Planning: A Profession with An Identity Crisis in The Absence of a Core Paradigm


When compared to other long-standing disciplines such as history or political science, planning is a relatively new field. This article examines some of the enduring forces that today challenge planning as its professionals struggle to define its guiding paradigm and identity. In the absence of a widely-shared ethos, the planning process is often messy and contentious, even as planners do daily find ways to address issues (Campbell and Fainstein, 2003). This article first provides a description of the planning profession and offers a key rationale for it, which by itself does not necessarily provide a foundational paradigm for planning. It then explores the question of “planning’s identity” in an effort to help explain the profession’s ongoing lack of a unique architype to guide its practitioners. In context, a core planning paradigm would constitute an unambiguous foundational model, principle, view or set of beliefs, construed broadly to include all specialties or sub-specialties of the profession.

The Planning Profession

As a profession, planning is a place-based, context-driven field of practice with strong roots in the enlightenment tradition (Irving 1993; Beauregard 1989). In the United States, as in many parts of the world, planning continues to play a role in shaping the processes of economic, social and land development in communities of all stripes, including urban, suburban and rural ones.[1] Planning draws on many of the social sciences and on architecture, and may be defined as a political and technical process for creating ways and means to address the critical development challenges facing communities. Ideally, the planning process exemplifies and occurs by means of democratic decision processes (Davidoff, 1965).[2] Analysts have long argued that planning should facilitate physical development, capital circulation, commodities and information, among other concerns, in and among communities.[3] Yet, the role of planning is subject to debate.

As has occurred in communities across America in the past, economic, demographic and social changes are shifting the means of production and distribution of growth and creating disparities and imbalances. These complex and varied trends in turn are creating a demand for planners with capacities to address them (Conzen, 1983).[4] But, I have been wondering if planners are sufficiently prepared to recognize and tackle the contemporary challenges and uncertainties facing communities at the local or regional levels. Cognizant of the shifts underway, the conceptualization of planning outcomes must incorporate elements required for planners to thrive and intentionally create ways and means to address them (Reece, 2018).

Scholars continue to debate what principles should guide planning and, indeed, whether the field may be said to be rooted in a guiding set of beliefs or central paradigm at all (Levy, 1992; Campbell, H., and Marshall, R., 1998). In any case, it is undeniable that planning has come to play an important role in shaping community development choices and patterns, influencing a broad spectrum of political processes and decisions. Today’s cities and the character of their political economies are changing. Today, the profession is challenged to create a “cohesive” paradigm that incorporates different approaches. Contemporary planning demands a drastic “rethinking of planning interventions” (Fainstein, 2016, p. 4). A clear set of principles is needed to avoid philosophical conflicts about the core purposes of planning, and to help planners understand, contextualize and address complex problems.

This imperative must be addressed, even as the scale of the planning field has expanded in recent decades as the profession has grown and matured. That process has occurred amidst a backdrop of continuing and unprecedented urbanization.[5] That trend, in turn, has changed the character of the planning challenges faced by cities – ranging from issues with housing shortages, concentrated poverty, gentrification, racial inequality, social and economic segregation, to fragmented neighborhoods.[6] The evolving nature of public problems has led to a host of social conflicts, which have also often revealed a growing gap between planning approaches and the problems they seek to address (Watson, 2009; Davidoff, 1965; Godschalk, 2004). New technological changes and social innovations are creating “spontaneous orders” that are changing traditional planning narratives.[7] The image of the twenty-first century planning practice is one of a thousand faces and voices that reflect the growing specialization and diversification of the field. All of this said, to date, the planning profession has yet to develop a unique core identity.

