Introduction: The Structure and Debates of Planning Theory

Scott Campbell
Susan S. Fainstein

from:  Campbell, Scott and Susan S. Fainstein, eds. 1996.
Readings in Planning Theory. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.


1. The Distinctiveness of Planning theory
Planning theory is an elusive subject of study. It draws on a variety of disciplines and has no widely accepted canon. The purpose of this reader is two-fold: (1) to define the boundaries of this area of inquiry and the works that constitute its central focus; and (2) to confront the principal issues that face planners as theorists and practitioners. It is organized by the questions that its editors raise rather than by the chronological development of the field.

Compiling a reader in planning theory presents a tricky dilemma: one can either cautiously reprint the early postwar classics (thereby duplicating several past anthologies including Faludi's popular 1973 reader), or else run the risk of prematurely elevating otherwise transient ideas. We take a different path; we have selected a set of readings -- both "classic" and recent -- that best address the pressing and enduring questions in planning theory.

the central question to planning theory:
What role can planning play in making the good city and region within the constraints of a capitalist political economy and a democratic political system? The emphasis is not on developing a model planning process, but rather on finding an explanation for planning practice based in analyses of the political economy of the United States and the United Kingdom. Our effort is to determine the historical and contextual influences and strategic opportunities that shape the capacity of planners to affect the urban and regional environment.

What is planning theory? hard to define
It is not easy to define planning theory: the subject is slippery, and explanations are often frustratingly tautological or disappointingly pedestrian.

There are four principal reasons for this difficulty.
First, many of the fundamental questions concerning planning belong to a much broader inquiry concerning the role of the state in social and spatial transformation. Consequently planning theory appears to overlap with theory in all the social science disciplines, and it becomes hard to limit its scope or to stake out a turf specific to planning.

Second, the boundary between planners and related professionals (such as real estate developers, architects, city council members) is not mutually exclusive: planners don't just plan, and non-planners also plan.

Third, the field of planning is divided among those who define it according to its object (land use patterns of the built and natural environments) or its method (the process of decision-making).

Fourth, many fields are defined by a specific set of methodologies; yet planning commonly borrows the diverse methodologies from many different fields, and so its theoretical base cannot be easily drawn from its tools of analysis.

Taken together, this considerable disagreement over the scope and function of planning and the problems of defining who is actually a planner obscure the delineation of an appropriate body of theory. Whereas most scholars can agree on what constitutes the economy and the polity -- and thus what is economic or political theory -- they differ on the content of planning theory.

The danger of this nature of theory
The amorphous quality of planning theory means that practitioners largely disregard it. In this respect, planning resembles other academic disciplines. Politicians do not bother with political theory; business persons do not familiarize themselves with econometrics; and community organizers do not concern themselves with social theory. Planning as a practical field of endeavor, however, differs from other activities in its claim to be able to predict the consequences of its actions. Planners need to generalize from prior experience, if they are to practice their craft. In their day-to-day work planners may rely more on intuition than explicit theory; yet this intuition may in fact be assimilated theory. In this light, theory represents cumulative professional knowledge. Though many practicing planners may look upon the planning theory of their graduate education as inert and irrelevant -- and see in their professional work a kind of home-spun, in-the-trenches pragmatism -- theory allows one to see the conditions of this "pragmatism." Just as Keynes warned of being an unwitting slave to the ideas of a defunct economist, one can also be slave to the ideas of a defunct planning theorist.

One of our prime motives in selecting the readings for this book is to enable practitioners to achieve a deeper understanding of the processes in which they are engaged than can be attained through simple intuition and common sense. We do not envision completely eliminating the gap between theory and practice; such would be to deny the power of each. Often decried, this gap can structure a powerful creative tension between the two. Nevertheless, we do believe that theory can inform practice. Planning theory is not just some idle chattering at the margins of the field. If done poorly, it discourages and stifles, but if done well, it defines the field and drives it forward. We therefore have identified a set of readings that address themselves to the questions that planners must ask if they are to be effective, and we include case studies of planning in action with this purpose in mind.

