manner as it currently does. Only when a system is open, and dynamic can it foster adaptability in the long run. Seeing ‘informality’ as a natural by-product of complexity, could ‘planning the informality’ be a response and encourage user innovation instead of one-size-fits-all solutions, like nationwide lockdowns? As a rather business-not-as-usual practice, this would require us to not impose any desired outcome, like the nationwide lockdowns do, and provide the time and space (both in tangible and abstract terms) that adaptation needs on ground.

Screenshot of the event during the presentation by Professor Richard Sennett’s (Professor of Sociology at LSE)

Pandemic transforms the planning & complexity debate

The debates emerging from connecting planning and complexity are fundamentally enabling us to discuss the pandemic in the urban context. Borrowing the “complexity” vocabulary helps us planning scholars and practitioners to not limit the discipline to intentions and interventions but open up to discuss non-linearity, uncertainty, and sudden changes. The pandemic has been in this respect a wake-up-call that linking planning and complexity is not a matter of choice anymore. In turn, it also transforms the debate. These ideas have already materialized in the book “Handbook on Planning and Complexity,” which was presented during the event. The following paragraphs summarize the reflections on the thoughts by Moira Zellner, Gert de Roo, and Juval Portugali respectively. The front matter of the book is available here.

Communicate, cooperate, collaborate Planning takes place in three stages: First, we observe and acknowledge the complexity of cities, this is like looking inside from outside. Then comes the analytical phase and we start understanding from inside as we gain insight. The third stage is then moving toward practice, ideally putting the complexity insight in use. Incrementalism, i.e. big transformations via small interventions, can accompany all three stages and aligns with the view that it could be more beneficial to avoid fixed outcomes that are presumed to be “good.”  Incrementalism helps us refrain from over-planning. The success in managing our highly complex, uncertain systems will depend on the aspect of collaboration, but this is quite scale-dependent: what might work well in smaller scales is not necessarily manageable in larger scales. The planning discipline operates in a highly complex environment with lots of uncertainties, and collaboration, in combination with communication and cooperation, could enable decision-making in favor of the greater good, despite and/or because of uncertainties.

From traditional toward adaptive planning Contemporary planning operates on a scale from technical to communicative rationalities, and by doing so (e.g. nationwide lockdowns), it might risk missing out the possibilities which an adaptive planning approach could result in. Does planning lead the processes, does it react to the changes occurring, does it do both? In what we might call traditional planning, the ‘actual’ aspect, i.e. to eliminate the anomaly that is responsible for the disturbance, comes first. This is followed by the move toward the ‘desired’ outcomes, and the ‘potential’ is the means to reach that desired end-state. Adaptive planning, however, has the same aspects, but with different meanings and different order: the ‘potential’ capacity to navigate during change, followed by the ‘actual’ actions here and now, in response to change, and finally the ‘desired’ possibilities, the benefits a change might bring with it.

Planning for self-organizing systems Planning is not an external intervention but a participation in a much wider urban game. Since the 50s we have Cognitive Planning which relates to one of the main properties of human beings: every human being is inherently a planner, spending most of their awake time time-travelling (thinking about what happened in the past or what will happen in the future). Cognitive planning is an aspect of this kind of time-travelling capability and, therefore, every human-being is indeed a planner and a decision-maker as part of the urban dynamic as well as the planning processes. The outcome of this cumulates into what happens around us, the reality.

Questions of complexity, uncertainty, reactions, responses

During the event, three parallel sessions provided a platform to discuss major aspects concerning urban dynamics, planning, complexity, and the Covid-19 pandemic, a turbulent condition of exposed uncertainty and unforeseeable impacts. Three main questions, urged by a call for (re)thought and advancement in planning, guided the contributions. The following subsections bring together the highlights from each of these sessions. (The following is a brief overview of the inspiring presentations and thought-provoking discussions. We invite you to take a look at the collection of abstracts available here.)

