Academic journal article The Town Planning Review

Dilemmas in Critical Planning Theory

Academic journal article The Town Planning Review

Dilemmas in Critical Planning Theory

Article excerpt

In this paper, it is argued that Critical Planning Theory is inadequate as a planning theory. It ought to search for the means to incorporate the principles of legitimate planning argumentation, derived from Habermas's social theory, to a theory that is able to address planning practices both descriptively and prescriptively-grasping the essence of planning as problem-solving activity that transcends rationality and necessarily manages social relationships. However, Habermas's conceptual separation of communicative and instrumental rationalities, and his total reliance on rationality, make such theoretical work inherently problematic. In order to add descriptive and prescriptive capacity, planning theorists have had to look for other theoretical sources, such as pragmatist systems theory and Foucauldian power analytics, which, however, are incompatible with Habermas's theory of communicative action.

The purpose of this paper is to evaluate Critical Planning Theory (CPT) as a planning theory based on Critical Theory. It addresses the question as to whether CPT can be expected to give rise to a new paradigm of planning theory (Innes, 1995) or is too controversial and inconsistent to claim such a position in the Kuhnian (1970) sense. By Critical Planning Theory is meant the planning theoretical developments since the late 1980s, also placed under the headings of 'communicative' and 'collaborative' planning, where Jürgen Habermas's (1984; 1987) Critical Theory has provided the main theoretical and philosophical foundations.1 Among the key planning theorists in this 'new planning theory' field are John Forester, Frank Fischer, Patsy Healey, Tore Sager and Judith Innes. With the development of their work such normative, interdependent issues as legitimacy, inclusiveness, domination and quality of argumentation in planning have become central in planning theoretical discussion.

Recently the new planning theory has also met some criticism. These critical comments focus on the application of Habermas's concept of 'communicative rationality' in the context of planning. What Habermas means by the concept of communicative rationality is unforced argumentation held in an 'ideal speech situation' between participants where, by making claims and testing their validity in reference to shared 'lifeworldly' criteria, it is possible to achieve consensus on common issues and decisions. The attacks on CPT draw on certain critical observations on the idea of planning as communicatively rational action; it is claimed that critical planning theorists do not explain how communicative rationality in planning can be achieved. CPT is thus claimed to lack prescriptive potential (Tewdwr-Jones and Allmendinger, 1998, 1988; McGuirk, 2001, 199). Communicative rationality as a concept is said to have a character that is too utopian to function as a model for real life planning practices (Hillier, 2000, 50). It does not offer clear advice on how to organise and manage planning processes, and hence it tends to remain as a theoretical ideal not rooted in everyday planning work.

A central aspect of the presumed utopianism of CPT is said to be the conceptual separation of power from communicative rationality. For Habermas, power represents a repressive force that replaces consensus-seeking argumentation with communication based on exchange relationships. In such power-based communication, the coordination of participants' actions can be achieved by appealing to positive and negative sanctions, thereby rendering unnecessary efforts to achieve consensus between the participants (Habermas, 1987, 277-81 and 310-11). Power 'distorts' communicative rationality (Habermas, 1987, 187 and 322).Mostly basing their argument on the Foucauldian approach to power, the critics put the view that in the analysis of actual planning situations the Habermasian understanding of power is unfruitful. By viewing power as a negative 'outer force' that distorts argumentation in planning, one fails to acknowledge the positive, constructive aspect of power-power as a necessity in achieving the capability of making and implementing decisions. …

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