Testing, 1-2-3: Planning Case Studies as Philosophical Testing Grounds

For the past few years I have had a latent but not altogether silent fixation on the nexus between planning theory and ‘pure’ philosophy. A love of political science and philosophy is not an unwelcome hangover from my undergraduate days and leads me to turn these things over quietly until they seem to need some kind of further examination. My hypothesis is this: planning theory borrows frequently from philosophy; but equally, great thinkers have long made use of planning case studies as a means to elucidate their arguments. Why is this? Indeed, why do Habermas’ theories of communication and the public sphere reliably return to planning and state institutions, while Foucault’s critique of the Bentham’s panopticon serves as a useful way to spatially examine notions of power and authority? We (‘planning practitioners’) interact with governance and power structures on a daily basis in policy-making and implementation, consensus building and community engagement, neoliberal and, sometimes (dare I qualify), democratic decision-making. This list is by no means exhaustive but should give an idea of the thought processes and relationships planning practitioners interact with on a daily level. This short piece is intended to explore some of the reasons why planning case studies or spheres of planning decision-making are so frequently cited by theorists partly or wholly outside our direct discipline. This is not a ‘them and us’ scenario, but more a ‘food for thought’ rumination.

Often, planning decision-making occurs outside (or in parallel to) what could be considered as the immediate representative democratic domain. This is ‘governance’: the exercise of delegated or maybe even deregulated power, rather than by an elected representative on behalf of constituents. This is ‘the range of formal and informal values, rules, norms, practices and organisations that provide better order than if we relied purely upon formal regulations and structures’ (Weiss, 2013, 91). We have a legislative and statutory system set up to frame and regulate this delegated decision-making. This includes institutionalised checks and balances in the form of Ministerial intervention. However, our daily responsibilities usually occur on a scale not requiring intervention as the overarching framework is set by strategies (such as Plan Melbourne) that suggest conceptual preferences for discretion in decision-making (in varying degrees). Indeed, a large part of strategic planning occurs at the local-government level in Victoria with strategic direction being researched and achieved by the combined work of ‘private and public’ planners in conducting research, analysis and community consultation. Our legislative framework provides the space in which we operate, but does not always require direct government intervention from higher levels. In this way, planning has a daily function very much at home in the concept of governance.

Spatial planning case studies are an excellent testing ground for new thought for a number of reasons. The framework of governance allows examination of complex decision-making and sociological processes in a context somewhat ‘outside government’. That is, in a space that is not part of ‘Big Government’ – our representative models of democracy. Such a distinction does not depoliticise planning; a variety of stakeholders and competing interests will ensure a type of politics remain. Ultimately, high level decision-making in planning policy creation still requires approval from the Minister for Planning (via the amendment approval process), ensuring certain preferences can be exercised to a greater or lesser extent. Herein lies the usefulness of planning case studies to philosophical schools of thought.

To illustrate this point, consider a typical development approval process. For the purpose of this article, a statutory planning process has been chosen to enable delineation of stakeholders with relative ease. This proposal may respond with some success to an existing strategic policy context at State and local government levels. There may be elements of the proposal that attract the interest of third parties and this may create an opportunity for a conversation that engages the proponent, the decision-maker (the responsible authority or local planning officer, for example) and third parties (frequently, ‘objectors’). In this process, third parties may raise matters that relate to the impacts, tangible and perceived, of the proposal. In seeking to address these impacts, parties will enter into a process of negotiation, which may require a degree of conflict resolution, which may work towards consensus based on agreed changes. Where mediation and informal avenues are explored as a means to build consensus, this plays into the realm of governance. It may be that the proponent approached potential stakeholders before the planning approval was formally sought, thus enabling a more positivist approach to reaching consensus and affording greater space to collaborative proposals. The gamut of options available to a permit applicant throughout the process is vast but rarely unconventionally employed. Nevertheless, powers and competing interests are exercised throughout the entire process, occurring in concert with and parallel to the policy context against which an application may be assessed.

Questions of power and access to power, equality, inclusion (and exclusion), pluralism, consensus and competition can be considered among the complexities of planning decision-making in a compact example, spatially embedded and with an ‘identifiable’ set of actors that can be delineated with relative ease. It is the complex political interplay between stakeholders and the varied scales of decision-making encountered by planning practitioners on a daily basis that makes these case studies so apt for philosophical observation. We frequently witness the processes of collective action and antagonism, conflict negotiation and resolution, and struggles with power and equity. This may be a lesson for us to cast our net more widely in seeking to find new theoretical approaches to planning governance and conflict resolution in return, to obtain insights that can be borrowed back in practice.


Weiss, T. G., Global Governance: Why? What? Whither?, Polity Press, Cambridge, 2013, p. 91. 


This article appeared in the September 2015 edition of Planning News.

Posted on September 10, 2015 .