How and in what ways does the Covid-19 pandemic expose the complexity of urban systems? The first session was a full-paper session and explored different aspects of the complexity in pandemics such as adaptation pace, bottom-up movements and the relation between the pandemic spread and cities, considering social, morphological and governance features. Two authors, Stefano Cozzolino and Guzin Yeliz Kahya presented the issue of the pandemic in the cultural and creative sector from two points of view. The first highlights the different adaptation pace of institutions and the cultural/creative sector which is trying to innovate itself facing immediate obstacles to its activities due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Recognising the cultural sector as fundamental in promoting cities and social capital, his reflections are based on 100 interviews with European cultural actors. Differently from Stefano Cozzolino, Guzin Yeliz Kahya focuses on the role of artists’ spatial intervention in urban and cultural policy frameworks in Turkey. The author reflects on planning improvements due to the operationalization of the self-organizing processes at the base of artists’ interventions and collective production of urban spaces. As far as spatial activities are concerned, Maisa Fakhoury and Nurit Alfasi delve into bottom-up approaches in coordination with local authorities promoted by private owners in Palestinian Israeli towns on their properties during the pandemic, evidencing a growth of this kind of spatial projects. Supported by a 7 years-research investigation, the authors evidenced the consistency of hierarchy dynamic semi-formal social institutions that enable the in-becoming, while the institutional level weakens doing the same. Hermann Haken and Juval Portugali conclude the session, opening the debate on the pandemic space-time diffusion patterns considering the city forms, social organization and the governance of welfare states, weakened by models of privatization.

Which reactions and innovations in response to Covid-19 may advance urban planning in addressing urban complexity? The question about urban planning advancements in addressing urban complexity drove the second session speed talks and pre-recorded video-pitches. Contributors, called to explore urban reactions and innovations in response to Covid-19, introduce results and reflections from different perspectives. Inês Boavida-Portugal presents results from an empirical research study about tourism in the pandemic, finding a general optimism about a ‘return’ to travel as before. The analysis on destination shows that secluded places are the best options in pandemic moments. About this ‘green and open space rush’, Flavia Giallorenzo highlights the need for studying Airbnb dynamics also outside the city centres. Indeed, the Covid-19 pandemic struck the Airbnb system, but it let its adaptability to new conditions emerge, a hint of complexity to be considered in governance approaches. A strategy inspired by Airbnb’s original sharing nature is proposed by Sharon Whol for adopting new planning strategies in facing sprawl issues. The pandemic seems to boost the appeal of countryside living, an unsustainable trend if planning doesn’t introduce soil consumption compensations, such as incentives for unused private lands rent for agriculture. As far as new planning tools is concerned, Micael da Silva e Sousa highlights the role of board games in creating a common understanding of the complexity also in non-technical actors. The Design Play Experience technology is a crucial method in approaching decision making design and people behaviours. Indeed, in transition turbulent phases, behavioural interventions can be addressed through complex thinking, as Ward Rauws argues. Fast changes in people behaviours challenge centralised planning, while a complex thinking perspective can identify enabling and constraining factors in adapting to behavioural interventions offering useful tools such as self-organization. The responsiveness of complex systems is underlined also by Beitske Boonstra, who reflects on the institutional and social different paces of response to crises. Civil society constitutes resilient systems characterized by informality, a crucial aspect to be considered in a long-term perspective, in a ‘normal time’ horizon.

Which lessons can be gained from Covid-19 on how planning can support urban societies in facing sudden global crises? The third session, consisting of speed talks and pre-recorded video-pitches, turns around the question of which lessons can be gained from Covid-19 on how planning can support urban societies in facing sudden global crises. Christian Lamker advances the idea that the pandemic taught urban planning the need to embrace the concept of uncertainty. A normative guide can support planners and thus urban society to cope with uncertainties. This topic is also brought to the table by Martina Bovo and Beatrice Galimberti’s contribution focussed on the concept of preparedness in planning processes. The contemporary system’s capability to respond to turbulent conditions takes centre stage to improve the system’s responsiveness and adaptive processes to disruptive events. Considering this unstable environment, Mark Zandvoort claims the need for adaptive planning approaches instead of central planners’ interventions. The urgency of mitigating the pandemic effects has increased the top-down direct governance, which caused conflicts of responsibility among the hierarchical levels. Federico Camerin proposes superblocks as a way to prevent and mitigate Covid-19 impacts. Indeed, they are assumed as neighbourhood units able to improve resilience, inclusivity and thus, safety. The role of urban spaces in social interaction is also investigated by Angel Aparicio. The efficacy of physical public spaces in enhancing socialization and confrontation is argued as unreachable by the virtual ones, such as Zoom or Teams, that the pandemic has made necessary. Nevertheless, technology can also have a positive role in this period, as Xiaoxu Liang suggests. Indeed, holistic cultural management is supported by technologies such as social media to perform participatory processes.

