Planning Theory in North America Research Paper

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1. The Invention Of Planning Theory

In the quarter of a century prior to World War I a small international movement centered in the North Atlantic Basin sought to establish ‘city planning’ (under one or another of its names) as a professional craft and an imaginative sensibility. The movement cast itself in a heroic role. The new practice of planning, speakers at the founding conferences insisted, would correct and tame (what they represented as) the ‘wild’ and essentially ‘unplanned’ urban growth of the nineteenth century. The new practice would infuse the fragmented work of professional architects, social workers, hygienists, and civil engineers with an integrative civic vision. The image of the well-ordered city—symbolized by a plan that would guide its growth ‘tomorrow’—was presented as a global icon of modernity. Chicago, New York, London, Birmingham, Paris, Berlin, and Vienna would learn from one another and tutor Tokyo, Shanghai, Cairo, Delhi, Colombo, and Rio de Janeiro (Sutcliffe 1981).

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Despite their expansive aspirations, the leaders of the planning movement—both before and after World War I—built their professional careers within a conception of cities as well-bounded spaces filled with physical structures that organized ‘public’ activities. (The founders argued among themselves: Were houses public or private, and were they appropriately part of the planning brief?) Through the first half of the twentieth century the ‘theory of town planning’ was articulated largely in speculative proposals for new spatial forms, in the tacit assumptions of working plans, and in textbooks legitimating the ‘rational’ integration of ‘architecture and urbanism.’ The movement did not develop a distinctive theorizing tradition assessing the connection between the design of planning practices, processes or institutions, and the character of plans; between the character of plans and of the worlds they shaped (Choay 1997).

In the second half of the twentieth century, all of that changed—though not everywhere in quite the same way, and certainly not in an instant. The demand for professional planners grew dramatically after World War II, and universities responded by creating academic programs. Where planning education remained an adjunct of engineering or architecture, procedural theories played a relatively small role in shaping the new curricula or the public statements of the professoriate. Where, however, planning was articulated as a distinctive craft, the success or failure of ‘its theory’ were vital elements of the new professional identity. (‘Professions,’ it was widely claimed, ‘needed a theory.’)

That ‘need’ did not, of course, sweep away the intellectual difficulties that made the construction of procedural planning theories so difficult. The familiar forms of social theorizing were (and continue to be) designed to explain repeated historical behaviors, or to forecast the path of systems that we cannot, or do not choose to, change. In contrast, planning processes in their varied forms attempt to control (rather than to explain) a world that does not yet—and may never— exist. No matter how sophisticated, planners find themselves torn repeatedly by the discovery that when, imaginatively, they unfreeze relations in order to change them it becomes harder to anticipate the outcomes of their actions, mistakes are legion, and the burdens of control grow heavy. The internal intellectual history of the attempt to construct and validate theories of planning in the last half of the twentieth century is centered in that dilemma.

The builders of the epistemic community devoted to planning theory created a full array of disciplinary artifacts: Journals, conferences, anthologies, review articles, ‘fields’ for doctoral students to master, careers, and stylized self-criticisms. Inevitably, favored failings were part of the community’s identity. Insiders worried that their enterprise was too theoretical or not theoretical enough; that it ignored the spatial core of urban planning in order to run after foreign gods, or that it was too insular in its close attention to planning professionals.

Some of the builders—both early and late— imagined that they might in time satisfy the aspirations of practitioners and educators for a coherent and cogent theory that would guide and legitimate professional city and regional planning. At mid-century, the small Program for Education and Research in Planning at the University of Chicago, radiating confidence in the promise of rational planning, achieved an abiding place in the mythology of the planning Academy despite—or perhaps because of— its premature demise. By the end of the century, however, that promise seemed to most members of the community of theorists either misguided in principle or unachievable in practice. At its conferences and in its journals, the community acted as a loosely coupled network of distinctive and often contending groups. Planning theory—in the singular—appeared as an ironic misrepresentation of the varied products of those distinctly plural circles.

