Jonas R Bylund

Caution: These are presentation notes from 'Reassembling the urban', NGM Bergen 2007. References are not complete and the language may be incomprehensible. Illustrations and texts on slides are in italics below the headings.


What are suitable tools to investigate contemporary urban planning practice? The discourse-analysis approach has been widely popular in studies on urban planning practice. However, one problem with the approach is a conceptual limitation in the focus on words and verbal interchange. The outcomes of negotiation and discourse are many times quite visible, but the path towards it obscured by this limitation. By treating planning as a case of materially manifesting morality, it is possible to recast the old issue of the disciplining and discursive urban planners in a new light. Even if it is self-evident in human geography that the built-environment regulates behaviour and flows of humans and nonhumans, it is still not very well understood or explained in planning theory how planners in practice produce these spaces. Due to the tendency in this field towards crafting normative procedural models, the innovative character of planning is left in the dark. In human geography, on the other hand, the vexing problem has been (and still is to some extent) one of how to reconcile ‘social’ and ‘physical’ planning in theory and investigative practice. The proposition in this paper is that one way to keep the fruits of a discourse approach but extend the range of investigation is to develop a ‘generalised discourse analysis’ and a geography of projects. Central to this endeavour is a focus upon the delegation of provisional allowances and scripting.


Thank you for coming! I will not present a clearcut result or finished thoughts. In fact, the piece is quite speculative in its current form. 'Work in progress': rough and not so nuanced. I forget much and simplify a lot!

But in line with this session's theme on reassembling the urban and 'creating and destroying contemporary city landscapes' as' acts of geographical redefinition', I will try to explore why the banality of morality is somewhat lost in planning theory and how it might be an important way to do planning research. The problem is one of emergent morals and the 'whereabouts of power' (Allen). And a conceptual answer: to a large degree it is to be found by looking at scripting allowances.

2–Planning practice?

Picture of 1960s planners musing over a model of the new Stockholm city, Sergels Torg; in Hall, T.

Where are the politics of cities? Much planning theory locate it in the contesting discourses at the 'administrative level'. Friedmann (1987) said that planning is substantial change or not planning. And there are rarely a general agreement or consensus on what and how it should be done. I.e. no conflict, no planning.

The picture, all male, cool, reflecting on their modernist eutopia. It doesn't really express or show this core issue of contestation, conflicts, negotiation, compromise - all buzzwords in contemporary planning theory. Research on urban policy-making today stress that planning and urban development involves a multitude of heterogeneous actors. (Cars and von Sydow) Negotiation and compromise is unavoidable, and not conducted as a rational process - via calculability of interests - but through informal activities and interplay between actors.

For example: Research on implementing and integrating ecological sustainability in Swedish planning practice sees decision-making as dependent on language use. Hence it is investigated through a discourse analysis-approach. I.e. the empirical 'stuff' is gathered via interviews with civil servants and documents. In Sweden, then, we see a 'consesus culture' which is often at odds with the diverging interests brought together in planning for sustainability. (e.g Skantze)

3–Practice movement

There is also what Watson called the 'practice movement', doing close-up studies on planning. For example Forester and his call:

We need to explore empirically when and how planners make differences and when they do not. We need to look not just at spatial outcomes emerging from planning processes, but to look at those processes as well. To do that, we need to look much less literally at words, much less naively at intentions, and we will have to start paying attention to the pragmatic action in practically situated, real, and not ideal, communicative action. {forester, 1999\: 179–180\}

4–Problem: Merely human-human discourse and conflict?

Even if the research on actual (not ideal) planning practice has brought us good insights into this activity it is still dragging a problematic issue for further knowledge. Because all is seen as verbal and textual power-games, discourses, it ends up searching for a procedural remedy where the the heterogeneous materials doesn't really matter.

Values and morals in planning practice are seen as an individual, or personal, human cognitive activity. And the decisive point of contestation, controversy, conflict is merely a human-human interaction. But is this so?

5–Planners' knowledge practice

‘Scientists and engineers are bricoleurs. They work by linking bits and pieces together. Heterogeneous bits and pieces. Human and non-human. For instance, they write and revise texts, modify instruments, and redefine social groups. They practise what is sometimes called “heterogeneous engineering”’ (Callon & Law, 1997)

Consider for a moment the knowledge practices we call science and engineering. Does the quote still make sense if we substitute 'planner' for 'scientists' and 'engineers'? I think it obviously does. This is also to say that planners are just as creative and innovative as any R&D.

Now: One reason for naming this work in progress 'Urban planning and the banality of morality' is that much of planning theory or research tends to do either 'the planners at work'-studies or 'what happened to this place'-studies. I might be wrong, but I get a sense of a disconnection between these two approaches.

The planners at work are then mostly followed in their verbal discursive practice. Which makes it susceptible to a fallacy in constructivism, void of material durabilities and modifications. And thus make it easy to dream of procedural expediency in merely human-human negotiations taking place.

6–'Physical' and 'social'


Two different spheres


Different spheres or domains in society

The heterogeneous engineering is problematic only if we keep a strong distinction between 'the social' and 'the material'. This is basic ANT and the great divide. In Swedish planning theory, it is still quite common to divide into 'physical' and 'social' planning.

But this is still something problematic in the social sciences, the social as something disconnected from the material, from the physical. And then the social is sub-divided into yet smaller spheres containing their own stuff: economic matter, social matter, cultural matter, political matter... Human geography has a huge problem with this ontology when trying to get our heads around human-environment interaction. So when discourses are a societal activity, the ordering of society, it never touches the physical, the material - other than as projection perhaps. Artefacts and nature doesn't really matter. Which leads to the misunderstanding of a statement such as 'neoliberalism is a social construction', as if it was an illusion, immaterial.


