Relationship of planning theory and planning practice

Role of Planning Theorists from a Planning Practitioner’s viewpoint

Planning theory has always been criticised by a number of practitioners. They are of the opinion that planning theory does not make sense. It does not link planning practice. Sandercock and Forsysth, 1992 argue that there is a huge gap between planning theory and planning practice. However, there are some other planners who believe that planning theory plays a significant role in planning practice and cannot be ignored. Friedmann, 2003 argued that planning practice cannot exist without planning theory. Planning theory acts as a base for the planning practitioners to present solutions to the practical problems in planning.

The planning system would not work without theories. Theories act as a base for the planning practioners.

planning theory

A lot of confusion revolves around the relationship between planning theory and planning practice. I decided to interview one of the planning practitioner. I had an opportunity to interview one of the councillors named Paula Goncalves at Brighton & Hove City Council. Her point of view was in favour of planning theorists.

Here is what she explained:

Theorists try to make sense of what happens in planning (how policies are devised, how decisions are made, how particular interests influence policy making and implementation, the role planners, politicians, developers, communities and others involved in the planning process interact and so) .

There are various ways in which theorists do this.

Some seek to identify patterns and to describe/explain in a structured manner how planning works to produce in order to improve how things are done.

Others use seek theory to communicate a more radical vision of places should be like, their utopia, let’s say.

What is clear is that planning theory changes over time and even at any particular time it is likely that there will be a number of different, at times, competing visions of what planning should do.

Think about Le Corbusier’s contemporaries for instance who thought about nature as something separated from buildings while at around the same time you had Frank Lloyd Wright talking about organic architecture that is more integrated and/or resemble nature. These are two different approaches of making sense of their views on how architecture should work and what it is for. The same is true to planning.

Theory is very important if it helps to improve a planner’s understanding of what is going on. Theorists can help by making sense of a number of approaches that could be available for practitioners to use. Practitioners rarely have the opportunity to be exposed to what is going on elsewhere and this, for me, is perhaps one of the really useful things that can arise from the analysis that theorists often undertake.

Having said that most planning practitioners find it often hard to understand what theorists are saying. The channels of communication between theorists and practitioners are rarely ever straightforward and open, tough. The use of language and the presentation of results is often a barrier. Theorists often have difficulty communicating in simple words the work they do. There are a few who bridge this gap though and when they do, I find their thoughts and considerations really revealing. She mentioned that David Harvey and Henri Lefebvre have done great work in the field of Urban Geography.

One of the areas theorists like to look at is the input of communities into planning policy, decision making and so on. If that is the case, involving communities in planning is something practitioners experience a lot in their work. She mentioned some of the difficulties she personally experiences. How to reach everyone who needs to be reached? How much weight do we give to those who scream the loudest against the potential silent majority? How do you engage communities to discuss something as remote from their day to day lives as a 20-year strategic plan for the city? These are questions theorists might be able to help with.

Theorists, because of their potential detachment from the day to day running of planning, have an opportunity to stop and think more carefully and seek to gather evidence about what planning wants to deliver (objectives) and what is actually delivering (outcomes). This can be really helpful in assessing policy performance and areas for improvement.

One other question you might want to ask yourself is why I am talking so much as theorists are separate from practitioners. This is a dichotomy that might not happen in real life. “Practitioners might not be systemising what they do day in day out on paper, but they might be creating their own theories of what they do in their heads.” This statement of hers was quite interesting and carried weight. This was actually true. All of us are constantly thinking and building theories in our head and that is what we follow in our day to day lives. They become our principles at work.

It is evident from the discussion that it cannot be said that planning theory is not relevant in planning practice. Theory has been evolving over two centuries. With new kinds of problems coming in, new theories were written. Theories were like guidance for planners. A number of theories were written addressing a planning problem of that time. This meant that planning theories were relevant for a specific period of time. They lost their relevance once the nature of planning problems changed and new theories had to be written.


Why do Planning Theory – John Friedmann, 2003

A New Gender Agenda –  Sandercock and Forsysth, 1992

Planning Theory or Planning Theories – António Ferreira, Olivier Sykes & Peter Batey

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