Looking beyond and ahead

Prof. Helen Couclelis held a groundbreaking keynote speech starting from the assumption that ‘There Will Be No Post Crisis City,’ also a central viewpoint in a recent paper of hers. Indeed, disruptive moments as such happened in the past, and they will happen again. All these unpredictable, complex transition phases did not annihilate cities, proving their resilience both in terms of material spaces and human relationship networks. Cities are complex systems, where sequences of epistemic planes–such as spatial structures, flows, functions, agents–form networks in spaces. The cities’ spatio-temporal nature coexists with human nature, fundamentally social and, therefore, deeply linked to the ‘real’ space. Based on this foundation, Couclelis argues that there will be no substitution between virtual and real. It is also to be considered that bits depend on atoms and not vice versa, and that’s why you cannot attach a pizza to an email!

Interestingly, despite different origins, there are clear parallelities with what Sennett also pointed out in his keynote speech: You cannot collect trash online and you cannot look after a patient online! Perhaps one thing to consider is whether being able to do home-office or working remotely is a privilege, particularly in terms of having the choice to avoid getting in contact with the virus itself.

To conclude, as Couclelis rightfully argues, the role of the planner needs to be revised in the light of changed conditions and assumptions. She proposes a shift of planner’s role from leading urban development to defending planning’s fundamental principles of fairness, efficiency, robustness, and wisdom (Susskind and Cruikshank 1987).

Slide from the presentation by Professor Couclelis (Professor Emeritus, UC Santa Barbara)

Finding our way out: Transformative power of crises

While initial questions guided the discussions in the event, further key questions emerged, too: What are the characteristics of the post-pandemic city? How technologies supported the lockdown period and promoted safe-home behavior are modifying the urban life and human relations? What planning approach could be more efficient in addressing abrupt transitions and embracing unpredictable human and non-human reactions?

Echoing Sennett’s words, we do harm to cities if we keep people apart instead of responding to the difference between social and physical distance, and to the fact that ‘virtual’ implying ‘separation.’ Referring to Couclelis’s remarks, virtual cannot substitute real interaction. As this debate strongly relates to inclusivity and justice, it is high time that planners (and planning discipline) need to rethink their role as defenders of fundamental rights. Planning needs to be aware of instability, changing conditions, and complex interactions triggered by disruptive moments. Reframing planning instruments and paradigms in the light of complexity may bring efficiency and resiliency in defending humans and non-human agents of cities.

Crises have transformative power, as resilience and systems thinking teach us. But crises do not guarantee a transformation towards a positive change. On the contrary, so far what we have witnessed with the pandemic is that it impacted the vulnerable portions of the societies, e.g. racialized, unemployed, inadequately housed the most. With this, the pandemic has rather ruthlessly shown us where socio-environmental injustices have always been occurring in the first place. It also proved that we cannot afford to delay embracing complexity, uncertainty, adaptability in the planning profession ‘in the case of a future disruption.’ As we are all witnessing, the future is now.


Susskind, L., Cruikshank, J. (1987). Breaking the impasse: consensual approaches to resolving public disputes. Basic Books, New York


Pinar Dörder is chair of the AESOP YA Coordination Team and PhD candidate at the Technical University of Darmstadt. Her research focuses on urban green spaces in transition across the region of Frankfurt Rhein-Main.

Flavia Giallorenzo is PhD candidate in Architecture, Urban and Territorial Planning at the University of Florence. Her research project is about strategic spatial planning and complexity, focusing on digital home-sharing platforms effects on public spaces.

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