Beyond this intention, we aim at establishing a theoretical foundation that not only provides a field with a common structure for scientific inquiry, but also a means for defining what planning is -- especially in the intimidating company of more established academic disciplines. Theory allows for both professional and intellectual self-reflection. It tries to make sense of the seemingly unrelated, contradictory aspects of urban development and creates a rational system with which to compare and evaluate the merits of different planning ideas and strategies. It also allows planners to translate their specific issues into more general social scientific theoretical language so that planning may both export and import ideas with other disciplines.

A well-developed theoretical foundation serves as a declaration of scholarly autonomy, often institutionalized in the form of a planning theory requirement for Master of City Planning programs and professional certification. The relatively recent expansion of planning Ph.D. programs goes hand-in-hand with the rise of planning theory. Such programs are used not only to increase research in planning departments; they also reflect the ability to develop one's own theoretical foundations. Ph.D. programs also use theory to distinguish and elevate a doctoral program from its larger counterpart: the professional Master's program.

Our Approach to Planning Theory
Our approach is to place planning theory at the intersection of political economy and intellectual history. We do not see theory as mechanistically determined by these two forces, and one should not misuse structural theory and thereby fall victim to a sense of helplessness in the face of predestined social forces. Instead, the planner should use theory to view how the local and national political economy, plus the field's own history, influence the collective imagination of planning's possibilities, limitations, and professional identity. The challenge for this professional -- and sometimes activist -- discipline is to find the negotiating room within the larger social structure to pursue the good city.

We also place planning theory at a second intersection: the city as a phenomenon, and planning as a human activity. Planning adapts to changes in the city, which, in turn, is transformed by planning and politics. This interaction is not a closed system: planners not only plan cities; they also negotiate, forecast, research, survey, and organize financing. Nor do planners have an exclusive influence over cities; developers, businesses, politicians and other actors also shape urban development. The result is that the discipline of planning is influenced by a wide variety of substantive and procedural ideas beyond its own modest disciplinary boundaries. Studies of planning refer to works in political science, law, decision theory, and public policy. Writings about the city draw upon traditions primarily in urban history, urban sociology, geography, and economics. Though not always consistently, we use this practical distinction of substantive vs. procedural theory to distinguish Readings in Planning Theory from its companion volume, Readings in Urban Theory (Fainstein and Campbell 1996).

Debates define Theory : Six Questions of Planning Theory
No single paradigm defines the foundation of planning theory. Such a lack of agreement about planning priorities and planning ideologies is inevitable; yet this disagreement is mistakenly carried over into the classroom, leading to unnecessary disagreement over how planning theory itself should be taught. As a result, many departments shy away from developing a rigorous, unified theory program. However, one should be able to consensually agree on how to systematically teach planning theory even without the questionable prerequisite that planning itself be either wholly systematic or consensual. To the contrary: the teaching of planning theory should explicitly explore the roots and implications of these long-standing disputes in the field. Planning is a messy, contentious field; planning theory should provide the means to address these debates and understand their deeper roots.

In this light, we view planning theory as a series of debates. Here are six of them:

1. What are the historical roots of planning?
The first question of theory is of identity, which in turn leads to history. The traditional story told of modern city planning is that it arose from several separate movements at the turn of the century: the Garden City, the City Beautiful, and public health reforms. Three basic eras characterized its subsequent history:

(1) these formative years where the pioneers (Howard, Burnham, etc.) did not yet identify themselves as planners (late 1800s - ca. 1910);

(2) the period of institutionalization, professionalization and self-recognition of planning, as well as the rise of regional and federal planning efforts (ca. 1910 - 1945); and

(3) the postwar era of standardization, crisis and diversification of planning (Krueckeberg 1983).

