Reflex or Reflexivity: Which One Is Good for Planners?

Sometimes two words with the same root have opposite meanings. That's the case with reflex and reflexivity. For planning practice, one is bad and one is good. (Full disclosure: I used the dictionary to understand the good one).

Reflex: A Sudden, Automatic Reaction

A physical reflex catches you from falling. It's an instant response independent of your will.

A planning reflex is a similarly quick, automatic reaction to a situation. A planner's reflexes might relate to a habit of dealing with elected officials, constituents, or colleagues; preferred technical or design approaches; or ways of resolving ethical questions. They are upheld by views about "how things are" or "common sense."

The problem with planning reflexes is that they are hasty and unreflective: choices not thought through.

Reflex-driven practice hides the habits or biases that would not pass rational examination.

I've learned, through trial and error — mostly error — to be wary of my reflexes, to slow down, and to avoid jumping to a conclusion.

An example of a reflex is withdrawing empathy when an angry constituent confronts you at the zoning counter. While some constituents have unreasonable expectations, others' anger may be justified by unfairness or wrongdoing. A withdrawal reflex can lead a planner to disregard a person with a legitimate complaint.

Another reflex is to assume that all developers are untrustworthy, or that civil engineers can't think creatively.

All these reflexes impede learning and planning effectiveness.

Reflexivity: Focused, In-depth Reflection

Reflexivity is reflecting on one's perspectives, values, and assumptions ... and critically understanding the conditions that "frame" the planning situation. It's a fancy, academic word, but it has value for planning practice.

Reflexivity is thinking while acting, practicing self-awareness, and asking "why" questions in the middle of things.

Why is the resident angry? Why am I reactive to their anger on this particular day? Is my demeanor helping or making things worse? How does the resident perceive the power I have as a public official? Am I using this power appropriately?

Reflexivity also leads to broader questions about the context of the planning episode. Are there factors shaping this situation that are beyond my control? Do city procedures create a confusing maze that makes things worse? Do developers have an inside track at City Hall? What about this can I change and what must work with?

At the personal level, if the city council rejects a planner's analysis, reflexivity means considering what part of the rejection relates to the analysis and what part is due to larger processes of competition or coalition-building among elected officials.

Did I miss the mark with my analysis or am I being scapegoated? Should I accept stakeholder input as a representative, or resist domination by a group with an inside track?

Reflexivity improves with practice. We cannot stop in the middle of questioning at the city council to have a cup of tea and reflect. The key is to build habits of reflecting on the fly, in the moment.

A reflexive approach to practice is a bit like surfing — there's a lot of information in every instant but staying on the wave means thinking in action.


Bolton, D. and R. Delderfield. 2018. Reflective Practice: Writing and Professional Development. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage Publications, Inc.

This blog series is amplified in Richard Willson's book, A Guide for the Idealist: How to Launch and Navigate Your Planning Career. The book includes perspectives, tools, advice, and personal anecdotes. It is available now at Routledge, Amazon, and most retailers.

Top image: Getty Images illustration.

About the Author
Richard Willson, FAICP, is a professor in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at Cal Poly Pomona. He has also served as department chair, interim dean, and independent planning consultant. Willson's research addresses planning practice and parking policy.

January 10, 2020

By Richard Willson, FAICP