Academic journal article The Town Planning Review

Culture, Planning and Path Dependence: Some Reflections on the Problems of Comparison

Academic journal article The Town Planning Review

Culture, Planning and Path Dependence: Some Reflections on the Problems of Comparison

Article excerpt

Comparative research in spatial planning and urban policy runs the risk of being undertaken with insufficient awareness of the extent to which they are culturally embedded. This article reflects on some of the theoretical and methodological implications of approaches that accept the cultural embeddedness of planning, taking in particular work by Tilly (1984) and Brenner (2001) to explore typologies of comparative research, and the concept of path dependence as the means for articulating causality. It concludes by considering some of the consequences of such approaches for the conduct of research.

The idea of comparing the experience of the European Capitals of Culture programme in Liverpool, Lille and Marseille seems so obvious as to need no further justification. Why do we not just get on and do it? The trouble is that, in practice, such comparison is far from obvious. Its value and its outcomes rest on a series of assumptions about the nature and purpose of comparative research which require exploration if the comparison is to have any value. In the field of urban policy, comparative study has been under-theorised and the underlying assumptions have often not been fully articulated. This article is an attempt to shed some light on the underlying assumptions that guide comparative research in the field of policy-making in spatial policy-making and on some of the consequences that such assumptions may have for the conduct of research.

To do so requires an exploration of literature that goes well beyond the field of spatial planning, to take in some of the thinking in urban policy and theory, and to reflect on the ways that other social sciences have approached the problem of comparison. In one sense, research in spatial planning can be considered as no more than a sub-set of research in urban policy-making, which in turn can be understood as part of a general scientific endeavour in the social sciences. However, comparative research in urban policy-making has the distinctive characteristic that it goes beyond the discovery of difference between places, to look for solutions to problems. And within the field of urban policy-making, spatial planning uses specific techniques and instruments that set it apart. Both are characterised by their apparently technical, neutral and universal content. The European Capitals of Culture programme is about spatial policy-making rather than narrowly defined spatial planning. However, in reflecting on the way in which the programme might be compared in its application to different cities, there are insights offered by both research into the specific field of spatial planning as well as in the social sciences more generally.

The article begins by considering the reasons for undertaking comparative research. It takes the questions of convergence and transfer and considers some of the theoretical problems that attach to both concepts. It questions the notion that spatial policy-making and spatial planning are essentially neutral, technical activities and refers to the concept of 'cultures of planning'. It then looks at alternative justifications for comparative research and in particular the value that comparative research offers in deepening an understanding of the 'home' system of policy-making and implementation. Work by Tilly (1984) and Brenner (2001) are used to articulate the diverse research strategies that have been used in relation to world city theory. The importance of the temporal dimension in comparison is noted, and the usefulness of the concept of path dependence is explored. The article concludes with a reflection on some of the methodological consequences of different approaches to comparative research.

The purposes of comparative research

The very first question that we need to confront is why we wish to undertake comparative research at all. The practitioner's answer to such a question is straightforward: it is the desire to know how others make and implement policy and to see whether there are policies and practices that might be borrowed from other places. …

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