Planning Theory Research Paper

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During the twentieth century, the concept and practice of what is variously called town design, spatial planning, territorial management, and town and country planning developed into a complex area of public policy. The theory informing this policy field has been the product of continual interaction between ideas about how to do planning, the experience of planning in practice, the intellectual context available to those thinking about planning, and the agenda of problems and opportunities which planning has been harnessed to address. Inherently, the planning enterprise is caught up in institutional contexts, which shape its meaning, its material expression, and its consequences. This contribution illustrates the interaction between ideas about the nature, purpose, and method of planning, the context of their production and the practices at which they have been directed.

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1. Cities, Governance, And Planning

Few of the ideas about planning which evolved in the twentieth century came initially out of academia. There was no significant academic infrastructure for the field until the last quarter of the twentieth century. The origins of twentieth century planning ideas lay in the experience of rapidly urbanizing societies, and the perceptions of injustice, disorganization and threats to human health and happiness which urbanization seemed to bring. These promoted political movements, pressure group politics, expert evangelism, and attempts to transform city government to cope with the complexity of issues which arise in large cities. The focus of attention ranged from the neighborhood, the city, the region, the process of governance and the overall organization of society. Two core ideas have informed these otherwise very diffuse endeavors: firstly, that through appropriate governance action, it is possible to ‘make a difference,’ especially in making cities and societies more sustainable and just; secondly, that the spatiality of social processes and the qualities of place are important dimensions of well-being.

These two ideas have been developed in very different ways as illustrated below, with the aim of highlighting both the situatedness of planning ideas and how their impacts are highly dependent on the specifics of institutional milieu.

1.1 The Good City

In the early twentieth century, planning was generally understood as focused on cities, on how to manage the congested and sprawling consequences of the urbanization arising from industrialisation and new transport technologies (Mumford 1961). Throughout the century, there was concern about the qualities of cities as living places, as aesthetic products, as business locales, and as biospheric relations. ‘Theories’ of urban form and the arrangement of regional space dominated the discourses of city planning until at least the 1960s (Boyer 1983, Hall 1988). Protagonists, a mixture of campaigners and specialists in urban development (architects, engineers, and surveyors), battled over the relative merits of different forms. By the 1950s, most European states had some form of urban planning and land use regulation embedded in their central and local government policy frameworks and competencies.

This success in institutionalizing the idea of city planning was soon overtaken by vigorous critique of the predominant focus on urban form. Sociologists such as Herbert Gans in the USA argued that cities should be understood through the way people lived in them rather than through their physical form. Jane Jacobs, a fine observer of the way people used urban neighborhoods, argued against planners’ ideas of demolishing old neighborhoods to replace them with modern buildings and the separation of living and working spaces. Regional economists and geographers challenged assumptions about the dynamics of urban growth embodied in the urban plans produced by architects, engineers, and surveyors. The emphasis of the earlier generation of town planners on achieving urban quality of life for the mass of the people was replaced by a concern with distributive justice and the ‘socially just city’. This idea emphasized that the poor should not draw the short straw in the distribution of access to urban living space. Peter Hall showed that the containment of British cities by greenbelts, far from achieving gains in quality of life for ordinary citizens, had made housing generally more expensive and led to deteriorating conditions in the UK’s inner cities. By the 1970s, Marxist analysts had joined the debate. Manuel Castells showed, in a study of a French city, that the aim of urban planning to improve the quality of life was a mask behind which developers and business interests could pursue strategies for realizing land value gains. This critical story had resonance in other parts of Europe where urbanization was proceeding apace, producing substantial development gains to landowners and developers. It was echoed in examples of urban renewal in the USA.

As a consequence of this critique, at least in Europe, coupled with a slowdown in the pace of urban growth, the idea of large-scale comprehensive planning fell into disrepute. Urban management practices focused on the fine grain, the neighborhood, the site, and the urban renewal area. Attention in the 1970s and 1980s turned to projects and mechanisms. The focus on the physical form of the city was displaced by ideas about appropriate planning processes (see below). Architects, engineers, and surveyors were replaced as a source of expertise for planning by regional economists, policy analysts, and those specially trained as ‘planners’. The discussion of ‘planning theory’ turned away from ideas about what the city as such could be like. Influenced by postmodern ideas in urban design and postmodernism in philosophy, a critique developed which suggested that the whole idea of attempting to ‘plan’ such a complex phenomenon as a ‘city’ was oppressive to the multiple realities and possibilities of urban life.

