Considering the Science Of Land Use Planning

submitted by Dave Loomis

Rational Planning

After World War II, the University of Chicago’s newly created Program in Education and Research in Planning was enormously influential in setting the direction of planning theory. Keynesian economists, pushed the faculty to define and systematize core areas of knowledge in planning, perceived essential to practice. It was the search for this core for the profession that led to the development of a generic model for planning in capitalist democracy and incorporation of ideas from various social scientific disciplines, including economics and political science. The rational planning model, became a guide in the profession and beyond as an approach to problem solving in the public sphere ;

1. Ends reduction and elaboration;
2. Design of courses of action;
3. Comparative evaluation of consequences;
4. Choice among alternatives;
5. Implementation of the chosen alternative.

The five steps were later simply described as “Desires, Design, Deduction, Decision, and Deeds. Reproduced, more or less, in countless presentations since, these steps describe a problem-solving framework for complex human enterprises. The model is both self-evident due to simplicity and unachievable due to its demands on resources and expertise. Chicago planners recognized complexities, including the elusiveness of the aim of serving the public interest and politics’ resistance to scientific analysis.
Even before publication, the rational planning model had its critics. It has suffered battering from countless quarters since. Yet, for about 20 years it remained the most widely subscribed planning theory. To this day, its logic can be found in the justifications and methodological outlines given in the introductions to most plans. It remains a major underpinning of planning school curricula. Moreover, theoretical and methodological work detailing and extending the model continues. This includes efforts to compare alternative rules for aggregating individual preferences, examination of the implications of risk and uncertainty, and consideration of the impact of new and faster computers on our abilities to ascertain public preferences and completion of the necessary calculations.

By drawing on Keynesian economics and policy studies in political science, the rational planning modelled to the incorporation of numerous social scientific concepts into planning offices. It highlighted planning’s role in correcting market failures related to externalities, public goods, inequity, transaction costs, market power, and the nonexistence of markets. Justifications for planning included reduction of nuisance and congestion, protection of resources, reduction of taxes or of public costs, provision of a stable business environment, and the improvement of environmental quality and livability. Planning borrowed the tools and language of cost-benefit analysis and operations research, including notions of decision criteria, multiple objectives, constraints, shadow pricing, willingness-to-pay, optimization, and minimization.

Criticisms and Extensions of Rational Planning
The incrementalist critique of rational planning gained wide circulation by the early 1960s. Political scientist Charles Lindblom (1959) suggested that comprehensive or .synoptic. planning, as he called it. was unachievable and out of step with political realities. He argued that political leaders cannot agree on goals in advance, as the rational model requires. They prefer to choose policies and goals at the same time. He thought that the rational model’s preoccupation with the comparison of all possible alternatives and their comprehensive assessment on all measures of performance exceeds human abilities. The relationship between science and policy choice was oblique at best. The real measure of “good policy” is whether policymakers agree on it. Lindblom’s alternative, incrementalism, calls for the simultaneous selection of goals and policies, consideration of alternatives only marginally different from the status quo, examination of simplified, limited comparisons among the alternatives, and the preference for results of social experimentation over theory as the basis of analysis.

If Lindblom’s late ’50s critique had shown a chink in the armor of rational planning, the social unrest of the 1960s brought a full frontal assault. Alan Altshuler’s (1965) doctoral dissertation examined the experience of land and transportation planning in the Minneapolis-St. Paul region. He found that planners were seldom able to achieve their objective I scientific aspirations. Their claims to comprehensiveness were not backed up by reality. Decision-makers often ignored their recommendations in favor of the wishes of politically connected stakeholders. Organizers of citizen input to planning processes railed against the often-futile nature of public participation.

The rational planning model gradually lost ground. Indeed, in the late 1970s, it was common to talk about a “crisis in planning theory” resulting from the loss of a center to the field.

A series of new directions emerged, focusing on planners’ facilitative roles in shaping decisions emerged. Often referred to as social learning theories, these contributions emphasized planners’ roles in bringing stakeholders together, gathering and sharing information, and helping social structures to learn from their experiences. Citizens and civic leaders, not planners, had to be at the core of planning if plans were to be implemented. The planner, acting as catalyst and boundary spanner strives to create a self-correcting decision structure capable of learning from its own errors.

By the late 1970s, planners recognized that the completeness with which they had embraced notions of science in their work had exacerbated their isolation from political decision-makers. Planning theorists began drawing from political philosophers who questioned mainstream social science.