Individual theorists have not, of course, been immune from the arrogance of expertise. The procedural authority of the community of theorists has, however, been extremely limited in most political regimes. Unlike architects and engineers, theorists have never been certified by public or quasi-public authorities. Nowhere is the approval of a board of theorists required to validate procedural designs or to approve the sale of malpractice insurance. Theorists are not legally responsible for flawed organizational proposals, incoherent arguments, or the misreading of texts. They do, of course, hold each other accountable for simple foolishness, complex confusions, and the corruption of novices but their (loose) mutual discipline cannot be more demanding than the structure of the field will allow.

Perhaps because of that freedom from responsibility, the theorists have been intellectually ambitious. Undeterred by ordinary scholarly boundaries and without asking anyone’s permission, they have extended the privileges of membership in their community to ‘colleagues’—dead and alive—who had little direct connection with city and regional planning, and who rarely noticed the appropriation of their work. Sins of omission play a more important role in the stylized self-criticism of the community than sins of commission. A claim that a voice has been neglected commands the community’s attention in the way that a broken tooth commands an inquiring tongue.

Whatever their initial aspirations, the theorists have not created a confident science of planning. To those who read, they have, however, suggested both alternative planning modes and subtle similarities in overtly different circumstances (Krieger 1981, Verma 1998). They have sustained an integrative bridge across diverse domains—land use, environmental and social policy, the design of policies and the associations of civil society, and local and regional economic development—that stretch far beyond the conventional scope of urbanism. Planning theory at the end of the twentieth century appeared as a counterbalance to the authority of local practices, legal mandates, urban regimes, technical expertise, and settled professional doctrines. Those were, however, powerful enemies. It is little wonder that theorists—offering at their best only criticism, questions, and suggestive intimations— lived at the margins of the professional planning enterprise with its characteristic and quite sensible respect for tacit knowledge and uniform practices. Within the main body of professional practitioners, theorists prospered only when they created formal protocols for representation, design, evaluation, and negotiation that could be replicated in many settings and invested with political authority. Geographic Information Systems (now inflated to Geographic Information Science) were the rage of planning agencies at the end of the century. GIS were, however, only the latest in a long series of tools—first among them, cost benefit analysis—whose substantial philosophic baggage is characteristically left at the agency door (Pickles 1995).

2. The Platform Of Planning Theory

The conception of ‘architecture and urbanism’ that was displaced by planning theory had integrated four assumptions:

(a) the object of planning was the physical form of a settlement;

(b) designers could specify the ideal, rational form for a settlement in a particular site;

(c) rational forms had wholly predictable and appropriate outcomes; and

(d) rational form should dominate other design preferences or proclivities.

The critical challenge to these assumptions was articulated on the one side in a direct assault on geographic determinism and the cogency of architectural conceptions of urban form; and on the other side, by an almost casual dismissal of the ‘dream of a rational city.’ The texts that codified theories of spatial design and the debates of the first half of the century virtually disappeared from the ‘talk’ of the emergent community of theorists. Nigel Taylor, in his history, Urban Planning Theory Since 1945 (1998) lists five mid-century texts in the ‘physicalist’ tradition: none of them was included in the Bibliography: of Andreas Faludi, Planning Theory (1973b), Kevin Lynch, Good City Form (1983), or John Friedmann, Planning in the Public Domain (1987). Faludi (1973a, p. x) characterized his own frequent use of physical planning examples as ‘coincidental, a mere reflection of the fact that is the field where I come from and in which I teach.’ Friedmann did not include ‘urbanism’ in his graphic presentation of distinctive planning traditions since the great revolutions of the eighteenth century. New recruits into the community of theorists should (in his account) place themselves in one of those traditions as heirs of an Enlightenment belief that scientific knowledge can and ought to be applied effectively to social improvement.

