Irrational Rationalism: Alternatives to the Discredited Rational

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Irrational Rationalism:
Alternatives to the Discredited Rational Planning Model and Their Implications for
Decision-Making in the Public Domain
I. Introduction:
Defined broadly, planning is the process by which specific schemes are devised to
achieve certain objectives; more specifically, it has been described as the attempt to “link
scientific and technical knowledge to action in the public domain.” (Friedman 1987, p.
38). Exactly how this is done and which objectives are emphasized is of particular
importance. The reasons for this include but are not limited to the complexity of policy
and political environments and the diversity of interests involved. These factors can
influence both planning’s objective efficiency, as well as assessments of subjective
legitimacy in the eyes of the attentive publics planning purports to serve. For these
reasons, theorists struggle with issues concerning how best to proceed when making
decisions that are to be implemented by public agencies and which effect a diverse range
of stakeholders and actors, continuing a lengthy and disputatious trend.
There is no universally endorsed or single best decision making paradigm or
approach to planning. (Alexander 1959). However, a model referred to in various
contexts as the ‘synoptic’ model, ‘rational comprehensive planning,’ or, merely,
‘rationalism,’ dominated the theoretical underpinnings of planning for a considerable
stretch of time, and to some extent continues to do so for many practitioners. Given the
relative ascendancy of this approach, it might seem odd that academic circles now
generally tend to align themselves in opposition to this model, retracting their previous
endorsement. This paper investigates the reasons this approach has been largely rejected
by theoreticians. This analysis will examine the implications the abandonment of
rationalism as a dominant procedural model has had for the theory of planning, and
conclude with an assessment of what suggestions such a paradigmatic shift may indicate
for planning on a more pragmatic level.
II. Problem Overview:
In 1946, noted urbanist Charles Abrams commented on several of the more
obvious obstacles planning must contend with if it wishes to function well in a
democracy, not the least of which included winning public and political approval of any
proposals the process may prescribe. Since that time, complexities in the field and
profession of planning have only increased, thus amplifying these hurdles. (Alexander
1995). Given the diversity of interests and contexts involved when modern planning
decisions are made in the public sector, resulting policy proposals are generally
guaranteed to conflict amongst stakeholders at one juncture or another. This is true
despite planning’s aim to achieve public consensus about future actions. Arguably,
therefore, effective planning necessitates an awareness of context and environment, in
addition to emphasis on mere technical expertise.
In light of the variety of factors influencing the context in which its suggestions
are shaped, the process of planning should be viewed as more than the sum of its
individual parts. Only with larger social and political frameworks in mind can planning
hope to succeed in the implementation of its recommendations. It has been precisely such
a realization that in part formed the basis of an acknowledgement that rational models of
planning are perhaps not ideal when implemented in the public sector; at the very least,
such approaches are not likely to be accepted wholesale without some challenge
regarding how different interests are going to be incorporated.
These issues are of extreme importance; however, they have not been rational
planning’s only, or even most significant, criticisms. Indeed, the theoretical attacks to be
discussed next strike at the very core of the model’s methodological validity itself, and
thus further undermine the legitimacy of rationalism as a decision making process, this
time on grounds of practicality. Comprehending this particular line of rejection and
disagreement requires an understanding of the basic process on which the rational model
is based.
Although varying slightly in the number of steps and precise articulations used
from description to description, in summary form the process of rationalism as a decision
making model can be thought of as consisting of the following steps: 1.) defining a
problem and a goal; 2.) determining ways to evaluate alternative approaches to achieving
the goal decided upon and remedying the problem defined; 3.) coming up with alternative
courses of potential action to achieve the desired goal and fix the perceived problem; 4.)
evaluating each potential course of action; 5.) implementing the preferred policy option;
and 6.) monitoring the resulting outcome(s). (Luzzi 2001). Boiled down to its essence,
rationalism as a paradigm for planning in the public domain consists of a three-step
process: problem definition, analysis of alternatives, and selection of the most efficient
course of action. (Hira 2004).
The process seems, and in fact in a very basic sense is, very logical, sensible and
reasonable--that is, rational. However, in the implementation of such a procedure, despite
its seemingly sound recommendations for decision making, problems can arise. The
nature and extent of such problems will be discussed shortly. For now, however, it is just
important to grasp the basic ideas underlying rationalism as a model applied in a public
decision making context, so that later illustrations of the pitfalls of this paradigm can be
understood in light of the procedure they criticize.