By the end of the twentieth century, a new wave of interest in the quality of cities, rural areas, and urban regions was swelling up in policy arenas and among commentators on planning. The pressure for this came in part from an increasing awareness of new economic and social realities. The recognition of the openness of urban economies to the dynamics of global economic forces raised widespread concern about how to ‘position’ cities and urban regions in a landscape of competing regions. The appreciation from direct experience of lifestyle diversity, and its consequences for the ways different groups were using the space of an urban region, made people aware that traditional models of self-contained, hierarchically-ordered cities no longer captured the reality of urban life, especially as affected by new technologies (Sandercock 1998, Beauregard and Body-Gendrot 1999). Most influential of all were the ideas associated with the rise of a new environmental consciousness in the last quarter of the twentieth century. This brought with it conceptions of the limits which the natural environment placed on human actions, and of the need to consider transgenerational impacts not just short term ones.

This led to a wave of interest in the ‘Sustainable City’ (Satterthwaite 1999). For some, this meant minimizing adverse impacts on natural environments, linked to ideas about ‘ecological footprints’ of urban development, and conceptions of the ‘carrying capacity’ of environmental systems. For others, it emphasized keeping cities compact and preventing land being used up in development. Others enlarged the concept to integrate the concern with social justice to that of ‘environmental sustainability.’ The dominant concept in public policy in much of western Europe by the turn of the twentieth century was ‘sustainable development,’ which combined the principles of minimizing ecological impacts with ways of continuing to promote economic development. However, it is clear that these two dynamics do not comfortably co-exist with each other. There are also tensions with notions of social justice, the multi-cultural city, and fostering innovative plurality. The reawakened emphasis on urban futures in planning theory thus opens up a complex set of issues that had hardly begun to be developed by the end of the millenium.

These ideas and debates about the quality of the ‘good city’ and the ‘good environment’ were shaped by the changing dynamics of urbanization processes, as well as changing expectations and values. In turn, concepts from planning theory have influenced the practices of urban management. Planners’ ideas have molded the restructuring of existing urban areas, the design of new towns and settlements, and residential neighborhood design. They have affected the form and location of transport projects. They have shaped the evolution of urban street scenes through the impact of land use regulations. These regulations have in turn influenced the way land and property values are distributed and property development processes have evolved. Planners’ ideas achieved this impact by framing the organizing principles and discourses used by governments in developing policy frameworks and organizing competencies for planning ‘systems’. However, the organizing principles and discourses of one era become embedded in practices and can come to outlive their usefulness. By the turn of the millenium, in many parts of the world, ‘planning’ as practiced was identified as ‘part of the problem’ of governance processes that do not match the aspirations and challenges of contemporary cities and regions.

1.2 Good Government

For the protagonists of early twentieth century city planning, the everyday business of politics and government was ‘part of the problem.’ They sought to show a way forward by striding out ahead with their plans and designs, apart from this messy world. By midcentury, an alternative idea had taken root. Planning was a way of ‘doing government’ itself. In Europe, socialist movements promoted the role of planning as an alternative to allocating resources through market processes. In the USA, planning was promoted as a way of improving the quality of local government. Clientelist practices were well developed in many cities, with adverse consequences for both the efficiency and effectiveness of public policy. Bureaucratic management was no better, as ‘playing by the rules’ led to government actions which did not adapt to the dynamics of changing situations or local specificities. The way forward, strongly advocated in the University of Chicago School of Planning in the 1950s, was to adopt contemporary principles of business management. This meant developing strategic frameworks to articulate the goals of an organization. These could then be translated into policy principles or objectives which individual officials could use as guides as they developed responses appropriate to specific situations. This powerful idea, with its focus on ‘means–ends relationships,’ was strongly linked to the promotion of democratic government. All the steps justifying a particular policy could be explicitly identified and implemented by logical analysis and scientific evidence. Officials could be held to account in relation to their performance in achieving an organization’s goals, while the process of strategy-formation made these goals and their justification transparent to citizens (Faludi 1973, Friedmann 1987).

