Ferris Bueller: My Kind of City Planner

Jeffrey Barg's picture
"Not that I condone fascism, or any -ism for that matter: -isms in my opinion are not good. A person should not believe in an -ism; he should believe in himself. I quote John Lennon: ‘I don't believe in Beatles, I just believe in me.' A good point there. After all, he was the walrus. I could be the walrus. I'd still have to bum rides off of people."
-Ferris Bueller

It just doesn't seem right that I found myself walking the streets of Nashville last week, just steps from the fabulous Country Music Hall of Fame, in a furious rage. Because, thanks to my just-finished planning theory class, I couldn't stop categorizing.

I'd always wanted to go to Nashville. The strum and twang appealed to me, and I like seeing how Southern cities move at a different pace from Northern ones. Everything should've been perfect.

But instead my mind was filled with useless labels, which I couldn't help applying to buildings all around me.

"Hm, that looks rather modernist." "Look at that. Formalism at work." "Man, that style of post-urbanism is just so gauche."

If I were to actually say any of these things out loud, I'd hope some Tennessean would be kind enough to shoot me in the face.

I think I must be missing something. After a semester's worth of planning theory-a required course for planning students in my program-I still honestly don't understand what the point is. You have all of these labels-modern urbanism, postmodern urbanism, post-urbanism, functional urbanism, everyday urbanism, suburban urbanism-which are good for  what, exactly? Other than sounding like a Shel Silverstein poem?

It seems foolhardy at best to stick to prescribed models when attacking planning challenges. If I'm solving a problem for a client, they don't care if I'm using the Rational Model, the Incremental Model, the Communicative Model or America's Next Top Model. They just care if I come up with a solution that's affordable, feasible and will get them reelected.

Over the course of the semester, classmates and I argued about the utility of studying these labels. Are they useful-for categorizing, for guiding practice, for establishing blueprints-or does their application expire as soon as we exit the classroom?

As far as I can tell, postmodernism isn't a thing. Modernism isn't a thing. Rather, they're organizing devices. I guess they might come in handy if you want to talk to an academic, and everyone needs to have the same vocabulary. But really, who wants to talk to an academic?

Are we in a postmodern era, or a post-postmodern era? More importantly, what does having a "correct" answer to that question buy you? In every era, there are endless variations and exceptions to the dominant paradigm. Any labels that you study-whether in planning, history, literature or politics-refer to the history of those privileged enough to write it. Just because I'm at a fancy-pants university doesn't mean I want that privilege.

Would it be any better or worse if we planned according to another –ism, like nihilism? Go back to Bueller: "I do have a test today-that wasn't bullshit. It's on European socialism. I mean, really, what's the point? I'm not European. I don't plan on being European. So who gives a crap if they're socialists? They could be fascist anarchists, it still doesn't change the fact that I don't own a car."

Not that I advocate ignorance-is-bliss. Far from it. But it seems to be working out okay for Ferris.

Jeffrey Barg is an urban planner at the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society. He can be reached at jeffreybarg@gmail.com.





I laughed out loud at your statement: "If I were to actually say any of these things out loud, I’d hope some Tennessean would be kind enough to shoot me in the face."

Also, I have found that I too now analyze every built environment and individual building during my travels.


Unfortunately, many of the Planning Theory terms will almost never come up unless you're talking to other planners.

After Graduate School and emersing myself in both public and private sectors, I've realized that there is a balance between sticking to Planning Principles and serving community interests.

Planning Theory Models....

In our planning theory course this past semester we discussed and ranted on the same subject, how useful or on the contrary useless learning each of these planning models were and attempting to label our planning approach.

As you said "If I’m solving a problem for a client, they don’t care if I’m using the Rational Model, the Incremental Model, the Communicative Model or America’s Next Top Model. They just care if I come up with a solution that’s affordable, feasible and will get them reelected."

That was our exact same inclination.


America's Next Top Model, ha! I needed a laugh.

Come, come, boys and girls

Labels like these exist for short-hand reference. Isn't it easier to call a design "modernist" than to describe the details the same way every time you see one?

As for planning theories, I had a friend who liked to say, "I don't give a s**t about planning theories." But, oh yes she does, and so do you if you want to understand what's been tried, why it works or doesn't work, and whether you want to do something that way or another way.

If you don't care "why," then let me suggest you stick to "current planning," and away from comprehensive planning.

Mike Stanger


I understand Mike's point about referencing. We learn the terms for use among those in the profession, not to bore our clients to death with.

Communiting in Understandable Terms to Citizens

Last note on this thread-

The side topic of communication of planning concepts is relevant in regards to our dialogue with citizens. It is very important to use terminology and communicate in a way that your "average American" can understand.

I have seen comprehensive plan meetings where residents were confused and angry because they did not understand the proposed changes in land use in their community. They misunderstood the mapping, including land owners who would be affected.

Most average Americans don't know a lot about land use planning and that is where the concern about appropriate terminology is important.

It seemed to me that Jeff was simply questioning the utility of the classical terminology.

Planning Theory

The theory terms you describe are convenient shorthand for the history and social/cultural context of city planning. They are of little interest to laypeople, but then again, neither are the mathematical equations underlying the engineering of a bridge. That does not make them irrelevant. If you think there is no connection between the history and social/cultural context of city planning and what your clients deem "affordable, feasible and will get them reelected" at any given moment, you are mistaken.

Brent Toderian's picture

dont let others convince you differently

As some tell you that you are wrong, know that you are right. I said very similar things to my professors during my Masters degree... The difference between such "planning theories" (ie rationalism vs incrementalism) is interesting only to the social scientists that had taken over planning schools ... Not to planning practicianers. I argued "an example of an important planning theory is that transit is critical for a sustainable city... That is a planning theory, to be tested and debated. No practicianer cares about the difference between incrementalism and rationalism, they care about what works". One professor in particular disagreed and gave me low marks, but I cared not as I was figuring out my own opinions and perspectives ... The real value of planning education. Look for my very first post in my planetizen blog, on this exact subject. And keep thinking independantly.

Brent Toderian
City of Vancouver Director of Planning

Planning Theory is Justified

It is right for us to be able to understand our own actions in influencing public policy. Planning theory helps in our ability to seat our thinking within an intellectual context. That is important when our recommendations fall flat or fail completely. New students to planning should take apprehension in making this claim too early in their career. As you dive deeper into planning theory you will realize its importance in both practice and academia. As a practicing planner I have come to find that a greater knowledge in theory makes me better at making informed commentary.

Bueller? Bueller?


I love that you are commenting on one of my urban favorite movies. I think the organizing is useful since it allows us to categorize blocks streets and buildings and certain processes and have a common understanding. Can you categorize how Ferris would have categorized Chicago in the built environment? Your references to his quotes are fairly abstract. And I'm with Brent, keep up the good thinking. Looking forward to reading more.

Heather Smith
Planning Director

Anyone, anyone?

I don't think Bueller could really offer much insight on this topic. He seemed half baked through most of the movie.

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