Sometimes a distinction is made between "substantive" theory and "procedural" theory. Substantive theory in this usage is theory in planning; for example, the gravity model mentioned in connection with transportation planning. Procedural theory is theory about the act of planning. The various theories of planning to be discussed fall under the heading of procedural theory. Note, however, that the two types of theory are related. We have to have substantive ideas (ideas about how the world works) to form procedural theories.

Here, we address four approaches to the process of planning:

  • 1. The rational model
  • 2. Disjointed incrementalism
  • 3. Middle-range models
  • 4. Collaborative rationality.

The Rational Model

The rational model has been prevalent for several decades and might be considered to be the orthodox view.3 It is the philosophy reflected in the comprehensive plan. Although its proponents will readily admit that in the real world it cannot be carried out precisely as described, many would argue that it still constitutes a kind of holy grail to be approached as closely as possible. The idea behind the model, as its name suggests, is to make the planning process as rational and systematic as possible. A listing of steps in the model follows. Not every writer might list exactly this sequence, but the general idea would be the same.

  • 1. Define the problem. Obviously if more than one party is involved, then it is necessary to reach an agreement.
  • 2. Clarify values. Suppose the problem is stated as an inadequate housing stock. Before we can formulate policy, we have to agree on how highly we value certain conditions. How important is the physical condition of housing? Is physical condition more or less important than the cost of housing? How important is it that housing be racially integrated? How important is good traffic circulation in residential areas? How important is growth in the number of housing units? Often we will find that an action that takes us toward one goal takes us away from another. Tearing down substandard units will certainly improve housing quality. But by reducing the number of units on the market, demolition will push up rents. Should we do it? We cannot answer that question unless we have our values sorted out.
  • 3. Select goals. Having gone through steps 1 and 2, we are now presumably in a position to choose one or more goals relative to the problem.
  • 4. Formulate alternative plans or programs.
  • 5. Forecast the consequences of the alternatives developed in the previous step.
  • 6. Evaluate and select one or more courses of action (alternatives).
  • 7. Develop detailed plans for implementing the alternatives selected.
  • 8. Review and evaluate. Once implementation has begun, it is necessary periodically to review the process and results to date with a view to decide whether the original plan should still be followed or whether—as is usually the case—changes and adjustments are necessary.

Although the steps are presented in sequence, there is a great deal of going back and forth. For example, if step 4 suggests that a certain goal selected in step 3 cannot be reached or can be reached only at an exorbitant price, the planners may go back to step 3 to select an alternative goal. Obviously, defining the problem and clarifying values are closely intertwined. Very often, we do not know how much we value something until we learn its price and then have to decide whether to pay it. In that case, the insights that come out of the latter steps will often carry us back to the first three steps.

Criticisms of the Rational Model. Although the rational model seems eminently sensible, it has been subject to a great deal of criticism. Some critics assert that the steps described are simply not how things are actually planned. If the model does not describe reality at least very roughly, what good is it?

Consider the first four steps. Few real problems can be approached as if there were a clean slate in front of the planner. Legal, political, and other constraints eliminate some possibilities and necessitate others. In fact, it has been argued that the mandatory requirements and limitations that legislative bodies impose upon boards, commissions, local governments, and so on are intended precisely to constrain those organizations. They are there to prevent them from going back to square one and rethinking and hence resolving the problem from the beginning.

Critics also argue that value clarification sounds logical but often cannot be done. If agreement is necessary for action and the various parties have different values, making value clarification a requisite for the next step would make further progress impossible. During World War II the United States, Great Britain, and the U.S.S.R. agreed on the necessity of cooperating to defeat Germany. But their values and goals were radically different. Cooperation was achieved only by suppressing, ignoring, or denying these very deep differences. Had honest value clarification been required as a first part of the planning process, no progress would have been made.

The critic of the model might also argue that the latter steps in the process do not describe reality very well. The laying out and studying of a number of alternatives is often simply not possible because of time or resources. In many cases the planner quickly arrives at a short-list of alternatives and then focuses on implementation. The look-at-everything- to-make-the-optimum-choice approach is not possible.

