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The Other Urban Designers: The Role of Private Sector Consultants in Shaping Policy and Form


While previous research on urban design processes has largely treated urban design practice as the public regulation of private activities, the increasing role of private consultants in public policy and design activities brings this into question. Looking at two cities with differing public capacities, Toronto and Los Angeles, this research assesses the relationships between private and public sector urban designers, the relative power that they have over urban design processes, and how this is influenced by public sector capacity.

Professional expertise is shown here to be a form of political power, in the sense that it allows for influence over decision-making processes. In negotiating design processes, the professional expertise of private sector urban designers was constructed, and for the most part, perceived as "more expert" or legitimate compared to that of public sector urban designers. The establishment of a creative-technical division between public and private sector professionals was enforced in both Los Angeles and Toronto, often limiting the role of municipal urban designers in substantive decision-making.

The research also demonstrates that professional urban designers have political identities. One aspect of this is the portrayal of outside experts as politically neutral and unbiased in a way that public employees were not. Consultants used the construction of political neutrality to bolster the perception that they were able to provide "more expert" advice than their public sector counterparts, arguing that they didn't face the same political and bureaucratic constraints. The public sector urban design capacity of the city was also found to be important in constructions of municipal expertise. Without a public sector that saw itself at least partially in conflict with private urban designers, confrontation about the substantive issues related to design practices and goals rarely occurred.

Importantly, these constructions and deployments of professional and political practices were used in the shaping of urban design processes in a way that can be broadly understood as "setting the agenda". This notion of setting the agenda, or having control not only over the outcome of decision-making processes but also the range of possibilities that are considered, demonstrates the relative power of private sector actors in urban design practices.

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