US Planning Isolationism

Bruce Stiftel's picture

Recently, the new Journal of the American Planning Association editor Randall Crane circulated a message to US planning academics in which he asked for new submissions:

"A reminder that JAPA is interested in your best work in any aspect of planning scholarship -- quantitative or qualitative, foreign or domestic -- that informs practice.  We would particularly like to broaden subject content over the next few years." 

Temple Uni urban studies prof Ben Kohl replied: "For years I have wished that JAPA would show some interest in the lessons that ‘foreign' planners and planning experience might have to offer. A decade ago I was discouraged from submitting an article because the editor didn't seem to think US planners would be interested in experiences of a ‘foreign' participatory planning program implemented on a national level. In the spirit of hoping for a new opening I would suggest that we might consider the language we use. Labeling what happens in the 95% of the world that is not ‘domestic' as ‘foreign' indicates to some a limited willingness to seriously consider the experiences from an undistinguished mass of the ‘other.' Yet the ‘foreign' encompasses (1) Danish policies to create sustainable cities, (2) sustainable industrial urban planning in China, (3) a Columbian mayor implementing land use and transportation policies in Bogota, (4) the development of a carbon-neutral urban enclave in Masdar, Abu Dhabi, (5) the decolonization of national planning policy in Bolivia, (6 to n) and best practices from a hundred other places."

After this a discussion involving many faculty members followed, about which an overseas colleague (who wishes to remain anonymous) commented:

"I have watched this whole exchange with utter amazement. From statements like ..non-US people tend to ....write descriptive papers etc,  to ....maybe 'they' write more on physical planning and design... to the incredibly narrow ideas of what constitutes good scholarship. I have waited for howls of protest from Europe, at least, but I think only one person pointed out politely that there were entire intellectual areas in planning and urbanism in French and Italian that the English-speaking world didn't even know about. [ ]. Seeing this from the outside I would be tempted to write off US planning academics as arrogant, bigoted and parochial, totally out of touch with what is going on in the rest of the world. That of course would be totally wrong as I also know there are people [ ] who see the world very differently and make a great effort to build the collective capacity of this tiny profession we find ourselves in."

There are indeed troubling signs about the manner and extent to which US planning academics and US planners more broadly engage our colleagues elsewhere in the world.   For instance:

 --The outgoing president of the Association of European Schools of Planning (AESOP), Wilem Salet is completing a study of planning journal reputation among European planning educators.  He has found only one US-edited journal (JPER) among the ten top journals in terms of importance to the sample's work. (; click News; 2010 Planning Journals Survey).

 --A similar study of the views of US planning academics just published in the Journal of Planning Education and Research by Harvey Goldstein and Gunther Maier (v.30, 2010, p66-75), shows similarly geograpahically segregated results: only two non US-edited journals appear among the top ten journals as ranked by US planning scholars.

--A 2007 study I prepared with Chandrima Mukhopadhyay examined the extent of international authorship in 25 planning journals for the period 2001-5.  The five journals with the lowest international participation of authors were all edited in the US (J. Planning Literature, J Planning History, Places, JAPA, JPER).  [B Stiftel, C. Mukhopadyay. Thoughts on Anglo-American hegemony in planning scholarship: do we read each other's work?  Town Planning Review. 78(5, 2007): 545-72.  DOI: 10.3828/tpr.78.5.2.

--The recently formed Global Planners Network is a promising development, but tellingly its five member organizations, including APA, are the professional planning bodies from the four largest English-speaking countries of the world, plus representation from less developed regions and other language groups limited to participation of the (British) Commonwealth Association of Planners.

With widespread political resistance to planned change in our country, with many forward looking planning programs and experiments in widespread settings, with global interconnectedness driving economic and environmental outcomes, and with rapid growth in the quantity and quality of higher education in many countries, the days when US planners could ignore practice and scholarship communities elsewhere in the world and still do our work well are over.   We have to find better ways to learn from and work together with our planning colleagues who speak other languages and who work in other countries.  



Bruce Stiftel, FAICP, is professor of city and regional planning, and chair of the School of City and Regional Planning program at Gerogia Institute of Technology.



Much to think about

Great commentary, Bruce. As someone who engages with foreign (and often non-english) speaking planners regularly, I must say your point about a whole series of intellectual ideas that aren't translated into English hits home for me - I'm often dismayed that I can't really understand the interesting material published in Holland or Brazil. However, there are some new efforts being made to link planning professionals across boundaries, including the recently launched Energy and Climate Partnership of the Americas Urban Planning Capacity Building initiative, which I manage here at APA. We are working on translating materials from English into Portuguese and Spanish, and vice-versa; we are looking to cases throughout Latin America, North America, and the Caribbean to inform the discusssion on planning for the Energy and Climate future; and we are trying to determine the "cultures of planning" across the Americas and the Caribbean in hopes of distilling those best models that can work across the region.

As you mention, what happens elsewhere can teach us many lessons and, ideally, should inform how we plan in the US for the betterment of our communities.

