In 2019, the Covid-19 pandemic ushered a new breathe of life for that urban planning profession. As the pandemic ravaged the world, from the streets of China spreading to sleepy towns across the world, urban planners began discussing how planning should transform as a profession to better serve cities in the post-pandemic era. Issues of climate change crisis, public health, and inequality became even more topical during the pandemic. Planning needed to be more conscious of such issues. Planning manifestos were pitched for a post-Covid-19 era. For a moment, the Covid-19 pandemic seemed like another great cholera outbreak, the public health crisis that was going to revive the troubled planning profession. This never came to be, however. As the pandemic receded to endemic, the discourse on how planning will transform cities also receded, the profession went back to how it was before the pandemic. No new transformative ideas had come from the planning profession to transform cities.
The crisis that the urban planning profession went back to after the Covid-19 pandemic is perennial. It is a crisis that can be traced back all the way to the formative years of the profession in 1909. Many factors can be attributed to the perennial crisis that the planning profession is facing. In this essay, I discuss some of the factors that are pushing the urban planning profession off the cliff.
Urban planning is upheld with high regard. Planners tend to perceive themselves as society’s bedrock professionals. After all, they are responsible for determining how cities are organised. Planning is not one of society’s bedrock professions nonetheless, it is a minor profession. In his essay, School of the Minor Professions, Nathan Glazer identify minor professions as those outside law and medicine. The decline that the planning profession is experiencing is less to do with its minor status; several factors have contributed to the perennial crisis that has besieged the profession. To understand how planning has become a “trivial” profession, falling from tall heights when it had so much power and influence, it is key to revisit how the profession came to be in the first place.
A Dual Origin of the Profession
Urban planning as a profession is well-known to have roots in the Garden City idea of Ebenezer Howard. This was a utopian socialist approach to reforming cities peacefully towards better quality of life. The garden city idea was a unique combination of proposals from earlier utopian socialist thinkers. For Howard to come up with the Garden City idea, the laissez-faire as a system of organising society during the industrial revolution proved catastrophic for cities. Unregulated private enterprise failed to provide for social investment and services critical for cities. Cities were affected by problems of diseases and ill-health as buildings took place without effective control on standards. The lack of regulation led to poorly built houses, poor drainage and unsanitary conditions that eventually led to cholera outbreaks and respiratory diseases caused by industrial pollution.
This was the British origin of planning as a profession, an origin rooted in ideals of enlightenment. In the British context, which influenced planning globally, the change planning from voluntary practice to a statutory placed as a profession was influenced by two factors. First, as Britain was losing its world dominance to Germany and USA, both in military and economic terms, deteriorating urban condition became an alarming issue, unfitness of urban volunteers for military service became evident. Second, the labour movement of the working class through mass unionism was causing serious strikes since the 1880s leading to social unrest. The working class was demanding not only higher wages but also better way of life in cities, better housing fit to live in.
Urban planners maximised this policy window, they argued that society could be stabilised through application of urban planning principles of the Garden City. The principles afforded all classes to benefit. The working class was to benefit through better housing, the industrialists were to benefit through a better workforce. The ruling class were to benefit through a stable society. So urban planning as a profession was born out of consensus of various classes a consensus that became popularly known as “public interest.” It is this establishment of harmony among various competing classes in cities through land use planning that gave planning its value as a profession.
While in Britain planning was found on ideals of enlightenment, in the United States, the planning profession was found on ideals of modernism, ideals of “utopia realised.” As a result, planning in America arose out of the landscape architectural profession during the Olmsted era as the City Beautiful Movement. The American foundation of the planning profession was grounded on creating beautiful cities that accommodate human needs according to social and economic principles through vibrant civic design. This physical nature under the city beautiful movement achieved considerable success during the pre-war era.
The professionalization of planning raised a debate over who should practice it, particularly in the British context. Several professionals in the built environment were already practicing some aspects that fell under urban planning. These included architects, civil engineers, and surveyors. In Britain, this debate led to the establishment of the Town Planning Institute as an inter-professional forum and the emergence of an independent town planning education in 1909 at Liverpool University’s newly established Department of Civic Design. Some advocated for lawyers and public administrators to be the practitioners of planning. The arguments by the city engineer of Birmingham, Henry Stilgoe in 1910 demonstrated the contentions that existed over who should administer the newly established town planning practice. His argument has proved more important than ever and it is worth quoting:
I think the people to administer it [the 1909 Housing, Town & Country Planning Act] will be the borough engineers and surveyors of this country. It is their right. They are the officials, the statutory officials, appointed under the Public Health Act, and without their cooperation, and, in fact, without their intimate knowledge of their districts, this Act cannot be put into property and efficient working order…We must drive forward the great engineering works. The others will follow. These people who talk so much about town planning do not know what they want; would not know what to do with it if given the opportunity. 
