Planning Theories

Importance of Theory

Johann Wolfgang vonGoethe

“Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitively commits oneself, the Providence moves too.

“All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one's favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way.

“Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it; boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.”


Henry Hampton, in Been in the Storm so Long, ed. M. Reed & J. Janes (1991, Skinner House Books, Boston MA)

“I am given to talking about dreams because dreaming separates us from other animals, other life forms. I have a favorite line from a play I read years ago, a Chaucerian drama. The line goes: "In dreams begin responsibility." And indeed it's true. When you dream of something, you can begin to take it upon yourself, make it yours, change it. But you have to dream it first. And (people) don't dream…. You have to think of the world as you would really have it. I don't mean wish it, I mean dream it. And sometimes I think (people) wish more than they dream.”


Donald Schon (The Reflective Practitioner, 1983):

"…for both the professional and the counterprofessional, special knowledge is embedded in evaluative frames which bear the stamp of human values and interests. It also leads us to recognize that the scope of technical expertise is limited by situations of uncertainty, instability, uniqueness, and conflict. When research-based theories and techniques are inapplicable, the professional cannot legitimately claim to be expert, but only to be especially well prepared to reflect-in-action.

"From this perspective, it is not difficult to see how the traditional epistemology of practice holds a potential for coercion. We need not make the (possibly valid) attribution that professionals are motivated by the wish to serve class interests or protect their special status. Whenever a professional claims to "know," in the sense of the technical expert, he imposes his categories, theories, and techniques on the situation before him. He ignores, explains away, or controls those features of the situation, including the human beings within it, which do not fit his knowledge-in-practice. When he works in an institution whose knowledge structure reinforces his image of expertise, then he tends to see himself as accountable for nothing more than the delivery of his stock techniques according to the measures of performance imposed on him. He does not see himself as free, or obliged, to participate in setting objectives and framing problems. The institutional system reinforces his image of expertise in inducing a pattern of unilateral control."


Joan Fry, "The curse of administrative meetings," Chronicle of Higher Education, 3/30/94, p. B3

"We spend our lives meeting to make plans based on the flimsy notion that our lives depend on understanding the unpredictable behaviors of invisible particles and forces."


Kenny Rogers

"You gotta know when to show them, know when to hold them, know when to fold them and when to walk away."


Dimensions of Theory


  • Science vs. Humanism (C.P. Snow's Two Cultures)
  • Quantitative vs. Qualitative
  • Rational vs. Intuitive
  • Data vs. Modeling vs. Dramaturgy
  • Policy vs. Programming vs. Development-Kenneth Kraemer, Policy Analysis in Local Government (1973, p. 25): Claims that decision problems may be divided into three categories along a continuum from specific to general policy. By implication, policy, management (programming), and planning (development) are different moments in the same process.

Bolan's Matrix

Richard Bolan categorizes planning theories in a 2x2 matrix:


Descriptive Theory

Normative Theory

Material World

Theories of urban growth (Park & Burgess, Hoyt, Isard, Losch, Alonso, Berry)

Theories of the good city (Plato, Howard, Perry, Rawls, Communitas, Utopias)

Conceptual/Relational World

Theories of socio-political decision making (Myerson, Banfield, Altshuler, Dahl, Hunter, Bolan & Nuttall)

Theories of effective planning practice (Argyris &Schon, Friedmann, Benveniste, Harris, Forester)

Hudson't SITAR

Barclay Hudson in "Comparison of current planning theories," Journal of the American Institute of Planners, 1979, sets out 6 criteria for describing and evaluating planning theories:


Characteristics and Applications

Public Interest

Theory of public interest & methods to articulate significant social problems

Human dimension

Personal & spiritual domains of policy impacts


Ease of learning and applying the theory (practicality & adaptability)

Action potential

Provision for carrying ideas into practice, building on experience, finding new solutions

Substantive theory

Descriptive and normative theory of problems and processes of change (more than simple trend extrapolation)


Openness to self-criticism and counter proposals

Process Models

Hudson's SITAR model of planning theory concatenates substantive models of change creation (e.g., radical and transactive planning) with process models (synoptic and incremental). But it is possible to be incrementally transactive, or transactively strategic. It would appear that there is an ordering of process models based on the degree of comprehensiveness to which they aspire:

  • Muddling through
  • Strategic planning
  • Comprehensive planning
  • Systems modeling


1997 A.J.Filipovitch
18 January 1997