Planning and the Mind

The Association of European Schools of Planning (AESOP) thematic group on Planning Theories hosts a series of talks and discussions in their ‘Infinity Series’, inspired by the Marvel Universe. On 8th March 2022, I talked about “Planning and the Mind”. In the following, my input presentation to this discussion.

I would like to start with some of my thoughts on “Planning and the Mind”.  It is hard for me to talk about the mind today, while we see how an isolated and brutal mind can cause so much pain, war, destruction, and emptiness. Nevertheless, this strengthens my belief in spatial planning in democratic societies and my ambition to talk about planners today.

For myself, I must admit that my mind is not embedded in the Marvel universe and the infinity stones. But I must be a spatial planner in my mind, as all my education and work is in spatial planning, among others in Dortmund, Auckland and now in Groningen. However, this does not resolve inner struggles. Or is spatial planning even a state of mind? Can be, but that is not what I want to address in my input.

Let me start with putting my argument out, that I will then explain over the following minutes.

Planning theories avoid the engagement with a core piece of the whole discipline: the human beings doing spatial planning and taking spatial planning roles. While we know much about planning processes, the role of planning in society, methods to understand contexts, and instruments to change spatial situations, we know little about inner dimensions of those involved. Let me ask two questions:

  1. Do spatial planners have (and use) an individual mind when doing their professional work? I believe yes, and democracy requires it.
  2. Can spatial planning be fully understood without desires, values, emotions, and perceptions of those doing it? I believe not.

My aim is to understand what happens in spatial planning practice not through its context or structural opportunities and limitations. I see them as hugely important. I support claims that planners are entangled with structural forces, for example of growth-oriented urban development, global capitalism and alike.  But we need to dig deeper into the mind to achieve a better understanding of the contradictions of practice. Why does ‘spatial planning’ act with great differences in similar contexts? Why does it react with a huge diversity of views to new academic or societal debates? Or, if there is agreement, does not move to immediate action?

In my own struggles over the past five years to develop fruitful connections between post-growth thinking and spatial planning, I encountered amazingly diverse reactions. Some of them referred to structural constraints, limits of the planning system, given political mandates or alike. But more than that, post-growth triggered even emotional reactions. The discussion could not be deferred to neutral disciplinary reasoning but had to be handled in own planner’s minds.

I will explain my argument from four angles of desires (psychoanalytical), values (philosophical), emotions (psychological) and perceptions.

First, I started thinking about psychoanalytical explanations of planning and the desire of planners to do good planning in 2009. I had taken the planning theory course of Michael Gunder in Auckland. I got to appreciate to see unconscious forces at play that guide the way how we do planning and that explain why, with multiple good intentions in mind, planning often ends up doing the wrong things. Calls for empathy and kindness are visible in planning theories, but empathy to whom? How could we enable others to develop independently to their own desires, but without allowing powerful ones to take over us? Neurobiology perceives the human mind as being able to learn incredibly good throughout the whole life, so learning must be an essential element to deal with our own desires and those of others.

Second, values. The planning discipline and planning theories are ambiguous regarding values. Communicative planning theories, on the one side, appear to be neutral and relying on the values of those engaging in argumentation. On the other side, such processes are deeply embedded into ‘democratic values’ and struggle when they are violated by someone taking ‘power over’ someone or something.

Third, emotions. Many years ago, I cannot recap when exactly, the statement “Raumplanung ist Liebe” (Spatial Planning is Love) by Ben Davy crossed my mind during my own studies. Back then, it did not make much sense to me. But I began to believe that emotions are one of the core aspects of doing planning in a human and democratic society. With all their good and bad sides, but they are unavoidable aspects of being human. So why should they not be central in our conceptualizations of spatial planning?

Furthermore, different perceptions could become conflictual if they base on what Daniel Kahnemann would call slow and fast thinking, or what we could further see as conscious, rational, slow development of plans versus the daily improvisation and emergency-like working realities of some planners. But even more the divergent perception of what good planning should be (the slow thinking) and what citizens are then perceived to be (the fast thinking, e.g. angriness, fear and so forth).

Last, perceptions. It is no wonder that Rittel and Webber with their definition of ‘wicked problems’ are one of the most cited works in spatial planning. Defining the problem is the actual problem. But the process of perceiving and making sense of what is out there does not only happen between actors in a planning process. It also happens, and arguably it first happens, within the mind of planners.

These four angles strengthen my belief that we need to better understand planners to better understand planning. Furthermore, my impression is that many planners share a similar mindset with one another that too often differs from what becomes visible ‘on the ground of reality’.  It seems to me that some are caught with good intentions in mind, but struggling to bring more of them into transforming spaces and places. In one way, do planners compare to spider-man (they possess a special skill set)? On the other hand, do some hide and cover and use their powers only subtle or in another role (Peter Parker vs Spider Man). While completely different from the outside, these different roles still share the same inner dimensions of the person enacting them (such as desires, emotions, values, perceptions).

More background:
* AESOP Thematic Group Planning Theories: http://www.aesop-planning.eu/blogs/en_GB/planning-theories
* Post-Growth Planning: http://www.postgrowthplanning.com
* Lamker, C. W., & Schulze Dieckhoff, V. (2022). Becoming a post-growth planner: inner obstacles to changing roles. In F. Savini, A. Ferreira, & K. C. von Schönfeld (Eds.), Post-Growth Planning: Cities beyond the market economy. Routledge.
* Lamker, C. W. (2021). Becoming a Post-Growth Planner. Rooilijn(September). https://www.rooilijn.nl/artikelen/becoming-a-post-growth-planner

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