Tuesday, January 26, 2010

What is Planning?: My struggles and others'

(reflection for Advance Planning Theory UP580—week 1)

For better or worse, my existential angst as an urban planner has erupted at the most inappropriate moments. About a year ago, at the annual Illinois state conference of the American Planning Association, I attended a session entitled “The Future of the Planning Profession.” Seated in the front row of a spacious hotel conference room—the likely venue of many-a-wedding and high school prom—and surrounded by young, sharply dressed professionals, I patiently listened to the newly elected President of the APA and two of his associates discuss the qualities to which a new generation of planners should aspire. “Technological savvy, flexibility, diversity,” explained the barrel-chested, proud, and articulate President-elect. He was the unquestioned silver-back gorilla of professional urban planning in the United States, and coincidentally, my boss at the City of Champaign. Had I desired, I could have engaged in a philosophical conversation with the man over lunch or coffee on a Friday afternoon. In a moment of inferior judgment, however, I chose to air my professional grievances from the front row of a conference hall filled with individuals who had dedicated their life to planning.
“Any questions?” asked the host. I raised my hand immediately. “Yes, Robby.” In fact, I didn’t have a question at all. I had a mission. A passionate plea to any planner who would listen. I wished to transform my newfound career field into a glorious and world-recognized profession admired by starry-eyed children and influential decision-makers everywhere. “I want planning to shine on the national stage,” I explained to the panel, “I want Congress to consult planners when it comes time to change this nation.” Additionally, I had grown frustrated with the fact that planners relied so heavily upon the confirmation of economists, architects, engineers, ecologists, and real estate professionals. Why can’t planning stand on its own? I was frustrated with explaining my job relative to other professions like “an architect, but for the entire city” or “an advisor to politicians.” Weren’t we more than secondary consumers of social science? My speech ended in a disorganized mumble, which was thankfully interrupted by the President-elect who recited a list of national accomplishments of the APA. I sunk in my seat, dissatisfied with myself and the response I failed to elicit.
In retrospect, I realize my question was probably premature and that the field of planning will have to confront several fundamental questions if it ever wishes to emerge as a unified theoretical or professional field. This week’s readings assuage my angst, and assure me that planning remains, and I believe it should stay, a principally inquisitive, inclusive, and evolving intellectual approach to decision-making in time and space. Were it ever to “unify,” planning would necessarily exclude many of its most challenging perspectives. Planning acknowledges the complexity of place, and draws from many schools of thought in its attempt to explain it. Planning will only benefit from such multidisciplinary contributions, so long as no single contributing discipline overtakes the field. Over one year later, and into my first semester as a PhD student in planning, I am proud to be a member of this adolescent field of inquiry.
Faludi (1973) suggests that the existence of positive, or behavioral, theory within an intellectual field is a sign of maturity and that the predominance of normative theory demonstrates “a lack of sophistication of the theory of planning (5).” Wildavsky (1973) confirms that planning theory is far from unified, and is itself confused and often contradictory. Beauregard (2001) finds the idea of a “single voice” in planning oxymoronic and “unjustified (439).” Friedmann (1996) attempts to organize positive theories of urban planning, but in so doing relies heavily upon intellectual legacies of sociology, political science, and engineering. In presenting the “wicked problem,” Webber and Rittel (1973) argue that traditional linear problem-solving and decision-making methods may not suit dilemmas without stopping rules and verifiable solutions. Ultimately, these pieces provoke more questions than answers, leaving the field of planning room to mature and respond to unprecedented challenges.
Faludi (1973) initiates his article by explaining the planner’s role as an advisor, implying a position subordinate to a separate decision-maker. Our self-reflection has led us to question our relationship with decision-makers: which advice is used, and how? To whom do we owe loyalty, and by which means should we collect and reveal our knowledge? These questions have evolved into theories of planning: reflexive thought on the field of planning and the role of planners with the larger framework of governance. To engage in such thought is to transcend the role of a subordinate in the decision-making process. Theories of planning open a window to new modes of inquiry and structural relationships. But to assume such autonomy is to leave the profession vulnerable to obscurity and impotence, like a recent college graduate cut from the parental checkbook. Once the field of planning separates itself from the role of the loyal advisor, it must begin to justify its own existence. This is exciting indeed!
