Arguments For and Against Planning

The first week of the UC Berkeley [IN]CITY 2020 summer program has been a whirlwind. I’ve learned more about urban planning in 5 days than I have in my last 5 years of it as a hobby… and we’re just getting started! If this is a taste of what graduate school and the profession is like, I think it’s going to be an enormously fulfilling experience with potential for profound societal impact.

Specifically, I’ve learned how planners have a semi-covert ability to either catalyze or undermine progress towards greater social justice in communities. It’s not so secret anymore, as many have written about this in recent months. This is a highly relevant theme for the modern era and one I’ll be exploring in much more depth throughout the course.


Before I start sharing some of the super interesting work I’m doing in the course, I thought it’d be useful to write up a summary of one of our first readings on the planning profession in general. A 1985 piece from Richardson E. Klosterman in Town Planning Review really puts the profession in perspective and does a fantastic job summarizing the historic criticisms and rationale for continuing the practice.

The table below is best read from left to right, one row at a time. Imagine a group of people making a case against planning (really a proxy for “government intervention” in general) and then the planning profession responding with counter-arguments.

 Against PlanningCounter For Planning
Economic ArgumentsGovernment regulation is unnecessary! It stifles entrepreneurial initiative, impedes innovation, and imposes financial and administrative burdens.

The invisible hand of the free market most efficiently allocates society’s resources.
The perfect market does not exist. Certain categories of market failures can only be corrected by government.

Public goods, negative externalities, situations with prisoner’s dilemma conditions, and inequitable distributions are arenas where governments are essential.
Pluralist ArgumentsExisting political bargaining processes are sufficient. Competition between groups with diverse goals ensures all viewpoints are considered and no group dominates the arena.

The government’s only role should be to set the rules and ratify the political adjustment outcomes.

Special “advocacy” planners can give voice to groups that normally have none.
The political arena is dominated by overbearing players such as corporate lobbyists. In this system, governments tend to bias incentives towards businesses.

Minority & low-income groups lack the time, training, resources, leadership, information, and experience to participate effectively.

Small vocal groups with narrow interests can organize to win versus broader bases (i.e. consumers generally).

Only public sector planners can accurately represent the shared interests of a community, coordinate actions of individuals and groups, and consider long-range effects.
Traditional ArgumentsPlanners have overly restrictive concerns with the physical city, and are politically naïve.

Technical solutions reflect only one view of city life. Attempts to promote collective public interest turn out to primarily serve civic and business elites.

Democratic coordination of public/private development is organizationally/politically impossible.
The “fourth power” of government is to promote general/public interest over narrow conflicting interests of individuals/groups.

Conscious application of professional expertise, instrumental rationality, & scientific methods can better promote economic growth & political stability, the ultimate goal of government.
Marxist ArgumentsFundamental social/economic institutions built on a capitalistic society are the real problem. Any government only serves the long-term interest of private-sector capital.

Governments create & maintain conditions to support the long-term interests of the capitalist class.

Only revolutionary action of labor and replacement of existing social institutions will result in real improvements.
Since a Marxist radical transformation of society is highly unlikely in the near future, reform-minded planners can only leverage their professional expertise to make progress in the near-term.

While contemporary planning may serve the needs of capital, it need not serve those interests alone and is preferable to exclusive reliance on the market or political competition (above).

In summary, public sector planning performs these vital social functions:

  1. Promotes common/collective interests of the community (public goods)
    1. While considering external effects of individual & group action (negative externalities)
  2. Improves the information base for public & private decision making (resolving prisoner’s dilemma situations)
  3. Considers the distributional effects of public & private action (addressing inequities)

It remains an open question as to whether planning (as currently practiced) could fulfill these functions more effectively than any other professional groups/institutions, but none were identified at the time of writing. However, as long as there exists a gap between planning’s potential and its performance, it is worth striving to do better – and that is a pledge all planners should be able to get behind.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.