Is Deleuzian urban planning possible?

By Catherine Midwood

The ‘Theorizing Society and Space’ course we take as part of the MSc in Society & Space centres on reading and discussing prominent theorists who have written on the relationships between society and space. One of these theorists is Gilles Deleuze, an important philosopher for contemporary cultural geography. His work on politics, space and subjectivity, sometimes co-authored with Felix Guattari, is a key part of the course, which has gone on to inform my PhD research. In my research I use a Deleuzian lens to engage with city spaces, temporary urbanism, and subjectivity. This blog essay outlines the potentials and problematics of Deleuze and Guattari’s work as applied to the discipline of urban planning.

In her book on Gilles Deleuze, Claire Colebrook states that ‘Deleuze’s great problem and contribution was his insistence, in opposition to structuralism, on difference and becoming’ (2001: 2). Through the course of his work, Deleuze developed an ontology in opposition to many of the structures and ideas that had been long-held by the continental philosophical tradition. As many different areas engage with his ideas, questions have been asked of how to use his philosophy practically in order to open up new ways of thinking and acting in the world.


A climate change ready park: Tåsinge Plads in Copenhagen, photo credit David Buchmann.

One realm where such questions have been raised is urban planning. For example, Professor Jean Hillier from the School of Global, Urban & Social Studies at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, works with Deleuzian ideas and concepts to demonstrate what Deleuzian urban planning could be like and how it could benefit the discipline. Mainly, she emphasises that Deleuzian planning should move away from strictly defined, prearranged uses of urban spaces and towards the idea of ‘planning and planners as experiments or speculations entangled in a series of contingent, networked relationships’ (2008: 26). Her argument is that urban planning needs to move away from an ontology of being and towards an ontology of becoming. The Deleuzian idea of becoming is not one of movement between two fixed points: becoming does not have a defined end point. Instead, as Cliff Stagoll defines it, it can ‘be conceived of as the eternal, productive return of difference’ (in Parr, 2005: 22). Hillier’s work emphasises that planners must be open to the ways in which various bodies, both human and non-human, relate to the urban environment and interact with it in potentially unexpected ways. This is Deleuzian in that it attempts to liberate planning from defining and structuring urban space by remaining open to what could happen; open to the productive return of difference.

However, for me Hillier’s work does not go far enough to engage with Deleuze’s ideas. Where Hillier points out that ‘Deleuze’s philosophy appears to fit neatly with interpretations of the world as complex systems’ (2010: 873), she rather simplifies his thinking, forcing it into the hierarchy and structure that he was arguing against. Although she emphasises the importance of becoming, non-human actors, and so on, it could be said that in her attempt to use Deleuze practically, she is dulling his radical side. Following this particular criticism of Hillier along with other urban planners, Mark Purcell (2013) calls for urban planning to engage first-hand with the primary texts of Deleuze, and of Deleuze and Guattari, rather than diluting the revolutionary aspects of the work in order to ‘make them more palatable to existing norms and structures’ (Purcell, 2013: 22). I tend to agree with Purcell that interpreting Deleuze and Guattari in the way that Hillier does results in an appearance of picking and choosing what is most palatable from their work, thus misusing them entirely. However, I also acknowledge that their anti-planning stance makes them a puzzling choice for invigorating urban planning. The two just don’t seem to fit together. How can urban planning, which by its existence requires some sort of hierarchical structure in order to get anything done, engage with Deleuzoguattarian ideas? Could this ever work in practice?


Stormwater drains: Tåsinge Plads in Copenhagen, photo credit Orbicon.

Therefore, perhaps Jean Hillier’s interpretation and application of Deleuze in urban planning is a practical step forward. Certainly, following an ontology of becoming by accepting the world as ever-changing and processual seems like a positive step when thinking about the future of our built environment. In a Copenhagen neighbourhood there is a park, Tåsinge Plads, which is ‘prepared’, in a sense, for climate change: ‘the flowerbeds fill with water and wait to drain until the storm runoff subsides. The upside-down umbrellas collect water to be used later to nourish the plantings. And clever landscaping directs stormwater down into large underground water storage tanks’ (Cathcart-Keays for Citiscope, 2016). This demonstrates an openness to becoming and difference in the world as it has been built with the material capacity to relate to heavy rainfall in more beneficial ways than other urban spaces that do. I would argue that the design of the park can be interpreted as urban planning from an ontology of becoming because it also anticipates the unknown future we will face as a result of climate change. It is open to the potential that could happen.