Initially, it was assumed that the work of ‘policy planning’ would take place in a world of technical experts, reporting to politicians. As Western democracies have become increasingly educated and pluralistic, distributing power and knowledge ever more widely among business groups, pressure groups, and citizen mobilization movements, this position has been challenged. However, concepts of strategy, of evaluation of policy ideas and performance in relation to objectives, and of the systematic link between policy and implementation had become deeply embedded in expectations of government behavior by the end of the twentieth century. City planning practices have been transformed by these shifts in the way government is performed. Planning theory has both influenced the design of spatial planning processes in many parts of the world and learned from their practice.

At the core of the original idea of a ‘rational planning process,’ as it was often called in the 1960s and 1970s, was the view that governments—and their teams of experts—needed to be able to explain why a particular strategy was appropriate in a particular context, how it would be implemented, and whether it had been implemented. It became linked to the development of ways of making strategic and policy plans, techniques of evaluating alternative options, appraising the impacts of projects, the development of indicators to evaluate performance, and attempts at modeling situations—for example land use and transport interactions—to assess the likely impacts of different courses of action. All these are still in common use in twenty-first century urban and regional government, providing a methodological kitbag for planning office staff and consultants.

However, these early ideas attracted criticism almost as soon as they were propounded. The overall approach was challenged as deeply instrumentalist— defining the purpose of government in terms of achieving specific objectives effectively. The methodologies drew on welfare economics, with its utilitarian assumptions. The approach assumed that policy ideas were translated into action in a linear way, from ‘top’ to ‘bottom’ of an organization or government system. It was seen to be over-generalized, failing to consider the differences, which might arise in different policy fields and in different institutional contexts. It also handed power to the experts, as the early city planning ideas had done. Politicians, lobbyists, and citizens were pushed to the sidelines. In the 1950s, a famous study by Meyerson and Banfield in Chicago showed that local politicians were not prepared to accept the restraints on their actions, which the rational policy-planning model implied. In the 1960s and 1970s, scholars such as Charles Lindblom, Amitai Etzioni, John Dyckman, and Richard Bolan began to show how contexts might limit how far a policy-driven planning practice might go. Others criticized the approach as promoting ‘corporatist’ practices, entrenching the influence of local business and political elites through their power to shape and overturn strategies. An alternative was to accept the increasingly pluralistic form of local politics, and develop a local politics around competing plans, produced by different interest groups. This approach, promoted by Paul Davidoff, became known as advocacy planning (Faludi 1973). The experience of policy practice began to look less and less like a strategy-driven process. Instead, analysts noted that the content of policy seemed to be negotiated in the flow of action, rather than being set in advance.

By the late 1970s, planning theorists turned their attention to issues of policy ‘failure’ and implementation ‘gaps,’ following landmark studies by Aaron Wildavsky and others. This work looked more closely at the institutional context in which policy frameworks were articulated and the ways planners, understood as experts and government officials, went about their tasks. It identified the problems, which arose where policy ideas were not sufficiently ‘owned’ or understood by politicians, or by other parts of public administration which controlled significant resources or regulatory powers. There were close parallels with work undertaken in business studies. This analysis highlighted the difficulty of promoting strategy-driven governance processes where other ways of ‘doing governance’ controlled the culture of local government. It also showed that ‘field level’ actors, officials, and experts working up the details of policies, or acting at the interface between officials and the clients of public administration, developed their own ways of understanding policies and how they might be applied.

This led to a critique of the rational planning process as a ‘top down’ viewpoint, challenged by a ‘bottom up’ viewpoint of the actors ‘on the ground.’ (Barrett and Fudge 1981) The linear model of the policy process was increasingly challenged by conceptions of policy development as an interactive process, continuously evolving over time and drawing in different actors at different stages. In this formulation, planning was no longer either outside government, nor imposed on governments in an attempt to transform their processes. It was caught up ‘inside’ politics and governance processes. In the 1980s, a significant strand of work associated with John Forester, Charles Hoch, and Howell Baum, began to address questions of the way planners committed to progressive values operated in these ethically challenging situations (Forester 1989, Campbell and Fainstein 1996).

