Reflective Planning: Navigating Idealism and Realism

Idealist planners can prosper in these difficult times by developing practices of reflection. Over the last four years, this blog series has explored ways that planners can navigate the space between idealism and realism, in career decisions and planning practice.

The feedback I've received spurred me to write a new book about how planners use reflection in their practice. The book is entitled Reflective Planning Practice: Theory, Cases, and Methods, and it is intended for beginning and seasoned planners alike.

Reflective Practice Enhances Planners' Effectiveness

The idea of reflective practice is not new, but our unstable and challenging times emphasize its relevance. Donald Schön and others developed reflective practice in the 1970s and 1980s, realizing that professional work involves much more than technical problem-solving. While many planners know about the concept of reflective practice, Raphaël Fischler reminds us that incorporating it in daily practice is less common.

In my practice career, I have found effectiveness by developing reflective habits and was supported in this effort by creative supervisors and clients. Yet planners' reflection, when it occurs, is usually private.

My purpose is to encourage planners to reflect on practice and to share their insights. In response, I developed a reflection framework that provides a common language for thinking about practice. Then, I and four other planners used the framework to write case studies with a first-person point of view. Lastly, I developed ideas about how to incorporate reflection in everyday practice, in hindsight (reflection-on-action), and amid the planning episode (reflection-in-action).

The planning challenges we face — from racial justice to climate change to pandemic responses — require a reflective approach. Knowing what is wrong is not the same as developing effective strategies for change. The change orientation of planning takes us from the high ground of research findings and certainty about values, positions, and recommended policies.

According to Donald Schön, it places us in the "swampy lowland where situations are confusing "messes" incapable of technical solution" and further, where we must address the social context of our practice and our changing selves as practitioners.

I am struck by how often planning debates occur without the benefit of planners disclosing their understanding of the context for the planning episode, as revealed in politics, professional relationships, and organizational culture, and further, how seldom they share their personal commitments, understandings, and values.

Moreover, there is abundant variation in how planners work: using logic and/or emotion, and applying convention and/or invention. We can argue better, get closer to the heart of the matter, and reach effective action if we are clear about our starting points, premises, and methods.

Reflection Supports Planners in Navigating Dilemmas Effectively

Reflection particularly helps planners navigate the space of idealism and realism.

When should I stand up for a core planning value? When should I resist management or political direction? When should I compromise to foster incremental improvement? How do I process disappointment when things don't go as I had hoped?

Engaging in ongoing reflection about questions such as these produces a storehouse of understandings to draw upon. And, when reflection is incorporated during practice, it supports strategic choices among the many directions and possibilities present.

Case studies can communicate planners' reflections. Yet researchers' case studies often feel like observations from "on high." Practitioners' case studies tend to portray "best practice" in only the most successful episodes. We, planners, need to share how we think, feel, choose, and act from the inside out.

The book initiates the development of first-person reflective case studies addressing a wide range of planning activities, including a climate action plan at Cal Poly Pomona; resilience planning in Mamallapuram, India; an inclusionary housing ordinance in Portland, Oregon; the Miami-21 Form-Based Code; parking management deliberations in Dana Point, California; a program to bring fresh produce to corner stores in Detroit; and a transit-oriented development entitlement decision in Hawthorne, California.

Consider developing your reflective practices, whether that be taking a pause once a week to consider your purposes and strategies. If you are so inclined, share and compare those reflections in formal or informal groups. Moreover, consider writing your case of a planning success or failure for yourself or to share.

Reflection has a cathartic effect, builds insight, and develops a reflection "muscle" that helps you make good choices in the heat of the moment.

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: Detail from a painting by Richard Willson that appears on the cover of his book Reflective Planning.

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.

November 13, 2020

By Richard Willson, FAICP