This story, often repeated in introductory courses and texts, is useful in several ways. This multiplicity of technical, social and aesthetic origins explains planning's eclectic blend of design, civil engineering, local politics, community organization and social justice. Its status as either a quasi-, secondary or pubescent profession is explained by its development as a 20th Century, public-sector, bureaucratic profession, rather than as a late 19th Century, private-sector profession such as medicine (Hoffman 1989).

At the most basic level, this framework gives the story of planning -- at least modern professional planning -- a starting point. Planning emerges as the 20th Century response to the 19th Century industrial city (Hall 1988). It also provides several foundational texts: Howard's Tomorrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform (1898), Charles Robinson's The Improvement of Towns and Cities or the Practical Basis of Civic Aesthetics (1901), and Daniel Burnham's plan for Chicago (1909), as well as several defining events: the Columbia Exposition in Chicago (1893) that launched the City Beautiful Movement, the construction of Letchworth, the first English Garden City (1903), and the first national conference on city planning, held in Washington, D.C. (1909).

Yet this tale of planning's birth is also problematic. As the years go by and the planning pioneers pass away, the story is simplified and unconditionally repeated. Contingent or coincidental events and texts are elevated to necessary steps in the inevitable and rational development of modern planning. Even the best of tellers can succumb to repeating this tale of the "great men of planning history." This uncritical acceptance of these early years of planning oddly juxtaposes with the soul-searching in the postwar period, especially after the fall of the 1960s "Great Society" and urban-renewal weariness created a crisis of confidence. The result is an essentialistic life-cycle model of planning's birth, growth, maturation and mid-life crisis -- a model that largely excludes the political, economic and cultural forces that continuously transform both planning ideology and practice.

One path out of this debilitating historicism is to bridge the benign folklore of early planning history and the current skepticism through a reassessment of planning's history, where both past and present are retold with the same critical (and sometimes revisionist) voice. Richard Foglesong's Planning the Capitalist City (1986) and Robert Fishman's Bourgeois Utopias: the rise and fall of suburbia (1987) are but two of the better examples. One can certainly fault some critical histories for also being narrow-minded, where the historic logic of capital replaces the heroicism of "the great men of planning history." The challenge is to write a planning history that encourages not only an accurate, but also a critical, subtle and reflective understanding of contemporary planning practice. An effective planning history helps the contemporary planner shape his or her complex professional identity.

2. What is the justification for planning? When should one intervene?
Planning is intervention: to intentionally alter the existing course of events. The timing and legitimacy of planned intervention therefore become central questions to planning theory: why and in what situations should planners intervene. Implicit is understanding the alternative to planning. Though one most commonly assumes the alternative is the free market, it could also be chaos, or myopic self-interest. Indeed, there is a danger of automatically assuming that we know the alternative to planning. For some, the hope of rational planning was to simply equate the market with uncertainty, and believe that the logic of the plan would replace the chaos of the market. Yet for others, the reverse is true: the logic of the market should replace the chaos left by planning (Hayek, 1944). Whereas the Great Depression seems to vindicate the former view, the collapse of Eastern European state socialism is frequently alleged to support the latter.

The duality between planning and the market is a defining framework in planning theory. A person's opinion of planning reflects his or her assumptions about the relationships between the private and public sectors -- and how much the government should "intrude". The safe stance in planning has been to see its role as making up for the periodic shortcomings of the private market (Moore 1978; Klosterman -- this volume). This approach creates a neat and tidy division between the public and private worlds, each with their unique comparative advantages. It treats planning as the patient understudy who fills in when the market fails but never presumes to permanently replace the market or change the script of economic efficiency. This legitimacy significantly limits creative or redistributive planning efforts, but it does make a scaled-down version of planning palatable to all but the most conservative economists (Friedman 1962).

