Synopsis: Planning Theory for Practitioners

In "Planning Theory for Practitioners," Michael P. Brooks, FAICP, argues for a change in the attitude that planners take toward their practice. It is apparent that he believes that planning theory can help planners perform their work, but he's critical of past theories due to various deficiencies and proposes his own strategy.

What follows is a synopsis of the book, digested into two or three key ideas for each of its 13 chapters.

Citation: Brooks, M. P. (2002). Planning Theory for Practitioners. Chicago, Illinois, United States of America: Planners Press.

Planning occurs in a chaotic environment. Planning is a broad, complex profession. Additionally, planning is an inherently political profession, but strategies exist that planners can apply to help navigate public controversies.

Theory and practice do not always go together. Planning theories may be categorized: they are either positive or normative, and the normative theories are further divided between ethical and functional types; alternatively, they can be considered based on their intent, whether they are "about planning...of planning...for planning" (Brooks, 2002, pp. 24-25). Inasmuch as it exists, the gap between theory and practice is mainly self-inflicted and, considering the gap in other professions, not particularly unusual. Planning theory is moving away from functional normative prescriptions because, in this post-modern world where the problems planners face are considered "wicked," contemporary planning theory focuses more on helping planners help themselves with observations on what kinds of techniques seem to work.

Planning, as a concept, has critics. Critiques of planning fall within one of several categories, none of which is sufficiently convincing to prevent public planning from being an important, vital activity. Of these critiques, only the assertion that planning is impotent has some validity due to the planner's self-censorship of valid alternatives stemming from the planner's assessment of the political environment. Despite these critiques, planning remains a widely applied practice precisely because it is an indispensable tool for communities for public policy-making.

Planning has a purpose. Outside of support of the so-called "public interest," finding a clear, defensible rationale for planning activities is difficult. There is no mechanical method by which the "public interest" can be identified. Consequently, values are the bedrock upon which planning is built.

Planners must apply their own values to their profession. Due to the complexity of human society, no universal, timeless set of values exist to which planners prescribe. Planners face ethical dilemmas in their work, so they subscribe to an enforced, but ultimately subjective, code of ethics. Planning can be a noble profession provided that each individual engages in ethical, value-driven behavior.

The Rational Planning Model. Though technically discredited and despite individual and organizational inability to be fully rational or to fully quantify our world, rational planning theory is often cited as the mode within which planning is performed. Rational planning theoreticians have developed a number of models for planning activity, each one displacing the last as it comes into vogue. Rational planning fails to adequately deal with real-world problems because it fails to address the inherent non-rationality of the political realm within which planning occurs.

Disjointed Incrementalism. In contrast to rational planning theory, non-rational theories emphasize the actual practice of planning as iterative processes within which participants have the freedom to adjust both methods and goals and adjust the scope of their deliberations at will. Non-rational theories fail to provide normative guidance on the practice of planning. Disjointed incrementalism, in particular, fails to recognize that not all human processes are incremental, therefore may be incapable of dealing with rapid, broadly-based change, particularly when politically disadvantaged groups are most greatly affected.

Advocacy Planning. Advocacy planning is a value-driven, conceptually democratic approach to planning activities that embraces the issues of a politically disadvantaged racial, economic, neighborhood or other group rather than to the broad "public interest." Advocacy planning did not live up to the expectations of the planners who adopted it. Though it in itself did not survive in its original form, the "spirit" (Brooks, 2002, p. 117) of advocacy planning lives on through adoption by some liberal city planning departments, issue-oriented programs such as economic development and housing programs, people and issue advocacy, non-profits, and neighborhood planning.

Communicative Action Theory. The communicative action planning theory enrolls the planner as a negotiation mediator to provide comprehensible, sincere, legitimate, and true information to disparate groups in the effort of building a consensus. Communicative action planning theory overestimates the utility of merely discussing things. Communicative action planning theory is useful, however, in that it bears insights into some proportion of the daily activities of planners.

Where do we really get ideas? Ideas and goals can come from many sources, though each source has its strengths and weaknesses. Generating feedback through the mechanism of trial balloons allows each interest the opportunity to air its views (positively, negatively, or not at all) by giving everyone something to which to react.

A Proposal: The Feedback Planning Strategy. The feedback strategy of public planning (which integrates elements of rational, disjointed incremental, advocacy, and communicative action theories) does not only present a normative "attitude" toward the planning process, but also describes in many ways the actual practice of planning, which Brooks presents as a realm of social experimentation. While the feedback strategy specifies six steps through which effective planning should occur, the steps are not as important as the concept of early and continuous feedback from all sources and experimentation to produce additional data from which comes a disposing decision focused solely on the needs of the client it is meant to benefit.

Being Politically Savvy. There is no alternative but that planners be politically savvy. Being politically savvy can be taught because it consists of a set of skills of which the most important can be learned and practiced.

Pursuing a Vision. Seeking power is pointless, indeed potentially dangerous, unless the planner seeks authority to pursue a system of interrelated goals, a vision, for the community. Some may fret that having a strongly articulated vision may be a threat to employability, however, having a vision is merely a set of interconnected goals, not a "starry eyed" fantasy.

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