Negotiating Mutual Exclusivity

The City Planning Board


Mikaela Karlsson

Urban planning is often simplified to the profession responsible for producing programs and documents that frame the use of space in a given region or municipality. While its simplified understanding is the most pervasive one, urban planning is very complex in its impossible negotiation of a variety of forces – social, economic, cultural, legal, political, ecological, aesthetic, and more – that collectively shape the built environment. The simplification of such a complexity and reduction to a profession with a defined working language and skillset is one that carries political weight to begin with, and academic and background requirements privilege technical training over lived experience in shaping communities. Additionally, urban planning is complicated even without going into its particular complexities, given that planners dictate land use for land that is often stolen. In many ways, urban planning is a practice that is complicit in the production and maintenance of spatial oppression.

I pursued urban planning in search of a toolkit to help construct a better world. I saw the planner as an advocate and facilitator, translating the needs and desires of the community into spatial languages of maps and comprehensive plans. The planner negotiates collective desire, applies it to space, and acts as a defender of it, standing up to political and corporate interests who may seek to push another overarching desire to the center. I wanted urban planning to be an extension of community organizing, coordinating cooperative efforts by local residents to promote the interests of their community, with an added set of spatial tools to shape the built environment into an ally and catalyst of change. I once understood the urban planner as most accountable to people and inhabitants, but I am increasingly understanding that planners often respond first and foremost to the state and private, profit-seeking interests.

Currently, I find myself within a different realm of urban planning – that of party politics in city government. I stumbled into a seat on Stockholm’s city planning commission (Stadsbyggnadsnämnden), as a foreigner who is only Swedish on paper and knows very little about Swedish politics. This realm of urban planning is another layer of power that further separates urban planning and spatial decision-making from residents. Each meeting clubs through at least fifty planning and building proposals in under an hour, leaving little room for discussion on cases that are already reduced to impersonal language of policy and zoning laws. It is often not until getting an email from a resident expressing concern over the impacts of a decision that one realizes the full implications of a certain case, as affect is often omitted from planning language.

My inquiry uses the Stockholm City Planning Board as a point of departure for confronting spatial politics and political processes of space-making. My political ideology is most closely aligned with some version of anarchism, a philosophy that generally rejects imposed hierarchies and the state, yet here I am as a party politician. My site can be extended to the internal space of conflict that is created when occupying or embodying multiple identities or occupations that seem to be mutually exclusive of one another. While this space of conflict is most often internal, these points of contention can manifest physically when these personal contradictions require you to exist in each realm separately, or in instances when one realm clashes with another in practice and not only in theory.