Do I Really Need Planning Theory?

It’ll be rare for a client to hire you to build them an ancient civilization. But who knows, retro is in these days.

I’ve never had a student ask me this, but it’s something that I always wondered when I was in school – do I really need Planning theory?

In both my undergraduate and graduate degree, I took multiple theory courses. As a grad student I TA’d twice for a first year Planning Theory course. So its safe to say, I know about Rationale Comprehensive Planning and Incrementalism, the Garden City and the Radiant City, Robert Moses vs. Jane Jacobs, Planning ethics, etc. etc.

The question is, do I use any of this knowledge as a practicing Planner? The short, snarky, “I told you so” answer is… no!

In my day-to-day job, I’ve yet to have a client say, “we think Le Corbusier was on to something – let’s explore this Cities in the Sky concept a bit further,” or “what if we put up a wall around the City, like they did in ancient Europe?” I’ve even suggested a top-down approach (ala Rational Comprehensive Planning), but clients (and the Planning Act) insist that the public should have a say in how their neighbourhood evolves.

However, while most of the stuff you’ll learn in your theory course(s) may seem less relevant in practice, ‘Hindsight Matt’ says suck it up and power through, it’s worth it. Much of Planning boils down to common sense. There are many ‘urbanists’ who’ve never studied Planning, but know much of what I know (i.e. bikes good, cars bad). Having a solid theory base will set you apart from all but the most hardcore of these people. While they’ll defend the merits of mixed use buildings, you’ll be prepared to go a step further and wax poetic about the failures of past approaches… You’ll always be the coolest person at the party.

Jokes aside, as you get more experienced, you’ll find that having a solid theoretical foundation will help your confidence and make you feel like you truly are a specialist in your field, and not just a hobbiest.

Interestingly enough, while theory may not be obvious in my day-to-day duties, it plays a vital role in my connection to, and investment in, Planning as a career. Over the years, I find myself regularly pondering various theoretical topics when reflecting on my own projects and when engaging in discussions with fellow Planners. For example, once you’ve hosted dozens of public meetings (Participatory Planning), it’s hard not to think of the role that planners played in past paradigms (Radical Planning, Advocacy Planning, etc.), and why they are no longer practiced. You may even find yourself weighing the merits of some of these alternative approaches. Similarly, your theory class will introduce the design elements that define great communities, but as these are applied by New Urbanists across the world (and eventually yourself), it’s interesting to note that they don’t always result in the same strong sense of community – not immediately, anyways (can you actually ‘design’ community?). The point here is that as you work on different projects, and gain new experience, you’ll find yourself inevitably wanting to dig deeper into the issues, topics and projects that interest you – often, without even realizing it, you’ll stumble back to the topics you learned in Planning Theory 101.

So I guess the long answer is yes, I do use Planning theory… I may not use it everyday, and it might not be obvious when I do, but it’s a big part of who I am as a Planner, and how I continue to be engaged and passionate about what I do. So my advice to you, while you may not appreciate the connection right away, don’t shy away from those theory courses.

I can almost hear my professors saying, “I told you so…”

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