Why Theory Matters In Planning

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“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?

4 comments

  1. Wow, love the broad scope and inclusive direction of this work.
    I’m personally developing a process of getting organised (self management) that incorporates context and furthering our ability to feel more deeply into our real contexts.
    Giving a way to respond that is heart/purpose centred, rather than built around a vision that goes too far off into the future.
    I really appreciate your work, Matt!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hello Matt. I read your blog on planning theory and I appreciate your efforts to connect planning practice with conceptual frameworks. As a practitioner, I am mystified how cities unfold in practice versus what we hope and dream. Such a massive gulf! As someone who teaches and provides urban safety strategies, I discovered long ago that gulf is deep and ugly. If only someone constructed a theory-to-practice roadmap. You, perhaps? Jane Jacobs was neither planner nor academic and she had significant disdain for theory, so our theoretical link with JJ is our own invention – a link I make gleefully and repeatedly. Feminism has not, in my experience, impacted CPTED. There was some work in Toronto, long vanished. So we are left with a fuzzy, epistemologically-starved, mish-mash of ideological memes with half-baked roadmaps to nowhere. We need a better way to link theory to practice. Goodness knows, the retroactively-addicted, environmental criminologists haven’t a clue as their so-called crime-and-place theories sadly reveal. So, I pose this to you: To where, fine sage, do we turn?

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    1. Hi Gregory – thanks for all your work, and extra points for fitting so many big questions into one post! The theory-to-practice roadmap of which you speak sounds like a life of worthy work!
      A proper resposne to this would demand a lot of thought – so I might leave a few thought-bubbles to be expanded on. Planning theory seems to involved in a kind of percolation around explaining the past/present and setting a course for the future – it forms in messy cycles and I can see this iterative, constant process of critique, theoretical construction and reconstitution. If we envisage theory as a fluid body of discourses, and the fact that some theories may deal in absolutes as opposed to the way the world works, is there ever-destined to be a gap between theory and practice?
      Part two – I wonder if too many practitioners are far too focused on the specific issue they are working on, to move to the empirical distance that strong observation, critique and the use and construction of theory demands?
      Part three – in a neo-liberal world where ideas and discourse are stripped back in favour of the singular end of market interest, what hope is there for anything beyond the, to use your fantastic turn of phrase, “fuzzy, epistemologically-starved, mish-mash of ideological memes with half-baked roadmaps to nowhere”?
      I hope this will be the start of a much longer, even richer conversation! And thanks again for such a thoughtful post.

      Like

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