Where do urban planning and urban design belong?

Another old controversy in planning concerns whether the field is an art or a science–a useful distinction for people who believe that art and science are distinct things, with bright lines between them. Since I don’t, the dichotomy is less interesting.

More interesting is the idea of where design falls in urban planning, and whether urban planners in university programs should be housed with the architects or the social science people.

There are arguments either way; functionally, urban planners are going to be a minority regardless of whether you put them in social science or design, and being a minority discipline means disadvantage no matter where you go. Architects look down on planners, and economists and political scientists look down on planners, less because in fact they are all that much more rigorous than anybody else and more (largely) because a) it’s fun to feel superior because b) it allows you to ignore for the nonce the crippling weaknesses in your own discipline’s approaches and theories.

Planners, in general, have internalized this “we’re inferior” mantra from other disciplines, for reasons that escape me. My attitude is to go outpublish people, learn more, get more grants–and to tell any architect or economist who gets up all in my face to jump in the lake and get over themselves. In the hard light of honest evaluation, knowledge is painfully partial, everywhere; everybody has intriguing answers, even if they aren’t right, and nobody has all the answers.

The Journal of Planning Education and Research in a recent issue* takes up the question of where urban design belongs and where it should be taught.

The discussion begins with:

Edwards, M. M., & Bates, L. K. (2011). Planning’s core curriculum: Knowledge, practice, and implementation. Journal of Planning Education and Research. doi:10.1177/0739456X11398043

The discussion here shows that not that many planning programs among those surveyed has an active design component. At USC, we have been fortunate: We have had terrific design-oriented faculty associated with the program, including Tridib Banerjee, Clara Irazabal, Elizabeth Faletta, among others.

After, Michael Gunder opens a can of worms, which is, after all, a planning theorists’ job, with:

Gunder, M. (2011). Commentary: Is urban design still urban planning? An exploration and response. Journal of Planning Education and Research. doi:10.1177/0739456X10393358

This article considers the factors contributing to the recent international trend for a differentiation between planning and urban design. It considers these highly related fields from the perspective of neoliberalism, global competition, and the doxa of New Urbanism. The article argues that urban design needs to be retained as an important subset of planning practice, concerned with the physical design of cities, so that the core planning values of serving the public interest in the attainment of social equity, democratic civil society, and an ecologically sustainable future may be maintained in our city-building processes.

Gunders’ is a concern that I share; among many of the fields of planning, design has always been associated with something developers and cities purchase to add value to land.

The responses to Gunder come from USC’s own Tridib Banerjee, ASU’s Emily Talen, and UT’s Frederick Steiner. Steiner and Talen’s boils down to a defense of the New Urbanism in planning Talen notes that how many of its adherents argue for social justice–and, notably, that what New Urbanists want (walkable, mixed use environments) isn’t really asking all that much in terms of urban service provision. (I am “dueling” Talen in an upcoming issue in JAPA, and herein I think is a fundamental misunderstanding: I think few critics believe what the New Urbanists advocate for is sinister or “asking too much” of urban environments; the opposite, in fact.)

Banerjee’s response goes a bit deeper than others, but I may be biased due to my fondness for a wonderful colleague. The argument he makes confronts the idea that planning needs to control urban design as a movement and a greater comfort with interdisciplinary practice in urban design.

I’m obviously no designer, but whenever I see social justice critiques about it, it reminds me of Adrienne Rich’s fundamental question: can you use the master’s tools to take down the master’s house? Why is urban design any different from any other skill set? Use it for both public and private good, or use for exclusively private benefit. It’s the practice that counts. It’s hard for me to believe that James Rojas and his merry, joyful, and empowering set of urban blocks and models don’t open up and democratize design.

Finally, and well worth a read, is Anselin, Nasar, and Talen’s discussion of a survey they conducted of 108 faculty members in both design and non-design planning programs:

Anselin, L., Nasar, J. L., & Talen, E. (2011). Where do planners belong? Assessing the relationship between planning and design in american universities. Journal of Planning Education and Research. doi:10.1177/0739456X11402356

From their abstract:

This article assesses the performance of U.S. planning programs relative to their administrative location in design versus nondesign units. We use both archival data to compare program rankings between design and nondesign units and a survey of a random sample of faculty (108 at 61 accredited programs). The archival data show a higher publication performance of programs in nondesign units. The survey finds that faculty respondents from nondesign locations have more favorable evaluations of their programs than do respondents from design locations. Administrators and faculty differ: while faculty in design units score their programs dramatically lower, administrators have a moderate difference in the reverse direction.

Their sample has some problems (but I’ve yet to meet a sample that doesn’t), but it’s worth looking at their discussion. I have been both in a design college and in a social science unit, and I am much, much happier in the social science world, largely due to the emphasis and rewards to publication in social science units.

We should note, though, that design-oriented programs also have pretty big differences in course loads and contact hours in studio education. There’s also just the fact that the terminal degree in architecture tends to be the master’s, and so many, many good faculty instructors there may not be trained to publish research.

Finally, this issue of JPER shows some contradictions to the findings. Many of the design-oriented faculty featured in this issue are breath-takingly productive people: Talen, Steiner, Banerjee are all very well-published scholars (Steiner is a dean, too). There are others: Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, Gail Dubrow, Renia Ehrenfeucht, and Ann Forsyth are very productive scholars, to name just a few. So there is clearly productivity in the urban design subfield.

*I am sorry that these are paid articles.