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John F. Forester’s Planning And New Urbanism

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One of the great joys of studying theory is the layering and repositioning, the new vantage points that open up like windows suddenly appearing in the side of a formerly solid brick wall as one examines previous fundamental theory through the new theoretical lenses presented as a subject continues to mature. Planning is relatively young as an academic field, and it is flush with fundamental theory just waiting to be superimposed by new and novel suggestions of planners currently working in the field to expand the horizons of the profession. One such opportunity will be recognized in the following essay. John F. Forester is a prolific planning theorist and practitioner, who has made significant contributions to current planning theory literature. This essay will examine Forester’s suggestion that successful planning must incorporate rationality, materiality, and plurality throughout the planning process. A brief overview of how Forester defines each of these attributes will provide context for the application of this framework to three fundamental planning theories. Forester’s Rationality, Materiality, and Plurality John F. Forester is a current professor at Cornell University whose research focuses on “the micropolitics of the planning process, ethics, and political deliberation assesses the ways that planners shape participatory processes and manage public disputes in diverse settings”. The author of such publications as The Deliberative Practitioner: Encouraging Participatory Planning Processes, and Planning in the Face of Power, Forester probes issues of ethics and morality in order to draw conclusions about less esoteric, and more practice-focused strategies. Forester advocates for planners to account for rationality, materiality, and plurality throughout their planning process. For the purposes of this essay, it is necessary to contextualize these three characteristics, to situate them in Forester’s body of work so as to be able to accurately discuss how different existing planning theories account for each of them. In his editorial “Our infatuation with the object of planning: If only we could read off and follow the rules”, Forester suggests the importance of rationality, materiality, and plurality. Throughout the editorial, Forester argues that there is an emphasis in planning theory on the object – on the project at hand, and the space in which the project takes place. Planners run the risk of project failure if they focus solely on the materiality (what Forester calls “knowledge of the real thing”) to the exclusion of the underlying or interwoven complexities that are inevitable parts of all planning projects.

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However, this overrepresentation in itself does not render materiality beside the point in planning processes. Rather, it reduces it to one of several driving factors. Rationality demands that planners take into account the particulars of a place with regard to the understood social dynamics of that place. Forester posits that “in diverse contexts, rules cannot be read from the setting at hand,” which is to say that social and governing rules cannot be discerned from the material setting. In order to design, negotiate, and implement successful plans, a planner cannot apply a broad, general framework of rationality in the decision making process, the rationale needs to be context-specific. So enters his third point: plurality. Consideration of plurality means, for Forester, a recognition by planners of the values and interests held by each stakeholder involved in a project. He notes in reference to this that “Because plurality matters, planners are likely to fail if they are too literal, if they pay attention to mere words and not underlying interests and values…” while being careful to remind planners to acknowledge the explicitly articulated interests and values of various stakeholders as well. So we have Forester’s trifecta: an informed knowledge of the physicality of a space (materiality), a planning and decision making approach informed by the rules and resources of that space (rationality), and an appreciation for and integration of the different layers of interests and values that are held by the stakeholders–by the users of that space (plurality). These make up what Forester describes as “the basic stepping stones that creatively improvising planners actually try to use when dealing with complex problems.” In one way or another, each of the planning theories considered in this essay deals with each of these three points. The following section explores how three prominent planning theories each account for Forester’s idea of materiality, rationality, and plurality. Rational-Comprehensive Planning The first major theoretical planning paradigm to emerge in theory literature, the rational comprehensive model is characterised by the creation and use of a master plan, and sets planners up as rational actors, expert in their field. As Robert Beuregard notes in his essay “Between Modernity and PostModernity,” theorists in support of the rational comprehensive model “believed that they had found the intellectual core of planning: a set of procedures that would generate conceptual problems for theorist, serve as a joint object for theory and practice, and guide practitioners in their daily endeavors”.

