Planning Theory Tasks

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This paper discusses planning theory and particularly the urban planning. Major cities and even small towns have poor designs as a result of poor planning. The paper looks at the history of planning and its importance especially in urban areas. It also analyzes the factors that affect planning, ranging from political interference to societal principles as well as the technical aspects for effective planning. The paper digs deep into the literature on planning and analyzes works of several scholars.

Planning theory has become an increasingly global discourse. The Theory has a central role in renewing planning practices. Planning Theory entails the following tasks: first, to advance a considered humanist approach for planning and to identify its implications for practice. This is the theoretical task of planning theory (Branch, 1975). The second task is to help familiarize planning activities to their real-world controls with regard to knowledge, scale, time and complexity.

There are many opportunities and constraints with which the constant change of the world presents, in addition to the growing scale and complexity of the urban centers, and the their significance. This is the role of adaptation. The third function is to translate concepts and knowledge generated in other fields into the human domain, and to make them accessible and useful for planning.

Planning theory contributes to the understanding of development of modern and highly sophisticated designs for modern cities and towns. The knowledge, complexity, scale and time are crucial factors in urban planning. Unlike other fields, urban planning is critical. The design of urban centers influences almost every other sector of the human operations.

You may also find useful leaning about Holland’s theory.

Evolving a humanistic philosophy for planning and its practices

It is not very long ago when planning was perceived as being a value-free activity guided by scientific and professional standards. Planners have argued that they are guardians of the public interest. Today, it would be hard to keep this position. In some cases, planning is still widely taken as a technocratic activity practiced by some officials, and versions of this believe are widely held in many countries.

Although American planners no longer clinch to technocratic hubris, some urban designers and architects still do, and economists of the neo-classical diversity regard their assertions as scientifically based advice to policy-makers who can then apply their standards in whatever way they want. They believe in the axiom of telling the truth to the powerful. In their understanding, values and facts do not mix. However, they are derived from different logics.

Many planners lack a well thought-out philosophical position beyond the usual platitudes of participation. Some planners think of their primary role as that of enabling mediating disputes or public discussion. While they may prefer a different result, their professional skills assist in completion of tasks among stakeholders and arriving at an actionable consensus, regardless of what it may turn out to be.

This approach is a significant distance from a view of a planning practice anchored in politics. Therefore, planners evolve a value-based philosophy as a foundation for their practices in the world. This is a major challenge in a world that is increasingly materialist, individualist and indifferent to humans’ activities effect on the natural environment. Lack of a defensible construct or a human-centered philosophy may lead to a mere drift with the conventional, helping to build urban centers that are neither ecologically sustainable nor supportive of life.

Urban Planning

Urban planning is a technical and political process concerned with the use of land and design of the urban environment, water, including air and the infrastructure moving into and out of urban centres such as distribution networks and transportation. Urban planning ensures the orderly implementation of satellite communities and settlements, which commute into and out of urban centres or share resources with them. It is concerned with research and analysis, urban design, strategic thinking, public consultation, policy recommendations, implementation management and architecture. A plan can take different forms including comprehensive plans, strategic plans, neighbourhood plans, historic preservation plans or regulatory and incentive strategies.

Planners are also liable for implementing the selected policies. The modern roots of urban planning are based on the movement for urban changes that came as a response against the problem of the industrial city in the 19thcentury. Urban planning also includes urban renewal, by adapting urban planning methods to existing cities having a decline. Alternatively, it is concerned with the massive challenges related with urban growth (Catanese & Snyder, 1988).

Modern Urban Planning

Planning and architecture underwent a paradigm shift at the end of the 20th century. The industrialized towns of the 19th century had developed at a tremendous rate, with the style and pace of building largely determined by private business leaders. The vices of urban life for the working poor became increasingly evident for public concern. The laissez-fair style of government running of the economy, in fashion for most of the era then, stated to give way to new liberalism that supported involvement of the poor and disadvantaged groups.

