Is Urban Planning Dead?

At the American Planning Association National Conference in New Orleans a couple weeks back, I participated in a session on the provocative question: “is planning dead?” The event was organized by the staff of the Colorado-based organization PlaceMatters. A small group met to discuss the question at an “unconference” session near the convention center. They were kind enough to post a live blog and summary post about the event. I thought I’d take the opportunity to share a slightly more developed version of what I discussed.

H Street NE Special IntersectionsFirst, in one sense, conventional planning is alive and well. U.S. cities continue to create and implement comprehensive plans and zoning regulations in the same ways they have since the advent of planning in the 1920s. There have been two notable changes. First, the size and complexity of plans and regulations has increased. As an example, the city of Austin, Texas has identified 67 plans, policies, and regulations adopted in the city since completing their last comprehensive plan in 1978. Secondly, although it’s not commonly recognized as part of planning, the historic preservation movement has had a tremendous impact on planning in urban areas. Preservation regulations are generally modeled on planning and zoning controls. New planning tools such as form-based codes, design review, inclusionary zoning, and other innovations share the same regulatory approach dating back to the 1920s, one that is rooted in the city’s “police powers” to create regulations for the health, safety, and welfare of the population.

Outside of this creeping expansion of proscriptive, regulatory planning, there have been alternative developments. Community development organizations and bottom-up initiatives have introduced new models of participatory planning. They should not be overlooked, but in most places city governments retain their central role in urban development. Although the process of creating plans has changed substantially, elected officials retain the final authority to modify or reject plans and development proposals. In its most advanced forms, the community development movement relies on government resources and permission to achieve their goals. (Cobbling together grants and subsidies, “pushing through” projects, etc)

Planning theorists have proposed several new models for the field, however none have significantly effected professional practice.

  • Paul Davidoff’s concept of advocacy planning is still widely discussed and taught. He proposed planners should follow the approach of the legal profession, providing each community with resources to create their own plan. However, the model has many well-known criticisms. Who gets a planner, and how are they paid? How does the government decide which plan will prevail? How should large-scale investment decisions be made?
  • John Friedman articulated a philosophy he referred to as “non-Euclidean” planning. He argued planning should be iterative, normative, creative, and based in social learning. Although this certainly describes some of the most innovative examples of planning, it is unclear how it could be followed to reform the role of government. Although containing provocative ideas, it requires further development and integration with a broader theory of governance before it can be readily applied.
  • Finally, one of the most influential developments has been the ‘communicative turn’ advocated by a variety of planning theorists. Adopting the theories of Habermas, this group focuses on the work of planning as shaping views and collecting information through processes of dialog. It also forms the theoretical basis for the consensus building approach, where stakeholders are brought together to discuss contested policy issues. In their new book Planning With Complexity, Judith Innes and David Booher provide a comprehensive statement of this philosophy and attempt to integrate it with theories of governance. They advocate for an adaptive, collaborative, distributed, and nonlinear government. Just published earlier this year, it remains to be seen in what ways these ideas can be translated into concrete practices.

I think planning can take two — perhaps contradictory — directions.

First, planning can celebrate the dynamism of the private city. Under this scenario, the field would pull back from detailed plans and regulations, seeking ways to encourage private actors to produce the desired ends. The strategy need not concede to private interests, but would seek to make public benefits predictable, transparent, and simple. It would entail the courage to voluntarily limit what powers planners would exercise. In turn, governments would take an even bolder approach to the framework of urbanization: shaping streets, lots, infrastructure, and markets.

Second, planning could re-assert government’s role in shaping the city through empowerment, not regulation. Experiments in participatory governance and budgeting could point the way towards a future where governments function as miniature development states. In this context, planning would be focused on structuring processes to involve citizens and organizations in governance in new ways, and sparking entrepreneurship and innovation.

After the intellectual fall of the rational-comprehensive model of policy analysis, critics have often held the problem with planning lay with its methods. If planners didn’t posses any special skills or methods, the argument goes, what claim to legitimacy do they have? I argue this collapse of a sphere of professional authority unveiled a deeper, more fundamental crisis: of democratic legitimacy. Both of my “directions” share a critical evaluation of the legitimate power and structure of government. As a field embedded in structures of governance, planning cannot be reformed without a vision for a reformed and revitalized urban democracy.

Author: Rob Goodspeed


  1. Really interesting post, Rob. I’m curious about other major influences on the shape or urban and community development, in addition to the two you mentioned (planning regulations and historic preservation). Three that come to mind as contenders are redevelopment mechanisms that incentivize but don’t require certain types of projects (e.g., urban renewal authorities and tax increment financing), community investments in parks and open space (often through citizen-supported funding mechanisms), and social infrastructure investments by community organizations, by which I’m thinking of community arts groups growing their presence, or service organizations investment sweat equity in projects, or local philanthropies investing capital (investments that might be enhanced or impeded by city planning but aren’t necessarily driven by it). Do you see these three as having played significant roles in urban planning?

    It’s not hard to see why the paradigm of a particular school of planning shapes planning (and ultimately community) outcomes, but it also seems to me that the relevance of the school can diminish with increased attention to the pragmatics of the decision process. In other words, in each of the models you describe (status quo and the two potential directions), if the decision making process places a great deal of emphasis on engagement across the community, asks the right sorts of questions in the right sorts of ways, and helps ensure that the decision makers themselves are responsive to the process, I wonder if that makes the limitations of the model less important.

    Another way to ask the question: the sorts of concerns raised by all three new models you describe (e.g., recognizing that planning isn’t value-neutral, acknowledging that it can and perhaps should be creative and iterative, emphasizing the importance of collaborative solutions) don’t seem intrinsically tied to any of those models but are critical values regardless of the mode. Whatever the model, planners and elected officials can elect to do a better or worse job of engaging and responding to their constituents.

    One other hypothesis might be that the clarity and rigidity of the underlying paradigm matters more as the scale grows: the larger the community, the less responsive the politics may be to the range of views and interests in the community (and the more responsive they may be to more embedded and established political interests).

Comments are closed.