Blog #59 Planning: Social History and Ethics


The Social History of Planning and Its Ethics

Seven points:

I. Planning as it in fact is done in practice is not an autonomous activity. It is done to serve specific social, economic, and political purposes. It is an instrumental activity, and its changing focus can be directly traced to changes in economic, social, and political structures (agrarian to manufacturing, unskilled work and craft production to manufacturing to automated manufacturing to high-tech and IT activity, from rural to urban to suburban, from feudal to capitalist to “socialist” governmental organization, city or regional based, nation-based, global.

II. The forces that dictate what is actually done by planning are represented by specific sets of interests in constant tension and conflict with each other. They include conflicts between classes (the excluded, working, “middle” , upper), between capital and labor, between rich and poor, between residential and business, between ethnic and nationality-based groups(colonial and imperial, black and dark and white, ), immigrant and “native” , old and young, disabled and not, ideological (radical, liberal, conservative), old and young.

III. These conflicts lead to competing planning theories, approaches, “best practices,” and ideologies, and are visible in planning decision in every aspect of planning (transportation, zoning, housing, environmental procedural/decision-making/participation).

IV. Yet there is a current in planning practice and an ideological stance of planning theory that is independent and stems from the very logic of the planning activity. It is shaped by these forces and conflicts, but in interaction with the logic of its own activity, planning as the conscious attempt to control the future, which necessarily raises questions of what is desirable, for whom, by whom, in what balance and proportion, with what priority, and in the service of what ultimate objectives (Efficiency? Social justice? , Economic Growth? Social peace? Economic Growth? Or other).?

V. The historical evolution of the independent current of planning ideology and activity runs from the utopian at its origins (religious, socialist, anarchic) to today’s focus on physical urban development — transportation, building codes, handling of nuisances, land use planning) to social welfare planning, to technocratic planning, in a constant tension between the influence of the practical external forces, specifically the distribution of power in the society, and the internal ideological development of the logic of planning as planners both in theory and practice confront the its conflicting functions and rationales (centrally, the institutional balance between “market” and “state,” and the political balance between “democratic participation” and “technical expertise.”).

VI. The impact of these tensions between the practically dictated for “effective” planning practice and the ideologically independently desirable (only partly autonomous, but reacting independently to the outside forces determining its practical possibilities and limitations), is rarely confronted in planning education and professional discussions. The tendency is rather to avoid recognition of conflicts of interest and political interests and to value compromise, moderate and pragmatic goals. . It is thus generally to assume “markets” as natural, accept planning as interfering with them for limited purposes, and to hedge democratic participation to give scope to technical expertise.

VII. A key place at which the impact of the tensions is reflected is in the discussion of professional ethics, in the handling of the practice of planning’s claim to professional status, and most clearly in the development of the profession’s Code of Ethics, exploring and debating and acting with the goal of moving social justice from an Aspiration of planning (as in the present Code) to an Obligation of planners.

6 thoughts on “Blog #59 Planning: Social History and Ethics

  1. > the balance between “market” and “state”

    but this should really be the balance between the market and the *people*. in most countries today, the state does not remotely represent the interests of the people, but is instead just a tool for the rich and powerful, representing *their* interests.

      1. > the political balance between “democratic participation” and “technical expertise.”

        does “technical expertise” then represent the 1%-run state (and “democratic participation” the people)? I’m not sure I would describe the state as having “technical expertise”.

        1. Both terms were in quotes, because both are complex, and used with quite different meanings. The state is indeed largely undemocratic, but more democratic than the existing market. And technical expertise often isn’t, but it’s still what planning as a profession makes some claim to. .

  2. > Both terms were in quotes, because both are complex

    but putting “state” in quotes does not mean “the people”–you should say “society” if democracy is what you meant. also, “state” when used as “the state” usually means the government of an authoritarian state, rather than a democratic one.

    > but more democratic than the existing market

    not necessarily–consider that the corporations in the existing market largely run the state, through lobbying and other forms of corruption

    1. Yes. An interesting theoretical question: is the “ruling class” more powerful in the market or the state? Pretty hard to answer; powerful in both, but in different ways. But in terms of influencing actual policy, making a real difference, the political process still allows an opening for organizing and rallying pressures for change in the state around big issues that the market doesnt. Boycotts vs. political organizing…..

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