It would be wise at this point to note that to highlight the potential problems of
rationalism as a paradigm for planning is not to say that planning would benefit from the
opposite of rationality--namely, irrationality. That is, attacking rationalism as a model is
not meant to criticize rationalism as a general concept. This is a subtle but important
distinction. The analysis undertaken in this paper pertains solely to the pitfalls of the
rational model, as applied to decision making processes, and not to rationality as it is
more commonly used, to refer to sound logic and reason.
III. Pitfalls of Rationalism in Planning:
The idea of rationalism in planning has been criticized from an academic
standpoint on numerous grounds, for both theoretical as well as practical reasons.
Specifically, it has been argued that many of the problems planning is concerned with
most, elude effective treatment by the rational model, as they simply do not exist in a
vacuum and are therefore not susceptible to effective treatment by mere technical
processes. (Luzzi 2001). That is, rationalism as a model is ill-equipped to deal with the
contradictory and often fluctuating nature of various societal problems to which it might
be applied as a planning mechanism. In fact, it has even been argued that any approach to
solving social problems via implementing a scientific process of deduction in public
sector decision making contexts is bound to fail. Essentially, the nature of social
problems makes them not amenable to treatment by processes based solely upon science-they are what has been termed “wicked” problems. (Rittel 1973).
At a more basic level, further criticisms have been launched against the
limitations of the rational model itself, as a process, not merely as applied in a public
domain context. These include the impossibility of meeting the requirements of the
model--namely, the unlikelihood that complete and comprehensive consideration of all
possible alternative courses of action is feasible; the need for absolutely perfect
information; and research based evidence supporting the conclusion that organizations
tend to make decisions in more of an incremental fashion than comprehensively. (Luzzi
2001). In short, the model has been widely attacked for its impracticality and the
hopelessness of satisfying the challenging prerequisites to effective implementation of
rational planning‘s outputs. (Camhis 1979). At best, rationalism as applied to planning
approximates what polymath Herbert Simon has referred to as ’bounded rationality,” a
term reflecting the cognitive limitations of those tasked with making decisions. (Simon
1997).
Realizing the host of both abstract as well as practical limitations on the rational
paradigm as applied to public domain decision making approaches, a multitude of
alternative approaches have attempted to fill the theoretical and prescriptive void left by
rationalism’s abandonment. (Allmendinger 2001). Although many have made valuable
contributions to the aggregate body of planning theory, none has yet to exclusively or
conclusively fill the rather large shoes left empty by rationalism’s decline. However, it is
nonetheless important to examine the available options for substitute or replacement
theories in hopes of drawing at least some useful “food for thought” regarding what
might be done, if not to replace rationalism, at least to supplement it as concerns policy
prescriptions for practitioners. To this extent, I now turn to a discussion of the various
alternate planning models that have cropped up in the wake of rationalism’s theoretical
demise.
IV. Alternative Approaches:
Although not exhaustive in scope, the following models represent a degree of the
diversity amongst the processes which have attempted to redefine decision making
processes in the latter half of the 20th century: disjointed incrementalism; satisficing;
mixed-scanning; Transactive planning; participatory Planning; and advocacy planning.
To be sure, there are many others of note as well; but the range of ideas showcased by
this list catalogs some of the more prevalent approaches to explaining or prescribing
methods for public sector decision making and the theory that guides it. To set the stage
for subsequent analysis, a brief description and discussion of each of these models
follows.
A. Incrementalism, Bounded Rationality & Satisficing:
In response to rational planning’s unrealistic informational and intellectual
demands, the ideas of Incrementalism and Bounded Rationality take a somewhat more
pragmatic view of decision making. Both descriptions of the planning process are
attempts to describe how decisions are actually, as opposed to optimally, made. In 1959,
political scientist Charles Lindblom wrote influentially about what he referred to as
“disjointed incrementalism.” (Lindblom 1959). For many of the reasons outlined earlier
in this paper, Lindblom recognized the practical shortcomings of rationalism, and
consequently rejected the idea that a single best comprehensive plan could be devised by
any such method. Convinced that the rational model of planning was unfeasible,
Lindblom chose instead to describe how decisions are really made by public officials.
