Skills in Planning: Writing Literature Reviews

Ann Forsyth's picture

Terrorized by the literature is the title of a chapter of Howard Becker's excellent book, Writing for Social Scientists (1986, Chicago). Whether through terror or misunderstanding, the literature review is one of the areas that students in planning find most confusing. While I have dealt with the literature review briefly in my blog on writing proposals, the tips below provide more detailed advice on how to compose a literature review and how to find important literature in the age of information overload. 

What a Literature Review Is

A literature review is a review of works on a subject. It is an important step in research and in many projects. It tells a story summarizing the themes and findings of works in an area, critically assessing their quality, drawing out their implications for one's own research or project questions, and identifying gaps or areas for future work. A literature review is typically one section of a research proposal. In a final report or paper, however, it may be in a single chapter or part but it also may be sprinkled throughout where it is relevant.  A literature review is not:

  • A bibliography or list of works of interest.
  • An annotated bibliography or list of works with brief summaries or notes about relevance.
  • A string of paragraphs summarizing works loosely on the topic and chosen to meet some numerical target (e.g. having to review 12 articles on the area of smart growth).

 What a Literature Review Does

A literature review identifies and analyzes what others have done so as not to reinvent the wheel. To do this you:

  • Locate what others have done (and somewhere you need to say how you located them).
  • Figure out what is significant about that in terms or both the substance of the work and the methods they used.
  • Categorize or find patterns in the literature.
  • Show where your study or project fits: perhaps filling in a gap in the literature, replicating a study in a new context, or using this earlier work to develop lessons for practice.

As I indicated in my earlier blog, in the case of a proposal, "it is a major step in your research or project and part of an iterative process where you develop a topic, review the literature to see how it is treated, refine your topic, and review again. In the end you will have a clear sense of where your study fits and what its contribution or importance is." A literature review tells a story.

  • It makes an argument but also examines alternative views or approaches. Don't just review work that supports your position. If you acknowledge uncertainty, or deal with positions that seem inaccurate in a way that seriously engages with them, your review will be stronger.
  • It outlines the range of work on an area and points to gaps. Because of this characteristic, it can typically be diagrammed.
  • It is focused, using the question(s) you are trying to answer as a filter. This typically leads to one of several "shapes" for the review. It can be:
    • An inverted triangle, starting broad and narrowing down to the key area of focus. For example, a project on cycling may start looking at cycling behavior, then recreational cycling, then off-road recreational facilities as the main focus.
    • Parallel bars, where two or three or four areas are examined, each for their implications.
  • These days it is rarely comprehensive but rather has the more difficult task of focusing on important work.

 A literature review is clear and careful about the sources of authority of the works it uses. There is a hierarchy of evidence roughly along the following lines (and this list can be found in similar forms in numerous books about reading and writing research):

  • Rigorous studies that have been reviewed by experts (top).
  • Serious reports by government bodies or independent organizations.
  • Opinion pieces by experts in the field.
  •  Opinion pieces by non-experts and advocates.

Where someone is employed is far less important than the methods and data they used in the study. These sources of authority can be woven into the review:

  •  "A survey of 312 elementary school children in Athens, Georgia, found ."
  • "A report by the Environmental Protection Agency summarizing a workshop that collected the experiences of its field agents in implementing water quality legislation "
  • "Reflecting on her 20 years as planning director in the city of Springfield, Illinois, "
  • "A position paper by Good Growth America, an organization of home builders ."

This evidence also needs to be cited with author, date, and page and the full reference in a reference list (or in a footnote if you are in the humanities). For techniques on how to cite sources there are may guide books but I recommend Turabian's A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations (2007, Chicago-use the parenthetical reference/reference list version of citation). Web sites are "literature" but need to be cited just as carefully. 

The methods may be as important as the substance. The methods used provide key information as you judge how relevant and believable the sources are. You may also want to replicate or modify a method in your own work so understanding how others used them is key. 

Finding Literature

There is so much "literature" in the contemporary information age that finding it might seem to present few problems.

  • Literature review articles are a wonderful place to start looking for literature and can also provide models for your own work. In planning, journals such as the Journal of Planning Literature and Progress in Human Geography specialize in literature reviews. Some related fields, such as public health, use a very specialized form of literature review called the systematic review that carefully compares multiple studies for their findings. These can all provide useful models and starting points for your own work. Often a review article can be a main source for examining the broad sweep of a field or can help you identify key works.
  • Google Scholar is a terrific source but there are many specialized indexes that can better help you find work as they contain key words and annotations added by librarians to help in searching. They are often pricey but universities subscribe. In planning, the Avery Index of Architectural Periodicals is a key place for design sources; in transportation the TRIS is a great place to start.
  • Wikipedia is not an adequate work to cite in a reference list. It is a fine starting point for searching but it is not the place to end. To use Wikipedia in a sophisticated way, scroll to the end and look at the sources cited. These are your real starting point with Wickipedia.
  • While many useful sources are on the internet, some are not. In order to find relevant literature, you will typically need to engage in some physical activity beyond key strokes!

For more information on the literature review, the Craft of Research by Booth et al. (2003, Chicago) is an excellent source. My web site contains a listing of my blogs classified by topic (look under advice). Those on undertaking the exist project and finding online sources have some additional helpful tips about literature reviews. Minor formatting edits made in January 2009.

Ann Forsyth is professor of Urban Planning at Harvard University.


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