During the 1980s, a major conceptual reorientation brought new ideas about the nature of policy processes to a central position in debates in planning theory. These built on the earlier work on ‘implementation processes’ in two ways. Some analysts focused on the way experts and officials made sense of the complex situations in which they found themselves. Others began to explore the way policy agendas and the relations of governance mutually constituted each other in interactive processes. Both emphasized the significance of the frames of reference and the ‘social worlds’ which those involved in policy arenas brought to bear on policy design and implementation. Policy development was presented less as a technical exercise in calculation and design, and more as a social process of articulating ways of thinking and ways of acting which could command support among a wide range of players in urban and regional contexts where power was likely to be diffused in complex ways rather than concentrated in the hands of a single elite. Collaborative, participative forms thus challenged top-down and ‘producer-driven’ approaches to public policy. Such ideas were infused with the much wider critiques of positivist science and linear models of knowledge and application developing in the 1980s in the social sciences generally. Some argued that planning was an impossible task, caught up in the discarded clothes of ‘modernity.’ Others, and notably John Bryson, Judith Innes, and Maarten Hajer drew on emerging interpretive approaches. These emphasized that policy meanings were actively constructed by participants through communicative processes which, if effective, could recaste policy ‘discourses’ and redirect re- source allocation processes and regulatory practices (Healy 1997, Innes 1995).

In parallel, there was an explosion of attempts in various parts of the world to develop new, more participative and collaborative forms in planning practice. These were partly promoted by the idealism of those pursuing a democratic version of the sustain-ability agenda, notably in the practices of producing Environmental Audits and Appraisals for localities, as encouraged by the World Environment Congress in Rio in 1992. But they were also a manifestation of a struggle to recast the forms of governance inherited from mid-century in Europe and the US. While neo-liberal strategies sought a way forward by reducing the burden of government, through strategies of ‘privatization’ and ‘deregulation,’ alternative strategies promoted models of more participative democracy, which could reduce the perceived gap between the worlds of politics and government and the worlds of citizens. The objective was to refocus governance activity around the concerns of civil society and the economy, rather than those of the ‘producers’ of government.

By the late 1990s, ideas about consensus-building practices and collaborative strategy formation, collected and consolidated by planning theorists, were being rapidly internationally circulated to help fulfill in practical ways the ambitions of politicians and officials trying to move in new directions. In this context, the value of policy effectiveness embodied in the ‘rational planning process’ was supplemented by a concern with ‘building democratic culture’ (respectful and ‘citizen-centered’ styles of governance). Proponents of the new communicative planning argued that strategies that were developed interactively among affected parties (stakeholders) led to greater ‘ownership’ which in turn provided the social and political resources through which strategic directions could be maintained. They also argued that such processes brought civil society into a much stronger position to shape public policy agendas.

1.3 Qualities Of Place And Qualities Of Governance

By 2000, there were vigorous debates in the planning field about this new agenda. As in the earlier discussion of the ‘rational planning model,’ a key issue was the qualities of the institutional context in which such practices could flourish and how far their promotion could induce changes in the context. However, there was much less discussion of how these ‘good governance’ ideas might link to the qualities of a ‘good city.’ The two strands of thinking in planning ideas largely proceeded separately in the late twentieth century. They also potentially challenge each other, as the one stresses qualities of process and the other stresses qualities of places and their diverse relations. A governance process informed by the citizens ‘of’ a locality, which proceeds in a richly participative way, is likely to encounter multiple ideals about a ‘good city’ and a ‘good living place.’ What may emerge through processes of debate, struggle, and conflict resolution may be far removed from the ideals of a good city being developed in debates among professionals.

2. Planning Theories In Context

The enterprise of planning is profoundly committed to changing the ways things are and to transforming realities, whether those of cities or their governance. It is inherently normative in its value orientation, infused with the belief that deliberately designed actions today can have beneficial impacts tomorrow. Those who reject the idea that this is desirable or possible— anarchists, extreme free marketers and cultural postmodernists—will reject the enterprise of planning. Yet the idea that, in democratic states, governments should have policies and should be judged on how effectively they follow them through, is one of the great inventions of the twentieth century. It is being carried forward vigorously into the twenty-first century. What are changing, however, are the conceptions of where policies should come from, how they should be focused and who gets involved in their articulation and implementation. At the beginning of the twenty-first century it is not enough for policies to be designed by experts. The quality of government is increasingly judged by the way its policy formation attends to the multiple voices of complex societies, by its skill in recognizing the complexity of economic, social, and environmental dynamics, and its appreciation of the specific realities of the way policy programs are realized.

