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Modes and Manifestations of Improvisation in Urban Planning, Design, and Theory

Dean C. Rowan

Published: 2004-09-01

The enterprise of musical improvisation is examined as a fruitful source of approaches to urban planning, design, and theory. When musicians improvise, they cooperate and take risks in ways that recommend fitting strategies for urban planners, who traditionally view their planning function as dependent upon values of liberal rationalism. Furthermore, some improvising musicians deliberately stage their performances as interventions in their urban communities, thereby linking the aesthetic aspects of music to social and political action. Examples of three modes of musical improvisation—deviation, response, and insurgency—adapted to the work of urban planners, designers, theorists, and historians illustrate how such enterprises can challenge a purely rational, purely planned understanding of such work, as well as how planning work already and inevitably entails improvisational impulses and influences. The paper thus urges on planning professionals an ethos of improvisation inspired by musicians.

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There is a curious yet enormously fruitful duality in the way that improvisation plays on our expectations and perspectives.

– Tracey Nicholls