A Mediator of Urban Wars
One key attribute that urban planning forsaken when it became a profession is the model of equilibrium for cities that was developed and consolidated by Ebenezer Howard, the Garden City idea. Because of the lack of this model, most planning interventions are being driven by radical ideologies at the detriment of the profession’s integrity. This is because, when planning was established as a profession, cities had become a battleground of various classes contesting for resources, domination. Planning became the profession responsible for mediating such conflicts in cities. Its main mediation tool was land use planning, a process where planners allocated space to various classes and uses in efforts to reduce and avoid conflict. Planners were custodians of the collective interest of society, knowing that various groups of society have competing and conflicting interests; planners were entrusted with ensuring what became known as “public interest.” The fight between industrialists and the working class has been a difficult case that planners need to mediate. Right from the formative years, landed-interests of industrialists and the ruling class proved too powerful to restrain through planning regulation, social movements proved to be an impoverished energy to fight capital as well. Now, planning is losing its grip as a mediating profession in cities because both parties (the social and the capital) no longer want peace. In cities, capitalists and socialists are all out for an unrestrained war against each other in their quest to control the city. Because of such an impasse, the consensus that led to the establishment of planning as a profession no longer exists. Both parties are so determined to do away with planning.
The Radicality of Socialism
The social that planning was mandated to harmonise with the capital for a peaceful co-existence is no longer the same. Socialism is now very antagonistic against capitalism and it seeks to do away with the planning profession. The social movement accuse the planning profession of serving the interests of capitalism at the expense of communities. This accusation goes way back to the very establishment of planning as a profession. In 1909, when planning became a profession, the movement that led revolts which ushered the need for planning profession in the UK maintained doubts about planning’s ability to rationalise the interests of the capitalist class. While planning made significant progress in that regard during its formative years, the post WWII era was such a turn for the profession.
The post-war period was a golden age of capitalism. In the US, the American dream ushered wide-scale suburban housing development. As Americans moved to the suburbs, city centres began deteriorating, they were in need of renewal. The desperation of cities to save their deteriorating inner cities and declining tax base led to ambitious urban renewal projects that put planning on a path against the social and in favour of the capital. Planners were commissioned to do slum clearance. In the UK, planners were entrusted with developing new towns. The urban renewal programs and the new town development led to the worst vandalism that ushered the most brutal criticism of the planning profession. Planners had drunk the Corbusian Kool-Aid; they were too intoxicated to see the harm they were causing, they played too much into the hands of the capitalist class while impoverishing the working class.
Following the vandalism of cities by planners during urban renewal programs in America and new towns development in the UK, Jane Jacobs introduced the criticism that became basis of radical antagonism of urban socialism against capitalism and the planning profession itself. Jane Jacobs even went after the most ground breaking concepts that shaped planning and cities. Jacobs described the progressive thinker of the late Victorian era, Sir Ebenezer Howard as a mere “court reporter… a clueless amateur who yearned to do the city in with powerful and city destroying ideas.” The criticism by Jane Jacobs ended up being an attack on every aspect of traditional planning, its rational nature.
While Jane Jacobs’ criticism was well founded and sought to improve quality of cities and quality of urban life, it was hijacked by the resurgence of Marxism. In the 1960 Henri Lefebvre published the essay, Right to the City which had a Marxist revolution approach to transforming cities. Under the Jane Jacobs protests, planners were accused of siding with the capitalism; they became adversaries of proponents of the social. New mechanisms were devised to strip the powers of planners and given them to the citizens. The professional authority and the visionary capacity of planners were stripped away; citizens became empowered in the planning process eventually turning planners into mere facilitators of public participation.
The way planners were stripped off their powers after their failure was not a corrective measure on the part of the proponents of the social. The proponents sought to decapitate the planning profession and transfer the role and authority of planners to communities. It was a radically antagonistic move as the social sought to face the capital head on. There were no considerations of other alternatives to bottom-up approach such that of subsidiarity; the bottom-up approach became the ultimate approach to planning. The fact that some decisions are best made top-down, middle-down or middle-up was not in picture.
