Transnational urban design firms and local implications for planning

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International architects and urban designers are considered to be crucial for creating new urban projects and more generally for growth. Indeed, transnational firms tend, to provide complex packages of services that reassure investors and politicians, often by elaborating positive narratives such as sustainability or the smart city. By following strategies for being highly distinctive (star architects) or highly reliable (corporate-like) in the global market, design firms are now widely used by developers and investors to package and legitimize their projects. This may occur without any specific reference to local planning processes. Design firms have grown into multinationals with hundreds (sometimes thousands) of employees and they work in multiple cities sharing the same (standardized) knowledge, technologies and, most importantly, similar planning solutions that are ostensibly replicable. Public opinion and the media seem more interested in the narrative (or the technologies, or the esthetics, or the persona) than the actual urban project. In this way solutions are more and more often depicted as merely technical matters, depoliticized and privatized by developers or ad hoc local planning agencies. By investigating two critical examples of firms working on multiple continents (i.e. one star-firm Foster+Partners and one less famous, Broadway Malyan), this chapter will show that these transnational firms can operate in the absence of local planning powers (e.g. in emerging Asian countries or the Middle East), eventually be out of touch with the local physical and functional context and instrumentally use the specificities of given urban places. In the end this serves pro-growth local players. It seems important to understand these strategies and their implications for local planning, since the work of transnational design firms is becoming more and more relevant for many global and second tier cities in Asia and the Americas, as well as in Europe.
Book of proceedings: Annual AESOP Congress, Spaces of Dialog for Places of Dignity, Lisbon, 11-14th July, 2017
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