The combination of a frontal and a ‘casual’ challenge to the integrative conception of architecture and urbanism created an intellectual space in which it was possible to rethink the practices of architecture and urban design, and to create a platform for the construction of planning theory as a field of inquiry and reflection. The major premise of that platform was that though planning processes, settings, and outcomes were entangled, it was useful to distinguish between them. Within the framework of that heuristic distinction, theories of planning should articulate and explain the attributes of each element and illuminate the relations among them: If planners—lay or professional—act in a particular way in settings of such and such attributes, what are the likely outcomes? If they seek outcomes of a particular sort in a given setting, how should they plan? What sort of outcomes should they seek, and should their choices vary from one setting to the next? The intellectual history of planning theory is usefully understood as a tale of a community learning to live on that platform—a stage of its own making. (The best way to follow this tale is probably through the series of anthologies cited in the Bibliography:.)

The practitioners who shaped the early-twentieth century planning movement embraced an ambitious conception of planning as a process—and as a profession—that was uniquely rational, scientific, or self-conscious; that looked into the future and across conventional institutional domains; and that served the public interest or other comparably admirable objectives. The emergence of the new planning academy after World War II did not dim that heroic self-image. The rationality of urban form was, however, replaced by the intellectual claims of a toolkit of protocols for representing complex systems and their cybernetic controls, for evaluating projects and programs, for modeling urban land use and transportation patterns, and for revealing the dynamics of location, spatial differentiation, and interpersonal negotiations. Those protocols—inter alia systems theory, experimental design, mathematical simulation, factorial ecologies, and game theory—had a profound impact on the first postwar generation of theorists, displacing the integrative conception of urbanism but retaining an essentially rationalist justification for professional planning. The mission of theory was not to describe or explain planning processes but to shape them so that they were ethically compelling and instrumentally effective (or even efficient). Normative theorizing would embed those demanding criteria in the identities of individual planners, the practices of planning agencies, and the norms of a disciplined profession. (For exemplary statements of that rationalist ethos, see Chadwick 1971 and Branch 1990.)

Those ambitious rationalist protocols and aspirations did not control the platform for very long before they evoked a critical counterattack on the ‘new utopians’ and the pathologies of technocracy (Boguslaw 1965). Some of these attacks came from theorists who had never been true believers in an age of uniquely rational planning. Perhaps more interesting, were subtle changes in the thought of rationalists (such as Melvin Webber or Britton Harris) responding to the difficulties of managing the indeterminate complexity of ‘wicked’ problems, and of bringing knowledge to bear upon even simple planning issues when ordinary words carried so many conflicting meanings (Rittel and Webber 1973, Vettoretto 1997, Harris 1989, 1997). Both internal and external voices challenged the assertion that a corps of professional planners could articulate and defend a unique social welfare function, or that the difficulties of collective action could be resolved consensually by privileged institutions or tools. Accounts of urban and regional planning activities that dealt only with the behavior of professional planners obscured the ways in which a great many agents attempted to plan, playing both with and against one another. It may be useful to represent planning as a system, but neither the governor in that system nor the feedback loop need appear as a professional planner or agency. In many settings, governance is the work of a political regime, a market, or an interorganizational field. In Charles Lindblom’s account, the ‘intelligence of democracy’ depended on the design of interaction as well as the practice of analysis. Theories addressed only to the creation and maintenance of an expert profession of analysts could not explain adequately the dynamics of those interactive processes, institutions, and practices. Nor could they provide compelling support for their redesign (Lindblom1965, 1990).

The critique of the rationalist toolkit was extended by a reinterpretation of reason and rationality. These ideas, circa 1950, justified claims as fitting within a coherent world view; and as cogently linking a chain of assertions to core propositions without violating legitimate rules of discourse. By 1975—or even earlier—the implications of these criteria had been altered substantially by the recognition of multiple worlds, discursive formations, and pragmatic tests of truth claims.

