Planning Theory: What Is It Good For?

Is planning theory relevant to professional practice?

Over 30 years of teaching theory, I often wonder. For some, it is a thought-provoking college course that is soon forgotten. This post considers how planners can use theory in practice.

We are bound to be disappointed by theory if we think of it as an all-encompassing system of explanation. While such an idea promises an escape from being lost, thinking of theory in this way is a barrier to its use. Many theories apply in a single planning episode — explaining how cities and regions work, suggesting proper planning processes, and defining justice.

These theories address different elements of planning in descriptive and normative ways. Moreover, competing theories provide contradictory guidance even in narrow planning subject areas.

Planners Navigate Diverse Theoretical Landscapes

Economic theory, for example, is useful for understanding planning's role in addressing externalities and providing public goods, but utility maximization does not address equity. Marxist theories of urbanization help us interpret urban phenomena by understanding the workings of capital, but often don't guide action. Theories of communicative ethics guide discourse but can be naive about power.

In each case, strict adherence to one theory can easily lead the planner away from effectiveness.

Practicing planners work with messy problems, difficult judgments, and circumstances of "not knowing." They must consider context in solving planning problems. And since planners are not the only plan-makers — individuals, developers, community groups, and other agencies also plan — the resulting complexity makes a single theory impractical.

Compared with other fields, the planning profession is in a weak-paradigm condition, lacking a single canon of knowledge to guide action.

This can make a planner feel lost among competing theory claims. Indeed, sometimes I feel like I am plowing a field in the dark.

Donald Schön explains how professionals develop ways of solving problems that are hard to understand from a single perspective by differentiating between espoused theory, as one learns in school, and theory-in-use developed in practice.

Accepting being lost reflectively and thoughtfully is superior to defaulting to a single way of understanding. When lost, one should use theories that work and keep one's head. Rather than theory being "the map," we can use theory to find our way.

This resonates with pragmatist Richard Rorty's contention that theory should be an aid to practice, rather than practice being seen as a degradation of theory. Rather than providing reassurance, theory can make us more self-reliant as we face complex questions.

For me, a pragmatic approach to theory makes planning innovative and responsive. This view comes from my experience and the writings of Donald Schön, Charles Hoch, and Lewis Hopkins (see references below).

Housing in an Industrial Zone Case Study

Case studies are a good way to understand how multiple theories apply in a particular context.

Recently, I provided transportation planning consulting services to a developer seeking to build market-rate rental housing in a medium-sized city in Los Angeles County. The site was within walking distance of a light rail station and an employer of 6,000 people. The project included ground-floor retail, public open space, and streetscape improvements.

The developer's initial proposal was to build more than 300 rental units, a positive step in addressing a regional undersupply of housing. Yet the project was located in an industrial zone, raising land use compatibility issues, and it did not provide affordable housing units.

Because of transit and employment proximity, the developer sought reduced parking supply, sensible in my view but a concern to the community. And finally, the project did not affect, positively or negatively, neighborhood crowding problems that residents were concerned about. In short, it was a typical planning decision involving uncertainty about impacts, conflicting values, and many stakeholders.

Planning Theories Are Tools for Practice

No single theory provided guidance.

Debates about the merits of the project drew on many theories about how cities work: travel behavior, housing filtering, land use externalities, and industrial agglomeration economies. Multiple planning process theories were employed by the participants: rational comprehensive planning, incremental planning, advocacy planning, and policy analysis.

Theories of deliberative ethics provided insight into public participation and council action. And finally, different normative theories of justice underlay arguments about the project, such as utility maximization, redistributive ethics, or market freedom.

This case illustrates how multiple theories apply to a single planning case. Plan-making activities involve similar theory multiplicity.

I contend that planning theory is essential to effective practice, but we need to learn how to use it. Planning theories provide insight into how cities and regions work, how planning should be conducted, and what is just.

Consider theories as tools rather than expressions of truth. Let's put our planning theories to work.


Hoch, Charles. 2017. "How can we use different planning theories to improve how we make comprehensive plans?" Paper presented at the Conference of the Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning, Denver.

Hopkins, Lewis D. 2001. Urban Development: The Logic of Making Plans. Washington, D.C.: Island Press.

Schön, Donald A. 1983. The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action. New York: Basic Books.

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: Thinkstock photo.

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 28, 2017

By Richard Willson, FAICP