At the beginning of 20th century, theorists began development of models for urban planning to lessen the impacts of the industrial age, through provision of healthier environments to the citizens, especially factory workers (Faludi, 1973). Urban planning became professionalized during this period, with input from utopian visionaries and the practical-minded infrastructural engineers and local councilors combining efforts to produce new design templates for political consideration.

Planning Practices

About six decades since World War II, the world population has increased tremendously, especially the number of urban dwellers increased by many times. This scale of demographic growth does not have a historical precedent, thus, planners have to work with only bits of knowledge to guide them. Planning was more of a venturing activity into the unknown future than a surgical procedure. Inadequacy of knowledge about a world that regardless of its incredible scientific accomplishments in some sectors, leaves many people perplexed (Levent, 2008).

Major urban centers lack poor planning. Indeed, there must be different plans that enhance even movement of people around towns and cities. Such visions are fugitive, and people’s actions often contribute to the general sense of turbulence rather than bringing people closer to the imaginary future. The best that can be done under these circumstances is to make pragmatic responses to emergencies that are already available. Theorists are always watching the world as it undergoes transformations. For some theorists, this is a thrilling prospect.

To be a good planner requires being aware not only of what is needed by the work to be accomplished, but also what cannot. Professional planners have to be aware of the human cognitive limitations. The limits of planning are shown by what can be dependably known, and this is a function of time, scale and complexity. While the measures of the urban are endless in principle, as a matter of fact, spatial planning is always bounded territorially, and both the scales of the authority and urban to act upon them differ from the global to the very small spaces of city block and neighborhood (Faludi, 1973). Therefore, there cannot be a single, unalterable global hierarchy of the urban center which is multiple scaled at all appropriate levels.

Planning has a lot to do with connecting knowledge to action. This is a widely accepted concept within the planning profession. However, it fails to acknowledge the sort of bold, visionary and ultimately cruel spatial planning. These visionary and politically powerful bureaucrat-planners who had the power to make things happen have bequeathed cities that despite criticisms from various groups, are usually greatly appreciated. In contrast to these impresarios of urban transformation, Lewis Mumford, likened planning to a form of gardening with a bit of pruning here, a bit of mulching, in line with the natural cycles. This can help to bring about a bio-centric based urban center (Scott & Roweis, 1977).

Knowledge for Planning

There is also the issue about the meaning of the above by a dependable knowledge for planning. Planners consider several factors such as the best route for a new transit line, or the economic benefits of a building. Unfortunately, these factors are ignored by some planners. In spite of involving an engineering criteria, future transit demand will be unreliable as long as planning is not good. Planning decisions are left to politicians, bureaucrats, business lobbies, urban social movements, and the media to resolve. Incidentally, it might be noted that politicians’ tenure is barely long enough to feel the effect of their choices. Since public memory is likewise short, political decisions are often irresponsible, and reckless.

Throughout the world, the educational requirements for planning is at least a university degree in many countries. So one would expect that a high measure of formal educational knowledge is after all required at the point of entry into the planning profession. Where planning classes are offered in schools of architecture, planning educational knowledge is often taken to mean adopting urban design principles. On the other hand, when planning is taught in schools under public policy, design skills may be neglected in favor of some combination of knowledge in urban demography, geography, statistics, sociology and public finance. Policy planners may state planning issues, deriving their conclusions on quantitative research and exercises, but more, their findings are challenged whenever they encounter powerful political or private interests (Faludi, 1973). During policy-making, planning expertise is not inevitably accepted as superior to the judgments by other people.

There are specific reasons for this. The professional knowledge of planners is often based on a very incomplete understanding of the urban complex. Required to make strategic or comprehensive plans for a region or city, they encounter a very difficult task of representing the region or city in two-dimensional view at a measure that can be pictured at a single look. Every map is an example of a model, and every model is radically interpreted, a construct of reality (Scott, 1977). What planners decide to show then is a collection of variables all of which can change with time, though the respective velocities and directions of change will differ. The first problem planers encounter, then, is to decide what variables to include into the plan-making and which to leave out.