Friedmann (1996) explains that the role of loyal advisor has not disappeared. The relatively conservative systems analysts apply a highly technical, systematic approach to planning, and in so doing “look to the confirmation and reproduction of existing relationships of power in society…they address their work to those who are in power and see their primary mission as serving the state (11).” Planners that assume such a role may have very little use for theories of planning because their loyalties are clear. Indeed, many such loyal planners exist. I disagree, however, that all systems analysts are necessarily political lap dogs. My experience working for the LEAM laboratory, which is functionally based around the operation of a computer model, demonstrates the exception to Friedmann’s rule. I will explain this later.
Faludi also distinguishes between positive and normative theories of planning and their interaction with the form versus the content of planning action. Normative and positive theory have a dialectical relationship, and though both are necessary parts of the field, Faludi argues that positive theories of planning are slow to respond to normative theory. This explains the field’s relative fragmentation and is demonstrated by the theoretical impasse reached when Banfield asserts rationality as an ideal of planning (normative theory), while Charles Lindblom denies the possibility of rational thought prima facie (positive theory). Friedmann and Waldavsky both demonstrate that the field is waiting to settle on theories of how planning should be done, before it begins to produce theory on how planning is done.
Waldavsky (1973) approaches planning from a highly critical perspective, probing the field’s most tender uncertainties. He might ask Friedmann, “Are systems analysts planners at all, and if they are, is it okay if their forecasts tend to be off-target?” He frames planning as future control, cause, intent, power, adaptation, process, rationality, and faith, and exposes the logical weaknesses of every approach. He forces planners to ask, “When has planning succeeded?” “How do we judge the quality of planning?” “Does successful planning require stated objectives to be achieved? Is planning more successful if a stated objective is exceeded or if it is met exactly on target?”
Waldavsky’s objective is to show that the field of planning has not reached a consensus on these questions. He explains that judging the success of the field depends on the field’s definition and the expectations of its adherents, but Waldavsky’s explanation of planning is one that confronts a rather simple existence. If planning existed in one-dimension, and predictions/prescriptions today could effectively map the world in a specific period of time, perhaps Waldavsky’s criticisms would intimidate me.
In reality, however, every moment and every object in space is the result of countless decisions and complex interactions of which no human can conceivably account. Humanity and our built environment are the product and beneficiary of a natural world that is dynamic and infinitely complex. Social reformers, utopian designers, and even neoclassical economists reach an intellectual dead-end in believing that society is perfectible, or that cities can somehow reach an ideal steady state. Despite their good intentions, social reformers and their City Beautiful successors responded to disruptive “social ills,” only because the realities of poverty had begun to intrude, visibly, into their society. The details of Daniel Burnham’s Plan of Chicago, a milestone of the reform era, stopped short of planning for housing outside the center of the city (and not coincidentally outside the realm of Daniel Burnham and the Chicago Commerce Club). Perfection, according to the Burnham Plan, was if anyone’s, Daniel Burham’s “perfection”, and more than likely the result of political compromise. Neither Burnham nor Ebenezer Howard, nor Le Corbusier could have perfected society. Talented as they were, they failed to realize that society cannot reach perfection, because perfection always changes and necessarily excludes most of society.
Waldavsky neglects one planning approach that I find continuously more appealing: planning as learning. Whether or not they’d like to admit it, humans are well aware of their impotence in a complex world, and this is frightening, especially in a society like the United States, which values the autonomy of individuals. What if we, as planners, were to acknowledge this impotence, embrace environmental uncertainty and diversity, and as planners, invest time in learning, teaching, and working toward the active inclusion of the maximum number of perspectives in social decision-making? Waldavsky suggests that failure is integral to the nature of planning. I find this explanation very attractive. We can never know everything, we can never solve everything, and society can never be perfected, but planners begin by building an infrastructure that constantly challenges reality through learning and inclusion.
Beauregard (2001) believes that the planning field should remain open to internal change and asserts that unity in planning is not justifiable. I agree. The problems faced by urban planners and the inherent complexity of cities will be best served by planners who can adjust to the ever-changing challenges of the world. Beauregard claims that planning is simultaneously a “science” and a “craft.” Scientists simplify complexity and try to symbolize the world in abstractions while craftsmen work on a personalized and distinct object. I’m not sure I understand the purpose of these analogies in the larger context of the article, but I agree with Beauregard’s ultimate conclusion that the profession should remain open to internal criticism and diverse membership.