Those who are interested can view the project network at or join the interactive network at

Thanks again for bringing this discussion to the fore.

Bruce Stiftel's picture

John. It's great to learn

John. It's great to learn of the Americas Urban Planning Capacity Initiative at APA. There are more and more projects that team planners internationally. Hopefully it is only a matter of time until our institutional frameworks and awareness start to be predisposed toward international learning.

Bruce Stiftel
Georgia Institute of Technology

US Planning Isolationism

Hi Bruce:

Just wanted to congratulate you on this fine piece of analysis. I would like to add to the discussion by stating that in my planning career I have never seen any interest whatsoever from the APA/AICP in addressing how planning is done in the US Territories such as Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, Samoa, Mariana Islands, etc. Much of the planning that practitioners do in these jurisdictions can teach a thing or two (and even inspire!) to those narrow-minded planners that believe that US-based planning (the type of planning done in the continental US) is the only type of planning that works.

Best regards,

Ruben Flores-Marzan, PP, M.A.s

Paul Cheshire, London School of Economics

I strongly recommend the work of Paul Cheshire from the London School of Economics:

"This paper surveys the sources of market failure in urban land markets, and the evidence of their quantitative significance. It shows that land use planning generates benefits, but at significant cost. Policies of containment and densification limit the supply of land (and also space), not just for housing but for all non-agricultural land use in Britain. Our system of designated land use categories and development control imposes considerable costs. Where a full net welfare evaluation has been possible – for a tightly constrained urban area in South East England – it shows that the increased costs of space for housing substantially exceed the value of planning amenities generated, imposing a net welfare loss equivalent to a tax of 3.9% on incomes.
Eliminating that welfare loss by substantially relaxing the constraint on land supply policy was estimated to increase the urban land take by 70%. Given that the total area of greenbelt land alone is 1.5 times the total urbanised area, even such a strong relaxation of containment policy as this would leave very substantial areas of greenbelt, and even if all additional urban land was taken from existing greenbelt areas.
This evidence is now quite old. But given what has happened to prices forhousing land relative to agricultural land over the intervening period, and the evidence that the valuation of greenbelt amenities has fallen rather than risen, it is almost certain that the net welfare cost today would exceed the earlier value. There is also evidence that the planning system is imposing higher costs on productive uses of land......"

Some wise Dutch academics

These Dutch academics are onto it too:

"Housing supply and land use regulation in the Netherlands"

Wouter Vermeulen *), **)

[email protected]


Jan Rouwendal **)

[email protected]

Version July 2007

*): CPB Netherlands Bureau for Economic Policy Analysis

P.O. Box 80510, 2508 GM, The Hague

**): Free University Amsterdam, Department of Spatial Economics

De Boelelaan 1105, 1081 HV, Amsterdam

From the abstract:

"This paper considers various measures of housing supply in the Netherlands, where real house prices have roughly tripled since 1970. Besides the volume of investment in residential structures, and new housing construction in units, we derive time series of structure and location quality in a hedonic analysis. Each of these variables appears to be almost fully inelastic with respect to house prices in at least the short to medium long run.

Further analysis of the quality of location index shows that conventional models of competitive land and housing markets cannot account for these findings. However, they may be well explained in terms of the rather extensive body of interventions by the Dutch government........"

From the conclusion:

".......Over the past decades, governments have planned construction following estimates of the housing need, which may have relied more on demographic models and stated preferences than on the demand revealed in prices. The protection of open space and the direction of residential development towards certain locations deemed socially desirable has been another consistent policy aim. Furthermore, since the early 1990s, new residential land has been implicitly taxed in order to finance local public goods. It seems plausible that these policies, as well as, doubtlessly, many other aspects of intervention in land and housing
markets, have together been the cause of an aggregate housing supply schedule that is almost fully inelastic.

Housing demand has increased substantially over the past decades as a consequence of rising incomes, falling interest rates and demographic developments. Rising demand leads to rising prices if supply does not respond. This seems an accurate explanation for the long-run trend in real house prices in the Netherlands, which has been remarkably high from an international perspective (OECD, 2004a). Having established that Dutch housing supply is almost fully inelastic as a consequence of land use regulation, we must conclude that government interventions in land and housing markets have contributed significantly to the present high level of house prices in this country......"

Great Topic

This is very good to hear, as the first step to 'recovery' is admitting that there is a problem.

It seems that all too often, planners are faced with reinventing the wheel through expensive studies, strategies and analysis, when thorough research of case studies can provide valuable, time-saving information.

For example, the whole 'new urbanism' movement includes the application of concepts and theories which have been in practice for centuries in Europe and other world locales, making the name seem somewhat ignorant to many.

Not to go on a tangent, but the often-heard resistance to european models of planning on the basis that the US context is different is self-defeating, claiming that American cities should be planned differently. There are widely-agreed upon common principles that encourage social and environmental sustainability - it is time to diverge away from bipartisan planning and establish a widely accepted worldwide framework for building communities.

Brian Labadie
Senior Strategic Planner
Moonee Valley City Council

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