The Planning Identity

Planners have long been involved in decision-making related to land use and development in American cities. In addition, and as noted, recent decades have witnessed the emergence of numerous specialties and subspecialties in the field (Levy 1992). Still, as the profession evolves, planning practice has continued to center principally on the design and oversight of processes linked to land use and sustainability (Ostrom, 2015). As the field has matured, the dynamics of planning problems and conflicts have shifted, but planning has remained a low salience profession as far as the public is concerned.[8] As Myer and Kitsuse have observed, “The role of planners is not well recognized nor widely validated” and planners do not enjoy “exclusive ownership of planning practice” (2005, p. 122). Several groups have challenged the legitimacy of the planning profession as it has grown, including some architects, engineers, economists and geographers. Tensions have also emerged among planning activists and planners who advocate for social justice and those who argue for professional neutrality (Myers and Kitsuse, 2000). This “identify crisis” in planning stems from the lack of a fundamental paradigm for the field. Planning needs systematic thinking approaches drawing on multiple methodologies to help practitioners address today’s multi-dimensional issues that are often “ambiguous, multifaceted and contentious, with complex outcomes” (Cole 2001, p. 373; Flint, 2015).

  Absence of A Core Paradigm and Guiding Principles

There is a legitimate argument that planning lacks a unique and distinctive professional narrative and, as a result, has become generic, confusing and overcrowded (McClendon et al., 2003). Planning has evolved from its nineteenth-century progressive roots to address the negative impacts (behavior, morals and health) of dysfunctional, overcrowded, free-market-dominated industrial cities (Reece, 2018), to land use zoning and its current preoccupation with economic growth and development. Sawicki (1988), for example, has argued that the lack of focus in the planning profession, both substantively and organizationally, is leading to its demise. In this view, the field needs to be more cogently defined. That is, its professionals must possess a definable set of competencies and expectations that can be readily employed to describe what planners do for others. Planning must “reestablish a mediative role between capital, labor, and the state,” and focus on finding a core mission with a distinctive technical competence to guide and influence professional discourse effectively (Beauregard, 1989, pp. 382; Cole, 2001). A clear set of beliefs or a core paradigm is needed to help planners address contemporary planning conflicts, both substantively and organizationally.

To address the current lack of a core set of principles, Cole (2001) and Myers and Banerjee (2000) have argued for a back-to-the-basics approach to planning, relying on “comprehensive plans.” They have suggested that the main planning professional competence is broad knowledge of land use processes, and “the implementation of comprehensive plans.”[9] Corburn has argued for recoupling the fields of planning and public health to address a social justice agenda (Corburn, 2003). The obvious limitations of this argument are that (1) the comprehensive plan has lost its dominance in planning (Levy, 1992; Hirt, 2005; Cole, 2001) and (2) planning’s problems as a field are not simply the result of a lack of a guiding paradigm (Beauregard 1990; Levy 1992), but also, that “planning practice itself evades a coherent theoretical framework” (Fainstein 2016, p. 2). From the start, planning has occurred within the context of competing visions and values, and the constraints represented by the capitalist market, democratic, bureaucratic and legal processes. Increasingly, competing demands for affordable quality housing, environmental protection, conservation of natural resources, historic preservation, new forms of built environments, transportation and mobility options, economic opportunities, social equity, health and quality of life for communities are generating forms of planning conflicts.

Contemporary Planning Conflicts

Planning conflicts are often resource based, involving interest groups and other stakeholders in contests to influence political officials.[10] Those engaged in such disputes often have incompatible views concerning what constitutes an appropriate distribution of community resources, and evidence contradictory demands and contrasting visions concerning basic infrastructure needs and the character of social, and economic dilemmas now confronting citizens and public officials (Hersperger, Ioja, Steiner, and Tudor 2015).[11]

Consider, for example, planning conflicts implicit in efforts to secure livable communities and sustainable development (Godschalk, 2004). These tensions can easily be magnified when issues of multiculturalism and identity politics are factored into discussions concerning them. This is to say that social conflicts and distrust of governments at all levels pose implicit moral and ethical challenges for planners. In their efforts to identify the public good or common interest, planners must recognize the interests of multiple publics (Davidoff, 1965). What I have observed is that as society has become more fragmented, the domain of authority for collective action,[12] as it relates to the common interest, may possibly be moving outside the formal reach of planners and, indeed, of local governments more generally (Ostrom, 1990, p 270). Nowadays, “planning often occurs without the guidance of professional planners” (Myers and Banerjee 2005, p.121).

