Cracks in the Foundation of Traditional Planning

By Barbara Rahder

Who is a “real” planner? What makes one person a “real” planner and another person not a “real” planner? How is this decided and by whom? What are the common expectations of students entering planning programs (or possibly staying away from planning programs)? In traditional planning these questions are typically answered in the form of a set of myths that undermine the capacity of planners to engage with significant problems. These key assumptions or myths are:

    1. planning is a rational process of decision-making;
    2. planning is about providing for the public interest/public good; and
    3. planning is, first and foremost, about the use of land or space.

These underlying assumptions have direct implications for the role of the planner and, consequently, for planning education.

First–and this is what I want to emphasize most–if planning is a rational process of decision-making, it follows that planners can be trained to be objective and rational. They can learn how to construct planning processes that will lead to rational decisions, an idea embedded not only in rational comprehensive planning theory but also in much, though not all, of some popular versions of communicative action theory. It follows that planners can control the process, and therefore decisions, about the future. Finally, this makes “real” planners the experts at planning.

Second, if planning is about providing for the public interest or the public good, this implies that: 1) the public interest can be known; 2) planners can be trained to identify the public interest; 3) planners can explain to others what is in the public interest; and therefore 4) “real” planners are experts at knowing and using the public interest as the guiding principle in practice.

Third, if planning is, above all, concerned with the use of land or space, then “real” planners are land use planners.

These assumptions about planning and the role of planners are embedded in the history of the planning profession. Professions, by their nature, are self-protective entities meant not only to uphold certain standards of performance, but also to protect, promote and define those who are on the inside against those who are on the outside. Professional organizations are a means of legitimating and controlling access to self-identified areas of specialized knowledge and skill. The planning profession sets the boundaries on who is and who is not a “real” planner, at least in part, as a means of legitimizing an area of expertise we can call our own.

Students assume, quite rightfully, that planning education is about acquiring the skills and knowledge to be a professional planner. In fact, the Canadian Institute of Planners (CIP) requires planning programs in Canada to demonstrate how they will do this in order to certify these as professionally recognized planning programs. Every five to ten years, each planning program undergoes an intensive review by CIP to make sure it is meeting its requirements. It is not difficult to satisfy these requirements–all of the accredited planning programs in Canada do this regularly. We offer courses in planning history and theory, in local government and planning law. We provide methods and computer courses. We run studios and workshops so that students have an opportunity to apply their new skills and knowledge in a hands-on way.

What is not so easy to address is the common belief of students that planning education should provide them with a clear and incontrovertible body of knowledge, and a set of marketable technical skills, that will allow them to go forth and become experts at shaping our common future. Students’ apprehension about what they are learning–or more likely about what they are not learning–is legendary. In both traditional and innovative planning programs, students commonly express a great deal of anxiety and/or disappointment about not being taught the answers to the problems of planning. It may be worse, however, for those who think they have learned the answers, since they will most likely be bitterly disappointed when they go out into the world and discover that nothing appears to work according to plan.

So, what is the problem here? Are planning programs failing to provide adequate education? Are planning students’ expectations unrealistic? Has the planning profession failed to adequately delineate the skills and knowledge needed to become a planner? The answers to all of these questions may well be yes, but the problem is actually much bigger than this. I think we have tended to cling too long to outmoded notions of technical rationality–notions that even in their heyday served the interests of the few rather than the many diverse interests of the so-called public.

Problems with Traditional Concepts of Planning

One of the easiest ways to describe what is wrong is by way of analogy. It seems to me that we have built the foundations of the planning profession on a floodplain. Viewing planning as a purely technical enterprise probably seemed quite rational and reasonable, at least to the engineers and architects–virtually all white males–who were asserting their dominion over urban form and land use in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

While the flood waters rose to threatening levels in the 1960s and 1970s, the foundations of rationalist planning remained firm, however tilted. Despite practical and theoretical critiques from women; from low-income and ethno-racial communities; from urban activists, ecologists and left-wing academics, the notion that planning served some monolithic public interest in a fair and unbiased manner appeared to weather the storm. In the lets-make-a-deal 1980s and the privatization frenzy of the 1990s, there appeared to be little left of these old controversies other than a few high-water marks on the walls of the academy.

But here we are at the beginning of the twenty-first century, and there are definite cracks showing in the foundation. Our water is sometimes undrinkable–yet if planners were rational, wouldn’t we set limits on the production and use of toxic chemicals and restrict the size and location of factory farms so that the runoff wouldn’t get into our drinking water? Air pollution is causing unprecedented increases in childhood asthma–if planners were rational, wouldn’t we restrict the use of cars and trucks rather than create more suburbs, more expressways and hence more traffic? We are a tremendously prosperous society with more people than ever before, including increasing numbers of children, homeless on the street–if planners were rational, wouldn’t we make sure that everyone had adequate shelter?

I have no doubt that we could solve these problems. But I am just as sure that these issues cannot be addressed by rationalist modes of physical land use planning alone or by planners who continue to see themselves as professionals with unbiased technical expertise. The myths of rationalism, a singular public interest, and the separation of space from society are just no longer viable foundations for our profession.

Barbara Rahder is co-chair of Planners Network and the graduate program director in the Faculty of Environmental Studies at York University in Toronto.