Professional Planning Literature: Between Orthodoxy and Contrarianism in Challenging Times

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Years ago, when I was researching my thesis concerning city planning thought in the 1940s and 50s, I came across an article from an American planning journal, which stated that "everyone is in favor of fast and efficient freeways" – the epitome of prevailing orthodoxy in an era of Interstate Highway construction. Now, when I share this quote with students, it only elicits derisive laughter. Clearly, planning ideologies, like any other, change over time along with social conditions and values, with the result that one generation's orthodoxies -- and their expression in contemporary professional journals such as the Journal of the American Planning Association (JAPA) and Plan Canada -- may become subject to condemnation in the next.

These tensions are readily apparent in the response to an article published in the Spring 2012 issue of JAPA, entitled "Growing Cities Sustainably: Does Urban Form Really Matter?[i]"  In it, the authors applied a predictive urban development model to three metro regions in the UK and determined that Smart Growth policies favouring compact urban form would not be as significant in terms of reducing energy consumption when compared to improvements in technological efficiencies or changes in modal choice. At the same time, claimed the authors, such policies could also result in negative externalities, including higher housing prices.

For several weeks following the article's release, the PLANET listserv sizzled with planning academics arguing over not just the article's methods and findings, but the very appropriateness of its publication in a major magazine such as JAPA. Contributors to the debate lamented that the article made planning seem "incoherent", with one policymaker pointing out that, if planners couldn't agree on something this basic – if urban form matters – what then should politicians think of their advice?

One of the concerns offered was that the article would give ready ammunition to Smart Growth opponents, which it did: on July 16th, well-known libertarian Wendell Cox argued that the JAPA article was a case of planning insiders questioning "messianic" Smart Growth planning. But, countered critics, there are serious limitations in drawing conclusions for North American planning from the JAPA article, when the analysis was undertaken in British city-regions, which are already much more dense anyways, resulting in understandably less significant change.  

Of particular salience to readers (and publishers) of current planning literature, there were also ethical concerns expressed over professional journals running such articles at all, or at least without qualification or the soliciting of a published counterpoint, as was the case in the famous 1997 debate in JAPA between Peter Gordon and Harry Richardson ("Are Compact Cities a Desirable Planning Goal?"[ii]) and Reid Ewing ("Is Los Angeles-Style Sprawl Desirable?"[iii])  One dissenter suggested that, by calling into question what had until now been general consensus on the desirability of Smart Growth, JAPA was "undermin[ing] the planning academy, the value of research, and the health of a profession now struggling to maintain legitimacy," noting further that, "there is a big difference between healthy debate/new thinking and attention-grabbing contrarianism." This is indeed a delicate balance, and one which a publication like Plan Canada -- for which I serve as Editorial Board Chair -- must continually strive to maintain.

What I thought fascinating to observe in this debate (which is still ongoing as of this writing, with Reid Ewing's counterpoint in the October issue of JAPA) was how the conversation quickly shifted from a debate over the merits of the JAPA article itself to broader discussions which ranged from the role of empirical research in policymaking ("science takes a long time, and our real world will not wait" as one correspondent observed) to the problematic relationship between planning and science, resurrecting Rittel and Webber's (1973) classic characterization of planning problems as "wicked"[iv]. Wicked problems, they wrote, have no end point, are always symptoms of other problems, and are so affected by every intervention that they can have no ultimate solution.

In other words, every potential planning solution carries with it the potential for unexpected or unintended consequences, which make certainty impossible.

Of course, knowing that planning interventions may lead to unintended consequences is no impeachment of planning itself; it simply means we need to expect the unexpected. As well, the very urgency of many of the issues with which we are faced compels us to act on the information we have at hand, and with the analysis that seems to make the most sense. We cannot have absolute certainty about urban outcomes arising from our planning, especially since cities are not merely artifacts but the result of the collective behaviours of many thousands or millions of -- ultimately unpredictable -- people. The best we can hope for, it would appear, is "muddling through"[v].

So to, must our literature. Magazines such as Plan Canada and the Journal of the American Planning Association -- and of course, websites like Planetizen -- remain the profession's fora in which our ideas are tested, discussed, compared and recorded for posterity. No single article should be seen as a threat to established practice; but that one can stimulate debate about our practice should only be seen as a good thing.

At its best, professional literature should provoke and inspire debate, rather than sooth, affirm and congratulate; this is how a profession matures.


[A modified version of this piece ran in the Fall issue of Plan Canada magazine].

