Literature Reviews

We now focus on one critical section of all academic products and many practice documents. Planning academics and practitioners have one research practice in common: conducting literature reviews. You may think of this as an inherently academic exercise (all academic articles include a literature review right after the introduction or as part of the introduction identifying gaps in the literature). But we would wager that most technical memos written by planners begin with Google searches aimed at finding relevant literature. This section is meant to help both academics and practitioners conduct literature reviews. As a template, we will refer to the publication criteria used by the Journal of Planning Literature, and as an example of a solid literature review, we will draw on the JPL article, “Urban Form and Residential Energy' Use: A Review of Design Principles and Research Findings,” by Yekang Ko of the University' of Texas at Arlington.


Is the paper well written, in the active voice? Does it have a cogent statement of purpose? Is it clear, convincingly argued, and logically' organized? It’s the last of these— the lack of organization—that bothers me most in reviewing academic papers. Thoughts do not flow logically, and extraneous or tangential matters find their way into sections where they don’t belong.

Headings and subheadings can help. They serve as signposts for readers and instill discipline in authors, who are less likely to stray from their topic when it is neatly labeled. Ko’s review organizes the relevant literature under four headings (housing type and size, density, community layout, and planting and surface coverage) with three subheadings under each (statistical studies, simulation studies, and experiments). The review doesn’t stray from the topic at hand.


Does the article cover the literature on the topic comprehensively, focusing on the most important work and citing additional material? The trick to ensuring that a literature review is “systematic” (to use the term of art) is to search bibliographic databases. Academics have access to many excellent databases through their universities, but everyone can make use of Google Scholar. As a test, type in the keywords “residential energy” and “urban planning." Google Scholar comes up with a whopping 1,160 choices and tells you just how often the source article has been cited. How can you possibly be “comprehensive” when faced with so many articles? There are three tricks. First, relegate lesser studies to tables. Ko summarizes 17 articles in one efficient table. Second, limit narrative summaries of individual articles to the most important and synthesize the rest— e.g., “Several authors agree on. . . .’’ Finally, limit the scope of the review. Ko lists both the topics that will be covered in her review and those that will not be.


Does the author describe and interpret the literature accurately and explain technical items at an appropriate level of detail? Authors tend to present other scholars’ findings through the lens of their own thesis. In another paper the second author of this chapter reviewed for JPL, the authors summed up five articles by saying that the authors “all concluded that people living in low-density suburbs are more likely to be overweight, use an automobile more often and for shorter trips, ride bikes and walk less, and have a higher risk of obesity-related illnesses than their more urban counterparts.” Not even close to true.

The main findings of articles are usually contained in the abstract, the conclusion, or the results section. W hen it comes to quantitative studies, we recommend that you also look at the tables. They tell the whole story.


Two other JPL review criteria, in our experience, are problematic. To save space, we offer one cautionary note for each. The first is analysis: Articles should be more than a simple presentation of what has been published, avoiding the tendency to uncritically report what Smith or Jones says. We reviewed a paper on sprawl recently for the journal Sustainability, which, in the first two drafts, recounted the findings of the now infamous Echenique article without acknowledging the controversy surrounding it (see Research You Can Use, October 2012).

Connection to Planning

This is another tricky criterion: The question here is whether the discussion is useful for the planning profession and the practice of planning. Literature reviews and research studies often overreach, going beyond the available evidence to draw broader

Technical Writing 39 conclusions that support the author’s biases. A paper the second author of this chapter reviewed for Environment and Planning recommended streetscape improvements based on a project’s Walk Score. But Walk Score does not measure streetscape quality.

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