The inevitable bias in the initial choice will favor the variables which have been pre-disposed by their professional education as well as such data that are readily at hand. In the absence of such data, new research would have to be done, but financial resources for this are always scarce. Plans have to be made according to a set schedule. In the economics and natural sciences, powerful models or theories are given sufficient research funds and Nobel prizes. However, many planning practitioners have little patience with formal models of the urban planning. Moreover, they do not have any way of making long-term predictions of how the urban situation at any given scale is likely to change under different expectations, such as demographic dynamics, political change, sudden shifts in global trends and economic performance to name only four sets of variables over which urban planners have little or no control (Branch, 1975). Circulation plans and potential land use are mostly demand-driven wish images estimated onto two-dimensional maps, images that reflect the hidden partialities of their professional training and social class.

Given how these conditions pressure their craft, is it surprising that urban area planners are constantly revising their plans to make them up-to-date. Any specific proposal comes certainly under fire from opponents both inside and outside the government. The effect of this type of urban planning on the shaping of city complexes has been low. Maybe, it is for this reason that urban planning practice has gradually become entrepreneurial, focusing on partnership arrangements and projects rather than inclusive plans. This explains why theorists such as Forester (1989) and Flyvbjerg (1998) have strongly argued for a politically savvy planning style.

Many planning schools in the United States have become hot spots of social activism which has dominated more traditional planning issues, such as the use of land. For instance, Charles Lindblom, a political economist at Yale, in 1959, published what later became his most popular journal article ever (that has since been reprinted over 40 times), entitled “The Science of Muddling Through”. In this journal, Lindblom argued against synoptic planning which he termed and dismissed as a utopian endeavor.

Instead, he proposed a disjointed increase in which a large number of relatively independent but networked actors would adjust their short-term plans, each according to the constantly changing conditions facing them. This was the competitive market concept re-interpreted for the world of planning and policy. However, few planners heeded his call; most were still in held to the ideal of all-inclusiveness. Attempts by Etzioni to combine visions with incremental steps which he called “mixed scanning,” was also unpersuasive. Planning theorists were still dominated by a model of how to rationalize decisions.

In Re-tracking America: A Theory of Transactive Planning (1973), the author made attempts to realign the meaning and purpose of planning in a country that had passed through a decade of social turmoil. Aware that an historical era was almost coming to an end, the author stated a new kind of post-industrial urban planning based on social learning. Planners were involved in seeking positive social change and planned joining up what they already knew out of their specialized education with the experimental knowledge of common citizens who would be affected by their decisions (Catanese, 1988). These influences helped create a broad learning comparison for a type of planning practice that has become increasingly involved on the scale of local communities and seldom larger groups in the United States.

The increase of neo-liberal ideology in the late 1970s and continuing right up to the end of the 20th century posed new challenges for planning. Private-public partnerships started to be formed that shaped a new category of stakeholders, most of whom came from the corporate sector, relevant government agencies, and the civil society. Self-identified stakeholders now had a genuine claim to sit at the table and contributed to the discussions about issues that affected them. The era of seventies and eighties was indeed a period of historical shift whose weighty effects would be felt around the world. Marxists clarified what was happening as a catastrophe of buildup, and some authors even toyed with the phrase late capitalism to depict this period. What they failed to get was the reformative powers of a system involved in a determined project of global restructuring. Neo-liberalism fulfilled its mantra.

As neo-liberal national systems began getting usually unfunded tasks to states and cities, they abandoned the lower-order governments to support themselves financially. Therefore, local governments were forced to compete against each other as cities tried to ensure their fiscal feasibility by attracting in-bound investments to raise their susceptible economies. This left neighborhood communities that had been hard hit by the change to a service-based economy to cope with the shift from self-sufficient production. Many were left stranded. Economists, geographers and sociologists gave an analysis of what was happening. From a Marxist perspective, David Harvey explored post-modernity and capital theory.

