Uncovering JAPA

What is the Role of Theory in Planning?

The role of theory in planning is contentious. For planners, theory often serves as a way for us to situate ourselves in our contexts: planning as politics, planning as architecture, planning as community organizing, planning as real estate, etc. As a student, basic planning theory has helped me make sense of my chosen career path. But once I graduate and enter the workforce, what role will theory play?

Theory's Relevance in Planning Debated

How do planners today view the role of theory in their profession? Is it important? Should I renew my Journal of the American Planning Association (JAPA) subscription after I graduate to stay informed of the latest theoretical developments in the field?

Luckily, a spirited exchange on the role of theory in planning, and the definition of planning itself, occupied a central role in the collated piece "Commentaries" in the Journal of the American Planning Association (Vol. 88, No. 4).

The exchange began when planner and professor Ernest Alexander responded to a "conundrum" posed by JAPA editor Ann Forsyth in Volume 87, Number 2, where she states that "JAPA has long been an important location for publishing work on planning theory, but my conversations as editor indicate that many academics do not see it as such."

Alexander took the opportunity to offer up a slight alteration in the planning theory paradigm — perhaps, he suggests, "there is no planning as a recognizable practice, but planning may exist as diverse practices...making different levels of planning theories for different kinds of planning practices might engender better planning theories." Alexander, at least to my reading, is implying that planning theory is most useful when attributed and categorized to a specific sect of planning practice (theories in planning versus theories of planning if you will).

Debate on Planning Theory's Implications Unfolds

Kian Goh, Joseph Heathcott, Elizabeth Sweet, and Antonio Raciti firmly, yet tactfully, profess their disagreements, on their respective grounds, with Alexander's conjecture in the ensuing commentaries:

  • Goh, for her part, emphasizes the importance of all planning theory for practice, regardless of its connection to a specific kind of practice.
  • Heathcott questions whether planning theory exists at all, or whether planning is simply the practice that synthesizes and spatializes other theories from the social sciences.
  • Sweet and Raciti emphasize the importance of feminist, antiracist, and decolonial theories in helping planners more justly serve their constituents.

Without revealing too many of my leanings regarding this debate, I want to emphasize how important these discussions are for students like me — indeed, they are the very reason I have chosen this field. The field of planning is so diverse as to encompass all these opinions without any of them being regarded as definitionally incorrect.

These scholars who possess such diverse opinions are still held together by the fact that they are planners, that they all engage with various ideas and translate these ideas into practice across various scales and jurisdictions.

Perhaps what constitutes planning, or a planner, is not the "object" of planning itself (contentious as that phrasing maybe), but rather a desire to see one's beliefs, what one has learned, or one's drive for change and justice translated materially into the world.

Reading these commentaries showed me that planning, if anything, is a conduit. The origins and methodologies of these conduits may vary, but in the end, I would like to think we are all striving towards common goals: fostering healthy, just, and efficient communities throughout the world, and providing our constituents with the spaces to live dignified and fulfilling lives. It looks like I'll be renewing my JAPA subscription when I graduate after all!

Top image: iStock/Getty Images Plus - Urupong

ABout the AUTHOR
Michael Zajakowski Uhll is a master's in urban planning candidate at Harvard University's Graduate School of Design.

April 20, 2023

By Michael Uhll