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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Technology and Planning: A Note of Caution


This issue of the Berkeley Planning Journal considers the interaction between technology and planning. Such discussions often focus some- what optimistically on the use of information technologies such as geo- graphic information systems (GIS), computer modeling, visual simula- tion software, or the Internet. The assumption is that these are simply tools that planners employ, or that, by extension, society in general em- ploys to meet particular needs. A related assumption is that these and other technologies are value-neutral, rather than actively shaping the goals and agenda of the profession. In this brief essay I would like to take a somewhat different perspective on the subject. I will argue that technol- ogy is a dynamic force that restructures both cities and the mindsets of city planning far more than we usually realize, and that we as planners must become better at stepping back from technology and putting it in its place. As Lewis Mumford warned in works such as Technics and Civilization (1934), much of the influence of technology in the past century was not for the good. It led to overly rapid urban expansion, an inhuman scale of development, sterile modernist architecture, unprecedented con- centrations of economic power, ecological devastation, and many other destructive phenomena. The challenge to planners in the twenty-first century then is to become more aware of the ways in which technology shapes our profession and cities themselves, better at managing the introduction of new technologies (for example new transportation systems), and more sophisticated at balancing technological methods of analysis with more basic tools such as common sense, direct observation, and compassion.

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