Anarchist Epistemologies of Freedom: Challenging and Reconstructing Geographic Knowledge and Planning Practice

Neither Kropotkin nor Reclus abandoned their geography to become political and social anarchists. Instead, they set out to extend the idea of revolution and social critique from the realm of politics alone into the realm of geographic inquiry. Many contemporary geographers and planners have since taken on this project and applied anarchist social and spatial principles to both a critique of spatial planning and the acquisition of geographic knowledge and teaching.

Questioning Knowledge Hierarchies

Fundamental to the anarchist vision of social change is the importance of consistency between means and ends. Social anarchists do not believe that authoritarian driven struggles can produce anti-authoritarian ends. Much attention is therefore devoted to the importance of decentering knowledge and promoting education for selfmanagement. Transgressing knowledge boundaries often produces anxiety in academic circles and yet anarchist geographers and planners argue forcefully for democratizing education and promoting the free flow of ideas and ‘chance encounters’. They call for a more liberating, critical, and reflexive form of learning to be taught in the schools and in venues outside the classroom. Besides challenging conventional ways of knowing and transgressing the boundaries set by individual disciplines and professions, they advocate for transgressive relational thinking and practice as well as the examination of community life from its margins.

This process is intimately connected to the formation of liberatory pedagogies that question all hierarchies of knowledge and support forms of mutual learning that facilitate choice rather than impose ideas or mold character. The implications for epistemologies and pedagogies of higher education are profound. Kropotkin and Reclus were among the first to call for geography as a discipline to be taught both inside and outside the classroom by teachers who would be drawn from all walks of life. Today, community-based learning and traditional colleges and universities who see the value of extending learning venues outside the academy and into the ‘real’ world, enabling students to augment and apply what they are learning to pressing social issues. While anarchists would applaud such approaches, they would caution students and faculty to take their direction in such settings from the grassroot organizations they are working with. They would suggest the need to build relationships upon a foundation of reciprocity, accountability, reflection, and sustainability (i.e., extending projects beyond academic semesters and over time through long term partnerships).

Promoting Participatory Design and Insurgent Planning Practices

In anarchist geography, the emphasis on decentering knowledge has also been applied to a critique of the professional realm of spatial planning. In this light, anarchists devote considerable thought and experimentation to uncovering the methods by which people can transform themselves into the kinds of individuals who become active agents of change in their own lives and who function without submitting to authority. In the spatial disciplines, this has taken the form of calls for a return to the active exploration of local environments by residents, and more participatory planning and design. In the US, demands for greater citizen involvement in planning followed urban riots in many cities in the late 1960s, and tumultuous protests of the disastrous impacts to low income and working class residents displaced by urban renewal policies of the mid twentieth century. As in the pedagogical debates alluded to above, epistemological questions were raised about professional versus indigenous knowledge and about monopolies on expertise, including who has the right to apply their knowledge to address social problems.

Since the 1960s, various forms of critical and participative practice have been incorporated into local planning, including efforts to actively involve recent immigrants, and children and youth in the planning process. These approaches involve the application of a range of methods designed to uncover local assets and facilitate the study and representation of problems that have social and environmental consequences. Environmental exploration, storytelling, and community-based and asset mapping are key approaches used by anarchist geographers and radical planners to create more engaged citizens and generate new models of communication to better negotiate people’s hopes and desires. The impacts of these practices have infiltrated the academy and the spatial disciplines in the form of new discourses and in the invention of new approaches to research. Most notable is participatory action research, a methodology that seeks to directly involve community residents in the framing of problems and research questions, the choice of study methods, data collection, the interpretation of results, and the design of actions in response. Anarchist geographers are actively involved in promoting participative approaches to research that have political impli cations and shift power downward in a genuine way. However, they caution practitioners to be aware of the challenges presented by people’s complicated attachments to place and by a nonlinear process that requires a great time commitment and can produce unexpected results. Anarchists also argue that the encouragement of greater participation in planning be seen as one of several ways to create room for negotiating needs and transforming spaces that allow residents to imprint their surroundings and better articulate and meet their needs.

