Planning Education: How Could It Be Different from Business School?

By Katharine N. Rankin

I welcomed the invitation to join this dialogue on planning education because I have had my own experiences of being defined at the margins of “real” planning. I relish those experiences because they remind me of the crucial critical role I believe planning education must play in shaping what “counts” as real planning.

About those experiences:

First, I came to planning from the field of anthropology and continue to do ethnographic research. Therefore, my orientation has always been about how plans and development projects are experienced–and not about how to do planning in a technocratic sense.

Second, I teach planning theory in the planning program at University of Toronto. We all know that “theory” is something that students balk at, practitioners ignore, and academic colleagues merely tolerate.

Third, I’m a feminist and I teach Gender Planning and Development. It is ironic that for all the wisdom (theoretical and practical) feminism has to offer in challenging injustice from the standpoint of experiences of injustice, some of our more “enlightened” students once nicknamed that course Family Planning and Birth Control.

This may be a pretty good joke, but it is symptomatic of a tendency in planning education to demarcate who is “real” and who is not by who teaches and who takes so-called “skills” courses. What is meant by “skills”?: neoclassical economics, quantitative analysis, maybe GIS. Planning theory, gender planning, and qualitative methods all fall outside the purview of these forms of “legitimate” and “useful” knowledge. Students are constantly advised not to waste their time in a professional masters program on “theory” courses that will not serve them well in their job search or on the job.

At the same time, I’ve found that the admissions process is often skewed to the kinds of applicants who already have a propensity to value these favored forms of knowledge as “skills.” As Gerda Wekerle and Barbara Rahder also argue in this issue, prerequisites in economics and statistics present up front a disciplinary bias–or gatekeeping effect–against those with backgrounds in humanities and social theory, regardless of established commitments to social justice and social change. Applicants with such backgrounds are defined as the weaker prospects.

We must therefore ask ourselves what view of the planner is embedded in this valuation of certain forms of knowledge as endowing “skills” and others as “peripheral” to the requirements of professional practice. In practice, these “skills” (when acquired in isolation from other skills, such as feminist theory) equip planners to perform two fundamental roles: 1) technician of governmental objectives (which often construes the “public interest” narrowly in the real interest of political expediency); and 2) business entrepreneur equipped with a spatial understanding of free market economics necessary for facilitating urban development. Embedded in our arbitrary construction of “real” and, shall we say, “imposter” planning are also, of course, certain normative understandings of what a good city is. Namely, a good city is one where laissez-faire principles rule, and planners participate in individual development projects or (at best) serve government agencies whose task is to mitigate market failure.

What is wrong with all this? I like to approach this question by thinking in terms of what should distinguish planning education from related professional degrees, such as business management, public administration or public policy–other fields where “skills” are valued as legitimate knowledge. To approach this question, I think it is useful to refer to Kevin Lynch, who specifies three basic capacities planners should have in order to understand and shape the spatial form of the city.

First, planners should be able to understand why cities take the form they do. For this, of course, they require a range of disciplinary orientations, including economics (especially spatial economics), but also sociology and anthropology, geography, transportation engineering and political economy, to name a few. And planners must be able to synthesize these many areas of study into a single approach, in trueinterdisciplinary fashion.

Second, planners should be able to understand and shape the processes through which city form changes–processes in which planners can play different kinds of roles ranging from technician, to project designer, to advocate, to radical critic.

Third, planners should have a clear normative understanding of what good city form would be.

Aside from offering an incomplete analysis, the problem with planners drawing merely from a very narrow set of “skills” in their practice (such as neoclassical economics and quantitative methods) is this: it obscures from view the normative values underlying those approaches. That may be fine in a business management or public policy program, but planning should distinguish itself as a profession populated by practitioners who understand that values and explanations are, as Kevin Lynch argued, inextricable. As such, planning programs should be “multi-ideological,” to borrow an expression from Porus Olpadwala. By their very interdisciplinary nature, whereby students are routinely exposed to competing systems of social analysis, planning programs should encourage planners to question any single set of ideas or interpretations and build an element of dissent into the profession.

Planning can also distinguish itself from other disciplines by making unequivocal commitments to the principles of social justice, equality of opportunity, participatory decision-making processes and empowerment of the disenfranchised. There are certainly plenty of ideological alternatives to an understanding of social justice, but at the very least one common denominator must be to take a long-term view of good city form, one not beholden to short-term returns to shareholders or politicians. This view must entertain the possibility of fundamental change leading to radically alternative futures.

There is a crucial role for theory here. Theory–the domain where relationships between values and explanations get charted–provides the critical edge to planning. It is the place from which it is possible to articulate a radical politics, to be overtly political. Without theory, the profession turns in on itself, as Bob Beauregard once argued. Without theory the profession narrows its scope, separates the “real” from the “imposters,” subverts itself to hegemonic interests, to–as Kanishka Goonewardena argues in this issue–the market.

If we accept theory as an indispensable “skill” in this way, we must also encompass within the planner’s toolbox a gender analysis, which has for decades been expanding our understanding of “development” to encompass not just economic growth but also human development and well-being. A feminist approach denies the age-old trade-off between equity and efficiency by recasting the framework for action from price signals to human needs. It brings the perspectives of subaltern groups to bear on the planning process. And as theory borne out of practice, feminist approaches confront head-on the imagined and debilitating split in planning between theory and practice.

Katharine N. Rankin is an assistant professor in planning and geography at the University of Toronto.