According to Lindblom, rather than making decisions on the basis of synoptic theories,
public officials instead proceed along decisional paths characterized by baby-steps, or
incremental progressions, in which attention is focused on only those changes necessary
to address immediate problems. (Hyman 1982).
Lindblom argued that public administrators merely consider the ideas that come
to mind and which are not disagreeable to other officials. Rather than considering every
possible alternative for action, the appropriateness of a decision is determined by how it
plays out in practice. Incrementalism represents a drastically different decision making
process than that promoted by rationalism. Similarly, political scientist Herbert Simon
also attempted to formulate a descriptive conception of planning which takes into the
limitations of the rational model. Simon recommended adequacy of outcome over
perfection, in a wise acknowledgement of the practical limitations of theories devised for
achieving optimal outcomes. Importantly, Simon’s model of “satisficing” highlights the
fact that, to be effective, planners must take account of institutional limitations, and the
bounded nature of any planning analysis imposed by practical constraints like the scarcity
of resources. (Forrester 1989). Thus, taking account of fluctuating informational and
institutional landscapes is important, nay, essential for planners, according to Simon.
Simon’s ideas provide the foundation for what has come to be known as “contingency
planning,” a term used to describe decision making processes which acknowledge that
different circumstances may require different approaches. (Forrester 1989).
Both Lindblom and Simon, though perhaps more descriptive than prescriptive in
their analyses, have provided meaningful contributions to the field of planning theory in
that, together, they make painstakingly clear that the broader organizational framework in
which decisions are made matters--a lot. Failure to pay attention to institutional
constraints, they both argue, will necessarily lead to biting off more than can be chewed,
resulting in underperformance. (Forrester 1989). If such advice is heeded, how can these
outcomes be avoided? It is unlikely that strategic decisions are actually made in a process
of “muddling through” or stumbling haphazardly into a future state of affairs, as
disjointed incrementalism seems to suggest. (Tichy 200&). So, what are some more
prescriptive measures that can or should be pursued? Amitai Etzioni promotes an idea of
“mixed scanning” as one possible answer.
B. Mixed Scanning: A Hybrid Approach:
Etzioni sees as optimal an approach to decision making which seeks to combine
elements of both rational planning and incrementalism, acknowledging the practical
constraints of bounded rationality on one hand while striving to incrementally progress
based on what limited information can actually be rationally concluded on the other.
(Tichy 2007). Mixed scanning endeavors to make the best of incomplete knowledge
rather than proceed with no direction. This approach further provides a method for
“overcoming the conservative slant” necessarily flowing from an incrementalist approach
by exploiting, rather than ignoring, basic societal advancements and remaining open to
consideration of longer term objectives. (Etzioni, 1967). Planning theorist John Forrester
promotes another alternative to both rational planning and muddling through in
“participatory planning.” A bit of substantive background information regarding this
paradigm is needed before discussing this approach further.
C. Participatory Planning: Towards Pluralism:
Forrester highlights in a rather basic way perhaps one of the rational model’s
biggest practical shortcomings by reminding us that “planning is for people.” (Forrester
1989). Although perhaps obvious, in a world dominated by adherence to purportedly
rational models of policy analysis and decision making processes, this point bears
repeating. What may be a logical process from a factual or technical perspective may in
fact, perhaps somewhat counter intuitively, have adverse effects on certain publics.
Indeed, this is precisely what we see with some of the pitfalls of the rational model
mentioned earlier--in many respects, rationalism is unable to adequately serve the very
communities planners should be acting on behalf of. Ultimately, whether an approach to
planning or decision making in a broader sense is appropriate should be assessed in light
of its objectives. Where those objectives include the betterment of public life, planning
for people is be the bottom line. Although rationalism suffers from practical difficulties,
it further suffers from another set of defects and shortcomings, wholly unrelated to the
impracticalities of its application. As alluded to earlier in this paper, these have to do with
legitimacy and making sure the process actually achieves its goals.