However, I do think there are ways for urban development to follow Deleuze and Guattari more closely and fully. Their anarchic spirit does not shine through in Hillier’s work or examples such as Tåsinge Plads. My PhD research explores temporary urbanism as a potential way that Deleuzoguattarian ideas can be experimented with in urban spaces. These temporary interventions – whether that be in the form of guerrilla gardening, yarn bombing, picnic benches appearing in unexpected places, writing or drawing on buildings and pavements –show us that ‘such practices so contest the power of authorities to dictate the uses of urban space’ (Iveson, 2013: 954). Poet Hakim Bey termed these spaces ‘temporary autonomous zones’ (1991). They force a rupture in the state-planned city and demonstrate that nothing can ever be fully controlled or planned out by urban planning. Bey emphasised that the ephemerality of these zones as key to their radical potential because they’re not intended to go anywhere in particular or do anything in particular. Instead, they provide ‘moments of intensity [that] give shape and meaning to the entirety of a life… a difference is made’ (Bey, 1991: 100).


A temporary intervention in urban space: Union Street Urban Orchard in London, photo credit Peter Bishop.

Temporary urbanism may show glimmers of Deleuze and Guattari’s anarchic spirit, which could be built upon by urban planners. Purcell argues for a new kind of planning that is based on an ontology of becoming, as Hillier’s is, but goes further in engaging with this radical spirit. So this does not mean an urban planning that attempts to control acts of temporary urbanism or support them through state-led hierarchies, as ‘Deleuze and Guattari stand against state-led planning of all kinds’ (Purcell, 2013: 330). But it means not crushing these uses with punishments or further urban control either. I return again to Mark Purcell’s conclusion as he imagines a Deleuzoguattarian planning:

‘Planning would need to operate in a way that might seem strange… Planning would need to be an activity that works tirelessly to ward off new forms of organizations, institution, and hierarchy. It would have to be planning that does not stand outside the activity of people and try to coordinate it… Planning would have to be conceived of as a power that is immanent to society’. (2013: 35)

Deleuze may seem like an impractical philosopher to engage with when considering urban planning, but as we consider the future of our built environment it might become necessary to turn to more radical ideas such as his that could reinvigorate planning as a powerfully democratic force.


Bey, H. 1991. T. A. Z.: The Temporary Autonomous Zone, Ontological Anarchy, Poetic Terrorism. Autonomedia.
Cathcart-Keays, A. for, January 21st 2016. ‘Why Copenhagen is building parks that can turn into ponds’. Available at: Accessed 25th January 2016.
Clairebrook, C. 2001. Gilles Deleuze: Essential Guides for Literary Studies. Routledge.
Hillier, J. 2008. ‘Plan(e) Speaking: A Multiplanar Theory of Spatial Planning’ in Planning Theory 7 (1).
Hillier, J. and Scott-Cato, M. 2010. ‘How could we study climate-related social innovation? Applying Deleuzean philosophy to Transition Towns’ in Environmental Politics 19 (6)
Iveson, K. 2013. ‘Cities within the City: Do-It-Yourself Urbanism and the Right to the City’ in International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 37 (3)
Parr, A. 2005. The Deleuze Dictionary. Edinburgh University Press.
Purcell, M. 2013. ‘A New Land: Deleuze and Guattari and Planning’ in Planning Theory & Practice 14 (1).

2 thoughts on “Is Deleuzian urban planning possible?

  1. Thank you for this text.

    You’re right that temporary urbanism do express the anarchic spirit. The key is the state of the temporariness; it suggests something that can dissipate but also suggests something that constellates as well, hence, the plateaus.

    I’ve always wondered if Deleuze’s notion of the diagram could be helpful in the formulation of plans. The diagram is only ever an “operative set of asignifying and nonrepresentative lines and zones, line-strokes and colour patches.” (from “Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation”, p.101) In this sense one may say a diagram is a bloc of sensations and forces that can be graphic, spatial, textual and certainly social. At the same time, Deleuze also reminds us “the diagram must not eat away at the entire painting, it must remain limited in space and time. It must remain operative and controlled. The violent methods must not be given free reign, and the necessary catastrophe must not submerge the while.” (p.110) As such, the diagram isn’t just an anything-goes composite of forces and sensations. The creation of a diagram must be attentive to the localised sensations and forces so that a certain efficacy can be produced.

    If a plan takes on this diagrammatic form, it could also be a particular local composition of forces and sensations, but never needing to lead to one single well-tempered city/neighbourhood.

    Be glad to discuss this more.


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