Solaris is the title of a science-fiction novel published in 1961 by Stanisław Lem. The chronicle offers an in-depth view of futility and human nature that develops around a group of earth astronomers and their unsuccessful attempts to communicate with an extra-terrestrial life form. The scientists, who for decades have been studying a sentient viscous ocean located in the planet Solaris – mostly in vain – rely on nothing but two old books aboard their space station. The first volume, described as the History of Solaris, elaborates on all the theories, observations and speculations attempting to understand the functioning of the gelatinous ocean-being; while the second volume, Bibliography, comprises nothing but the thirteen hundred pages of academic references and scientific sources that constitute the fictitious discipline known as Solaristics.

It is possible to draw a parallel between the wonders of a far distant planet and our scientific attempts to understand the phenomenon known as the city. Likewise, we relied on the theories and historical accounts presented by fellow scientists to navigate the bottomless ocean of planning perspectives. Nonetheless, both senior scholars and early stage researchers face equal odds when approaching 'planning', let alone that any combination of this concept with terms like city, town or space seem to unavoidably fall short to reveal the true nature of this activity[1].

Planning is by definition a relation of power and its influence over both the elements comprising a system and the causality this relation determines over time. As part of this rational logic, the 'urban' is thus an instrument that supports the sole purpose of the power[2]. Everything, from the technical and political processes of development, to the regulatory use of the land, and the physical design of the environment fits into this categorization of urban planning.

Nonetheless, when admitting a more complex view of society, the theoretical boundaries of urban planning shift from the vacuum of the exact sciences to the depths of the social realm[3]. While this can be seen as legitimate progression to confront a higher degree of complexity, it also increases the difficulty to define urban planning as either a systematic process of projection in space or as the analysis of human interaction within the city[4]. The main body of works on Solaristics probes to be the source of a similar predicament, as medieval scholastics seemed to be model of clarity compared with the jungle that this matter gave rise to. Just like its fictional counterpart, much of the research in urban planning gives the impression to be more concerned with finding order through the taxonomy of former ideas or the classification of new approaches than with the critical attempt to reconnect with its more fundamental basis: Why do we plan?

As a human affair, urban planning will always be a subterfuge, while it is a valid excuse to incite scientific debate and prompt new reflections – something rightful and perhaps necessary – it is unreasonable to expect neither effective control nor accurate predictions from urban planning. Nevertheless, as futile this effort appears to be, remains impossible to visualise some degree of structure in the city without a plan defined a priori.

Urban planning hereof seems to reveal more about our human condition than what it actually illuminates about our cities. While all human efforts to make sense of the phenomenon ultimately prove futile, we hold onto planning in order to problematize our own inability to understand society and the powerlessness of our scientific attempts to deal with the conflicting human nature of the city[5]. Likewise, the scientists examining Solaris probe also to be the real subjects under scrutiny as they realized that in turn are being analysed by the ocean itself.

As the story unfolds into its conclusion, the researchers sunk in depression planning to return home, but slowly their plans change. Sitting by the vast ocean and contemplating its powerful presence and relentless silence, the main character decides to remain focused on Urbanistics[6]: I do not know anything, but still believe that the time of cruel miracles has not ended. Accepting the futility all study efforts will ever have, the scientist acknowledges this is the only way to find meaning to (professional) life.

Text and photo: Marcelo Sagot Better

[1] The peculiarity of those phenomena seems to suggest that we observe a kind of rational activity, but the meaning of this seemingly rational activity (...) is beyond the reach of human beings. Stanisław L. (1989). Fantastyka i Futuriologia, Wydawnictwo Literackie,vol. 2, 365.

[2] The role of theory in urban planning is to legitimize the use of power, while planners act as judges of normality attempting to maintain order in the city. Allmendinger, P. (2017). Planning theory. Macmillan International Higher Education, 22

[3] As a rational model, planning fails to lead to fruitful hypotheses and, because of its logical rigidity, it was incapable of substantial modification. Friedmann, J. (1967). A conceptual model for the analysis of planning behaviour. Administrative Science Quarterly, 225-252.

[4] The planner has become the victim of planning; his own creation has overwhelmed him. Wildavsky, A. (1973). If planning is everything, maybe it's nothing. Policy sciences, 4(2), 127-153.

[5] Is the distinction between city and people necessary? Sicinius asks the in front of the tribunes: What is the city but the people? Shakespeare, W. (1914). Coriolanus (Vol. 29). The Oxford Shakespeare, Act III, Scene I.

[6] The specialization in the study and planning of cities. Van Cleef, E. (1957). Some Aspects of Urbanistics, The Professional Geographer, 9:3, 2-7.

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This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement No 721933.