The physical environment of a city can be largely understood as a built translation of the past's planning efforts. Planning practice has long been plagued by difficulties in evaluation, due to complexities and insufficient or disparate methods in a field that crosses disciplines. However, criteria for assessing future planning needs is often found in people's behavior - responses to and perceptions of life within cities and within the places that compose cities. This paper proposes that the lived, physical environment of a city could be a starting point for reflecting upon past and current planning measures - through the marks that life leaves on a city's places.
The act of living can alter and leave traces upon the physical environment. City residents may plant trees on abandoned lots, chewing gum may mark a sidewalk indefinitely, car exhaust may discolor building facades. Conflicts amongst individuals and between daily life and governance occur and are often physically apparent. Planning practice can encourage or limit human behaviors which impact the environment and spatial management can attempt to mitigate affects deemed unwanted. While the results of planning processes are often questioned, the resulting life and human behaviors that respond after planning processes receive little attention.
Human life, as it integrally relates to the built environment can be understood by bridging different theories on place definition from geography and sociology. Humanist thought after the writings of Robert David Sack describes how people's life and environmental perceptions contribute to a defining place. Sociologist Bruno Latour's Actor Network Theory has lead to urban researchers such as Mathias Kärrholm developing perspectives on the socio-materiality of place, further informing how physical and social aspects mutually impact each other.
Together, these strains of thought provide a theoretical framework for understanding the physical environment as a field of mitigation between spatial governance and the spatial life. The physicality of a city is dually affected by the past goals of urban planners, the current planning efforts of spatial management, and the ongoing actions of people's life. This effective link between planning and city fabric and city life can potentially illuminate past gaps and oversights that have occurred between plan and built translation. Through comparing the life in, and use of, places against planning intentions, a basis for reflection over decision-making and planning input and execution can be informed.
The paper proposes the framework described above and tests it through a preliminary pilot study in a neighborhood of Oslo that has undergone an urban renewal project finished in the early 2000s - Miljøbyen ("Environment-city") Gamle Oslo. The pilot study is an observation-based study that uses film and photography for documentation, supplemented by qualitative interviews with local residents about use of place. This study is currently ongoing, so all findings are preliminary. The proposed framework and observation methodology are designed to be widely applicable for assessing built results of planning efforts from the scale of a building up to that of a neighborhood or city district. The work is grounded in learning from existing, local contexts and the benefits of learning through reflection over practice, as described by Donald Schön.