If we are to compare with other professions such as economists, no matter how many mistakes they make regarding the monetary policy or the fiscal policy, they have never faced a circumstance where they are stripped off their expertise power and become mere facilitators of community participation as citizens decide on the monetary policy and fiscal policy of the country. As Alex Krieger puts it, planners are now content as “absorbers of public opinion, waiting for consensus to build.”
There is a lot of romanticism about the bottom-up approaches, about public participation particularly by academics in urban studies. Regardless of such romanticism, the bottom-up participatory planning approach that took away the powers of planners has many problems. Citizens as groups whether they are mainstream, marginalised, affluent, or impoverished, they rarely have best interests of society or the environment when they consider a development interest. Citizens at most are motivated by self-interest yet they now guide the planning process. This self-interest confuses even to the proponents of the social. Citizens are abusing the power given to them to protect their own interests through NIMBYISM, citizens are protesting against inclusive housing projects in their neighbourhoods, projects that would create more inclusive communities, they are protesting against renewable energy grids and projects to pass through their communities, projects that will do better for the environment. Citizens are protesting public transit systems and transit oriented development that improve mobility of people and make cities more sustainable. The citizens are using the bottom-up approaches to resist project that would create affordable housing, provide shelter for the homeless, reduce carbon footprint.
While Jane Jacobs’ inspired movement sought to create communities that are more sustainable, more inclusive through community participation, this is not what the movement led to. The movement eventually morphed into a quest for power as an end to itself rather than the creation of communities that are more sustainable and more inclusive. The Jane Jacobs movement coincided with the revival of Marxism through the 1968 essay by Henri Lefebvre, Right to The City. As the movement was overtaken by Marxism, the proponents of the social seek to get planners of the way in their fight to take cities from capitalism. Power to the citizens, to the subaltern has become the end goal even if it means creating communities that are not sustainable, that are impoverishing and not inclusive in the way. It is now about citizen control as Arnstein calls it “the ultimate form of citizen participation.” Whether such form of citizen participation is destructive to cities or not is not of primary concern. This is how radically antagonistic the social movement has become in its quest to take over cities from capitalism. The planning profession by siding with the capital during the post-war era had to also be stripped off the powers that would hinder such a quest.
This is not to say all bottom-up approaches have amounted to nothing, there are cases where protests have led to an end to bad projects that would have destroyed communities. As planning fail to stop such projects, citizen activism has come in handy. The cost of planners being stripped off their expert authority by citizen participation is that planners are no longer visionary thinkers that come up with transformative ideas that change cities for the better. Planners have turned into mere formulators and administrators of land use regulations. The visionary thinking of transformative ideas is now done mostly by non-planners such as architects, or even journalists.
As the bottom-up approaches were hijacked by Marxism which has no interests in creating better cities but only in empowering citizens (the subaltern) in its quest towards a revolution against capitalism, planners we now criticised for being weak. Even Jane Jacobs after leading a movement that stripped planners their authority, later in 1993 expressed disappointment at how planners had become non-thinkers and ineffective. In a 1993 speech (published in Ontario Planning Journal) Jane Jacobs expressed her frustration at the lack of planners in transformative ideas that were being formulated in Toronto, Canada; “Not one of these forward looking and important policies and ideas-not one-was the intellectual product of an official planning department, whether in Toronto, Metro, or the province…our official planning departments seem to be brain-dead in the sense that we cannot depend on them in any way, shape, or form for providing intellectual leadership in addressing urgent problems involving the physical future of the city.”
The Antagonism of Capitalism
Recent discourses on the decline of the planning profession attribute mostly the radicality of socialism to the demise of the profession. Just as socialism, its rivalry, capitalism is also determined to abolish the profession. While what made planning to succeed during the years of planned-economies was the co-existence of capitalism and socialism as ways of organising cities; this is no longer the case. Capital has morphed into a new form that seeks to do away with the social altogether, it has become antagonistic against the social. In this antagonism, it has made concerted effort to get rid of the planning profession which has acted as a mediator in cities. Planning, through imposition of land use regulations, land use plans and management, reconciled capitalist land uses to live harmoniously with the social.
