RESEARCH | Planning, phronesis & practice

Posted on 05/11/2012


The Urban Matters website is promoting an event due to occur later this month at the Vienna University of Technology. The event, Planning Unplanned, explores the “New Role of the Urban Practitioner”. This inquiry intersects neatly with my own as all my projects – Placing, Changescaping, Enabling Suburbs and Fieldworking – are grounded by different dimensions of this practice based and focused approach. The Planning Unplanned event outline notes that “in a context of deindustrialization, deregulation and privatization, artists have joined architects and urban planners to assume an ever more important role in the restructuring of cities”. While the focus drifts more into the realm of public art – the subject of Fieldworking – the question of what it means to be urban practitioners remains equally important for architects, urban designers and urban planners seeking interdisciplinary practice rather than guilded professions. There are limits to any professional discourse and so new territories are required (there’s a temptation to draw a Venn diagram magically demonstrating that the interdisicplinary practitioner occupies the point of intersecting or overlapping siloed professions). The idea of an ‘urban practitioner’ is a much more compelling, even interesting, one than ‘built environment professional’ and I’ve reflected previously on notions of practice. The Urban Matters website claims:

“Planning” seems no more an adequate response to today’s challenges of a multilayered society permanently on the move. Yet, critical projects developed during the last decade by architects, urbanists and artists continue to be a parallel production to the conventional planning methods which are predominantly investor-orientated. How can we develop new visions for urban and regional matters – counteracting the dominant pragmatics of neoliberal economy?

If planning is inadequate then perhaps too urban design and architecture are also inadequate in their prescriptions for thriving and prosperous communities. The intention is to investigate the ways in which artistic and experimental urban strategies enter into the current planning practice, if at all. For much of my postgrad studies this semester, I have been considering the idea of planning praxis and practice. In urban planning and development, sustainability can be contested and ‘fuzzy’: that is, as de Roo and Porter (2007) argue, it is not readily knowable or translatable as quantifiable outputs, which can be context specific and subject to competing and complex influences. Equally important in this analysis is the relationship between theory, policy and practice that addresses, as Friedmann (1989) has suggested, planning as a type of praxis. Such a positioning of planning can mean that planners are able to develop an interdisciplinary disposition informed by a moral sensibility (Pinson, 2004). For Friedmann (1989, p. 78), this idea of planning as praxis, in an Aristotelian sense, means that planning can be “’free’ moral and political action informed by knowledge and understanding … [working] with the special skills and knowledge planners have to bring us closer to the utopias of our imagination”. As Healey says, planning should not be regarded “merely as an enterprise in imagining futures but as a practice of bringing imagined futures into being” (2010, p. x). That is, planning plays a pivotal role in the pursuit of alternative, transformative and innovative development pathways for settlements and communities in the face of complex issues and challenges. Yet, its inadequacy is consistently asserted, perhaps because it is so readily and easily compromised or because of a seeming rigidity in the face of complexity. Planning might need an expanded toolbox. And I keep returning to this idea of the toolbox and what tools or tendencies might be useful, especially when planning is bound by its own rhetoric, a point that Michael McKeown makes quite well.

At the core of my own inquiry is the notion of phronesis and a link to social science. Flyvbjerg’s (2004, pp. 290-291) proposal for phronetic planning research is attentive to discourse analysis where the intention is “to clarify values, interests, and power relations in planning as a basis for praxis” (Flyvbjerg, 2004, p. 290). While Friedmann argues planning as praxis, there is also a need to consider phronesis, as proposed by Flyvbjerg (2004). From a governance and relational perspective (Healey, 2007) (de Roo & Porter, 2007), this has significant implications for values-based and context specific negotiations and constructions of power in the spatial and inter-subjective arrangements wrought through planning and design; even, I would suggest, in the context of massaging multidisciplinary teams into interdisciplinary teams. Importantly, as Healey (1997) proposes, planning is integral to both imagining the future and creating that imagined future. Planning process provides insights into planning praxis with its moral underpinning and political momentum, particularly through the iterative, situated and recursive flows of phronesis – power, values, governance and discourse. (Note: Mouffe, Ranciere, Bordieu and Arendt also have much to contribute to an expanded discussion about power, practice, praxis and phronesis.)

