Academic journal article The Town Planning Review

Planning Praxis: Ethics, Values and Theory

Academic journal article The Town Planning Review

Planning Praxis: Ethics, Values and Theory

Article excerpt

This paper argues that planning needs to be understood fundamentally as spatial ethics, a form of applied ethics; and that it is therefore important that we develop an understanding of how key ideas in ethics relate to planning. The paper uses examples of current planning practice, and Abercrombie's own concerns, to demonstrate how different ethical precepts are engaged in planning. It concludes by arguing the importance of recognising that planning is concerned with values, and that there is a need to make explicit the ethical frameworks through which we debate their application to the making of place and the mediation of space.

One of my favourite films is set in Merseyside-Gumshoe, with Albert Finney, Frank Finlay and BillieWhitelaw; music by Andrew Lloyd-Webber. In this film our misfit hero is cast in an authentic version of that role about which he has fantasised but would never willingly have sought: existential irony on a Liverpool stage. The denouement of the film takes place on the way to the docks-if I recall correctly somewhere along the approaches to the Mersey tunnel-with Finney refusing the final temptation of the offer of the love of his life, and bringing the miscreants to book with the piercing explanation to the chief villain: 'Lady, what you did you shouldn't have done to me; but most of all you shouldn't have done to anybody.

I quote this for two reasons. First, it serves to introduce the theme of ethics which I want to address. Second, it allows me to make an analogy.My reason for tackling this theme is not that I regard myself as particularly suited to the task, but only because not enough of those better equipped for the task seem to be doing so. I am very pleased that the more rigorous work of Heather Campbell in this field appears in this edition of Town Planning Review.

The project-and some definitions

I should start by saying something by way of definition about two of the five terms in my title-'praxis' and 'ethics'. And as for planning itself, I shall say something about how I conceptualise it, but my whole thesis is concerned ultimately with demonstrating that idea.


My use of praxis is derived from Aristotle, in the simple sense of an alternative source of knowledge to episteme. I am aware that in current usage praxis has Marxist overtones. My use of it is not necessarily at odds with Habermas's development of Marx's category of 'sensuous human activity'. For Habermas praxis connotes the act of reection on both work (purposive action) and language (communicative action). I am not using it in that precise sense, but I do acknowledge that there is unlikely to be any reection on practice that can discount the overtones of theory. My use of praxis is, however, quite distinct from Flyvbjerg's phronesis, which is the application of knowledge as practical wisdom (Flyvbjerg, 2001). My concern is with understanding before we reach the stage of application.


Ethics is about how we manage relationships and therefore responsibilities. As Simon Blackburn puts it:

Ethics is about how we live in the world. It separates the things we will do gladly from those we will not do, or not do without discomfort. It classifies the situations we aim for, and those we seek to avoid . . . Our ethics is shown in the things we forbid, or tolerate or require . . . The practical role of ethics is what defines it. This is what ethics is for. If there is such a thing as ethical knowledge, it is a matter of knowing how to act . . . (Blackburn, 1998, 1)

My simple contention is that this formulation applies in a very direct way that we would all recognise to what we think of as the essence of 'planning'; and that in fact planning is nothing more, but nothing less, than 'spatial ethics', a particularly complex practice of 'applied ethics'. And if this representation as 'spatial ethics' is accepted, then it follows that to think clearly and comprehensively about planning we really should want to develop some understanding of how key ideas in ethics relate to planning, because above all we want to 'know how to act'. …

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