Land and Limits: Interpreting Sustainability in the Planning Process

Land and Limits: Interpreting Sustainability in the Planning Process

Land and Limits: Interpreting Sustainability in the Planning Process

Land and Limits: Interpreting Sustainability in the Planning Process


The first edition of this seminal book was written at a time of rapidly growing interest in the potential for land use planning to deliver sustainable development, and explored the connections between the two and implications for public policy. In the decade since the book was first conceived, environmental imperatives have risen still further up the policial agenda and land use conflicts have intensified, lending even greater importance to the authors' research.

In a rigorous discussion of concepts, policy instruments and contemporary planning dilemmas, the authors challenge prevailing assumptions about planning for sustainability. After charting the remarkable growth in expectations of planning, they show how attempts to interpret sustainability must lead to fundamental moral and political choices.


Susan Owens and Richard Cowell have given us an unflinchingly ambitious study of the politics, pitfalls and promises of ‘sustainability’ not as a popular mantra but as a real, contested, deeply ambiguous and yet inspiring policy objective. in their account, land use and environmental planning processes serve at times not simply strategic and instrumental ends, but subtly subversive ones politically as well.

Owens and Cowell have an eye for drama and a mind for politics and philosophy both. They know that local conflicts can provide microcosms of national, even international tensions, and a wonderful contribution of this book is its attention to scale. We see local conflicts becoming political theatre not for the news media but for the rethinking and re-articulation of national policy. What begins as necessary for the national welfare becomes at times, under the light as well as the heat of local debate, now merely ‘necessary for the national welfare’, a rhetorical claim by advocates of minerals extraction, for example, and hardly a well established, authoritatively legitimated or even stable claim. When the local serves as a testing ground for national need, we see in the study of such deceptively simple ‘land-use conflicts’ many of the issues that animate the study of politics and governance in the first place: deep value conflicts about property and autonomy, rival claims of spatial and inter-generational justice, and public participation alternatively looming as a costly burden to development or providing a forum for a modicum of public accountability.

‘Sustainability’, of course, has many–perhaps too many–meanings. So we see advocates invoking it as a credo to protect the natural environment for future generations while developers invoke its public popularity to green-wash project proposals. If Thomas Kuhn in his monumental Structure of Scientific Revolutions turned out to be using ‘paradigm’ in twenty-two meanings, Owens and Cowell must show us at least as many senses of ‘sustainability’ employed by its proponents (though they leave it to discerning graduate students to do the actual enumeration). But Owens and Cowell take the term’s ambiguity head on, and they move us immediately, of course, to the three essential ‘E’s of sustainability: environmental quality, equity, and efficiency–and they do not hesitate at all to recognize the multi-disciplinary work that then confronts us if we dare to care about these three goals together in real places.

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