Dismantling the ‘Ordered’ Landscape

One significant roadblock that anarchist geographers see to greater citizen participation in innovative planning and urban design are regulations and laws pertaining to the use of space. They argue that these are often unrelated to people’s needs and are solely there to support particular power relationships and uneven development. Anarchist geography thus challenges overt efforts to manipulate behavior or deny free access to space through design, while also disputing the practice of ‘master planning’ and all efforts to divide space into neat categories or impose overly determined restrictions on use. Many geographers have pointed to the basis in fear of spatial policies designed to contain perceived disorder (e.g., the Haussmanization of Paris that replaced thousands of working class neighborhoods with wide boulevards or the spatial fortressing policies that restrict the mobility of the homeless today). Anarchist geographers move beyond this critique to argue forcibly against all forms of planning that utilize spatial codes for the purposes of social control or the containment of diverse life styles.

David Sibley’s studies of the urban gypsies in Hull, England provide one example of how planned spaces can contain embedded and false assumptions about people and social structures, thus inhibiting free association. He describes how planners have attempted to use restrictive classifications of space to control and alter the activities of nonconforming groups. Sibley believes that such efforts to homogenize and ‘purify’ space through the precise assignment of its use violates the rights of people to survive through the integration of activities in space (e.g., living and working). Rather than support culturally diverse dwellers in their efforts to enhance autonomy and self sufficiency, he argues that planners tend to define these groups as ‘deviant’. Sibley also suggests that much of the mathematical spatial modeling that went on in geography in the mid twentieth century – Central Place theory and the geometry of Walter Christaller, for example – was an effort to bring order to a disorderly physical world while building the power and prestige of its practitioners. Critics of earlier Garden City or New Town movements as well as more recent critics of the New Urbanism draw heavily upon this opposition to order for order’s sake and the stifling of creative expression through over regulation of the uses and appearances of public and private space.

The Inevitability of Uncertainty: Planning Flexible Spaces to Accommodate Ambiguity, Diversity, and Change

Accompanying the call for a more informed and involved citizenry, and a belief in the social intentionality behind spatial design, is the insistence by anarchists that planning processes and regulations be less restrictive in order to meet changing needs and diverse constituencies. Anarchists eschew artificial and prescribed utopias, and do not believe that modifications to the built environment can substitute for radical change in the fabric of social life. They do nevertheless believe that design can help to create spaces in which positive social tendencies and the fulfillment of human needs can incubate. In opposition to the modernist project of state centered planning with no acknowledgment of contradiction and conflict, anarchists argue for the return of a visionary reality, activism, and the social imagination to planning and design. This would take the form of new models of regionalism and the design of more flexible spaces to accommodate integrated and multiple uses of space that are open to the possibility of alteration. Anarchist planning would also promote the practice of using existing structures differently over time and of recycling spaces as needs change.

In an era of globalization, where cities have come to house many transnational communities, and neighborhoods are often characterized by the constancy of change, anarchist geographers would argue as well for greater acceptance of heterogeneous cultural geographies. They would suggest that spaces remain fluid to accommodate the conflict and ambiguity of actual social life. This includes attention to the profound adjustments necessitated by the movement of people across borders and to the changing meanings and attachments to place that result. While not antiplanning, anarchists oppose state centered planning and emphasize the need to decentralize formal decision making to the most local level possible given historically and situation specific circumstances. They also encourage the creation of many informal social centers that bring disparate groups together to secure everyday spaces for experimentation and the development of cooperative work related, residential, and cultural settings. They believe that occupations of unoccupied buildings and the creation of informal sites, such as a growing number of Occupied Social Centres in Italy and the rest of Europe, can support survival and promote practical alliances among residents in their struggles with local authorities around a range of issues that affect the quality of daily life. Openness to changing plans and access to spaces that bring different people together are considered crucial if social diversity is to become a basis for a new collective politics, and if resistance to the continued erosion of social welfare wrought by neoliberal political agendas is to be mounted on a local level.