In heading towards an idea of the urban practitioner or urban planning practice, the actor-consulting model is instructive as values are inflected inter-subjectively due to the phronetic dimensions of the planning-as-praxis-as-governance process (Flyvbjerg, 2004) rather than planning as authoritative, coordinative, communicative or competitive. As de Roo and Porter argue:

Actor consulting and other design methodologies have moved forward by incorporating a post-modern perspective, believing that when facing ill-structured problems, actors do not necessarily behave rationally but are coping by being reasonable … [I]t is facilitating the planning process through comprehensive consultations that should result in deliberations between the actors about discrepancies and contradictions in perception and behaviour. Actor consulting in that sense will lead to clarification of vague, fluid or fuzzy conditions at the various stages of the planning process (2007, pp. 133-134).

Without such an approach, there is perhaps a danger of being drawn into intractable conflicts or adopting generic strategies or benchmarks that uncritically apply and appropriate what has worked elsewhere without due consideration of success factors or processual conditions. The purpose is not to reach some objectively acquired sense of sustainability but to understand what sustainability means for a particular context – there will be, as Tewdwr-Jones notes, successes and failures as well as unintended consequences (2011, p. 239). In undertaking a place-specific inquiry with place-based actors, where place-based factors align with proven approaches and principles, there is room for testing, innovation and refining. Pinson proposes that planners and planning are well placed to facilitate this kind of creative and consultative process:

Spatial planning really is a political process aimed at reaching an equilibrium through concerted dialogue between all the concerned parties—public and private—in order to solve the conflicting demands about the space and to conceive appropriate programmes of urban development. Such processes do not hide themselves behind a ‘‘common good’’. Rather they are processes involving negotiations in order to co-construct the best solution. In this new context, the role of the urban planner includes tasks of mediation, having an ability to negotiate conflicts, mixing scientific and political interests, all of which can be facilitated by a transdisciplinarity approach (Pinson, 2004, p. 510).

The specificities of place or region and the opportunities it presents should be foundationally constitutive of any masterplan or planning scheme within a complex and collaborative context. Byrne characterises this as “the need both to create systems that encourage or demand the pursuit of sustainability and to take advantage of specific project opportunities that arise, especially for governments, to explore, demonstrate and deliver more sustainable outcomes” (Byrne J. , 2004, p. 32). This highlights the praxis (power) dimensions of planning as it interleaves governance (decision making) and discourse (imagination and representation). This brings me to an idea of ‘next practice‘, as Brugmann espouses. The promise of next practice is that it is keenly aware of conventional good practice – its strengths and limitations – but sets out to move it to a new level. In some cases, Next Practice will disrupt, profoundly evolve or revolutionise good practice.  For example, CK Prahalad states that “there is a lot of research focused on best practice, but I focus on next practice. Next practice by definition addresses three problems: firstly it is future-oriented; secondly, no single institution or company is an exemplar of everything that you think will happen; and third, next practice is about amplifying weak signals, connecting the dots. Next practice is disciplined imagination.” It requires an appreciation of what could work more powerfully.

As planning tends to be process- and future- oriented, inter-subjective arrangements provide the space to reflect on and make decisions about values, interests, beliefs, ethics and slants (Burch, p. 25). This requires, as Reich proposes, abilities for symbolic analysis that catalyse appropriate actions or responses (1992, p. 178). More broadly, this means new opportunities for planning and planners as providers of ‘symbolic-analytic services’; in the emerging economy and enterprise of the 21st century, “only one asset grows more valuable as it is used: the problem- solving, identifying, and brokering skills of key people” (Reich, 1992, p. 178).

In pondering the fortunes and permutations of planning and place over the past two decades Tewdwr-Jones encourages “planners to consider whether they want to alter their roles, and … debate the advantages and disadvantages of proactive change” (2011, pp. 2709-280). Such a proposition relates to Flyvbjerg’s phronetic planning research agenda and addresses where knowledge resides for riding currents of change. Knowledge resides in, and is accrued by, individuals and teams – this is at the core of phronesis and even praxis – and is socially constructed and reproduced, so agency matters. By addressing discourse and phronesis in relation to praxis, there is a need for the adoption and propagation of new discourses (Franklin & Tait, 2002, p. 254). There is consequently some opportunity to consider planning culture and the disposition of planners therein. In ‘making big plans’, innovative and exemplary planning, design and development can occur at all stages of a collaborative process that engages institutions and approximates actor-consulting with its attention to fuzziness, governance and inter-subjectivity.