Communicative planning theory asserted that through communicative strategies complementing their technical work, planners can alert citizens to the issues of the day, arm them with technical and political information, and otherwise encourage community-based planning actions. It would then be necessary for them to work in the midst of the wide variety of views expressed by diverse interest groups to formulate new consensus policies that might be widely supported.

Much recent activity has surrounded identifying better ways for planners to present arguments so that they will be persuasive in political and multicultural environments. One promising direction proposes that the often-quantitative orientation of urban planners matches poorly with the needs of decision-makers who are often moved by stories that convey human behaviors in terms they can understand. Storytelling is a proposed serious planning method that can accomplish what statistical analysis may never do. Other theorists are drawing on turn of the century American pragmatist philosophers to suggest that the emphasis on deductive reasoning in our statistical training is out of step with the more pragmatic. problem-solving orientation of most public decision makers.

5 thoughts on “Considering the Science Of Land Use Planning”

  1. Dave Loomis says,

    [D]ecision-makers … are often moved by stories that convey human behaviors in terms they can understand. Storytelling is a proposed serious planning method that can accomplish what statistical analysis may never do.

    That is, in part, why I advocate scenario planning as part of the planners/managers toolkit. Working up the “storylines” is as important a component in scenario planning as is the exclusion of a “desired future.”

    But now I need coffee.. So I’m off to the coffee shop.

  2. Coincidentally, this reference on scenarios and stories crossed my virtual desk as background for some climate change planning…

    Check out this nice concise summary on the use of scenarios from the Global Business Network.

  3. There is much to like about scenario planning as one tool the FS can use as it thinks in-house about its role in the world. This kind of “planning” that organizations do to inform, govern and reflect upon themselves is an important topic for the FS. One that the agency spends much too little time upon (e.g., the last time I remember was the Gifford Pinchot III-inspired enterprise teams evolution of the mid-late 1990s).

    But it’s not the planning Congress directed in NFMA. To beat a dead horse, NFMA is about cutting timber with sensitivity to and protection for other resources. And make no mistake, NFMA is about cutting timber. Although Congress has (almost) always stopped short of directing a particular sales level (to which numerous unsuccessful timber industry plaintiffs can attest), NFMA is no “zero cut” law.

    NFMA’s principle purpose was to repeal the strict restrictions on logging contained in the 1897 Organic Act, thus removing court injunctions that barred clearcutting. Congress wanted to get logs moving again. But Congress also wanted kinder and gentler logging.

    While scenario planning can be useful as a reflective tool, it does nothing to move logs sensibly today. Yes, FS, do your scenario planning. But not at the expense of NFMA planning as Congress intended it to be.

  4. I want to find means to comply with the spirit and intent of NFMA without planning. But as Andy reminds us, that is pretty much impossible w/o my “impossible dream” — a revisit of the law by Congress.

    So I’ll stick to my Adaptive Governance approach that would be designed to touch the bases on NFMA, complimented by simple scenario planning for the administrative unit once every five years that would set a stage for relook at “niche” as per David’s comment and my comment on the previous post.

    Both Andy’s suggestion and our suggestion (am I putting words in David’s mouth?) ought to be given detailed review as this process moves forward.

  5. Perhaps the part of NFMA that sent us into the rational planning arena (besides being linked to the 1974 RPA) is this troublesome clause of the Act:

    The regulations shall include, but not be limited to . . . (3) specifying guidelines for land management plans developed to achieve the goals of the Program which—
    Sec 1604(g)(3)(A) insure consideration of the economic and environmental aspects of various systems of renewable resource management, including the related systems of silviculture and protection of forest resources, to provide for outdoor recreation (including wilderness), range, timber, watershed, wildlife, and fish;

    This requirement reads a lot like step 3 in the rational planning model that Dave cites. As you know, this is the requirement that led to benchmarks, stratifying lands by economic benefit, maximization of objective functions, and many a late night by forest planning analysts trying to get their linear programming model to at least be feasible, if not coherent. So then we started “hard wiring” the model to match preconceived decisions that we knew would be feasible. This sort of moved us to Lindblom’s idea of incrementalism, as Dave describes.

    We need to describe this clause of NFMA in a more meaningful way. We need to operationally define the “systems” we want to address. I’d even want to see if we could change the way we think about economic and environmental aspects in a way that reflects the scale of the decision, and the “stories” from collaborative participants about the economic and environmental factors related to National Forests that are affecting their lives. If we use scenario thinking, we can also look at the uncertain economic and environmental factors that could really screw things up if we’re not paying attention.


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