To focus on this, Forrester endorses an overarching theory of participatory
planning, which in the broadest sense concentrates on involving the entire relevant
community in making strategic decisions. Forrester explicitly emphasizes his affinity for
planning for social welfare and justice by taking account not only of efficiency, as would
a pure rationalist, but also of “decent outcomes.” (Forrester 1989). Due to this, according
to Forrester, interaction in planning matters at least as much analysis. Regardless of how
exacting a study of relevant data is performed, analysis matters very little indeed if its
results, even if rational, are presented at the wrong juncture within a larger sociopolitical
conflict structure or in a way that people fail to properly understand. Participatory
planning seeks to alleviate some of these obstacles and accommodate conflicts amongst
different groups, classes, and interests by having public agencies and officials foster
increased pluralistic involvement in the planning process.
According to Forrester, both Lindblom’s incrementalist and Simon’s satisficing
approaches both stopped short of facing the real problems of planning practice, hardly
any of which, he claimed, dealt with technical issues. These include the place of value
judgments in decision making processes; political biases; structural economic and
political factors; and accountability. (Forrester 1989). Participatory planning prescribes a
recipe for addressing such issues by democratizing the planning process. It requires
planning with those planned for, in a more bottom-up (as opposed to centralized, topdown) community participation approach. (Leeuwen 2004).
According to this model, participation in public sector decision making is
facilitated and stimulated by forging both formal and informal diplomatic connections, or
linkages, between public agencies and officials, community organizations, and private
sector stake-holders. The result, in theory, should be a “[decision making] process where
. . . Demands [are] jointly prioritized and implementation strategies jointly developed.”
(Chege 2006). This feature of the participatory approach is perhaps the most relevant to
addressing some of the shortcomings of the rational model previously discussed, and has
normally been seen as a positive contribution to the body of planning theory. However, as
noted by Forrester himself, some have criticized this approach as illegitimate due to a
failed orchestration of participating public interest groups. Essentially, so the argument
goes, unless every possible affected interest has a “Lindblomian Watchdog,” agreements
arrived at between public officials and representatives of specific interests will result in
anything but neutral outcomes. (Forrester 1999). Are there alternative community
involvement strategies? Yes. Citizen participation is a conceptual umbrella under which
other, more specific and nuanced approaches, fall. One of these subcategories, advocacy
planning, has caused a particular stir in planning theory since its inception. .
D. Advocacy Planning: Towards an Adversarial Process:
Advocacy planning as a subset of the broader framework of citizen participation
is distinguishable from the participatory planning endorsed by Forrester in several
important ways. For instance, as an approach to making decisions, it is a process initiated
outside of and independent from the confines of the institutional agencies and public
officials serving as catalysts for community involvement under participatory planning.
Additionally, it is particularly focused on sponsorship and promotion of specific
objectives and points of view. As a discipline, ‘planning’ stems from at least three
foundational concerns: physical land use, design, and socially-motivated reform efforts
aimed at the less well off in society. It is the last of these bases from which advocacy
planning developed. (Blau 1983).
Advocacy arrived on the scene in the 1960s and is grounded in adversarial
procedures mirroring those of the legal profession. It aims to level the playing field as
between feeble and dominant community organizations so as to protect the interests of
disadvantaged and poor community members against more well established
governmental and business groups. Ideas of environmental justice also pervade this
approach. (Hudson 1979). Essentially, advocacy planning is concerned foremost with
matters of social reform and purging society of inequality. (Blau 1983). Advocacy is an
approach to planning wherein the assumption of a singular public interest is questioned
and confronted, and it has been instrumental in efforts blocking thoughtless and
unresponsive plans. (Davidoff 1965).
Primary amongst the champions of this model for planning is Paul Davidoff, who
in the 1960s influentially called upon planners and activists to explicitly communicate
their values via their work rather than attempting to remain impartial and unbiased. He
suggested they do so by advocating for what they regard to be suitable and right.
(Davidoff 1965; Blau 1985). Davidoff espoused these ideas in the midst of one of the
more turbulent eras of recent history; in the 1960s, civil rights and welfare political
measures were hot topics. To a large extent the successes of both these trends exhibited
the wide range of potentialities and possibilities presented by protest and advocacy.
(Davidoff 1965).