Capitalism has changed in form; it is no longer primarily driven by surplus value which enabled it to co-exist with the social through expansion of social housing programs and social welfare programs. By contributing to development of the social, capitalism also benefited from the increase in consumer spending of its surplus value. During this time, planning as a profession was in a prime position, coordinating the harmonious co-existence of capitalism and socialism. Now, capitalism is driven by speculative value, it no longer needs the social to consume surplus value which was its bedrock. Under surplus value, capitalism can operate without so much need of the social. As a result, it is now radically antagonistic against the social.
Because capitalism views the planning profession as a hindrance to the potential it can reach without the bureaucratic hurdles it faces, it is determined to get rid of planning as a profession. There is an emerging movement that is calling for abolishment of all land use regulations and prescriptions that are set up by planners. The proponents of free-market urbanism argue that free markets that are not hindered by any regulations can create better cities that planners, that such markets can solve critical challenges such as housing shortage. Some of these proponents are ven urban planners.
You cannot think of any other discipline that argues that abolishing all regulations is the solution to the challenges of such a discipline. Think of the food industry where food shortage is rife in most parts of the world. To address food shortage and famine, food producers may argue that there is need to abolish all regulations on food production, all regulation on food standards because free markets are the ultimate solution to food shortage. Such abolishment of regulations and policies will come with consequences, particularly poor standards, unethical and unsustainable food production practices that have severe impact on our individual health and the environment. Proponents of free market urbanism forget some of the reasons planning became a profession. House building during the industrial revolution was driven by the laisez-faire system until disaster stroke because of lack of regulation on standards. Proponents of free market urbanism might not be aware that the reason cities are facing serious challenges such as poor housing supply is not primarily because of planning and its regulations. As capitalism changed from being driven primarily by surplus value to speculative value, production is no longer a primary focus, rather it is no speculation.
It is unlikely that capitalism will give up its antagonism against the social that it will cease its quest to get the planning profession abolished. Just like in a war where parties, both the capital and the social now want bare knuckle fight in quest to dominate the city, the role of the planners as mediators is one that is under threat of abolishment.
The Dissolving Disciplinary Identity
The planning profession has been facing severe disciplinary identity. This crisis begins with the very training of planners in planning schools. When planning became a profession, specific education for the training of planners was established at the University of Liverpool. The reason planners required specific training was because of their unique role as rational allocators of resources to various groups of people and uses in cities. To reconcile the needs of both the working class and the industrialists and other classes that make up the city required special training, specific expertise.
Planning schools where planners are trained no longer have disciplinary identity. Because of the identity crisis, some planning schools have been struggling to find a home, whether to be in built environment or to be in social sciences faculty. Academics that are responsible or the training of planners are having an identity crisis as well as the physical dimension of planning declined. As planning lost its identity, planning academics began seeking alliances beyond the built environment, in disciplines such as political science, law, economics and sociology. These are disciplines that have not been focused on the planning of cities, at very least; such disciplines only study cities from their own disciplinary lenses. But because planning has been so desperate for allegiance in academe, it formed alliance with academic disciplines that did not take planning seriously as a field; most allied academics joined the alliance for the urban studies part of it rather than the planning. Because of this unequal alliance, planning is not held with high regard within social sciences. An academic with a planning Ph.D. can struggle to be hired in other social sciences departments such as sociology, economics, or political science yet planning programs easily hire academics from other social sciences departments. As Nathan Glazer noted, faculty with non-planning doctorates enjoy higher prestige than those with planning doctorates yet in a planning department, an indication of planning being a minor profession.
It might strike as disciplinary snobbery to talk about how planning academics relate to non-planning academics within a planning program, but the damage to planning as a profession is severe. As planning academia lose disciplinary identity, students are no longer taught the fundamentals that distinguish planning curriculum, the fundamentals they need to practice planning effectively. Instead, they are being taught ideas that are core to other disciplines. For example, one of the hallmarks of planning education is to make planners peaceful reformers of cities, rational allocators of resources among various competing uses, a tall order in itself. But this has been disappearing from planning curriculum. Instead, they are being taught some of the most fashionable and radical ideas in social sciences such as Marxism. Pretty much every planning school has become synonymous with a Marxist school. Marxism might be effective at analysing cities, but planning is a reformist profession, it is no compatible with ethos of revolution that form basis of Marxism. To be a revolutionist is to be anti-profession, because a professional works with the existing structures of societies to improve society in a specific domain.