Planning in the Public Domain acknowledges radical planning. This has its antecedents left of the political spectrum, sprouting its many directions over two centuries (Friedmann, 1987). Radical planning was grounded in the myriad of organizations of civil society beyond the reach of the state. It was often in opposition to the state and sometimes to corporate enterprise as well. Planning by mobilized communities was acknowledged and accepted as a new reality. Manuel Castells summarized a decade of field work research into urban social movements in his piece, The City and the Grassroots (1983). Later, he turned to tracing the lineaments of the emerging new network society (1989). A decade later, Leonie Sandercock (1998) would extend radical planning to the struggles of marginalized people for their right to the city.

The 1990s and the early 21st century gathered the harvest of decades of social change and experimentation. Participatory planning had reached its apex with the introduction of the participatory budget. An experiment that has inspired similar endeavors throughout Europe, Canada and Brazil though none was attention-getting as the original experiment. As non-governmental organizations thrived throughout the world, community empowerment was being taken as a solution for marginalized neighborhoods in the society. Civil society, with a long and rich historical significance in political philosophy, had been redefined by the liberation theological movement of the Catholic Church in Brazil and then in Latin America more generally.

It was also used to describe the origin of political liberation as Eastern Europe got relieved from the York of Communist rule that had been in effect for decades. With these present-day experiences as background, civil society was introduced into the planning vocabulary in a book that included case studies (Germany), Santiago (Chile), Los Angeles, and Pacific Rim cities (Douglass & Friedmann, 1998).

In a crucial contribution to the literature at almost the same time, the Collaborative Planning (1997) by Patsy Healey argued convincingly that the problems of urban development in the neo-liberal era required a combined effort from many players; government alone could not address all the challenges. Input from all sectors of society in a form of planning involved talks and negotiations among stakeholders seeking actionable consensus.

Consensus building among groups of people with contradictory interests often required the involvement of mediators, and by the end of the 20th century, negotiation had become an important factor for both planning and legal studies. John Forester and Larry Susskind made important contributions to this new specialty, the first in a series of publications ending in The Consensus Building Handbook by Susskind et al. (1999), and Encouraging Participatory Planning Processes by Forester (1999).

However, not all planning theorists saw consensus-building as the future trend. In Rationality and Power, Flyvbjerg (1998) encompassed a model of planning that was based wholly on the writing of Nietzsche, Foucault and Machiavelli. It was a cutting criticism of planning that acknowledged the inevitable presence of variances in power in society and the ability of diverse groups to use it. In a Foucaudian interpretation, Flyvbjerg states that suppressing conflict amounts to suppressing freedom, since the opportunity to participate in conflict is part of freedom (Flyvbjerg, 1998). Thus he expressed cynicism about the non-politicized processes of mediation and consensus building.

Mediations nevertheless, and with the presence of a progressively vocal and politically active civil society, politics and therefore conflict around priorities and values have become key to planning. James Holston (1999), an urban anthropologist with an extensive field work in Brazil, introduced the term “insurgent citizenship,” which was then adopted by Sandercock who made insurgent practices vital to her path-breaking work on accommodating differences in the contemporary metropolis.

However, she was quick to point out that conflict about differences should not be violent. She wrote that in an urban world, insurgencies can come as a result of several tiny empowerments instead of revolutionary adventures. Although mediation and dialogue have their place in the political life of cities, where power differences are numerous, and fundamental worldviews or strongly held values are at stake, such as the universal right to good housing, negotiation cannot be the main position. Such cases require even political struggles.

Strategy-making when understood relationally, involves connecting relational resource and knowledge resources to generate mobilization force. Such resources in institutional sites in governance settings from which a planned framing discourse disperses outwards. Strategy-making efforts may be commenced in many different institutional sites, but to have noteworthy effects, the mobilization dynamic has to move towards arenas that are central to accessing the resources.