To Davidoff, the field of planning represented far more than an opportunity to
exercise technical skill; it symbolized an opportunity, a one-of-a-kind chance to
contribute to the betterment of urban conditions through a functional understanding of
city dynamics. (Davidoff 1965). He viewed the future of planning as a field inviting, nay,
necessitating discussion and reexamination of social and political values. This, Davidoff
believed, required an abandonment of the idea of planner as mere technician. Though
acknowledging the inherent value of increases in information available to decision
makers, Davidoff strongly opposed the notion that technical measures devised for
accomplishing such increased information should take priority over goal setting and the
pursuit of ideals. (Davidoff 1965). In essence, as he put it, advocacy planning should
strive to achieve pluralism by planning not just through official city planning
departments, but also through alternative organizational frameworks and structures, by
which those previously lacking a presence in decisions making processes could make
known and actively campaign for their interests. (Blau 1983). We have seen boundedrationality-based and incremental approaches, and now pluralistic and adversarial
methods, but what other alternatives or complements to rational planning exist?
E. Transactive Planning:
In the sense that it acknowledges a need to address the shortcomings of scientificlike rational approaches, Transactive planning is somewhat similar to the approaches
already discussed. This is illustrated, for instance, by the remarks of one of the theory’s
biggest champions, John Friedman. Friedman refers to the pursuit of a transactive
methodology as moving toward a “Non-Euclidean” planning style, apparently in
reference to the comprehensive process of deduction practiced by the late Greek
mathematician, Euclid, which approximates in many ways the process of rational
decision making promoted by the synoptic model. As we have seen, the rational planning
model has lost theoretical approval for its lack of attention to relevant factors other than
cold, hard data inferred from axiomatic assumptions. Indeed, just as legitimate geometric
paradigms other than the Euclidean model have evolved, so too has planning theory
witnessed the rise of arguably more legitimate approaches to decision making.
Transactive planning falls within this category, but what exactly is it?
Friedman abstractly defines the planning process as that which is characterized by
linking knowledge to action. (Friedman 1993). The relevant inquiries then become, says
Friedman, what knowledge matters, and with whose actions should we be concerned?
Before exploring this matter further, Friedman notes that, unlike traditional models of
planning, planners in the postmodern era should strive to act in the everyday “thick of
things” as opposed to acting in a removed fashion, preparing analyses for future
developments. (Friedman 1993). Instead of anonymous bureaucrats, Friedman advocates
for planners fulfilling their roles in face to face interactions. He doesn’t argue for
dispensing with imaginative future-oriented preparation, which he views as an
inescapable aspect of how the human mind works, but he asserts that it is only possible
for planners to be truly effective through their actions in the ‘here and now.’ Planners,
Friedman argues, must focus on processes unfolding in the present time more than
analyzing how things might unfold at some future date.
The Transactive model of planning further suggests a shift in spatial emphasis
from national to local and regional decision making, acknowledging that the particular
concerns and challenges to be addressed by planning vary based on geographic locality.
This suggestion further takes note of the fact that the local level is where the hordes of
groups and organizations new to participation in planning spend the majority of their time
and exert the majority of their influence. (Friedman 1993).
In this way, then, Transactive planning represents a decentralized decision making
paradigm. It is with these ideas in mind that Friedman proposes a host of characteristics
for the ‘non-Euclidean’ mode of planning he desires. Specifically, such an approach to
planning will be normative; innovative; political; based on a process of social learning;
and transactive.
By ‘transactive’ Friedman means to refer to a process through which the two
types of knowledge central to planning--expert and experiential--are linked in a process
of back and forth transactions between planners and those whom their decisions will
directly affect. To be effective, Friedman argues, planning must address problems which
are properly defined; this, in turn, necessitates bringing together the two aforementioned
bodies of knowledge in what he refers to as a process of “mutual learning.” (Friedman
1993). Friedman further asserts that this decentralized face-to-face process of problem
and remedy definition is best served in small groups of up to twenty people. (Friedman
1993). In essence, Friedman seeks a manner in which information and expertise
additional to that of experts can be brought to bear on the every-day decisions made by
planners, based on interactions with the people most relevant to such an inquiry--those
directly impacted by planning decisions at neighborhood, city, and local-regional levels.
