The Postmodern Opportunity for Planning

By Paul Niebanck

We are living at a time of huge new promise and opportunity for progressive planning. Long constrained by the rigidities associated with modernism, we are free now to help invent the future and construct the institutions that can sustain it. The postmodern climate is just right for the kinds of planning that would release the capacity for justice, peace, and human fulfillment. Progressive planning thrives in situations where boundaries are blurred, and people can reach across them to each other. Also, where power is accessible and values are in flux. These conditions characterize the postmodern period, by and large. Recombinatory possibilities seem boundless, and the energy of innovation is everywhere. As planners, we do our best work at times of uncertainty, ambiguity, complexity, and change. Now is such a time, and we have an obligation to make the most of it.

I see three exciting signs that planning is seizing the postmodern opportunity. First, our field is striking a fresh relationship with the future. Second, we planning practitioners are critically reformulating our professional responsibility. Third, the planning function is moving to the ethical center among powerful societal forces.

Planning for the Unknown

As a modernist practice, planning was defined almost exclusively in terms of objective, instrumental, formal, and strictly rational conceptions. Planning could attend only to what was measurable, predictable, and subject to control. Implicit in these limitations, the objects of planning were conceived conservatively, as either problems to be solved, situations to be managed, systems to be adjusted, or crises to be avoided. The best that planning could do with the future was to forecast certain aspects of it, and either accommodate them, contain them, or resist them altogether.

By contrast, the postmodern context releases planning to regard itself more generously, and to engage the future in ways that are organically related to a much larger planning idea. Planners are involved in actualizing potentialities, embodying meanings, writing stories, even forging myths. Planning is generative, as well as regulatory; inventive, as well as stabilizing; adventuresome and visionary as well as adaptive and cautious. The unknown future is something to be invited, promoted, and co-created, not merely accommodated or resisted. Progressive planners have room to breathe, space in which to work assertively, in this new environment. The modernist conception of planning frustrated our best attempts to right wrongs, undo oppressive systems, equalize structures of opportunity, form productive relationships, and give voice to the factors that support human life. Postmodern conceptions invite us to plan for the unknown. Our imaginations need not be constrained. Quite the contrary, we are called to enlarge the conversation, delight in multiplicity, imagine what is possible, decide cooperatively what is desirable, and negotiate it into being.

Planner as Midwife

Among the hallmarks of modernism was its reliance on expertise. Buildings need to stand; thus the profession of engineering. Corporations need to thrive; thus, accounting and management. Individuals need to prosper; thus, teachers, social workers, and psychologists. Planning has sought a place among the professions, that is, to convince society that we have special abilities that deserve standing. To some extent we have succeeded. In respect for certain of our technical skills, planning has come to be regarded as a “minor profession.” Planning is too large and too important to be contained by such a designation. It is a way of being in the world. There is no major sector, no domain, of human life that does not practice planning. Further, planning takes as many nuanced forms as the circumstances in which it is practiced. And wherever it is found, planning provides opportunities for people of different persuasions to assemble respectfully around shared concerns, organize, design their own formats, offer critique, identify the common good, and take responsible action together. Thus, in every instance, planning is potentially a democratic practice. This potential has long been recognized by progressive planners, and the postmodern period affords room for its vigorous expression.

The power of planning as democratic practice is being celebrated broadly among planning scholars and practitioners. The primary responsibility, even the professional responsibility, for planners, is coming to be seen not so much in terms of “making plans,” or even in “doing planning,” but in facilitating the planning impulse and encouraging its democratic character. The true “product” of the professional investment will not be evident so much in the quantity or quality of plans produced as in the enhanced capacity for constructive interaction and intelligent and compassionate action across society.

Progressive planners have strong commitments to equality, justice, sufficiency, and sustainability. We have learned that these commitments cannot be realized without the direct participation of the people who have been marginalized or oppressed. We also know that planning is a powerful instrument for social improvement, and that, with rare and transitional exceptions, these people have the right and the capacity to plan, for themselves and in collaboration with others. We recognize our responsibility to be midwives on behalf of the practice of democratic planning.

The Ethical Center

The rhetoric of modernism ironically makes values-neutrality a virtue. Most early planning practice mimicked this emphasis. What was at stake was not so much whether neutrality was a virtue as that its practice veiled an active reinforcement of the dominant forces in society, and of domination itself. An ideology of values-neutrality served to protect the prerogatives of the nation-state, the army, the church, the corporation, even the professions, and their respective beneficiaries. Postmodernism has emphasized values-indeterminacy.

We face a marketplace of competing claims, enticements, and pronouncements. Deep-rooted ethical traditions are everywhere being compromised. Institutions and communities that once were counted on to cultivate values and hold members to account have lost their force. The proliferation of distinctions and the ceaseless flow of information have obscured the pathway to defining values.

Progressive planners know that values-neutrality is a deception. We also know that values-indeterminacy is a delusion. We affirm that human beings have evolved as moral agents and choice-makers. Amidst the cacophony, progressive planning stands confidently at the ethical center. Unlike the cynics, pessimists, and opportunists all about us, we see in the postmodern environment an opportunity to cultivate a core of relevant values, values that can create and sustain a world society.

In practice, the ethical requirements should be to:

• Generate a clear vision and remain faithful to it
• Locate the reservoirs of energy and talent, and tap into them
• Establish and maintain relationships of active support and respectful critique
• Understand the structure of power, and use it
• Represent the highest standards at every turn

These requirements are arguably the marks of mature planning, and they place planning at the center of the values question.


Progressive planning offers three powerful things to this emergent era. First, it provides a way into the future on behalf of the future’s fullest potential. Second, it affords people the chance, collectively, to express their deepest understandings and realize themselves as individuals and groups. Third, it exemplifies what it means to be a conscious partner in the evolution towards the human and ecological ideal. At its best, the day-to-day practice of planning will be an approximation of that ideal.

Paul Niebanck has been a PNer from the outset. His primary work is with community planning and development in and around his home neighborhood, Pioneer Square, Seattle.

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