“What’s the difference between theory and practice?” a lecturer asks his saucer-eyed students. “Well, in theory,” he begins, “they’re the same!”
How droll. As a student in the class I (sort of) appreciated the humour. It can be hard to explore planning theory with students who just want to get out and do. As I’m about to start a semester tutoring Planning Theory and History, I’m drawn to my own reflections on parts of the discipline that I’m most passionate about.
Part of the challenge in dealing with planning theory is that it draws much from elsewhere. There are many political, social and economic theories that have been spatially applied – and the spatial use of these theories has in turn developed them further. This applies to perspectives as diverse as feminism, Marxism, environmentalism, neoliberalism, modernism, materialism and many more.
Edward Soja in Seeking Spatial Justice, describes theory as a bridge between ontology and practice – a bridge between the way things are and what we ought do. This hints at why planning theory matters, but we can take this further.
Simply put, theory is vital for two reasons:
- It presents frames that help us see and understand the world, how we got here, and what to do next.
- It also helps us as planners and citizens define who we are and what we stand for.
Early in my planning study, I encountered discourses on place by the likes of David Seamon, Edward Relph, Tony Hiss’ book the Experience of Place, and a landmark John Friedmann paper linking place-making and planning. Then, Henri Lefebvre’s theories of abstract space, as detailed in his landmark “The Production of Space”, and John Mant’s work on place-based governance – not to mention perhaps the grandest of planning thinkers, Jane Jacobs (who was more journalist than planner).
These were life-changing encounters that have set the direction for my work ever since: Once you meet a compelling planning theory, you will never look at or approach the world around you in the same way again.
Everywhere around us, we see planning theories applied in ways that shape our cities and worlds. To demonstrate the point, here are a few fascinating and recent examples:
- Feminist planning discourses have influenced the Free to Be project, which has used frontline web technology and participatory practice to study women’s experiences in our cities. This work has already made waves in how we envisage safety in urban design and cities. Feminist discourses have also influenced contemporary Crime Prevention Through Urban Design (CPTED) approaches that are reshaping problematic spaces.
- Indigenous planning discourses in Australia, New Zealand and beyond offer vital new ways of seeing and designing our cities, prompting questions of justice, governance, ecology and stewardship. In Australia, these discourses draw on the world’s oldest living culture, with enormous potential to spark positive change.
- Ecological urbanism and biophilic approaches are making planners think about the importance of nature in cities. The City of Melbourne, for example, has drawn from these approaches to develop its Nature in the City strategy.
This list, while far from comprehensive, shows the power of prominent and emerging planning theories in lighting the way for practitioners.
So, now, it’s over to you: What planning theories and approaches have shaped you and your work?