Paradoxically, the shift was signaled most clearly by the simultaneous publication in 1973 of Andreas Faludi’s anthology celebrating the achievements of postwar planning theorists, and his own treatise synthesizing these achievements in an account of three polar modes in which intelligent professional agencies sought to enhance human growth: blueprint vs. process, rational comprehensive vs. disjointed incrementalist, and normative vs. functional planning. By articulating these polarities as foundations of a positive theory of planning, Faludi revealed how little the community of theorists knew of the variability of these modes over time; and of the ways in which the field of planning organizations and institutions responded to the attributes of the settings upon which it acted. The description of three polarities virtually begged for additional options that would—and that did—enrich the planning repertoire, but that also made it impossible to cultivate a complete general theory of planning. Though Faludi’s description of ‘human growth’ as the goal of planning had a distinguished intellectual pedigree, it was obscure and (in the event) quickly dominated by the intense interest of theorists in John Rawls’ (1971) conception of ‘justice as fairness.’ The theorists, though deeply engaged by the philosophic disputes surrounding A Theory of Justice (and subsequently by Rawls’ responses to his critics), did not, however, agree unanimously that justice was a superordinate goal that should guide all planning choices, that the conditions of the original position would yield a rational consensus on Rawlsian principles, or that the distinctions between rights and goods (and thick and thin) were compelling.

In practice, reason and rationality had always spoken with diverse voices. In the last quarter of the twentieth century, they were intractably pluralistic in theory. Pluralism implied that reason and rationality were neither permanent nor universal criteria. Encoded in planning doctrines, they were precious but temporary and local public orders. In different ways, both Richard Rorty and Jurgen Habermas—as they were coopted by the community of planning theorists— defined the planning ‘problem’ as the design of legitimate ‘conversations.’ Closer to the core of the community, the fascination with ‘participation’ as a remedy for the putative flaws of both autocratic and representative institutions privileged the voices of engaged advocates rather than heroic rationalists.

Without the taming influence of a commanding conception of rationality, the pluralist expectation encouraged an increasingly complex conception of the architecture of the intellectual field. In both positive and normative theorizing the distinctions between process, setting, and outcome could be drawn in many different ways. A development coalition committed to promoting growth might be treated as a setting permitting a comparative study of professional planning processes in an array of urban regimes. A theory trying to explain differences in development patterns might, however, represent the coalition as the most important dimension of the urban planning process. The theorist in such a field is a designer adjusting and readjusting the three elements in order to find a process that can deal with a setting, a setting that can sustain a process, and a conception of outcomes that will not shatter a rightly cherished world. The theorist as critical reader unpacks that complex judgment to test its credibility and its delight: Is that a world worth making?

By the mid-1980s many members of the community of theorists had accepted an image of their field as a lively but not very tidy patchwork—wall bricolage was the fashionable descriptive image. As theorists learned to create sensitive ethnographies of practice, to test the cogency of procedural typologies, and to appreciate the disjunction of what Thomas Schelling (1979) described as ‘micromotives and macrobehavior,’ the harder it became to make sense of the wall. Even the most elaborate plans—symbols of the authority and heroic aspirations of practitioners—were understood by theorists as vulnerable to the (highly variable) interpretations of uncontrollable readers and the secret influences embedded in the everyday language of planners. In Judith Innes’ (1990) report of her own conversion, the new ‘interpretive or phenomenological view of knowledge’ was ‘more contextual, more evolutionary, and more complex’ than the positivist scientific model in which she had cast her 1975 account of social indicators.

That was not, however, the end of the tale. Whatever their view of the political roles and possibilities of professional planning, theorists worried lest the literary forms of their arguments alienate both students and experienced practitioners; that it would encourage skepticism, and an insidious delight in uncertainty. They fantasized about a postmodern ‘abyss,’ in which both practical confidence and public meaning were lost.