In sum, Transactive planning seeks to expose policy issues via a concentration on
the experiences of the people its decisions will affect. (Hudson 1979). In this sense,
planning should not be an abstract activity focused on faceless or anonymous recipient
communities, but rather a process of interaction, of person to person contact between
planners and community members. A process of mutual learning guides this approach,
not the analysis of data calculated in a pseudo-scientific manner. (Hudson 1979). As
described by Friedman, “planning is not . . . Separated from other forms of social action,
but rather [it is] a process embedded in the continual evolution of ideas validated through
such action.” (Friedman 1973, as quoted in Hudson 1979). Transactive planning
represents a departure from traditional methods of evaluation, where plans are
conventionally assessed on the basis of delivery of goods or services; Transactive
planning looks to the effects of plans on people and their capacity for cooperative growth
and development as the litmus test for success. (Hudson 1979).
We have now explored several of the many alternatives to the process of planning
and making decisions in the public domain. Some of them are similar or very closely
related; some are prescriptive while others are largely descriptive; some operate from the
perspective of institutional agencies while others approach planning from an individualbased adversarial advocacy point of view. Of what significance or relevance are these
theories in terms of gleaning from a retrospective of postmodern planning theory ideas
for replacing or complementing rational synoptic planning?
V. Analysis:
It is clear that, in the second half of the 20th century, planning theory witnessed a
dramatic paradigmatic shift resulting in a rift between theoreticians, who began endorsing
novel approaches to the field, and practitioners, many of whom still adhere to principles
of rationalism. Academics largely abandoned the formerly widely endorsed model of
synoptic planning in search of a more workable model, resulting in incessant debate,
while incomplete, impractical, idealistic and unrealizable processes attempting to achieve
a logical comprehensive evaluation of planning issues has continued to guide approaches
to decision making “on the ground.”
While rationalism may be imperfect, however, its competitors have been unable
to fill the large shoes it left behind in a manner comparable to the dominance once
enjoyed by the synoptic model. Why, if at all, are these competing theories relevant,
then? What have they contributed, and what can we take away from the dynamic history
of planning theory they have been at the epicenter of? Principally, and perhaps also
somewhat obviously, these theories provide us with invaluable insight as to what has and
what has not worked. Furthermore, it is quite plausible that the reason no single decision
making theory in particular has ascended to the level previously afforded rationalism is
that, for reasons which are now better understood, not even the rational model itself filled
the shoes it claimed to. Part of the explanation for this is that such shoes, as planning
theorists have come to realize in the post modern era, are much larger than previously
envisioned. Dispensing with the footwear metaphor, the point is this: as the discipline and
practice of planning has evolved, so too has the understanding theoreticians have of it;
consequently, the model previously most widely endorsed has been exposed for what it
truly is: flawed. The model seems to make sense, but given that the nature of problems
planning seeks to address has proven far more expansive and complex than the human
intellect can reasonably be expected to synthesize and act upon wisely, it is contextually
defective.
With this at least cursory understanding of why academics have lost faith in
rationalism, to answer the foregoing questions in more detail we must further strive to
comprehend what explains the precise nature of the theories that arose in an attempt to
fill the resulting void. Such an understanding will provide an awareness of the
fundamental issues that necessarily must be addressed before an overarching theory of
planning can, to the extent possible, again provide a guiding set of principles for decision
making in the public sector in as much of a concerted effort manner as possible.
Some of these basic matters include the following: Why plan? How plan? For
whom? And by whom? (Hudson 1979). Contemplation of these issues in large part
underlies the diversity of alternative approaches to rationalism proposed in the postmodern era. The potential answers to such inquiries are likely to differ based on
perspective, and can thus only begin to be approached analytically in a meaningful way.
However, the theoretical approaches emerging in response to the fall of rationalism
provide, at the very least, a good launch pad for such an undertaking. Thorough
familiarity with such models provides the retrospective intellectual history that is
prerequisite to ensuring future decisions made in the public domain are informed,
sensible, and responsive to the needs of increasingly diverse publics that make up our
societies. As concerns the pitfalls of the rational model and what the options are for
addressing these, such reflection seems to indicate on a general level that, although
individually no planning theory alone seems capable of taking the helm, together the vast
array of alternatives which have sprung up in the wake of rationalism’s demise provide a
comprehensive toolbox to which planners can turn and, based on the particulars of
specific situations and scenarios, construct and implement useful hybrid approaches.