Considering this long-term trend, one might contend that the planning profession and government more broadly is losing a long-term battle with market-based actors (land developers, investors, realtors, economists, etc.) concerning who shall shape the evolution of urban spaces most consequentially.[13] In the context of today’s political economy, “capitalism both endangers and constrains state interventions” (Foglesong, 2016, p. 102).[14] It has been observed that planners value equity as a lodestone normative criterion, as opposed to efficiency, which market actors most revere (Thomas, 2008). To become more relevant, planners must redefine their interests and values and work assiduously to balance the social, environmental and economic needs of communities against market demands. Perhaps a clearer paradigm will help planners derive meaningful methods and approaches to incorporate the social needs and cultural values of residents, in balancing the tensions between market forces and their conception of the public good in an otherwise inauspicious political environment.[15]

Similarly, there have been some noticeable shifts in planning beliefs and norms in relation to social reproduction and capitalist production. Smith (2002) has argued that cities have shifted to an increasingly capitalist means of production and cultural circulation. I wish to argue that fragmentation, marginalization and the processes of gentrification to some extent, are the product of that change.[16] Gentrification is a hated symbol of urban renewal, with disproportionate impacts on racial and ethnic minorities and it confronts planners with the challenges of assisting those displaced and of seeking to redress the causes of the inequality that made their situations perilous in the first place (Corburn, 2009; Dai, 2011). Such problems are controversial in politics and planning.[17]

Ultimately, the delivery of quality planning services requires the creation of inclusive and deliberative planning processes that involve multiple parties with competing agendas, values and interests. Planners must consider local politics in relation to land use conflicts, as well as how those tensions may affect their professional norms and ethics (Rabinovitz, 1969; Corburn, 2009). In addition to current strategies aimed at helping to manage planning conflicts, such as communicative (Innes, 1995, 1996) and collaborative (Healey, 2003) approaches, planning today needs a clear policy framework through which to address scenarios involving multiple parties with competing agendas, values and interests.

 Planning for the Future 

As we move into the future, planning is uniquely positioned to help to define and address contemporary urban land use and conflicts linked to it (Beauregard 1989). But, to play this significant societal role, planning practice must reflect the social, political and economic needs of the society. A unique disciplinary paradigm is needed to scale and capture the “essence” of traditional shifts or new and emerging domains. Both academic and planning practitioners must work together to tie planning theories to the core responsibilities and challenges facing planners. Universities must equip the next generation of planners with competencies in substantive areas such as infrastructure planning and finance, technology and analytics that have remained relatively unexplored (Sawicki, 1988). Together, academic planning programs and organizations should define a core paradigm or principles for the field in the context of participatory governance and representational policy-making (Fisher 2016).[18] Planners must routinely be able to employ planning theories and practice methods to address conflicts arising from economic development, the built environment, environmental and social values (Fainstein 2010, 2016).

In sum, good planning requires creating some measure of harmony among economic development, the requirements of the built environment and environmental values. While the planning profession lacks the authority to effect real change and cannot stop injustice by itself (Fainstein 2016), the delivery of planning services must both reflect and guide community values. To achieve more sustainable and relevant outcomes, planners must acknowledge the tension between the need for distributive justice and the willingness of society to ignore that imperative.



[1] Land development refers to how urban land is produced in the form of buildings and sites for various activities (Healey and Barrett, 1990). Similarly, “the form of urban development of a city is greatly influenced by its land development process which in turn is influenced by its socio-economic and political structures” (Yeh, A. G. O., and Wu, F. 1996, p. 330).

[2] Campbell, H., and Marshall, R. (1998) have argued that the history of the field of planning has been characterized by lengthy debates concerning the appropriate sphere of its activities and core principles.