Nevertheless, not everyone sees the market-planning duality as so benign or well-behaved. For some, planning's task is to directly confront the private market every step of the way (Harvey -- this volume), while others see planning as helping the market along (Frieden and Sagalyn, 1989). This debate becomes even murkier when one challenges the tidy separation between the public and private sectors, either from a more upbeat (Galbraith 1967) or skeptical view (Lowi 1969). Public and private sectors no longer represent mutually exclusive sets of actors, interests or planning tools. Privatization of traditionally public services raises the question of whether only the public sector can serve the public interest. The rise of public-private partnerships in the wake of urban renewal efforts also reflects this blurring of sectoral boundaries (Squires 1989). The growing number of planners working in the private sector also upsets the traditional professional role that planners play in the battles between public and private interests. Public sector planners borrow tools developed in the private sector, such as strategic planning. The emergence of autonomous public authorities to manage marine ports, airports and other infrastructures has created hybrid organizations that act both like a public agency and a private firm (Walsh 1978; Doig -- this volume). Finally, the growing non-profit or "third sector" further demonstrates the inadequacies of viewing the world in a purely dichotomous framework of the government vs. the market.

3. "Rules of the Game": What values are incorporated within planning? What ethical dilemmas do planners face?
This growing complexity and uncertainty in the planner's stance between the public and private sectors also questions traditional ethical assumptions. As planners increasingly work in the private and quasi-private sectors, do the planners' clients become privatized as well? As Peter Marcuse's essay in this volume nicely outlines, a planner's loyalty is torn between serving employers, fellow planners, and the public. In this contested terrain of loyalties, what remains of the once-accepted cornerstone of planning: serving the public interest?

This dilemma is further complicated by the expansion of planning beyond just technocratic goals to address larger social, economic and environmental challenges. Within society at large the values of democracy, equality, and efficiency often clash. These conflicts are reflected in the choices planners must make. Planning has conflicting loyalties to the goals of economic development, social justice, and environmental protection. Despite the long-term promises of sustainable development, this triad of goals create deep-seated tensions not only between planners and the outside world, but also within planning itself (Campbell 1996).

Another ethical dimension arises from the difficulties surrounding the planner's role as expert. Questions concerning the proper balance between expertise and citizen input arise in issues like the siting of highways and waste disposal facilities, when particular social groups must bear the costs. They are played out, as Frank Fischer discusses (this volume), when experts seek to quantify risk, placing a monetary values on human life. They show up, as Martin Wachs (1982) argues, in the assumption used by model builders when they forecast the future impacts of public facilities. Critics of those purporting to use scientific expertise to justify policy doubt the legitimacy of the methods they employ, arguing that technical language disguises the values being interjected and functions to obscure who wins and who loses. But the development of technical forecasting methods nevertheless is necessary if planners are to fulfill their responsibility of designing policies for the long term.

4. The Constraints on Planning Power. How can planning be effective within a mixed economy Structure?
It is not enough to normatively determine that planners should intervene in the private market. It is also a question of authority and power. Unlike some other professions, planners do not have a monopoly on power or expertise over their object of work. Planners work within the constraints of the capitalist political economy, and their urban visions compete with developers, consumers, and other more powerful groups. When they call for a type of development to occur, they cannot command the resources to make it happen. Instead, they must rely on either private investment or a commitment from political leaders. They also work within the constraints of democracy and of the bureaucracy of government (Foglesong -- this volume). Their goals, however, often have low priority within the overall political agenda. Thus, despite the planning ideal of a holistic, pro-active vision, planners are frequently restricted to playing frustratingly reactive, regulatory roles.

The most powerful planners are those who can marshall the resources to effect change and get projects built (Doig -- this volume, Caro 1974, Walsh 1978). They bend the role of the planner and alter the traditional separation between the public and private sectors. The resulting public-private partnerships (planners as developers) make the planner more activist (Squires 1989); yet they also strain the traditional identity of the public planner and make many idealistic planners squirm. How else can one explain the uncomfortable mixture of disgust and envy that planners felt towards Robert Moses, who as the head of various New York City agencies had far more projects built than had all the traditional city planners he disparaged?