Planning Theory and Urban Planning

The work of planners has mostly to do with urban planning and sometimes regional concerns and their dynamics that cannot be understood properly apart in a way that cuts across various disciplines (Scott, 1977). Most graduate planning students enroll to a two-year Master’s program. They tend therefore to absorb most of their knowledge and skills about planning from professors who came out of planning schools long time ago. There is a lot of diversity within their department, since a range of specializations, including transportation, housing, public health, urban design, community development, and many more have nested under the urban planning umbrella.

However, a two-year period is a very short time, especially when urgent requirements consume a substantial share of their time. Most students graduate with only an unclear understanding of what the university as a whole has on offer. Yet, without going beyond its own limits in the search for relevant knowledge, it is easy for planning to become inward-oriented more and more, a professional discipline that defines itself mainly by its own technical capabilities (Faludi, 1973). In the long-term, building walls around the little turfs will inevitably lead to intellectual stasis.

Planning theorists are actively applied in mining expeditions into the universe of knowledge, are on the lookout for ideas believed to be of interest in planning education. Their specific input to theory is to return from these missions to home base and convert their discoveries into the planning language where they will either take the cause or be abruptly forgotten. Planning theorists typically go beyond the boundaries of their profession. Fainstein works from within a political set up whose origins can be traced back to Marxism and neo-Marxism writings. Her influences to planning theory are distinctive in two main ways.

First, she has constantly avoided abstract theorizing in favor of punishing theory in the realisms of cities such as New York, Amsterdam or London. A lot of her work has been critical of planning and was often regarded as having more interests with the urban than with planning as such. Over the last two decades, however, she has been evolving a normative root for planning. As separate from process theorists, she maintains on the importance of considering planning results. What this means is that planning theory, to be more specific, cannot be studied except the study of specific urban centers and their political dynamics.

In her quest for the good city, Fainstein analytically examines not only other dreams of the city, such as the New Urbanism, but involves authors who, although remote from most reading lists on planning have had much to say on thinking about the value of urban life. Drawing specifically on Young (2000), she argues for a politics of shared identities, of groupings based on gender, immigrant status, sexual orientation, race beyond those of social class which were the culture on the Marxist left during the 19th and 20th centuries.

She also succeeds the customary equity discussion of this tradition, by arguing not just for greater income impartiality but for enhancements in the total situations of life of both poor and middle income groups in their specific living environments. She writes that failure to recognize the consistency of collectivities and their operational relationship to each other avoids a fundamental social issue of restructuring how to avoid imposing an unacceptable burden on the better-off. Progressively, her writings stress society’s stake in better amenities, services, and other collective goods for everyone. Fainstein is painfully conscious of the problems faced by the reformist politics in the United States. But, she refers it as important and optimistic. By continuing to discuss about justice, it can be made central to the planning activity. The very act of naming has power.

Planning is not a valueless activity. It has been commonly accepted by many people for some time. Value-based planning is no longer a significant issue. Moreover, for progressive planners in the United States and Canada, social justice worries have been a significant focus for decades, since Paul Davidoff made the case for planners’ advocacy in 1965 and the poor and the Network Newsletter of 1975. This has now evolved into the quarterly journal.

That is, Progressive Planning. Likewise noteworthy is Susan Fainstein’s tireless activism of social justice in the city. More recently, some planning schools have stated that they are committed to the democratization of planning and its sustainability. Therefore, they make specific value-orientation in line with their mission (Catanese, 1988). Over the years, various claims for value have been incorporated by both many individual practitioners and the planning schools.

This entails advocacy of the poor and other marginalized groups of people, inclusiveness, the right to housing and citizen participation. These pledges were the result of political struggles, dramatic changes in the zeitgeist of societies and debates. Underlying them, too, were new discourses, new researches, and new common understandings of the contemporary world. These writings, addressed to planners but sometimes to a more general distribution as well, form part and parcel of the essential tasks of planning theory.

