Making Sense of Information: Using Sources in Planning School

Ann Forsyth's picture

With the semester starting, students are beginning to focus on assignments and other project work. Today there is a great deal of information available for planners, but that can lead students to be overwhelmed (and use only a few available sources) or uncertain about how to use those sources that are available. Fortunately universities are coming up with resources to help students untangle these issues. My own institution just launched the very helpful The following tips are adapted from my guide for students doing final projects and theses (link at the end of this entry).

As I say in that document, it is very important for students to use sources of information well in a ways that is true to the content of the sources and also demonstrate respect for the need of the reader to make her own independent judgments about the strength of the evidence provided by sources.

  • A work that only contains sources available on the internet is likely to give the reader the impression that a writer was not very energetic in his or her investigations. Planning work often involves looking at physical sites, talking with people, examining historical evidence, using databases, and even understanding technical issues that are documented in reports that don't make their way onto the public internet. Students typically have free access to a large number of such technical documents such as journal articles, historical sources such as historical maps, and expensive databases such as business listings-they should use them.
  • Writers need sources for everything that is not common knowledge to readers or that is obviously the writer's own opinion. It is not enough to say you found something in multiple places. You need to specifically cite those places.
  • Sources are needed for both the conceptual framework of the piece (e.g. levels of public space in squatter settlements, types of planning responses to disasters) and for the facts and figures you use to support your argument. Sources are also typically needed for the methods you use to show that you are building on earlier work, even if modifying it in some way.
  • Use sources critically in a way that respects the reader's needs to be able to judge evidence for herself or himself. Weave material about the source into the text: "According to the XYZ housing advocacy organization...", "based on 150 interviews with clients of CDCs ", "reflecting 10 years of experience working with Russian immigrants". Saying "Harvard professor X claims that ." is not a strong source of evidence. Harvard professors have personal opinions. Readers typically deserve to be told about the evidence.
  • Not all sources are equal. Better sources are published by reputable presses (e.g. University Presses), are refereed (blind reviewed articles), or are by reputable organizations. They cite sources and are clear about methods so readers can check their facts (see Booth et al. 2008, The Craft of Research, 77-79, for a terrific explanation of this point). Better sources use better methods overall. Of course a writer's own analysis can be a source and they should say that is the case and show, even if briefly, how they did the analysis and why their methods are strong.
  • Wikipedia, and other similar web sites are typically not appropriate final sources. It is possible to start at Wikipedia but scroll straight to the bottom and look at its sources--they are often very useful. For many questions it is better still to use a professional or scholarly dictionary such as dictionaries of geography or of planning terms. The 2001 International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences (N. Smelser and P. Bates eds.) has substantial sections on planning and urban studies and many university libraries provide free access.
  • One source is frequently not enough, particularly for controversial or complicated issues. Better writers use multiple sources to allow the reader to see the balance of evidence.

For more on this and related topics go to and scroll to the "Essential Information" document at the bottom. The other very important section is the one on making an argument-just because X and Y both exist in the world does not mean X causes Y as much as a writer might like it to ..

Thanks to Ruth Kroeger for comments on this entry.

Ann Forsyth is professor of Urban Planning at Harvard University.


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