I believe such an approach would better suit the wicked problems addressed in Webber and Rittel’s (1973) classic piece “Dilemmas in General Theory of Planning”. Webber and Rittle find fault in a problem- solving framework that results in “waves of repercussions…including problems of greater severity at some other node.” The tools that social scientists have borrowed from physical scientists do not suffice in solving social problems, which complex and unprecedented. Similarly, while no less noble, the “tame” problems of physical scientists and engineers are clearly defined and inherently rational, whereas human behavior and its “problems” are rational, but only to some. Climate change may serve as the world’s most perfect example of a “wicked problem.” Whether or not Webber and Rittle had climate change in mind while composing their article, its imminent horrors seems to fit their definition very well. Changing temperatures per se are not so much an issue as are the resultant melting icecaps, changing coast lines, drought, flooding, social displacement, famine, disease, political conflict, and the unforeseen emergencies in addition. As the American Midwest approaches the climate of today’s Sonoran Desert, Americans will have to grow accustomed to food (especially meat) that is drastically more expensive and grocery store shelves that are far less full.This problem is multidimensional and is itself hard to define, but it is ultimately characterized by a shift in the stability of the world as we understand it. Furthermore, the optimistic projections show that the effects of climate change will last for centuries, if not millennia, and if global temperatures are not mitigated immediately, scientists project that the earth’s soil will no longer be able to store methane, a greenhouse grass many times more potent than carbon dioxide. This will exacerbate the problem, and global temperatures will spiral upward. Mitigating and adapting to climate change will require far more than nickel-and-dime increases in efficiency if we want to sustain a life even remotely similar to the life we lead today. But effective solutions will seem terrible inconvenient at first. It will require major changes in the way our government approaches social and environmental problems. Should our government retain power, it will have to enforce laws that would seem silly by today’s standards. This will result in political tension, no doubt. Every problem will result in new, unique problems, every solution will be expensive, and we will have no right to be “wrong.”
How, then, can we determine success in fighting global climate change? As the problem has already reached a state of imminent catastrophe, what will planners consider success? If planners are responsible for mitigating problems in the future, and we have yet to deal with the problems we will face, how can planners ascribe to a set definition of success? We cannot. We must work with the knowledge we have, work to gain more knowledge, make sure all individuals have the opportunity to contribute to and take from that pool of knowledge. The scale of such problems will require the action and cooperation of as many people as possible. If we hope to avoid government-coerced action, individuals had better understand why collective action toward societal solutions are important.
Even if climate change were not an issue, an approach to planning based on learning, teaching, and inclusion would address many of the most controversial issues in society. I believe that many of the problems in our communities are the result of action that aims to either distance or cover-up a previous problem. Human waste for example, has been “solved” by engineers who have “succeeded” by moving feces as far away from its source as possible. When we flush the toilet, we rarely wonder where our waste goes. Conventionally, we accept that it is gone and forget about it. Many years ago, this mentality was sufficient, but we now find that removing solid waste from its natural organic cycle results in contamination and infection. Most people fail to connect E-coli outbreaks to our eating habits. My expertise is based in ecological issues, but this same logic can be extended to social and economic issues as well. By clearing slums and building housing projects, we only moved poverty from one place to another without questioning its cause.
Planning ought to fully embrace the most uncomfortable and unfamiliar problems of our communities, and learn about them through acceptance and dialogue instead of exclusion and silence. We may have to open ourselves up to dialogue to which we are not traditionally accustomed; not only between unfamiliar peoples, but we must also investigate ways to engage in dialogue with nature as we have not for over ten thousand years. This approach is ethical, and idealistic, but it’s also very efficient. By aiming to solve our problems at their root, we can avoid creating more problems (and incurring more societal expenses) in the future. Otherwise, we lock ourselves in a vicious cycle of problem creation.