5. Style of Planning: What do Planners do?
The justification for planning is often comprehensiveness. Yet the ideal of comprehensiveness has suffered serious criticism. In standard accounts of planning theories, we explain comprehensive planning as the attempt to coordinate the multiple development and regulatory initiatives undertaken in a region or city. It depends on a high level of knowledge and the technological capability to use it. It was ostensibly a worthy attempt, but failed on two accounts. First, it required a level of knowledge and analysis that was impossibly complex, or that planners had no special capacity to coordinate all the specialists (Altshuler 1972). This critique led to the push for incremental planning (Lindblom -- this volume). Second, it presumed a common public interest but in doing so only gave voice to one interest and ignored the needs of the poor and the weak. This critique led to the call for advocacy planning (Davidoff -- this volume).

The assault on comprehensive planning continued into the 1970s and 1980s. Strategic planning rejected comprehensive planning's impossibly general goals and instead embraced the lean and mean strategies from the business and military sectors (Swanstrom 1987). By contrast, equity planning emerged as a less combative form of advocacy planning that allowed planners to serve the interests of the poor from within the system (Krumholz -- this volume).

There are problems with writing a tidy obituary for comprehensive planning, however. First, many planners continue to use the comprehensive approach as the model of their work, both because they continue to believe in it, and because they find the alternatives to be inadequate (Dalton 1986). The primary task for many planners continues to be the writing and revising of comprehensive plans for their communities.

If the death notice of comprehensive planning may thus be premature, it may also misunderstand its actual rise and fall. Planning theorists at times presume a kind of naive, golden era of comprehensive rational planning during the early postwar years that may never have actually existed. In constructing the history of planning, planners arguably are guilty of after-the-fact revisionism in their labelling of comprehensive planning. Planners may have falsely interpreted the planning theory disputes since the 1960s as the fall-out from the schism of a once-united field, rather than as simply a reflection of a young, diverse field seeking to define itself during a turbulent era.

This is not to deny the power of the comprehensive planning debate; but it should be seen as one of several important debates that shaped the identity of the young field of planning theory. Unfortunately, much of this debate over comprehensiveness took place inside a theoretical vacuum. Planners often argued about the proper role of planning based simply on the merits of the concepts themselves (e.g., large vs. small scale; top-down vs. bottom-up), while underestimating the larger political-economic forces that shaped and constrained planning. As such, the articulation and eventual challenge to comprehensive planning was part of a larger expansion beyond land-use planning into social and economic policy.

6. The Enduring Question of the Public Interest
Thirty years ago, the engaging debates of planning theory involved the conflicts between comprehensive vs. incremental planning, objectivity vs. advocacy, centralization vs. decentralization, top-down vs. bottom up leadership, and planning for people vs. planning for place. These debates from the adolescence of planning theory now seem a bit tired and bypassed. It is not that they have been conclusively resolved, but rather that the field is so broadly scattered that each pole lives on. This current eclecticism reflects the fragmentation of planning itself. Nevertheless, these debates were arguably necessary for the intellectual development of the field, and the young planning theorist still needs to read and understand these controversies.

What has endured is the persistent question of the public interest. Planning continues to face the central controversy of whether there is indeed a single public interest, and whether planners recognize and serve it. Incremental planners claimed its excessive complexity prevented the planner from directly serving the comprehensive public interest, while advocate planners argued that what was portrayed as the public interest was merely the interests of the privileged. More recently, post-modernists have challenged the universal master-narrative that gives voice to the public interest, seeing instead a heterogeneous public with many voices and interests. Finally, the persistence of fundamentalist thinking and community identity based on religious rather than secular, municipal values undermines the ability to find a consensual public interest (Baum 1994).

