Planning History: What Story? What Meaning? What Future?

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  • This article was downloaded by: [University of Florida]On: 03 October 2014, At: 02:11Publisher: RoutledgeInforma Ltd Registered in England and Wales Registered Number: 1072954 Registered office: Mortimer House,37-41 Mortimer Street, London W1T 3JH, UK

    Journal of the American Planning AssociationPublication details, including instructions for authors and subscription information:

    Planning History: What Story? What Meaning? WhatFuture?Marc A. WeissPublished online: 26 Nov 2007.

    To cite this article: Marc A. Weiss (1989) Planning History: What Story? What Meaning? What Future?, Journal of the AmericanPlanning Association, 55:1, 82-84, DOI: 10.1080/01944368908975407

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  • them to urban planning. An alternative hypothesis might suggest that what he is describing is the psy- chological development of aging professionals as much as the evolution of a profession. One certainly hears similar complaints elsewhere. Nonetheless, the question is amenable to research. How far was planning practice motivated by utopian or reformist impulses in the past? How much of that impulse remains today and in what form? Do present students differ in their ideology from those of the past? If so, are they less idealistic? There is some work on these questions and more could be done. Marcuses view on the historic character and role of the visionary tradition is some- what ambiguous. On the one hand, planning was and is the tool of capital; on the other, it might have been and might still be something else. Clearly, he does not see plannings past in a golden light of visionary ideals, though he is no less convinced of their value.

    My view of this part of the issue is that the case is not made well. Brookss unease about the state of the profession may have a sound basis, but it is intuitive and not dissimilar from a particular strand of discontent that I have heard from people in the professions for as long as I have been listening to them. Planners do seem to have a peculiar need to flagellate themselves (the obverse of idealism?), but if there is something wrong, we should set about finding what it is and do something about it if we care about our field.

    The second question to be addressed to this type of argument is whether the explanation adequately ac- counts for the outcome. On this score, I have little doubt at all. Two applications of history are especially susceptible to misuse. They are grand syntheses and

    conspiracy theories. Planning has had its share of both. The Brooks/Marcuse arguments are essentially attempts to synthesize the evolution of the planning profession by reference to events that they select as critical. In neither instance are the events connected to each other and to planning in a coherent argument that is historically documented. The planning profes- sion is treated as though it were a single entity that could somehow decide whether to take one or another path at the critical junctures. The path taken in each case leads to perdition. In short, these are ideological arguments decked out with some suit- ably selected historical accoutrements. It is Roger Rabbit history, a combination of cartoon and reality that tells a simple story of good versus evil. It is amusing if done well, but should not be taken too seriously.

    Is there any useful lesson to be drawn from all this? I think that we should pay more attention to the historical work that has been done and try to bring its hdings to the attention of the field more effectively. In teaching, that means examining the content of history courses and assessing them carefully. The history of planning thought, especially, needs to be taught in professional programs in ways that enable students to tell the difference between ideology and analysis, rather than as a vehicle for the propagation of particular beliefs about the nature of planning. In the field at large, I would like to see historians engaging professionals more closely both in their writing and at meetings. They have much to offer to the rest of us, not least, in teaching us how to understand and use our professional past.

    Planning History: What Story? What Meaning? What Future? Marc A. Weiss

    Michael Teitz has advanced a strong and well-argued critique of the Brooks-Marcuse debate, essentially stat- ing that planning history should not be used to promote pet causes. He suggests instead that planners should examine the historical record, including what historians have written, with an eye toward under-

    ~ ~~

    Weiss is a member of the faculty of Architecture and Planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is the author of The Rise of the Community Builders (Columbia University Press, 2987), and associate editor of Planning History.

    standing what actually happened and why. Drawing from The Rise of the Community Builders (Weiss 1987) and my other research and writing projects on the history of urban planning and the planning profession, what follows are some thoughts on the Brooks-Mar- cuse debate from the viewpoint of a planning historian.

    The fundamental problems with Michael Brookss paper are two-fold. First, his argument is not really based in historical research and analysis. He is primarily comparing his personal perspective on the present status of the planning profession to an idealized past that never existed. Second, he confuses attitudes and





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  • ideologies with behavior and professional practice. His basic complaint about today's planners is that they no longer have heroic ideas like planning's pi- oneers from past generations. Brooks insists that the current planning profession is not in as good shape as he thinks it should be. He then asserts, without presenting any evidence to support his position, that the reason for this supposed crisis is that planners no longer espouse visionary or utopian values as did the legendary founders of the profession. The plain fact that the planning profession and organized urban planning activity is far more acceptable, influential, and extensive today than during the age of Daniel Bumham seems to make no difference in Brooks's nostalgic historical portrait.

    At no time in the past has the planning profession ever consisted entirely of heroic leaders or seminal thinkers. Further, the issue of how influential planners have been in society is entirely different from how certain planners have affected the ideas of their profes- sional colleagues. As Brooks points out, both public policy makers who control large budgets and private entrepreneurs with assets and investment capital have had more power to plan and shape the urban envi- ronment than have professional planners. While it is true that planners have always had their own special values, either as consultants or public officials they are constantly constrained by the values of their clients in the larger world of economics and politics. This was no less true in 1920 than it is today. Indeed, Brooks's complaint that the "planning office in many communities does little more than administer the local zoning process" has been a standard lament of planners since zoning was first established. It is probably one of the most consistent aspects of the history of plan- ners' attitudes. Yet the spread of zoning beginning in the 1920s was precisely what created much of the demand for planners' ongoing services. With the rise of environmental movements in the past two decades, many planners today have much more freedom to espouse their personal values on the job than they have ever had before, including during Brooks's golden era of Alfred Bettman and Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr.

    Contrary to what Brooks argues, planners have always advocated public-private partnerships and have always been valued for their ability to facilitate the development process. As I demonstrate in my book, the very foundations of modem land-use planning and regulation were rooted in joint efforts by govern- ment, business, and citizen groups to promote better resi