The field of Planning just celebrated its 100-year anniversary last year, but most people, especially planners, aren't really sure what it is. Debates over the most basic outlines of the identity of planning have been ongoing for at least a few decades. A well-known essay was published by in 1973 entitled, If Planning is Everything, Maybe It's Nothing. Lot's of responses have been written with various iterations on this title, including Bill Lucy's If Planning Includes Too Much, Maybe It Should Include More. Orienting the center of the definition has been problematic.
Then there's always the question of whether "Planning" is even the right term, rather than something more specific like "urban planning" or "land use planning." There are certainly problems with using a term that is so generic ("I'm planning on washing my car tomorrow"). Even many of its more specific applications are obviously outside of the purview of the field (financial planning, family planning, wedding planning). However, I'm treating this word as a given because it is already institutionally entrenched and not going anywhere. On the positive side, four of the top five Google hits, our age's arbiter of language, for "planning" fit what I'm thinking of quite well.
How can the word "Planning" be used with enough exclusivity to have meaning yet with enough inclusiveness to follow out enough of it's various tentacles of causality? Not to mention the various ways the word is actually being applied professionally. Although I'm not so presumptuous as to speak for an entire discipline, I'd like to throw out my own working definition of the term here in hopes that it can be somewhat wikified. Does this fit your own conception of the field? Do you think an agreed-upon definition is useful or even possible?
"Planning is working toward the deliberate improvement of the spatial organization and design of human settlement and human movement."
Explanations of the Components:
Working Toward. This definition of planning hinges on the intentions of planners, not necessary the actual results in every occasion. The phrase "working toward" implies an ongoing process.
Deliberate Improvement. The discipline of planning is an applied, not a pure, science. Although original research may be conducted, it will always be intended for incorporation into a teleological framework informing workable practices. The word deliberate implies a rational analysis built upon empirical data, although this may include recognition of the limits of human reason and disagreements over fundamental values.
The word improvement implies values, whether ethical absolutes or preferences of a particular community. Therefore, planning includes the process of discovering these values, whether through ethical reflection or through interactions with the particular public relevant to the improvement in question. Inherent to this discovery process is the job of working toward resolution of conflicts which have always arisen over differing visions of values.
It should be noted that this definition does not conscribe planning to a specific means of achieving improvement. Sometimes rational planning (“from above”) is contrasted with the emergence of systems (“from below”), and planning is associated with the former. It’s seen as the concentration of power into government bodies over and against the dispersal of power into private agents. On the contrary, planning can make use of either of these means or a combination of both to achieve improvement. But planning cannot rely on the self-organization of private actors exclusively.
The word improvement is inherently future-oriented, which does not preclude restoring or building upon traditions of the past. It does necessitate working for a future that is better than the present, rather than maintaining the present conditions into the future.
Spatial Organization and Design. Planning is built upon geography, and thus all planning activities relate in some way to the spatial relationships between people and places. Space, for planners, can be conceived in a variety of scales involving human use, from a neighborhood to the whole world. However, relatively small scales intended for exclusively private ownership and use are not within the purview of planning.
The word organization references the analysis of spatial data, whether economic, political, sociological, or environmental and how the data will impact the human use of space. In this sense, planning functions as an applied social science, making use of the scientific method and empirical observation to achieve improvement in spatial organization. Among other factors, the spatial distribution of socio-economic and racial differences among a population will figure into the overall analysis.
The word design references the aesthetic and functional properties of specific constructed spaces. Design cannot always be easily quantified and measured, and will typically be valued subjectively. Like architects and landscape architects, planners engage with the human experience, as well as the material reality, of constructed space. Planning is distinct from architecture, landscape architecture, and other design fields in that it only functions on scales larger than places of exclusively private ownership and use.
Human Settlement and Human Movement. The word human distinguishes planning from the natural sciences that study and apply ecological processes outside of human intervention. Although environmental planners will draw heavily from the natural sciences, environmental planning will always deal with the spatial interface between humans and the rest of an ecosystem. Even if the purpose is to minimize human intervention through land or water conservation, it is still the human intervention that remains the focus for planners.
The word settlement references the use of land, specifically those uses that are constructed or legally committed and therefore involve a certain degree of permanence and investment. Movement references transportation of people or goods for human use. These two spheres are intertwined and effect each other with feedback loops, so planning must analyze both as a whole.
Because of the overlap between many other fields, planners will inevitably function as generalists, helping to translate between the different professional languages and build institutional connections between them. At the same time, they will be specialists in one or more of the elements of the definition.