Wednesday, November 18

My working definition of "Planning"

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.


NeilSWilliamson said...

Interesting concept.

I am most troubled by the value jugement required in "delibrate improvement". I believe most planner pursue the field to be seeking to improve settlement patterns but as a definition I would argue the word "impact" be exchanged for improvement. If a planner creates a plan that does not improve the situation is he (or she) not planning?

My jaundiced eye has seen many plans that highly qualified planners disagreed if it was an improvement or not.

A literal reading of this definition indicates every plan, made by a planner, is an improvement.

Removing the concept of improvement would be an improvement in this definition.

Daniel said...

I hear you, Neil. Certainly not everything planners have done has resulted in real improvement. I tried to capture that in the "working toward" part of the definition. At least the intention is to improve.

Take medicine, for example. There are some cases of malpractice, and even occasions where accepted medical procedures or drugs have been proven to be harmful with more research. Yet, I don't think we would say that medicine is "altering the human body, sometimes for the better sometimes for the worse." Inherent to the whole idea is improving human health, even if this isn't achieved in every situation.

I'll add some explanation of this to the explanation of the definition - to clarify. Thanks for the feedback.

Eric Orozco said...

Funny...Not that I disagree with the statement, but it points me to the modernist roots of planning. Perhaps embrace this approach baldly, like...I wonder how Diderot's Encyclopedie would define planning, Blondel style: ...Succinct definition, but might we elaborate?

For example, I would feel in some aspects an odd fit for some of your clarifications of your definition of planning as an urban designer. Urban designers work directly to impact/improve the the public realm, but our clients can be private as well as public agents...often both at the same time. Somehow, urban design seems to always be the odd fellow out. It used to be urban design was the heart of the profession. Zoning changed that. And now the New Urbanists are returning us more directly to it, as Lynch attempted to. It seems postmodern distrust of catch-all statements prolong a professional malaise with planning profession. I wonder if we need to be like Diderot. All want to claim or fuzz up ownership of one thing or another. So the definition of the enterprise and the "profession" needs to be disambiguated some, methinks.

More practically, to this day, I can't quite figure out if I belong in the AIA, ASLA or APA. :) Maybe that's the problem. Urban Design is claimed by too many professions...including civil engineering (by fact, not intent). Would it be better for cities to have a better agency representing a convergence of all these animals?

I'm curious how you would define Urban Design, Daniel...

Daniel said...

Eric, I'm certainly on board with reincorporating design back into the heart of planning. I also think planners can work with private clients. I suppose what I am trying to differentiate between is private clients who are developing for multiple users and private clients developing for a single user. So, helping a developer Master Plan a new neighborhood is in ... helping a large landowner plan the various buildings of a personal estate or a golf course is not. (that's within the landscape arch domain). I think the difference with planning is that since there are multiple actors the design will always have an element of politics.

I'm honestly not sure if a definition can capture all of this, but it is an interesting exercise :)

Benjamin Hemric said...


While language is a matter of consensus and it's valid for a word to mean anything that people want it to mean, in order for for a word to be truly useful, however, it seems to me that the word should be used in a consistent fashion. This does not seem to be true, as pointed out in the original post, with the word "planning," which in actual usage means many (often unacknowledged) different things in different circumstances. I think this leads to a great deal of needless confusion that detracts rather than enhances a discussion of genuine differences. For instance, how does one distinguish between those who believe in planning with those that are against planning? Surely those who are for planning are not for planning "everything" and surely those who are against planning are not against planning anything!

I think discussions of "planning" would be greatly clarified and enhanced if we adopted a different vocabulary, perhaps one adapted from the field of economics which, for some reason (e.g., better luck?; more rigorous thinking?), has come up with a more useful group of words in the English language to describe the actions and the players in its field of endeavor.

So, I'd like to propose a new, tentative lexicon for what is now, misguidely in my opinion, called the field of "urban planning.


Benjamin Hemric said...

Looking at the more enlightened (at least in terms of its vocabulary) field of economics, here's what we have:

Economics -- the name of the field

Economist -- name of those working in the field, whatever their position regarding the pros or cons of "economic planning."

Economic planning -- In its more extreme form, the kind of economic planning found in the old Soviet Union. Less extreme forms are those that exhibit lesser degrees of this kind of planning.

Market-based economies -- those economies that have some government rules for the "basics" (e.g., money supply) but which otherwise rely on the market place for its macro economic decision making.

As hinted at in the above, I think the "beauty" of this vocabulary is that it recognizes that one can be interested in economics and still not be a proponent of Soviet Union-styled economic planning.


Benjamin Hemric said...

Here's a tenative adaptation of this approach with regard to the field of "urban planning."

Urban Geography -- the name of the field. The field of geography, as I understand it, is the study of man in relation to his environment, which seems to me what most urban "planners" (whatever their beliefs with regard to the advisability of "planning") are actually interested in.

I use the term "urban" geography, as it helps distinguish between the study of man in relation to mankind's urban settlements and the study of man in relation to other, non-urban, settlements (e.g., rural settlements, suburban settlements, etc.).

Urban geographers -- those who are working in the field in question (i.e., studying man's relationship to various urban settlements) -- whatever that person's position regarding the pros and cons of "planning" those urban settlements.

Urban planning, or planning -- The approach among urban geographers that advocates a relatively high level of actual planning -- what might also be thought of as a "micromanaged" approach to urbanism -- one that is similar in kind, although admittedly not in degree, to the economic planning that was advocated by Soviet-styled "economic planners." (Again, this urban planning is not, admittedly, quite as extreme as the economic planning advocated by Soviet planners -- but it is, so it seems to me, the same kind of thing in principal, only to a lesser degree.)

Anti-urban planning, or anti-planning -- An approach to urban settlements that advocates a relatively low level of government intervention with regard to "planning," with an empahsis instead on "the basics," (e.g., roadways, parks, police protection, etc.) and on problem solving (i.e., solving problems as they crop up, rather than trying to "plan" ahead for things that may or may actually occur or may or may not ever become widely accepted as genuine problems).

I think such an "anti-planning" approach among urban geographers could also be called Market Urbanism, and I believe it is what is advocated, more or less, in most of the works of Jane Jacobs, especially "Death and Life of Great American Cities."

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As I understand it, the field of geography is often more established in other countries than it is in the U.S. For example, it seems to me that at least come Canadian geographers do the same kind of studies that "urban planners" do in the U.S. and their works are even assigned readings in mainstream American urban planning classes (at least they were in mine). I hope, though, that geographers see though what seems to me to be the actual mislabeling or the field of "urban planning" in the U.S. and don't see it, instead, as an invasion of their turf!

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Sat., 11/21/09 -- 12:05 p.m.