Picture of a baboon group, pruning each other.

To illustrate what the divide makes us humans into. (Again, a classic Latour-argument). Baboons are social animals, in the sense of a 'domain of the social', they do almost all their politics and ordering face-to-face, without delegation to artefacts. Planners, just the rest of human kind, are clearly not baboons (in this sense at least). We use various instruments, artefacts, to solve problems.

So: how to solve the problem identified in discourse analysis? Not to discard the approach per se, because it has brought better knowledge on planning practice. I will merely suggest a modification - not a radical shift - of it to allow for the role of the planners' instruments as well, and in turn a large part of a society's morals could be seen in the same description. That is, to set up tools for a better view on the planners' role or practice of assembling the social – to reassemble associations.

8–The banality of morality

Pictogram of an angel and a devil.

One way into this is to see that all ordering and organisation (planning) is not durable because of discourses, but because the politics of order is translated into other materials than mindsets, thoughts, and words. Joerges and Czarniawska:

All organizing, in its symbolical, political and practical aspects, needs to be inscribed into matter in order to make organizations durable (indeed, possible). {joerges, czarniawska, 1998\: 371\}


As it is often said, morality is less preoccupied with values than with preventing too ready an access to ends. {latour, morality, technology, 2002\: 257\}

Consider the 8th commandment, thou shalt not steal, and how it is 'managed' today - anti-theft devices in the stores and digital rights management in the digital files of the music industry and software applications. Clearly, words alone are not enough, not even the inscription into stone is - other materials are needed to restrict access.

If a large part of society's morals lies in-between human actors, mediated by artefacts, materially manifest, should we still seek the morals of planners in their cognitive mindsets, in their verbal communicative acts? If planners are knowledge practitioners like the scientists, if they are bricoleurs and are mixing heterogenous materials, then shouldn't we be able to follow their controversies and compromises more and not just in their self-representations?

9–Generalised discourse



Picture of a hammer

We would need to articulate a position which allows for more symmetry (in the STS jargon) than the conventional discourse analysis. For lack of a more elegant term, I call this a 'generalised discourse analysis'.

It simply uses Akrich's work on scripts and ANT's on inscription devices. De-scription: All artefacts, including discourses, are 'readable as scripts or programmes of action'. Description here is not counting things, producing inventories, but a good analysis.

On the left: A classic programme or script, full of instructions. It tells an internet browser what to do - and they do it more or less as intended. On the right: A hammer. It is made up of many relations, but also at least two programmes of action. This is a different sense of instrumentality than the 'rational' one, since there is no certainty that it will work as intended.

10–Politics and artefacts

Illustration building on Madeleine Akrich and Bruno Latour's 'programme and anti-programme', with the quote: 'The hotel manager successively adds keys, oral notices, written notices, and finally metal weights; each time he thus modified the attitude of some part of the "hotel customers" group while he extends the syntagmatic assemblage of elements.'; in Akrich & Latour, 1994, fig. 9.2.

Contestation and controversy could thus be seen as allowances, who and what subscribe to the intended order? The point of this illustration is that not only could the same approach be used on the 'shop-floor' of planning practice, it is useful throughout, even when we take a look at the material outcomes of planning practice - i.e. a 'geographical redefinition'.

Compare to Langdon Winner's classic case of Robert Moses, Parkway Drive to Jones Beach. The bridges did stop african-americans from Harlem to go to the beach, because they rode the buses which couldn't get under the bridges. But only provisionally, since then they can afford cars and drive to the beach if they want to. So planning is always projects rarely process.

With process I understand calculable development, not innovation and creativity or substantial change. Projects are contingent affairs, since they are intended to produce a new blend, a new situation, a new institution or assembly of humans and non-humans. A policy could in principle always be described in the same way, from its ideational origin in some think-tank's dungeon over how it plays out in planning departments and formal-informal politics to the reconfiguration or reorganisation in some locale. Because policy is always hypothetical on what it will achieve. If it is known and accounted for in all its consequences it is bureaucracy, not planning.


Picture of a mess of signs on the one hand and a Drachten junction after Hans Monderman's modification on the other.

To state it simple then: planning is mainly about materially manifesting morality. It is banal - it uses the banal to keep the moral going. We know that, we always knew it, we just have a hard time getting at it when focusing on the 'social domain'.

Only to mention a possible counter-argument (besides the obvious reduction of all activity into scripting and sloppy treatment of discourse analysis!) Mondermann, a dutch traffic-planner, reorganised the traffic in Drachten by reducing traffic-signs and -lights. 35% decrease in traffic accidents. Suddenly, you might say, moral is all in the human heads again, gone cognitive again.

But as a case of scripting and allowances, it is merely a different configuration allowing for less accidents. A new mix, a new situation, a regulation is not necessarily about adding more stuff. Remember: just look at how neoliberalism is re-organising our lives, implying (folding in) different regulations under the banner of de-regulation. Still it is highly collective and materially manifested. As some industrial designers would say, good design is when there is nothing more to take away.

12–Thank you!

To avoid obscurantism and apartheid, discourse analysis in the general form not only human-human interaction at the planning office include the whole chain and how the instruments are made to work translations into materially manifested moral

Scripting and allowances are but two elements in the effort to set about a genuinely non-modern (in ANT terms) planning theory. Or paraphrasing the Gulbenkian Commission on the Social Sciences - 'the reenchantment of planning'.