VI. Conclusion:
Approaches to planning theory have evolved over the last century from a pseudoscientific perspective into a more attentive and considerate set of proposed decision
making methods in a continued process of theoretical reflection. Throughout this
progression, as highlighted by the foregoing text, some things have worked better than
others. How, specifically, might such an understanding guide us to approach planning in
the public domain in a more sensible way? There are a number of lessons which,
arguably, should be taken away from a review of recent debates in planning theory.
In particular, we must remember the bounded nature of our intellectual capacity,
an acknowledgement which, when applied to the wicked nature of the problems planning
seeks to address, severely limit’s the practical implementation of a purely rational model
of decision making. Moreover, we must bear in mind the institutional, political, and
structural conflict based frameworks within which planning decisions are made if we are
to effectively guide or pursue public sector decision making. Furthermore, we must strive
to keep the objects of planning--people and their local environments--in focus as we
endeavor to develop and implement strategies for improving and bettering society. In so
doing, we must additionally consider and be attentive to the diversity of publics
potentially affected by planning decisions, and where possible embrace those advocating
for interests which have traditionally been excluded from the process. Incorporating a
more participatory and face-to-face approach to making planning decisions in a manner
demonstrating awareness of circumstantial constraints and practical limitations, i.e.,
combining several of the arguably more beneficial characteristics of the host of planning
theory approaches discussed in this paper, is, I would argue, at least a good place to begin
an assessment of what can be done about the pitfalls of the rational model.
None of the planning approaches discussed in this paper are perfect. Moreover, it
is unlikely proponents of any of them would likely agree on even the idea of a perfect
approach to decision making, given the varying sets of objectives likely to be expressed
by diverse publics. What is clear, however, is that from the host of concepts and
philosophies that have evolved in the wake of rational planning, we can begin moving
toward a realization that as planners, we have many tools to draw on, which even the
slightest degree of reflection on the turbulent history of planning theory allows to be
combined complementarily. The rational planning process may not be faulty or
counterproductive per se, but the bounds imposed upon the extent to which it can in fact
be implemented, coupled with the unique nature of “wicked” problems faced by planners,
has presented a series of unintended failures, or “pitfalls,” to this approach that must be
remedied. Just as a canopy of foliage may disguise a physical hole to be used as a trap,
the seeming logicality of the rational planning process, for many, has camouflaged its
true shortcomings.
Alternative planning approaches that have successfully met practical demands
must be taken account of, while those elements that in retrospect seem to have been
riddled with pitfalls should be discarded. Moreover, deliberations regarding exactly what
form this process could or should take must occur in light of the specific and perhaps
unique challenges facing planners in particular, individualized circumstances.
At bottom, planning represents far more than expertise in physical design or
spatial layout; it is a process. The procedural nature of decision making as applied to
planning is not well served by a strictly analytical, calculating, pseudo-scientific
approach. Planning is a methodology employed to achieve goals which are not entirely
responsive to such tactics--they are “wicked” problems. For these reasons, the more
participatory, collaborative, supportive and capable of advocacy for heretofore
unrepresented minority interests planning efforts can become, the more encouraging the
process and ultimate results are likely to be.
When making decisions of any sort, not just in urban or community planning
contexts, it is important to bear in mind what is being decided, why such a decision is
needed, and for whom the decision is being made. This paper contends that the answers
to such questions in the context of community planning are not realistically attainable
through use of a rational synoptic model of planning. Not only is the model itself subject
to several practical information constraints, but furthermore the specific answers to the
questions posed above are for all intents and purposes excluded by such a paradigm.
Arguably, the intent of planning is to better society. This is a vague and generalized
answer to the ‘why’ in the question of why plan? If this premise is accepted, it follows
that the questions of what decisions should be made, and for whom, are simply not
addressed in a scientific process of pure rationalism, which fails to incorporate the
channels of informational input and circumstantial constraints that directly bear on
“bettering” society. Rather, these inquiries require attention to details that range much
broader in scope than that likely to be considered by technocrats. This paper has
attempted to illustrate some of the many possible alternatives for achieving such a state of
affairs in planning processes. Perhaps John Forrester put it best when he wrote “only
when we understand that it is quite rational to plan differently under different conditions
can we avoid the embarrassment of thinking and saying that our thinking and planning
may be rational in principle, yet anything but rational in practice. (Forrester 1989). This
potential state of discomfiture is what is meant by irrational rationalism.
________________________________________________________________________
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