A final point critics make is that the goal of the rational model is optimization—making the best choice from a substantial array of possibilities. These possibilities have themselves been developed by a systematic and— as far as is possible—an all-inclusive process. It has been said that in most situations, organizations do not optimize but rather "satisfice," meaning that they strive for solutions that are satisfactory or adequate.4 Optimization is simply too difficult.

So far the arguments against the rational model are essentially arguments from practicality. Charles Lindblom has suggested that even in the ideal, the rational model may not be best. He notes that it presumes that the participants in the planning process each consider the totality of goals and objectives and think of which courses of action produce the greatest good. But, he argues, this is just unrealistic. Let us admit that we live in a world of partisanship, constituencies, and special interests, and therefore cannot expect the participants to act like candidates for sainthood. May we not, then, get a better result?

The argument Lindblom makes for a less highly structured and centralized approach is quite simple. Assume that the participants come into the planning process from various vantage points and that they, to some extent, represent special interests (as opposed to the public interest as a whole). Then it is doubtful that the interests of any major group in the public will be ignored.

The virtue of such hypothetical division of labor is that every important interest or value has its watchdog. ... In a society like that of the United States in which individuals are free to combine to pursue almost any possible common interest they might have and in which government agencies are sensitive to the pressures of these groups, the system is approximated. Almost every interest has its watchdog. Without claiming that every interest has a sufficiently powerful watchdog, it can be argued that our system often can assure a more comprehensive regard for the values of the whole society than any attempt at intellectual comprehensiveness.5

In support of the "watchdog" argument, we note that it has been demonstrated beyond doubt that well-intentioned members of the majority often do not know what is important to members of minorities or how strongly members of minorities may feel. In the 1950s, how many whites knew quite how anguished blacks were about the constraints society placed on them? More recently, how many men understood how angry many women were about their limited job opportunities? How many heterosexuals perceived how frustrated gays felt about their second-class status? One can make a credible argument that no group's concerns can be completely understood by anyone other than members of that group itself. If this is true, an adversarial and a pluralistic planning process may give better results than a nonadversarial one, no matter how well intentioned. And, of course, the phrase well intentioned carries a heavy burden of assumption.

Lindblom's argument for an adversarial process is quite consistent with the Anglo-Saxon judicial and political tradition in the United States. Our courts function on an adversarial basis. We do not expect each party's attorney to present the facts objectively. Rather, within the constraints of the law, we expect an attorney to present the strongest possible case for his or her client. We assume that truth will best emerge from this clash of adversaries, and we are extremely suspicious of judicial systems in which the roles of judge, prosecution, and defense are combined in a single individual.

Party politics as practiced in the United States and other Western democracies are clearly adversarial. We are highly dubious of any political system in which there is no real clash of adversaries, for we suspect that the outward harmony is a mask for oppression.

In Defense of the Rational Model. The defender of the rational model, of which there are many among practicing planners and planning educators, might answer some of these points as follows.

Of course values cannot always be clarified fully; but to the extent that they can be clarified, it is wise to do so. Not all parties will always be willing to reveal their real goals in the planning process, but again to the extent that goals can be clearly formulated, it is wise that this be done. We have no shortage of public programs with contradictory and unstated goals and purposes. Perhaps conscientious resort to the rational model might help.6

Perhaps the point about going back to square one is not such a damning criticism after all. In considering any problem, of course we must always take some things for granted. How far back we go depends on the importance of the problem, the time and resources available, and other practical considerations. The rational model suggests simply going as far back to square one as is practical.

The argument regarding the watchdog effect of an adversarial process is not easily countered. However, the defender of the rational process might argue that the need for representation of conflicting views can, in some measure, be accommodated by requiring adequate diversity of interests in the body that does the planning. Given that the planning body is ultimately selected and empowered by the political structure of the community, that responsibility lies with the executive and legislative branches.

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