Much ridiculed in the international press and surrounded by extreme mystique, Pyongyang and other cities in the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) seem to be for most, cities of aberration, of poverty, of repression and of delusional grandeur.Yet, for urban planners globally, Pyongyang is a wet dream come true. Many planners would wish to have a tenth of the decision making capacity that North Korean planners have. Pyongyang (and by extension other cities in DPRK) is unique today in that it is a city that has been completely planned with no community led organic growth, every aspect of the city has been planned for the optimal functionment of a deeply Confucian society.

Are North Korean cities the last true paradise for urban planners?

The vast majority of its population uses public transport. The parks and public spaces are plentiful and well maintained. There is no petty vandalism, no visual pollution of rampant commercial advertising, no messy expressions of individuality in its urban landscape. Everything is well proportioned and thought through; there are areas for sports, for relaxation, for work and for residential developments. The city is harmonious, functional and pleasant. With the absence of Netflix, iPhones and a constantly connected society, there is true community spirit, Jane Jacobs would support the “eyes on the streets” that exists. Come 6pm, everyone is outside enjoying ample public spaces, grandparents gossip while keeping on eye on the young generations busy playing basketball or strolling through parks. Pyongyang is and remains exactly as it’s planners imagined it. Its population is happy because it’s environment is controlled and predictable. In the absence of a free market system, the city has been spared the worst impacts of our consumerist society. The vast majority of the population either use a well functioning public transport system or cycles everywhere, everyone lives in just the right size apartment in a location that is convenient for their work and leisure. Municipal resources are used efficiently. There is no vulnerability created by political changes and associated empty promises. There are ample schooling, medical and sporting facilities available freely to everyone. There is true equality in the access to its urban facilities, there are no costly membership only gyms, residents are not “priced out” of its property markets, there are no salubrious or dangerous parts of town, there are no homeless or poor people, the city is possibly the most immaculate of any city in the world. The population is content with what they are provided for and does not demonstrate for more. This is all possible because the population of the city is tightly controlled through the issuance of permits to reside in Pyongyang. Any urban growth is carefully planned and prepared for, infrastructure is provided, buildings are built and municipal facilities are created in sufficient quantities to accommodate such growth in advance. Pyongyang has achieved what many other metropolitan centres of the world can only dream about. Real control over its growth and all aspects of its urban landscape. The Mayor of Pyongyang does not deal with issues of road congestion, of vandalism or crime, of affordability of housing. The Mayor of Pyongyang does not even have to balance the commercial interests of private developers, of investors or advertisers with his urban planning ideals. He is not subjugated to short term planning policies that revolve around electoral cycles, he can afford to have a long-term vision for the sustainable development of his city. Granted, it is planned in an authoritarian top down approach where the all powerful symbolism of the State takes precedence over all else and yes there are violent repressions and yes it may all be little else than a  Potemkin village but surely this is what’s best for the people! Or at least the few privileged people allowed to live in the comparative comfort of the capital.

Kim Jong Il, Supreme Urban Planner

``The real beauty of architecture lies not in its external form, but in its content.``

We urban planners know how to design cities that function, cities that promote equality in our society, cities that foster a sense of identity and well being. If only pesky humans, and their desires for freedom of choice would stop interfering with our grand plans, we could truly plan for the utopian city of the future. Surely a few sacrifices in individual liberties are worth it for the opportunity to live in a socialist paradise. The State knows best what’s good for us, for our long term future, for our continued wellbeing. It is we the people, with our insatiable appetite for more, our constant demands for accountability, transparency and freedom of irrationality, that ruin the best laid plans.

We, in the western world, believe that our pursuit for materialistic wealth affords us the freedom of choice, that we are justly and fairly rewarded for our efforts and that our cities are shaped and built around the desires and needs of the people. We believe that a market economy creates the fairest allocation of scarce resources that can be. Yet so much of our resources are wasted in the pursuit of satisfying material desires we do not need. Our urban landscape is no longer designed by an (occasionally) benevolent municipal authority but rather by an all powerful private market controlled by a few oligarchic corporations determined to enslave us in a never ending circle of debt and infinite want. Have we traded one form of evil for another? Are our western societies truly free in their urban choices? Within an urban environment shouldn’t the benefits of the many trump the  privileges of the few? Our cities are polluted, our roads congested, our hospitals and jails full, our public transport inefficient and poorly funded. Our public space is being privatised and our elected representatives seemingly work for a mysterious wealthy elite.

While the concept of Pyongyang as a perfect city is of course tongue-in-cheek, it serves to illustrate the conflicts that often exists within most urban planners and other urban “experts”. Achieving the right balance between authoritarian control and giving a free reign to the market is complex and treacherous. We often believe that we know best and that “if only” we were given sufficient power, we could create a better urban environment for all. We are currently focused on a return to transit oriented development, to an agenda of new urbanism that promotes a mix of use and the promotion of pedestrians spaces yet this conversely leads to gentrification and the continued expulsions of the most vulnerable communities only to benefit a few. The increasingly limited resources at the disposal of mayors means that the private sector is bound to play a growing role in the form that our cities will take. Anything that requires an investment equally requires a return. This in turn leads to greater inequality and growing disenfranchisement. By allowing the private sectors to take over the roles traditionally held by the public sector, are we also giving up our rights to the city?

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