In this context, a policy focus on ‘place quality’ has a new salience. Such a focus, if grounded in the specific contingencies of particular places and the multiple perceptions and meanings of those with a stake in them, can connect the issues which concern citizens and businesses in ways which make sense to them. These tendencies recreate a policy environment in which the enterprise of planning has much to contribute, provided it can release itself from its ‘entrapment’ in the past and reconnect the debates about the qualities of place to those on good governance. Three recurring themes in the discussion of the ‘good city’ and ‘good governance’ represent important challenges for future spatial planning and territorial management practices.

2.1 Ideas And Actions

The first challenge focuses on the relation of theory to practice. The history of planning thought shows the many ways in which planning ideas filter into the construction of concepts, goals, and norms which guide specific actions—through advocacy and campaigning which impact on popular perception and politicians’ agendas; through the design of planning systems and formal norms; through the ways these are interpreted in administrative and legal arenas; through the formulation of explicit strategic frameworks and the ways these get translated into routinely used concepts and norms; and through the training of ‘planners’ and the professional organizations which bring ‘planners’ together. Through continual interaction with these worlds, planning ideas are themselves changed. The contribution of planning thought in the twentieth century has been its preparedness, however ineffectively it is often developed, to link together the philosophy of normative action, the social science of urban and regional dynamics and the fine grain of the practices of urban and regional governance. The challenge has been to draw out the significant strategic processes of governance which affect the qualities of places and territories, as lived, experienced, and given identity in multiple social processes (Friedmann 1987).

2.2 Substance And Process

The geographer Ed Soja has remarked that twentieth century thought has had a peculiar difficulty in perceiving the impact of ‘being in a place’ and of the spatiality of social relations. The autonomous individual in a ‘free society,’ or the social group as a ‘class’ in relation to other social classes, has been much more dominant. Contemporary culture, however, notices all kinds of cleavages and fractures, and stresses the complex relations individuals may have with others. Grasping the significance of place and territory in these complex representations and relations, and developing governance processes in which to give them voice, is a major challenge for urban and regional politics and policy. In planning theory, there has long been a debate about how to relate the ‘substance’ of policy to the ‘process’ of policy development, with theories being criticized for giving too much weight to one or the other.

If the predictions made in the previous section are correct, then the second challenge for planning theory is to contribute to the co-evolution of the ‘substance’ and ‘process’ of territorial management-policy frameworks. This has major implications for institutional design—who contributes what, when, and where. It also has implications for the articulation of values. There were major debates in the mid-twentieth century about whether planning was ‘value-free’ or ‘valuefull’. If ‘value-full,’ were the values about process (fair, just, ‘rational’), or about substance (achieving specific goals, for example, aesthetically-pleasing environments, quality of life for ordinary people, redressing the unequal distribution of resources and power etc.)? By the end of the century, process values had been extended to include qualities of inclusion, empowerment, and respect to all citizens, while substance values were infused with ideas about environmental sustainability and social justice. However, if the substance and process of governance for complex territorial problems are seen to co-evolve, then it must be expected that values too co-evolve. This implies the development of critical capacities for ‘reflection-in-practice’ on what is evolving, what it might lead to and what values might be promoted as a result (Schon 1983). In work in planning theory, this has led to a critique of planning strategies and the design of planning systems. It has also focused on the personal dilemmas of ‘doing’ planning work.

2.3 System Maintenance Or Transformation

The third challenge in planning theory lies in the approach to social change. Behind any idea of the ‘good city’ or ‘good government’ is some model of the nature and dynamics of social organization. For some advocates of planning ideas, it is the model itself that needs change. For others, the model needs correction to make it work better. As John Friedmann argued in the 1960s, some planning ideas sought to maintain basic systems. Others aimed to transform them. At the time, he was contrasting the management needed to trouble-shoot in western democracies with the transformations needed in illiberal Latin-American dictatorships, newly experimenting with democracy. By the 1970s, he had become much more radical, demanding ‘social transformation’ in over-urbanized capitalist societies, dominated by global corporations.

