How to make human geography out of planning

Jonas R Bylund

Presented on the in-house researchers' one-day potlatch at the Department of Human Geography, Stockholm University, 2006-01-31. Some references are added since then.

Great confusion. I am right now very occupied with the final phase of writing my dissertation: trying to make sense out of it. A couple of months ago my 'final seminar' took place. Some of you might have an idea of what I am up to and what is really bothering my mind for the time being.

For those who do not know my work: I am into planning. I am also into the complex entities we call cities or the ways of life ascribed to the notion of 'urbanity' (whatever that may be). My research has mostly been on the city and the planning of cities.

The first part of this memo is a short review of my present research. The second part is a proposal on a geography of planning – a simplified conceptual foundation for discussion or future outlook.

Pending research

The main part of my research up to now consists of my dissertation, which investigates implementation issues: a policy and subsidy programme intended to increase the use of new technologies to support the ecological adaptation of Sweden. The case is the Stockholm Local Investment Programme and its involvement in the new district Hammarby Sjöstad. The programme is Stockholm's part in the national Local Investment Programme (LIP), which ran between 1998-2002 (but still not really finished). LIP had a disbursement budget on SEK 5.4 billion. It was intended to help the Swedish municipalities get underway with their ecological adaptation by subsidising investment by and in swedish municipalities on 'new technology' – that is, new ways or solutions to enhance sustainability. Hammarby Sjöstad is a new, 'state of the art' district with great ambitions on sustainability.

According to spokespersons for the Stockholm programme, they had difficulties carrying through projects concerning environmental technology and they wanted a follow-up on this problematique. They were wondering and frustrated over the way many part-projects in the Stockholm Local Investment Programme evolved. A question took shape as something like 'when the technology exists, why is it so hard to get the local actors (public as well as private) to start using it?'

Like all knowledge practices, we who study planning and projects need tools (theory and method). To answer the question on the difficulties of implementation, I have tried to use some tools found in Science and Technology Studies (STS). That is, to treat planning and policy-making as any other 'research' (while keeping an open mind on what makes it characteristic).

STS have developed methods to simultaneously handle what is usuallly called 'hard' and 'soft' issues in society. Hard issues are for example technology or what is commonly understood as 'objects'. Soft issues is what is commonly understood as 'the social' or interaction among people. The advantage using the STS-approach is to short-circuit this dichotomy and the ability to see how anything ranging from, for example, 'idea' and 'ideology' to 'solar cells' or 'quantum mechanics' is put to work, invented, developed, or applied, and the relationality of these in entities as a resulting institution. In other words, how all of these issues are cases of society in the making.

What my dissertation does is to develop or test these tools for studying policy implementation and put them to use in a geography of planning projects. By doing this, the investigation, among other things, translate the question of 'barriers' for implementation to state that obstacles is an inherent part of innovation – even necessary, otherwise there is no 'new technology' or change. Although the programme had narrow boundaries (temporal, definitional, lack of information) and it had to deal with actors with even narrower boundaries (economic, competence, 'new technology'), it did manage to help Hammarby Sjöstad on the way to reach its environmental objectives. Hence, what the investigation shows is the Stockholm programme administrator's use of devices to negotiate and compromise to get somewhat satisfactorily results in an instable situation.

This use of instruments, by no means a smooth or uncontroversial one, is not at all unusual among planners. They try to make something out of an idea, the meaning of a policy, set a new world in motion, and to do that they have to deal with contingency of a complex society. Success, by whatever measure, is not calculable from the outset in an innovative project like LIP.

Planning as knowledge practice

How do planners (in a wide sense) deal with contingency or instability – bubbles in the wallpaper? These knowledges in the becoming is scarce in planning theory, or at least fragmented and scattered. However, from a political or ethical point of view, this topic is of utmost importance, because it obviously concerns what kinds of spaces we (planner or not) try to accomplish.