The reason planning became a profession was because it offered a peaceful reform to the challenges cities were acing in the early 20th century. Ebenezer Howard, as other socialist reformers, was particular to differentiate planning ideas from Marxist ideas of violent revolution, subtitling his book, A Peace Path to Real Reform. Now, as planning schools train planner in the language of revolution, Marxist revolution, they need to be candid with society, and the planning community if they still train students to be planning professionals who sit in positions of authority or if they are now training them to be voluntary activists in planning. Training the two requires differentiation.
As planning schools lose disciplinary identity as they teach revolutionists ideas, we are witnessing planning graduates who do not know how to work with competing classes of cities and make them harmoniously co-exist. For instance, as the revolution ideas dominate the planning education, planners are increasingly becoming moralists rather than rational allocators. After coming out of planning schools where they are taught how evil the elite are and how glorious the poor are, they have to find ways to make such class work together in solving critical issues such as housing, how to make the elite subsidise housing for the poor; how to make cities work in reality. It now seems like planning graduates require unlearning and relearning the real world of planning as they enter into practice.
A Way Forward
It is very unlikely that the forces that are pushing the planning profession off the cliff are going to push back and let the planning profession operate in its fundamental sense. The capitalists are angry at the planners for what they call “creeping socialism,” the socialists is angry at planners for hat they regard serving the interests of the capitalist. Planning academics that could be a powerful force to reshape the direction of the planning profession are in a fix. To succeed in funding their research and their teaching, they need to pursue radical ideas, ideas that might be contrary to planning as a profession. For them to pursue ideas that are critical to the core role of planning might not be fashionable for them whether as schools or as individual academics. While planning faces an existential crisis, the solution with professional bodies of planning. Associations, institutes and societies need to step up and re-establish the fundamentals that are key to the profession. The fundamentals lie in the models of equilibrium that were formulated in the garden city concept by Ebenezer Howard. In the next articles we are going to discuss these models of equilibrium as they apply to various areas of cities be it housing, transportation or urbanism.
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Arnstein, Sherry R. (1969) A Ladder of Citizen Participation, Journal of the American Institute of Planners, 35:4, 216-224.
Ashworth, W. (1954) The Genesis of Modern British Town Planning: A Study in Economic and Social History of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. Routledge and Kegan Paul, London.
Backwell, J. and Dickens, P. (1978) Town Planning, Mass Loyalty and the Restructuring of Capital: The Origins of the 1947 Planning Legislation Revisited. Urban and Regional Studies Working Paper No. 11, University of Sussex, Brighton.
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Davidoff, Paul (1965) Advocacy and Pluralism in Planning, Journal of the American Institute of Planners, 31:4, 331-338.
Howard, E. (1898) To-morrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform. Swan Sonnenschein, London.
Howard, E. (1902) Garden Cities of To-morrow. Swan Sonnenschein, London.
Jane Jacobs, “Are Planning Departments Useful?” Ontario Planning Journal 8, no. 4 (July/August 1993), 4-5..
Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (New York: Random House, 1961), 17-18.
Jerold S. Kayden, “What’s the Mission of Harvard’s Planning Program?” Harvard Design Magazine 22 (Spring/Summer 2005), 4.
Nathan Glazer, “Schools of the Minor Professions,” Minerva 12, no. 3 (1974): 346-64.
O’Toole, Randal (2000) Is Urban Planning “Creeping Socialism?” The Independent Review, vIV, n. 4, Spring 2000, 501-516.
Sager, Tore (2016) Activist Planning: A Response to the Woes of Neo-liberalism? European Planning Studies, 24:7, 1262-1280.
Stilgoe, H. E. (1910) ‘Town planning in the light of the Housing, Town Planning Etc Act 1909’, Proceedings of the Institution of Municipal and County Engineers, vol. XXXVII: 11–45.
Tewdwr-Jones, Mark; Gallent, Nick & Morphet, Janice (2010): An Anatomy of Spatial Planning: Coming to Terms with the Spatial Element in UK Planning, European Planning Studies, 18:2, 239-257.
Thomas Campanella, “Jane Jacobs and the Death and Life of American Planning,” Places Journal, April 2011. Accessed 26 Jul 2022. https://doi.org/10.22269/110425 William Rich et al., “Holding Together: Four Years of Evolution at MIT,” Journal of the American Institute of Planners 36, no. 4 (July 1970): 242-52
 See Howard, 1898, p. 102.
 See Read, 1972
 See Cadbury, 1915, p. 136
 Stilgoe, 1910, p. 44
 Jacobs (1993) pp. 4-5
 See for example, Alain Burdaid’s book, Order Without Design.