Throughout the twentieth century, people have been attracted to the planning field through transformative idealism. In the second part of the century in Europe, the target of transformation was a form of capitalism which dominated life chances, structured the way urban and regional space was used and damaged environments across the globe. For many, it was a shock to discover that the ‘planning systems’ and ‘planning practices’ which actually evolved, seemed deeply committed to maintaining the very practices which they had sought to challenge. Ideas about alternative ways of organizing society, however, come up against the reality of the dynamics of social change. In some periods of tumultuous social change, any kind of planning is an impossibility. In some periods of entrenched stability, similarly there are few cracks of opportunity to mobilize to do things differently. Most of the time, most situations are somewhere in between. In the contemporary world of complex relationships and diffused power, change happens both through big events (for example, the OPEC oil crisis, the collapse of communism, the 1987 property crash, the rise to power of neo-liberal governments, etc.) and through lots of small shifts and mobilization episodes. Planning processes can help these shifts along. Instead of making plans which are assumed to be predictions of what will happen, making plans becomes more of an activity of social mobilization, encouraging new ways of understanding situations and developing new ways of working. Strategy development in such conceptions takes on more of the character of collective invention and risk-taking in trying to shape futures rather than the mid-century assumption that government could command resources and control futures.

3. The Contribution Of Planning Theory

These debates in the planning field provide rich resources for imagining, developing, and critiquing governance practices as they impact on urban and regional dynamics in the twenty-first century. Formalized in the planning-theory literature, they range through philosophical debate, through analysis of systems and practices, and through discussion of the situation of ‘doing planning work.’ If the planning field is to realize its potential to contribute, imaginatively and critically, to the ‘turn’ towards more placefocused policy agendas, planning theory needs to maintain a close and multi-facetted engagement with these evolving practices.

There are many ‘windows’ through which this engagement has developed. One is that of the ‘planner,’ working within specific contexts trying to make things happen differently. This has been the key contribution of John Forester, whose work speaks sympathetically to planners in complex situations around the world (Forester 1989). Another is local institutional practice. In recent years, this work has been closely linked with the disciplines of urban politics and urban and regional geography, exploring questions about the relation between politicians, political regimes, experts and citizens, and the way planning strategies and tools have been used, in particular institutional milieu. A third ‘window’ has focused on understanding the design of governance systems. This has examined competencies, law, resource allocation systems, and appropriate expertise, the ‘top-down’ levers of policy change, and how these interact with ‘bottom-up’ interpretive practices. Much of this work has been informed by the search for ways of changing governance practices. A fourth ‘window’ has concentrated on ideas about the good city and the good society, especially in relation to ideas of environmental sustainability and multicultural societies and on how these have worked out in practice. The critical challenge for the development of planning as an enterprise is to recognize that these different ‘windows’ do not represent separate compartments of the planning field. They merely cast a more intense lens over a particular set of relations. All the others are still there, and need to be recognized as present, even if not the focus of a particular study.

The role of planning theory, as a distinctive task in this complex and dynamic institutional terrain, is to provide a critical imagination and structuring ideas for the dynamic invention processes which are continually unfolding in political communities in cities and regions. It should offer evaluative vocabularies for the recording and critiquing of these processes, both in relation to their content and their procedures. It should interpret emergent patterns and assess their consequences. It should draw in ideas from other fields and translate them in ways understandable to the various thought-worlds caught up in city governance. It should consolidate the distinctive understanding evolved by engagement with this activity and make it available to those working in other fields. This implies that the task is always an ‘in-between’ one. If the ‘practitioners’ of planning theory withdraw too far from the worlds of those engaged in ‘doing planning,’ then they lose their capacity to record, shape, connect, and translate. If they stay too close to the ‘doers,’ they are unable to see beyond what the doers themselves see, and therefore cannot ‘add value’ to the work of doing. The challenge for planning theory in the twenty-first century is thus to enrich the evolution of public policy focused on place quality and to do this in a way which fosters the flow of ideas between the many arenas engaged in shaping urban and regional governance.


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