[i] Echenique, M.H., Hargreaves, A.J. Mitchell, G. & Namdeo, A. "Growing Cities Sustainably: Does Urban Form Really Matter?"Journal of the American Planning Association, 2012 78:2: 121-137

[ii] Gordon, P. Richardson, H.W.."Are Compact Cities a Desirable Planning Goal?" Journal of the American Planning Association 1997 63 (1): 95-105.

[iii] Ewing. R. Is Los Angeles-style sprawl desirable? Journal of the American Planning Association  1997 63 (1): 107-126.

[iv] Rittel, H., Webber, M. "Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning," Policy Sciences, Vol. 4, Elsevier Scientific Publishing Company, Inc., Amsterdam, 1973, pp. 155–169.

[v] Lindblom, C. "The Science Of 'Muddling Through'". Public Administration Review, 1959 19, pp. 79–88.

Michael Dudley is the Indigenous and Urban Services Librarian at the University of Winnipeg.

Comments

Comments

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence

I would not say that unorthodox viewpoints should never be published, but that:

a) Findings that depart significantly from existing literature should adequately explain the discrepancy. The authors of this JAPA article even suggest in one place they were aligned with Ewing and Cervero 2010, but their failure to consider factors other than density (use mix, street network, etc.) reveal a mischaracterization of this previous research.

b) Potentially controversial claims should come with a transparent methodology, perhaps with a link to the model used.

c) Findings that appear contrary to common sense should be subject to extra scrutiny. Ask a 10-year old (who isn’t being contrarian) whether people who live close together travel more or less than people who live far apart from each other. Common sense might be wrong, but it should be privileged.

d) Questionable assumptions should be backed up with evidence. Most tenuously, the JAPA article simply assumes “market-led development” is synonymous with dispersal without responding to many urban economists (Glaeser, Gyourko, etc.) who discern natural agglomeration effects in the market and note current land use regulations that have the effect of increasing dispersal.

e) The paper should make claims based on the results of the research. An extended litany of supposed negative effects of compact cities, completely unrelated to the actual research of the paper, are simply embedded as little nuggets throughout: fewer housing choices, greater exposure to water pollution, more traffic congestion, thwarted lifestyle preferences, diminished gardening options, difficulties installing ground-source heat pumps, “crowding,” greater flood risk, greater per-unit utility costs, increased automobile travel (seriously), increased social segregation, and so forth. I don’t believe the model was intended to answer any of these questions, so all of the sideline editorializing comes across as more of a blog post than a research paper. Of course, Wendell Cox eats this stuff up and now he has an "academic source" behind these various claims.

f) A model should really only be used to measure things that are not readily observable, and certainly any simulations should at least be reconciled with empirical results.

g) Journal articles should be applicable to the journal’s primary readership geography. Otherwise, any questions about translatability should be discussed. The JAPA article’s conclusions were stated in universal terms, rather than conclusions specific to current UK planning policy.

h) Professional publications should be extra cautious with pieces that call the very existence of the profession into question. Practitioners read them too. The importance of urban form and the ability of policy to impact form have been pretty central to the planning profession from the beginning. Although the JAPA article contains a tacked-on final paragraph about the interplay between urban form and “green technologies,” it seems to call into question the effectiveness of any intervention relating to land use. I’m not sure that a law journal would publish a piece by an anarchist questioning whether rule of law really leads to human flourishing, unless maybe it was absolutely irrefutable. Then they could pack their bags and go home.

The cure for complete thought-systems

A thoughtful, erudite and convincing meta-piece on planning. In consonance with it, I wish to add a few thoughts.
There have been many, sometimes pernicious, orthodoxies in human history some of which succeeded in gaining full editorial control of what was written, published, played and, in some instances, even said. Their prevalence and strength lies in that orthodoxies are complete thought-systems that either explain or explain away observable facts; their logic is unassailable and they provide full confidence for action.
Discomfortingly, the literature of science is littered with discarded ‘systems’ and their ‘explanations’. Disturbingly, every new orthodoxy generates a naïve presumption that it, finally, is irrefutable and, consequently, the conviction that it would be risky, verging on the irresponsible (even subversive), to dispute it.

This repeating cycle of strong adherence and subsequent dismissal of ideologies that the author lays bare, points to our gullibility. What’s disquieting is our innate disdain in seeing it; fish suffocate in fresh air.

His conclusion suggests a cure to our propensity for allegiance: “At its best, professional literature should provoke and inspire debate, rather than sooth, affirm and congratulate; this is how a profession matures” and, if I may permitted to add, how ideas evolve.

Fanis Grammenos
Urban Pattern Associates

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