The importance of applying a suitable planning theory to a particular planning issue helps to solve the problem efficiently. There are different theories of planning such as postmodernism, rational planning, collaborative planning and Marxism which can be applied depending on the situation of the issues. In this essay, postmodernism is chosen as the planning theory to be critically assessed in the case study. The case study is about opposition by the residents to the development of opening a new Walmart store in Los Angeles Chinatown. The Walmart development was opposed due to lack of public consultation and insufficient transparency within the city council. Therefore, postmodernism is used to evaluate the issue since this theory encourages public engagement and openness.
There are several main factors that postmodernism is suitable to be applied in assessing most of contemporary planning issues. Since the end of twentieth-century, economic globalisation and rapid urbanisation have increased national and international migration, making the cities more ethnically and culturally diverse than ever before (Sandercock, 2000). This aligns with the key element of postmodernism which is embracing cultural diversity and differences. The politics of difference emphasised in postmodernism has become the central method to understand urban societies and to be applied in reshaping cities (Sandercock, 2000). Therefore, inclusivity and openness are highly encouraged in planning discourse as a way of embracing multiple voices (Tett and Wolfe, 1991). This helps to achieve commonality in an environment that is socially and politically fragmented, where subgroups can demonstrate their differences (Innes, 1998). In contrast to modernism, a universalist framework is used at which all sorts of absolute assumptions are made without the respect to culture, religion, gender and age (Sandercock, 2000). In terms of profession, planners and designers are learned to acknowledge the right to difference in the construction of the built environment by respecting the complex relationships between the identity of diverse communities and built form (Sandercock, 2000).
In response to diversity and differences, civic culture is another important element of postmodernism that is prerequisite in a multicultural community where people have different cultures and values that should be respected. This helps to minimise decision-makers from making a universal judgment on a planning decision. As a result of this, planners must allow residents to have the right to voice and to be heard by encouraging community participation in making decisions that affect their neighbourhoods and cities. As explained by Innes (1998) that citizens are part of the complex system which make up the city and possess the real knowledge about their neighbourhood, hence they must be involved as part of the solution for their home. Postmodern planning has come to realise the importance of communication, in a way that builds connections among ideas and people, and through their actions of participating in decision-making to agree with the best solution (Innes, 1998).
French (2011) explained that one of the greatest challenges encountered in public administration in this century is overcoming public distrust in government. The principle of postmodernism in supporting openness and transparency between the community and government sector can help to improve the public administration. This can be achieved by allowing government information to be easily accessible (French, 2011). In today’s complex and fast-changing society, modernist planning that is bounded with regulations and rules does not seem to work. Therefore, as mentioned in ‘The theoretical investigation essay’ (Nyau, 2019), creating more open-ended plans are highly prioritised in postmodernism to improve the flexibility of the planning system and enable planners to adapt and respond in different ways to any unforeseen circumstances. Therefore, postmodernism is a planning theory that should be put into practice more in developing the current society as it is more prepared in the realities of practice.
Case Study: Chinatown Against Walmart
In 2012, there was a huge opposition by the residents to the proposed plan of building a Walmart Neighbourhood Market in Los Angeles Chinatown. The store was 33,00-square-foot and located at the bottom floor of the Grand Plaza senior housing complex. The main concerned raised from this development was the threat to the small businesses in Chinatown. Hong (2012) described that most of the local stores will be in direct competition with Walmart since they sell meat, vegetables, dry food and dairy products too. Chinatown which serves as a neighbourhood, where owners of small businesses live and work in there will be the main victims to suffer from economic instability with the moving of Walmart since they heavily rely on these businesses to sustain their life and family (Lan, 2016). The residents were also concerned that the emerging of affluent businesses such as Walmart will turn Chinatown into a gentrified place that displaces low-income residents (Hong, 2012). In addition, a member of the council, Ed Reyes (Lan, 2016) explained that the opening of Walmart could result in increased traffic in the area as well as raising the issue of preserving the history and unique character of Chinatown.
Although Los Angeles City Council had banned large chain stores from opening in Chinatown, Walmart was able to obtain its building permit a day before councilmembers voted on that issue, which exempted the store from the ban. As a result of this, in June 2012, thousands of community activists marched through Chinatown to protest against the new Walmart development. The protest was also supported by several labour unions to stop the project out of Chinatown by trying to get a temporary restraining order (Wattenhofer, 2016). This was to limit the influence of Walmart in other parts of the city because Walmart has been notoriously known for paying low wages and hiring non-union workers (Lovett, 2012). The neighbourhood activists made an appeal to the City Planning Commission regarding Walmart's building permits that were improperly rushed through to avoid the City Council's chain store ban (Wattenhofer, 2016). Some people in the community even decided to file a lawsuit against the city and complain that city planner never seek the public's opinion about the opening of a new store in the neighbourhood (Wattenhofer, 2016).