[3] The planning process plays a critical role in community, regional or state visioning efforts. Planning encompasses diverse viewpoints and possible strategies. It requires developing mechanisms to secure open, timely and meaningful public involvement in defining short and long-term goals.

[4] Towns, cities and agencies are mandated by federal and state laws to develop short and long term comprehensive planning goals and objectives at local, regional, and state levels,

[5] Urbanization is the process of urban population growth in cities. Over time, increases in urban population growth in cities and regions may lead to both demographic and geographic shifts, providing opportunities for economic growth and development (Yeh, A. G. O., and Wu, F. (1996) creating planning conflicts. Those tension including issues of resource (re) distribution and social injustice that are the subject of complex political, economic and social struggles in cities (Thomas 2008).

[6] The recent reemergence of civil disorders and social disturbances in American cities are indications of underlying “macroeconomic forces, policies, and [systematic] challenges facing” cities and society with implications for planning (Reece 2018, p.8).

[7] Technology has enabled social entrepreneurs to create, adapt and deploy new intervention strategies and solutions outside the bounds of traditional institutions or the prerogative of any organizational form or legal structure, to address systemic social, economic development and environmental challenges in support of social progress, inclusion and diversity.

[8] That is, most members of the public do not know what planning is, what planners do or what factors or emphases differentiate the various specialties that now characterize the profession (McClendon et al., 2003).

[9] Cole (2001) argues that planning’s unique and distinctive function is to produce and administer comprehensive plans.

[10] Planning conflicts are disagreements involving how best to approach and resolve or address policy, social and economic issues, including various land use options.

[11] According to Conzen (1983), shifts in the structure of urban economies and society alongside the fragmentation of American cities have created a profound and intensifying competition for growth among cities and regional systems for growth and economic benefits.

[12] Collective action – is “an organizing framework for the design of coding forms” (Ostrom, 1986, p.5).

[13] Ann Markusen once suggested that the urban planning profession is losing the battle with economics for the shaping of urban space in part because planners value equity as a normative criterion, whereas market actors value efficiency. Efficiency has won out in whatever war of values might have taken place between these actors (Markusen, 2000). In recent years, planning has itself sought to create institutional frameworks to address economic issues affecting communities, rather than focusing explicitly on equity and social justice.

[14] Foglesong (2016) has suggested that the market system cannot meet the needs of residents in a manner capable of maintaining capitalism and reproducing fixed capital investments.

[15] Defining planning services as a set of outcomes that reflect a clear and compelling view of social justice (Corburn 2004).

[16] Gentrification is the process of redevelopment or renovation of once economically depressed or deteriorated neighborhoods through the influx of new residents. Gentrification often increases the demand for housing and rent levels through significant property appreciation and demand for new capital investment (Smith, 1996, 2002) that disproportionally displace minorities, mostly African-Americans.

[17] As with other planning conflicts, gentrification may be seen as a tool used by the state to create and legitimize spatial control of oppressed racial and ethnic minorities (Bollens, 1999, 2000; Yiftachel, 2000).

[18] Diversify the planning profession to promote deliberative and inclusive planning through participatory planning practices under conditions of trust (Benhabib 1996). Also, Sabatier provides an advocacy coalition framework for planning and policy making by planners, widening the scope of planning and decision-making processes, accounting for factors such as economic development and community participation (Abbott 2013) that other classical models of agenda setting, formulation and implementation had not fully contextualized (Sabatier 2006).


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Efon Epanty is Ph.D. student in Planning, Governance, and Globalization (PGG) in the School of Public and International Affairs at Virginia Tech. His research interests include: Multimodal Transit Planning, Urban Mobility Systems, Transportation Technology and Policy. His current research looks at the application of intelligence transportation technologies to improve bus transit systems. He previously earned a Master’s in Public Administration from Virginia Tech and also holds a Master’s in Urban Planning from the University of Kansas. He received a Bachelor of Sciences with Honors in Geography from the University of Buea in Cameroon.

Efon currently works as a Transportation Planner with the Fairfax County Department of Transportation.

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