Susan Fainstein adds to Beauregard’s definition, asserting that “…the concept of the rational model represented an approach based wholly on process, with little regard either to political conflict or to the specific character of the terrain on which it was working”. This articulation of the Rational Model suggests that there is a framework of planning independent from any specific location or situation, but that could be universally applied to create a successful plan. The Rational Model favors a technocratic approach, and an orderly logic is considered paramount. Forester’s rationality is obviously the best represented in this model of his three points, but it lacks a certain nuance provided by the mixing of materiality and plurality. In his oft-cited essay “The Science of ‘Muddling Through’,” Charles E. Lindblom suggests an adjustment to the focus of the Rational-Comprehensive approach that perhaps may leave more room in the theory for the consideration of materiality and plurality. He calls the traditional approach of the Rational-Comprehensive model the “root method,” and posits that in the root method, each time a planning project is proposed, it is analyzed in full from the very beginning, as a brand new plan with its own individual alternatives, limitations, complications, and implications. This requires extreme simplification of analysis factors, because there are not enough resources–monetary, temporal, cognitive, or otherwise – to achieve a truly comprehensive analysis. In contrast, Lindblom says, is the “branch method.” The branch method, or the method of successive limited comparisons, for which Lindblom posits “…it is not necessary to undertake fundamental inquiry into an alternative and its consequences; it is necessary only to study those respects in which the proposed alternative and its consequences differ from the status quo.” By limiting the analysis points of alternative plans for a project, I posit that there may be potential for diverting resources toward the further consideration of materiality and especially plurality within this theoretical approach. New Urbanism New Urbanism is a planning approach that concerns itself more with form than either the Rational Comprehensive or Communicative and Collaborative approaches do. New Urbanism is often written about in planning theory literature in conjunction with Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City (late-1800’s) and Le Corbusier’s City Beautiful (mid-1900’s) movements, which were two early approaches to planning that both concerned themselves with morphology. Though New Urbanism came along much later (in the later part of the 1900s), the focus on the physical form of a place or space takes inspiration from these early models. According to Jill L. Grant, New Urbanism is “Commonly associated with principles of compact form, mixed use, mixed housing types, higher urban densities, defined center and edge, walkability, and transportation alternatives,” and “has influenced policy at all levels of planning and land development, especially in fast-growing regions”.

New Urbanism is also concerned with how the built urban form can shape human behavior, and is predicated in part on the idea that good planning can promote desirable behaviors and living conditions. With its strong focus on morphology, New Urbanism clearly accounts for Forester’s materiality. Knowledge of “the real thing” in New Urbanism is knowledge of the physical space, and the implications and effects of that space for its users. As Grant (2015) points out, critics of New Urbanism took issue with the above-mentioned idea of environmental determinism, and Grant suggests that the theorists developing New Urbanism responded to this critique by adding a layer of nuance, suggesting that “ensuring place diversity…might help to produce social diversity…, but cautioned that design should be seen as enabling rather than generative of particular social behaviors.” Carmona, et. al. (2003) echo this sentiment, and remind readers that “Rather than determining human actions or behavior, urban design can be seen as a means of manipulation the probabilities of certain actions or behaviors occurring.” The recognition of the built environment as a creator of potential (rather than determiner of specific) behaviors and conditions begins to allow for Forester’s plurality to play a part as well: a range of factors will influence each individual’s interests and values, and therefore their relationship to a space. Lest readers of this essay think rationality has been thrown to the wind entirely, “Toward a Non-Euclidian Mode of Planning” by John Friedmann (1993) provides a discussion that helps link the Rational Comprehensive model and New Urbanism, and provides a look at how rationality might fit into both models. Friedmann states in his essay that the planning approach “rooted in nineteenth-century concepts of science and engineering, is either dead or severely impaired,” and that it has little value, despite still being widely taught as a dominant model of planning. In light of the earlier discussion, it is immediately apparent that Friedmann’s “Euclidean Mode of Planning” is referencing in part the Rational Comprehensive model. Elements of New Urbanism also nest under this Euclidean Mode of Planning, as “Euclidean” is generally understood to describe geometric or spatial relationships, a primary focus of New Urbanism.

Friedmann suggests five main points that define what good, non-Euclidean planning should be: “normative, innovative, political, transactive, and based on social learning”. It is in his description of innovation that Friedmann offers an important lens for conceptualizing rationality in the Rational-Comprehensive and New Urbanism approaches: “Innovative planning is consequently focused rather than comprehensive in scope; present rather than future oriented; and concerned chiefly with institutional and procedural changes appropriate to the case at hand.” I argue that this is not an abandonment of rationality, but rather an expansion on the traditional understanding of rationality espoused by the Rational-Comprehensive model. Planners are still required to make decisions, and encouraged to ground that decision-making process in evidence and knowledge. However, instead of that evidence and knowledge being subject-specific, and dealing only with a generic, one-size-fits-all theory, Friedmann (like Forester) calls for the consideration of specific context throughout the decision-making process. New Urbanism is still very prominent in planning theory and practice today. As Grant articulates, “its premises and principles have become articles of faith, no longer subject to empirical testing or challenge. What was originally called New Urbanism now is just as likely to be labeled simply ‘smart’ or ‘sustainable’ design and planning, embedded in policies, plans, and codes…”. While it is arguable that New Urbanism continues to overemphasize materiality, it is important to recognize that practitioners are in fact incorporating elements of rationality and plurality in their ethos. The Charter of the New Urbanism, ratified in 1996 by the organization Congress for the New Urbanism includes the following: “We recognize that physical solutions by themselves will not solve social and economic problems, but neither can economic vitality, community stability, and environmental health be sustained without a coherent and supportive physical framework”. In this statement, the weaving together of rationality, materiality, and plurality is evident.

01 February 2021

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