The anti-Walmart rally in Chinatown (Klamar, 2012)
Walmart won the battle at the end and was built in the summer of 2013. The project was permitted without environmental review by L.A. City Department of Building and Safety (Nguyen, 2012). Meanwhile, the appeal and restraining order were denied. However, the Walmart store was closed in 2016 after running for two years as a result of worldwide cutbacks.
Walmart in L.A. Chinatown (Miles, 2017)
The main factor that contributed to this phenomenon was the lack of public consultation with the residents in the neighbourhood before city planners decided on permitting Walmart to be built in Chinatown. This made the residents felt that their views were not being taken into account since the residents (Lan, 2016) have requested that whenever there is any development going to take place in Chinatown, the council should always consider its people too. Another factor was due to the lack of transparency within City Hall. The resident should have the rights to get notified when the decision to exempt Walmart from an environmental review was made by Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety and how Walmart managed to know about the banning of chain stores policy and got away from it.
Application of Postmodernism in The Case Study
As a response to this case study, postmodern theory is applied to assess this issue because of its characteristics in encouraging civic culture and government transparency. The traditional planning tends to focus on the public interest which concerns mainly the developers and stakeholders. Meanwhile, postmodern planning supports a community-led approach which allows Los Angeles Chinatown residents to express their views regarding the opening of a new Walmart for their voices to be heard. In addition, public engagement also enables Los Angeles City Council to have valuable insights on what the residents want so can respond accordingly (Kinney, 2008 cited in French, 2011,p. 255), which helps to improve public administration both in theory and execution (French, 2011). Therefore, city planners must never neglect to seek opinions from the residents in Chinatown as they are the ones who live there, and some have small businesses running to make a living. This can be achieved by conducting public consultation in the Chinatown neighbourhood. Examples include holding regular consultation meetings and putting feedback boxes at the nearby community centres.
However, a mere consultation is not enough as the most important part is to get the residents involved in decision-making (Sandercock, 2004). This allows them to access some control in deciding the final policy of their neighbourhood. Since postmodernism is aware of the differences in the multicultural Chinatown neighbourhood, an open-ended discourse is encouraged in the discussions of planning debates. It helps to solve planning conflict in a way that welcomes diverse opinions by people from different ethnic and racial backgrounds, and hence fosters a better understanding within the Chinatown community, the city planners and Los Angeles City Council.
Postmodern planning framework also encourages openness in status quo which offers Chinatown residents the rights to know by allowing them to access planning-related information held by the government. This enables them to learn about the circumstances of the planning decision in building a new Walmart and the reasons why the city council approved Walmart to be set up in Chinatown. Transparency at the local authority level offers the residents the opportunity to have a say in the policy of Walmart development plan as that is the level which they are most familiar with (French, 2011). Accountability, which is innately linked to transparency, is one of the key factors that helps the residents to build trust and confidence in the administration of the city council (Piotrowski and Van Ryzin, 2007, cited in French, 2011, p.255). The implementation of public policy in a transparent manner is more likely to be supported and accepted by the residents because they believe the decisions have been made for the public good (Upshur et al., 2007, cited in French, 2011, p.255).
Although planning documents are published in the public for inspection, many of the planning decisions and procedures take place outside of the formal planning domain such as internal meetings, letters and negotiations (Allmendinger, 2001). Therefore, a more open approach is required by the council to allow the residents to have more rights to know how their neighbourhood is being affected by the planning decisions. French (2011) suggested that this approach can be accomplished through open meetings, website postings and access to public records and any important planning information. This contrasts with modernism which has a narrow perspective of focusing on the academic discourse and overlooks the metanarratives of postmodernism that embraces the diversity and richness of space (Allmendinger, 1998).
From embracing differences and diversity in society to emphasising on the civic culture that allows the public to participate in the decision-making process, postmodernity theory has helped the planning system to work efficiently and practically in the 21st-century. Based on the case study of residents protesting against the opening of Walmart in Los Angeles Chinatown, the main planning factors that resulted in this issue were due to lack of public engagement and inadequate transparency in the city council. Postmodernism theory is applied to work on the issues of the case study as it highlights the importance of community-based planning to allow voices of residents to be heard and the postmodern value of openness which provides the residents with the rights to access planning-related information from the government before a planning decision is made. In overall, postmodern theory is helpful to be implemented in evaluating contemporary planning issues. As what Innes (1998) has said, rather than deciding what must be planned for the next 20 years, the important part of planning is about being adaptive in preparing to shape the future that we cannot anticipate it now.
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