Category Archives: the dismal student

Planning, how dismal thou art 2: A reflection on 22 months of study

So a year ago I opined the state of planning education as I have experienced it thus far. I summed it up by saying, “It only matters who won, or achieved their desired political outcome. And science and reason have little to do with it”. I reread my dismal drivel and have now decided that my opinion still stands even against another 12 months of study.

So what is getting in my craw? Politics. I am pushing 40 and have had my share of life experiences and am fully aware of the politics that exist everywhere. I knew that planning was a political exercise by nature. That having come from Public Health and worked among academics I witnessed plenty of politicking. I have also worked in film (you might know this as movies) and believe me there is plenty of politics there too. This reflection is more about the education side of planning rather than planning as practiced, as my view of and exposure to practitioners is limited.

Navigating the political fiefdoms in my school. Not a fun exercise either. Nor is the submission to reading intellectually shallow readings of social theory and philosophy as rehashed by planners and taught by non-planners, and yet, the preachings are so rarely actually practiced! The program is very much in the school of the rational planner, top down, the attitude of “trust me, I am the expert-the authority”. What happened to “transactive”? And student opinions are met with “tokenism”. And few professors are “advocates” for the students. There are some, but the few who advocate for students are not power hungry, and are by nature willing to share power, but others are not, and so those most likely to advocate for students are politically the weakest, and those who have their own agenda are politically strongest, and so it is BAU. But I thank the professors who try.

VNT recently had a summit. During our break out session our “moderator” was more interested in reinforcing and steering the discussion to what VNT wants to do, rather than hear some interesting points that were made (they were not controversial or counter, just not what the moderator wanted to hear I guess), and that I had not heard of, and yet those new points were downplayed in favor of the norm, or to be quasi-Kuhnian about it, our moderator was practicing ‘normal planning’. Then later this event was followed by a real time voting survey where the questions were leading, loaded, double-barreled and about every other “do not do this in your survey design from your how to design a survey 101 course”.

To new planning students I strongly recommend finding workshops in your area, check your COG, MPO, APA, and AMPO sites regularly. You will get a better sense of what is going on in planning and meet practitioners and hear them debate issues. I wish I had started going earlier, and they are usually very cheap to attend. Places to check are your local COG, MPO, or RTC and of course the APA or your state chapter. To find them try: and .

At the end of the day, what works, or what gets actually done, is what is politically feasible, not what is just or best. But that does not necessarily mean BAU either. It can be for change and for the better, but you have to be creative. I’d also suggest keeping in mind that there are no absolute facts. That scientific evidence by nature is never finished or certain. And so you are operating more on the belief side rather than truth side of absolute or objective knowledge. But maybe I’ve been reading too much Feyerabend and Wittgenstein lately.

Well, I hope this ramble helps any proto-planners out there.

My recommended reading list in no particular order:

Planning, how dismal thou art: A reflection on 10 months of study

Economics has been labeled the “dismal science”, for several reasons, one that it was a difficult one to learn, and two, because often its science forecast dismal pictures for the future. Much has changed in economics since, but I am not sure much has changed in planning in the past century.

To be fair to planning, it has never claimed to be a science. However, it is interdisciplinary, and some disciplines are of the sciences, planning itself uses (more or less) scientific methods and statistics; moreover, planning is decision making, and while there may be an art to it, there is a science to it as well (or should be).

A challenge for planning, and transportation planning, has always been to find a balance between all the competing actors, among all the competing groups, across all the many places, into the foreseeable future, and the built environment today reflects the decisions made in the past. No one asked what the future residents wanted, but they will live in the built environment someday. We call this a representative democracy in the US, or we talk of the “public interest”, which sounds deceivingly singular despite its pluralistic nature. However not all interests carry equal weight.

Since at least Plato in classical western political philosophy, a sense of justice about what governments “ought” or “should” do, and for whom, has been a time honored tradition of contention in western political philosophy. Only recently in the past 100 years or so, do we ask what can or could government do.

Was Plato right? Would we be best served by “Kings with a heart of gold”? Would a benevolent dictator or a centralized form of government be better? These governments do exist to day. The folks I meet from other countries, Taiwan, China, Germany, Japan, Korea- all have less involvement in local representation of their interests in the planning process, and anecdotally they seem possibly happier than I, and yet I have choice and American democracy, hmmm… something does not add up.

Psychologists seem to think happiness is relative. Are they on to something? Other researchers have said more choice makes you less happy. Cases in points, Charleston and Savannah both developed without the aid of planners, and by new urbanist standards, liveability and walkability rank high in these cities, these cities are models for new urbanism. Grid pattern development and public parks were chosen without consulting planners, without consulting the public, and without the benefit of scientific research. And what came of it? We are now trying to replicate today through so called “new urbanism” an approach in planning that models the result of forgoing science and the public interest! Maybe a dictator who imagines where they might like to live is enough? Maybe we do not need political process and science to plan? Or maybe the local power elites do this already?

A few political ruminations:

Marx’s argument that the proletariat “should” govern themselves rather than the bourgeois class was rebuked by Bakunin. Bakunin had argued that everyone “ought” to be self governed and act collectively, and to reject authority that they did not accept willingly. This was anarchism,though they seldom reach consensus. Marx is quoted as saying, “if this is Marxism? Then I am not a Marxist”! Even the leaders of revolutions can not agree with what to do!

Around this time Darwin’s “Origin of Species” was making the rounds in the home’s of elites at cocktail parties, and it was Herbert Spencer who coined the term “survival of the fittest”, a justification of the position of the ruling class and wealthy by the “social Darwinists” that Spencer had inadvertently spawned. Spencer was an early libertarian. Again, not unlike Bakunin’s anarchist ethos that one “ought” to be allowed to self govern, and so government should be minimal to maximize personal liberty. Libertarianism is still alive and well in the US, but in very small numbers of those who vote libertarian, although some research suggests a strata of libertarian leanings among Americans.

But maybe it’s all illusory. Maybe we think we have a voice in the process, and that’s all that matters. If people can adjust to the loss of a limb or loved one, why not a new mall, or tollway, or TOD, maybe it just does not matter at the end of the day.

In conclusion:

This brief, incomplete, and cherry picked rehash of western political philosophy is meant to illustrate the problem of, who governs, and who is governed as a persistent problem. At least two millennia later and counting, we are no closer to resolving this issue. The quest for knowledge has culminated in science in modern times. The extent to which that we have scientific knowledge may not matter in the policy making/planning process.

What seems to have mattered most historically, was not science but politics. Whose right, who has scientific evidence, which scientific evidence, it just does not matter! It only matters who won, or achieved their desired political outcome. And science and reason have little to do with it- chant, “it just doesn’t matter”, Bill Murray from the movie “Meatballs”.