Yet planners have not abandoned the idea of serving the public interest, and rightly so. Postmodernists provided planning with a needed break from its preoccupation with a monolithic "public" (represented by Le Corbusier's and Robert Moses' love of the public but disdain for people); yet a rejection of Enlightenment rationality, shared values and standards leaves the planner without adequate guidance to serve this fragmented population. Some have touted strategic planning and other borrowed private-sector approaches as the practical path for planning, but these approaches neglect the "public" in the public interest. A belief in the public interest is the foundation for a set of values that planners hold dear: equal protection and equal opportunity, public space, and a sense of civic community and social responsibility. The challenge is to reconcile these benefits of a common public interest with the diversity (postmodern and otherwise) that comes from many communities living side-by-side. David Harvey (1992) looked to the generally held ideas of social justice and rationality as a bridge to overcome this dilemma. The recent emphasis on the planner as mediator may reflect a new approach to the public interest: an acceptance of the multiplicity of interests, but an enduring common interest in finding viable, politically legitimate solutions. Planners serve the public interest by negotiating a kind of multi-cultural, technocratic pluralism. The recent interest in communicative action -- planners as communicators rather than as autonomous, systematic thinkers -- also reflects this effort to renew planning's focus on the public interest (Innes 1994; Forester 1989; Healey, this volume).

In the end, this question of the public interest is the leitmotif that holds together the defining debates of planning theory. The central task of planners is serving the public interest in cities, suburbs and the countryside. Questions of when, why and how planners should intervene -- and the constraints planners face in the process -- all lead back to defining and serving this public interest. Yet this public interest is changing. The restructured urban economy, the shifting boundaries between the public and private sectors, and the changing tools and available resources constantly force planners to rethink the public interest. This rethinking is the task of planning theory.

The Readings
We have selected the readings for this volume to represent what we think are the central issues in planning theory. In particular, they address the challenge and dilemma of planning: What role can planning play in making the good city and region within the constraints of a capitalist political economy and a democratic political system? We approach this question primarily through texts that address specific theoretical issues. However, we have also included several case studies that provide vivid and concrete illustrations of this question. We do not attempt to outline a model planning process. Rather, our effort is to place planning theory within its historical context, its political economy and the surrounding urban and regional environment.

Planning theory is a relatively young field, and yet one can already speak of "classic readings". Our guide has been to choose those readings -- both old and new -- that still speak directly to contemporary issues. Most have been written in the past ten years, though some articles from the 1960s are still the best articulation of specific debates. Most draw upon experiences in the United States and Great Britain, though hopefully their relevance extends far beyond these boundaries.

We have organized the reading into six sections. Each section is prefaced with a short introduction to the main themes. We begin with the foundations of modern planning, with both traditional and critical views of planning history. We then turn to two interrelated questions: What is the justification for planning intervention? and How should planners intervene? Regarding the political and economic justifications for planning, we have selected readings that examine the neoclassical, institutional and Marxist arguments. They place planners in the larger context of the relationship between the private market and government (both the local and nation states). Regarding the style of planning, the readings examine the dominant planning approaches: comprehensive, incremental, advocacy, equity and strategic planning. The readings also explore several emerging directions: postmodernism and communicative planning. The case studies presented in the fourth section illustrate these opportunities and constraints to planners in the United States and Great Britain.

Gender has emerged as a powerful and transformative theme in urban planning in recent years. This issue has many facets, including the differing uses of urban space by men and women; the threats to personal safety of women in cities; and women entering the labor force of in larger numbers. The readings in the fifth section address the specific issue of how emerging feminist ideas are changing planning theory. In particular, these readings examine how basic epistemological and methodological issues in planning theory should change to address previous shortcomings in our theories.

We conclude with four readings on planning ethics, professionalism, community participation and communication. Each addresses a shortcoming of the traditional, rational-comprehensive model of planning, whether it is its simplistic notion of serving the public interest, its lack of subtlety about ethical conflicts, its presumption of privileged expert knowledge, or else its tendency to oversimplify and overgeneralize the causal relationships found in cities. The emerging stance for planners involves a greater savvy about political conflicts, a proactive role in the communication of choices and risks, and the greater use of the rich complexity of storytelling.