Planning has become a political art, with planners needing to be aware of power and the difference that power makes (Scott, 1977). Practicing planners now have a share in certain results and therefore need to be clever in developing ways that will let them insert their perspectives and values into ongoing societal processes for decision-making (Krumholz & Forester, 1990). The other factor has been the direct commitment of planners with the art of doing things ensure planning in real time. Today’s planners are not just ordinary analysts advising politicians; they are also political actors in their own right. John Forester (1996) has put the political planning in the context of mediation and conflict resolution in which he prioritizes practical judgment.

Values are incorporated within planning and ethical dilemmas faced by planners

This rising complexity and uncertainty in the planner’s position between the public and private sectors also questions traditional ethical assumptions. A planner’s loyalty is divided between serving his or her employers, the public and fellow planners. This dilemma is more complicated by the extension of planning past just technocratic goals to address larger economic, social and environmental problems. Within the society, the values of efficiency, democracy, and equality often clash.

These conflicts are shown in the choices planners have to make. Planning has contradictory loyalties to the economic development goals, social justice goals, and environmental protection goals (Catanese, 1988). Regardless of the long-term promises of development, these goals create deep-seated pressures not only between planners and the external world, but also within planning itself.

Another dimension comes from the challenges surrounding the planner’s role as an expert. Concerns around proper balance between citizen and expertise input arises in issues such as the sitting of waste disposal facilities and highways, when certain social groups must incur the costs. However, they are played out. As Frank Fischer argues, when experts want to quantify a risk by attaching monetary values on the human life, they just show up. Martin Wachs (1982) argues that in the assumption used by the model builders when they predict the future effects of public facilities. Critics of those alleging to have scientific expertise to justify policy doubt the acceptability of the methods they use, stating that technical language covers the values and functions to hide who loses wins and who wins. The development of technical predicting methods nonetheless is necessary if planners are to achieve their duty of designing long term policies.


Planning theory has major tasks that are very important to its endeavors. First, there is the philosophical task of developing a humanist viewpoint to guide planners in their work. Second, there is the task of acclimating to planning practices to the repeatedly fluctuating course of human activities and finally, the task of translating knowledge and concepts from fields other than planning into the human language. These tasks make a distinctive contribution to the planning literature and ultimately to the professional practice as well. As trans-disciplinary, an integrative field of studies, planning touches on life in all of its on-the-ground intricacy.

Such a thoughtful knowledge of its mission cannot distribute with a normative basis such as human prosperous and the planned city. Of course, it will always be contested, forever remaining under construction state. In a fast changing world, the planning profession should also adjust to the new demands continuously. It should also be oriented to what is happening, as these deviations are read by a range of disciplines added by planners’ own insights and experiences. Therefore, rationality in planning, timely and complexity as well as good scale in planning are very important factors to effective urban planning.


Branch, M. C. (1975). Urban planning theory. Stroudsburg, Pa: Dowden, Hutchinson & Ross.
Castells, M. (1983). The city and the grassroots: A cross-cultural theory of urban social movements. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Catanese, A. J., & Snyder, J. C. (1988). Urban planning. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Faludi, A. (1973). Planning theory. Oxford: Pergamon Press.
Forester, J. (1999). The deliberative practitioner: Encouraging participatory planning processes. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.
Levent, T. B. (2008). Urban planning. Cheltenham, Glos, UK: Edward Elgar Pub.
Scott, A. J., & Roweis, S. T. (1977). Urban planning in theory and practice: A re-appraisal. Toronto: Dept. of Urban and Regional Planning, University of Toronto.
Susskind, L., McKearnan, S., & Thomas-Larmer, J. (1999). The consensus building handbook: A comprehensive guide to reaching agreement. Thousand Oaks, Calif: Sage Publications.

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