What is Theory and Why Does It Matter to Planners?
by: Yudo Anggoro, University of North Carolina at Charlotte
Public planning has broad scope; it deals with all the problems in public area, all the problems that can be considered as “wicked” problems. Therefore, planners are also vulnerable to be affected by external forces beyond their control. Because of the broad scope of their works, planners should also deal with political power. We can see many examples of this battle between planners and political power; such as in zoning policy in urban area, transportation, or in the university.
The nature of conflict faced by planners is understandable since planning action affects the lives of large number of people, and since different individuals and groups may hold different views about how the problems should be planned, based on different values and interests; it is therefore also a political activity. This political constraint brings planners into an ambivalent role; whether they support the political side or deny it. This ambivalent role of planners is clearly explained by Friedmann (1987) in describing principles of rationality. He explains that planners tend to pursue social rationality, which is the collective action of people to pursue their collective interests. This social rationality represents the public needs; such as public transportation, public space, or infrastructure. This social rationality is often challenged by the market rationality; that is the pursuit of individuals or corporations for their self-interest. This market rationality often represents the political power that challenges the planners’ decision.
However, given the important role of planning processes for public purpose, it is still important for us to study planning process as a mean to bring benefit for the public. Studying theory gives us foundation and justification of what we are doing. In studying planning process, problems sometimes occurred in developing ethical normative theories. It is when planning theories were actually based on tradition, on what people believe as “the rightness”. This, later, will bring another conflicting situation for planners to develop their theories. This is exactly the same ambivalent role faced by planners in dealing with political power.
The ambivalent role of planners will lead to the theory-practice gap of planning. One of the reasons is due to the fact that planning theories are often using highly technical language of system theory, and using mathematical modeling which is difficult to implement. These models are perhaps relevant to those who have PhD in planning, but they are irrelevant for local planners who implement those theories into daily practices. These theories are not practical. However, understanding theory thoroughly is still important for planners to have solid foundation and justification of what they are doing in daily practices. At the other side, it is also necessary for planning theorists to develop theories that can be implemented into practices without losing their essence.
We need to understand more on how planners and planning process distinguish the market and social rationality. Most often the market rationality motive wins in pursuing the need of individuals, corporations, or political groups. How should we deal with this conflict as planners, or as planning scholars? Until what extent should planners be compromise in accommodating political power? These are the questions that need to be discussed further.
Brooks, M. (2002). Planning Theory for Practitioners. Planners Press: Chicago, IL.
Friedmann, J. (1987). Planning in the Public Domain, Chapter 1 “The Terrain of Planning Theory” pp. 19-48