Relevance to my research area

I am interested in how local knowledge is related to a community’s relationship with ecological systems. Conventional planning institutions have marginalized ecological systems—hydrological cycles, carbon cycles, organic waste cycles, natural food production systems—and have either ignored them completely or displaced them with “efficient” engineered systems. Having been physically and psychologically isolated from these systems, their true value is no longer reflected in our community’s institutions, land-use or otherwise. Friedmann (1996) suggests that systems analysis has conventionally allied itself with the state and existing power structures. To Friedmann, this “type” of planner has little need for a theory of planning, because their role is well defined by political loyalty. I disagree. If a planner adopts systems analysis as a lens through which to see the world, then perhaps Friedmann’s point has merit. If, however, systems analysis is used only as a tool in a larger inclusive process, and planners focus on ways for individuals to understand and create their own models, then systems analysis doesn’t necessarily support existing power structures.
The LEAM laboratory uses cellular automata modeling to predict the likelihood of land-use change and many of its ensuing urban impacts. It is unique to many other models in that it incorporates multiple models into one and offers and open infrastructure capable of including new sub-models. While LEAM’s process is far from perfect, the LEAM laboratory works closely with local planners to calibrate and run model scenarios. These modeling scenarios could very easily be used to maintain a status quo, however, LEAM is concurrently working on methods to ensure that modeling scenarios reach the broader public. We are currently creating and adapting GeoPortals, open-access, user-managed websites that allow communities to share and create information. My hope is to inspire a perpetual learning process facilitated through the passage of local knowledge, include that of local green infrastructure.
Therefore, I hope to transcend some of Friedmann’s distinctions. Later in Friedmann’s piece, he refers to “Four Traditions of Planning Thought.” My critique above illustrates my aversion to the social reform tradition. I am, however, compelled by his description of “social learning” as a planning tradition. Social learning aims to overcome contradictions in theory and practice, and posits that knowledge is derived from practice. It is a fundamentally questioning approach, rather than commanding approach to planning. Social learning is consistent with traditions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s “Social Contract” and, more recently, Carole Pateman’s “Participation and Democratic Theory” (1976), which argue that public participation is a learned skill through which individuals can efficacy, and thus, the ability to participate subsequently.
Amongst all of Woldavsky’s approaches to planning, I most closely see myself following “planning as adaptation.” Woldavsky claims that “Adaptation to changing circumstances is certainly a virtue of the intelligent man. But is smacks of ad hoc decisionmaking (135).” I see no problem with this, so long as planners are able to foresee the repercussions of their experimentation. The Netherlands have embarked on a brave and ambitious environmental planning strategy that explicitly calls for an experimental forum (Johnson, 2008). It is only through experimentation that we can find solutions to our most perplexing problems. In addition, if planners operate in a system that values experimentation and takes for granted that some experiments will fail, then perhaps society will be more conscientious of oppressive or risky choices. It’s an approach that rewards itself.

Discussion Questions

1. Should we define “success” in planning? Can we define it? If so, how should success in planning be defined?
2. How do we distinguish planning from other types of decision making?
3. Do you think ‘planner’ remains the most appropriate word for what you think a ‘planner’ should do? What other titles might work?


Beauregard, R. A. (2001) The Multiplicities of Planning. Journal of Planning Education and Research. 20 (4), 437-39.

Friedmann, J. (1996) Planning in the Public Domain. Chapter 1 and 2, The Terrain of Planning Theory; Two Centuries of Planning Theory: an Overview.

Faludi, Andreas. Ed. (1973) ‘What is Planning Theory?’ in A Reader in Planning theory, Pergamon, Oxford. 1-10.

Johnson, Huey. (2008) Green Plans: Blueprint for a Sustainable Earth. Nature.

Pateman, Carole. (1976). Participation and Democratic Theory. Cambridge Univ Press.

Wildavsky, A. (1973) If Planning is Everything Maybe it’s Nothing. Policy Sciences, 4, 127-153.

Webber, M. M. and Rittel, H. (1973) Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning. Policy Sciences, 4, 155-169.

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