Still, a lot of the thinking around planning seems to be something like 'as long as you have a good plan, eventually it will guarantee a satisfying outcome'. The core-problem is identified as 'creating good plans' (functional, failsafe, legitimate) or, as much planning theory today has shifted the focus towards the activity to plan, to create a 'good planning situation'. Most of it is either set in the sisyphusean-like model of entities acting out according to their nature (structural determinism, power games of repetition). Or they are set in the 'platonic' stance of great white males with great ideas corrupted by an un-understanding society, flavoured with a frustration on never reaching the utopian ideal-state. 1

Although it is recommendable to try and develop tools for planners and for them to test in their practice, I am not so sure this is an efficient way of studying planning or to be able to say something substantial on planning practice.

A proposal

What I have in mind, as a statement to test is: if there is no conflict, then there is nothing to plan. Thus, the tools developed for planning (the normative ones) must not try to shortcut controversies. This kind of research has been proliferating for some time now, under names such as 'bottom-up', 'participant', or 'collaborative' planning.

The tools or knowledge developed on planning have to be able to analyse these controversies with 'strong objectivity' and 'generalised symmetry'. Strong objectivity is to allow the actor greatest possible ability to object to the investigatior's statements on their activity. Generalised symmetry is to treat all ingredients in a controversy in the same register, that is, to avoid any taken-for-granted rationale of the outcome of a planned action. 2

A working hypothesis, derived from the statement, is that planners tries to apply and develop makeshift or standardised devices – software, public participation, management methods, survey technologies, discourses, and so on – to handle contingency and complexity. It is not that the ends are necessarily used to justify the means, but that the means are shaped all along with the project. This does not restrict the focus to planners, but open up a position 'in-between' all relevant actors in a planning project. To study this activity, we cannot rely either on normative or nomothetical theories. Not normative, since it is part of the ethnography, that is, part of what is to be topicalised – ideas on how to plan. Not nomothetical, since planning is innovative and deals with complexity.

To see planning as a knowledge practice and a matter of projects means that there is complexity and innovation abound. There are controversies and the production of facts and ideas. When we study planning we also study a significant case of the production of space. Hence, studying or investigating planning is one way for the human geographer to close in on what Hägerstrand have identified as a or the core knowledge area for our discipline – what the movement from idea to materiality is confronted with:

The aim of the treatment of the type of core area I have suggested could hardly be to discover adherence to laws in the common sense – we have learned that by now. Rather, it is a question of understanding the principles for how the ideal is deformed by the crowded reality. Seen from this perspective, geography's core area is the study of the struggle for power over existencies' and events' admission to space and time. 3

To describe this movement is in effect to account for a project and this treatment allows for more than seeing planning as a process (the incremental movement towards a happy end). If we want to understand why the human-environment relationship is not so mysterious after all, then there is no use in keeping them separated in order to deal with the morality or the conundrum of complexity (bubbles in the wallpaper) in planning.


1. Sandercock, L. (2003), Cosmopolis II: Mongrel Cities of the 21st Century, London, New York: Continuum; Khakee, A. (2000), Samhällsplanering: Nya mål, perspektiv och förutsättningar, Lund: Studentlitteratur; Graham, S. & Healey, P. (1999), 'Relational Concepts of Space and Place: Issues for Planning Theory and Practice', in European Planning Studies, vol. 7(5).

2. Harding, S. (2004), 'Rethinking Standpoint Epistemology: What is ''Strong Objectivity''?', in Harding, S. (ed.), The Feminist Standpoint Theory Reader: Intellectual and Political Controversies, New York, London: Routledge; Latour, B. (2000), 'When Things Strike Back: A Possible Contribution of ''Science Studies'' to the Social Sciences', in British Journal of Sociology, vol. 51(1); Haraway, D. J. (1997), Modest_Witness@Second_Millenium. FemaleMan©_MeetsOncoMouse™, New York, London: Routledge; Callon, M. (1986), 'Some Elements of a Sociology of Translation: Domestication of the Scallops and the Fishermen of St Brieuc Bay', in Law, J. (ed.), Power, Action and Belief: A New Sociology of Knowledge?, London: Routledge.

3. Hägerstrand, T. (1986), 'Den geografiska traditionens kärnområde', in Svensk Geografisk Årsbok, vol. 62, p. 43, emphasis added, my translation.