The community struggled with those fears in the last two decades of the twentieth century. The attempt to control a pluralism that was deeply treasured took at least four different forms—some new and some part of its initial endowment. The first responsive form, as in the complementary work of Ernest R. Alexander (1996) and Andreas Faludi (1996), accepts the difficulty of articulating and defending a complete general theory of planning. It insists, however, that the patchwork of typologies, ethical claims, and empirical findings can be integrated by a robust planning doctrine into a series of contingent protocols: Within the frame of such a doctrine, if a situation changes from A to B, there is a shift from the now inappropriate mode to another that better fits the current setting. These protocols are more complex than a single theory but not so difficult (or so numerous) that they deny the possibility of achieving consensual agreements on the nature of processes, settings, and outcomes, and their relationships.

The second response addresses pluralism and the patchwork of theory in a quite different way. Surely, the worlds we plan are remarkably varied and often the devil is in the details of those differences. Nevertheless, the advocates of this response—such as David Harvey (1985)—insist, there are really only a small number of compelling ways to describe and explain planning processes, institutions, and practices; only a small number of compelling ethical systems and principled social conflicts. We misrepresent the condition of planning theory, they insist, when we fail to recognize the ways in which the great global systems—e.g., capitalism, statism, democracy, colonialism, racism, liberalism—are defended by the construction of the illusion of huge variations and the exaggerated promise of plasticity.

The third response divides the patchwork of theory into two parts. One—planning proper—is subject to all of the familiar perils of indeterminacy, complexity, and interpretive variety. The second part is the domain of planning support systems that tame those perils (even if they cannot eliminate them) by establishing consensual representations of ‘fact’ and ‘structure,’ allowing us to elaborate the implications of our own images and plans, and stabilizing public orders (Klosterman 1997). Serious support requires, of course, that the choice of representational modes and data sets address the protean requirements of planning processes. The support we seek when we are encouraging divergent thinking early in a planning process would be disruptive or inadequate as we fill in the final details of a fully elaborated scheme. Data sets or maps that cloak essentially contested meanings in a formal garb cannot transform (or support) planning debates: They only reproduce them. Strategic planning may not be well-served by the data that regulates operational management; or organizations in a turbulent environment by the information practices of a placid field (Emery and Trist 1965).

Finally—in what is often represented by its critics as the dominant school within the community (Healey 1997, Yiftachel 1999, Throgmorton 1999)—the communication strategies that have accentuated the pluralism of both planning and planning theory have been engaged to limit the perils of pluralism. Initially, the project of communicative enlargement served principally to encourage the voices of silent groups and to ‘pay attention’ to their lives, to democratize access to knowledge, and to multiple the opportunities to be heard. This project is by no means completed to the satisfaction of its partisans, but it has now taken a somewhat different turn. How is it, many theorists (e.g., Baum 1997, Forester 1999, Mandelbaum 2000) wonder, that we sometimes manage to understand and change one another, and to resolve moral conflicts? What sorts of rhetorical practices and what sorts of settings sustain a practice of reflection, successful mediation, cooperation within and between organizations, and mutual trust? How—even more profoundly—may strangers learn to deliberate across the ordinary divides of adversarial democracies? What does ‘justice’ require of our speech and of the distribution of knowledge?

The current theorizing about communication in planning is capacious. It is not only about talk and texts, but about the ways in which symbolic meanings are imputed to actions and symbols are acts; about the ways in which arenas, forums, and courts (Bryson and Crosby 1992) shape communication patterns. The focus on communication accommodates ethnographies of planners at work, close studies of the dynamics of communities as moral associations, critical assessments of the networks that support the ‘new information technologies,’ civil societies and political regimes at every level, and the detailed protocols (Friend and Hickling 1997) that support the work of complex task forces. Inevitably, the links between these diverse intellectual forms sometimes seem very fragile, and the communication explanation and remedy tendentious. The power of the communication approach lies in the ways in which it makes sense of the diversity that theorists discover as they engage one another on the shared platform. Though theorists have not articulated a consensual set of findings or shared uncertainties, they have found a way to talk about their disagreements, to identify themselves within intellectual traditions, and to map prospective bridges across contested grounds.


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