Planning Theory

In this chapter we discuss planning theory from two perspectives: (1) theories of planning as a process, both how it ought to be done and how it is done, and (2) some ideological issues. But first, a legitimate question to ask is this: Is planning theory necessary? Cannot the planner simply apply his or her intelligence to a particular situation and proceed without theory?


The question of whether theory is not simply a waste of time is the question with which the "practical" person derides the philosopher. But theory cannot be avoided. We all possess theories that form the basis upon which we act. Everyone has ideas about how things are and how the world works. One difference between the practical person and the theorist is that the former takes these ideas for granted, whereas the latter thinks about them consciously and makes them explicit. But when one acts, one inevitably acts on the basis of some theory about how things work. On what other basis can one act?

In 1936 John Maynard Keynes, whom some regard as the greatest economist of the twentieth century, wrote,

Ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed, the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from intellectual influences, are usually the slave of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.1

Keynes's reference to "madmen in authority" has particular reference to Europe of the 1930s—especially to Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini. But the point that even the most powerful are themselves ruled by the ideas they hold is as valid today as it was then.

We noted in Chapter 6 several alternative roles the planner might play. How is a person to decide whether he or she favors an advocacy position, or a neutral civil servant position, without some theories of how society works, how decisions are made, and what constitutes right and wrong? At a more concrete level, assume the city is beset with housing problems. The planner is asked to comment on whether a rent control ordinance would be a good idea. How can he or she even begin to think about the issues without some theory of how housing markets work? To the extent that controls would deliver benefits to some individuals and losses to others, how can we decide whether these effects would be good or bad unless we have some theory of what constitutes social justice? If theory is inescapable, perhaps it is best to make it explicit.

It is common to make a distinction between theory and practice, and it is easy to exaggerate this difference. To a large extent, theory is developed and tested on the basis of the experience acquired in practice. As stated, every practitioner is, to some extent, a theoretician. Conversely, the experience of practice is likely to make the theoretician better at his or her chosen work. The theoretician who has had no contact with practice has not subjected his or her theorizing to the test and has little basis to assert its validity. Without the experience of practice, it is hard to separate good theory from bad theory and useful theory from useless theory.

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