Planning as a profession: Between individual ethics and public interest

Por André Pereira

The multidisciplinary context that caracterizes planning has always made it difficult to define a common identity of the planner, and a set of shared values for the profession. One of the greatest challenges in theory (and for its translation to practice) has been to define clearly the ethical values and logics of decision in planning activites. For that reason, the concept of ‘public interest’ has been called for as the most appropriate justification for decisions in planning. However, the use of public interest to define the whole objectives of a profession raises questions that have never been convincingly resolved, and that seem essential to return to when considering the responsibility of planning within the climate change discussion.

A more urgent call for a definition of an ethics of planning comes from the rise of market liberalism in general, and of market planning in particular. It has also led to the growth of the number of planners employed by private consultancies – a fact which challenges the implied association of planners mostly with governmental or community organizations. Where beforehand professional judgement was sufficient to justify decision-making, the increased pressures on local spending, a focus on market provision and individual choice over public services, with no surprise brought forth a range of competing interests on the seemingly unproblematic focus of planning for the ‘common good’. There are multiple critiques of the use of this vague term. They range from the way it has been used to obscure motivations behind certain decisions, and to the impossibility itself to frame a consensual public interest within the complexity of problems, and the multiplicity of personal – and usually unaligned – values and interests, which could render it a “dubious rhetorical tool in planning practice”.

Consider the recent example of the Environmental Protection Agency in the United States, where for the first time its employees decided to issue a Bill of Rights to remind and clarify their professional responsibilities before a clear politically motivated undermining of the work and science that has been produced within this organization. In this case, a commitment to the environment and public health is more immediately perceptible. What entails the defense of the public interest in planning bodies is deeply dependent on the discussion of the concept itself, specially when “it is expected that the planner will be required to develop specialist knowledge and skills to manage the planning process to facilitate economic growth outcomes”. When confronting orientations of elected politicians, it is a challenge to reflect on whether the defense of public interest rests on complying with what was voted by the population, or pushing each own’s self-awareness of what is the right path. This is particularly conflicting in areas of very polarized debate, when the view of public interest might have to be justified by an assumption that said population is un- or misinformed about what really is in their best interest (Figure 1).


Figure 1. Anti and pro-coal mining movements in Australia, April 2019. Credits: Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images

From a perspective of decision-making, it is clear that climate change challenges the two main approaches to planning theory (although in everyday practice this distinction is much less clear). In a very simplistic summary, an instrumental (mostly technical) approach has been long criticized for relying on a cause-effect logic that is not appliable in most real-life situations, and its focus mostly on outcomes. On the opposite end, practices based on a communicative rationality rely too much on an unattainable balance of powers, good faith of the intervenients and adequate choice of actors involved in the planning process. Problems arise here concerning how to guarantee that the outcome is the appropriate action to be taken. And even though there is a general consensus on the importance of environmental and social goals among the planning community, a concept of ‘sustainability’, just as ‘public interest’ is dependent not only on a hypothetical guideline for the profession, but also on each own’s personal perception. There is an inevitable weight of experiences (social, academic, professional, etc.) that shape the notion of sustainability, of the priorities and the length of action  in order to address our current and future problems.

From the ethical perspective, I would argue it is particularly interesting the discussion of Simon Critchley’s ‘infinitely demanding’ ethics in political resistance. Throughout his book, Critchley tries to tackle the lack of motivation for political action through the concept of a personal ethical demand of commitment, that is ultimately unfulfillable. From a planner’s point of view, accepting that the demand for climate action is always unfulfillable – but that even so there must be a commitment to answer that demand – could be a cornerstone that counteracts the nihilism of a planner facing a difficulty to push for appropriate measures. Likewise, it works as a way to avoid a self-congratulatory feeling of doing enough, while in fact there is no way to guarantee that in such an uncertain context.

Similar questions could be applied to any profession with some degree of influence in social or environmental matters. Centering this discussion on planning is particularly important due to this void in the set of defined values for the profession, apart from the use of broad and usually meaningless terms. But if we do agree that planners have a deeply-rooted responsibility towards society, and are an essential piece of the answer to climate change, this commitment may need a rethinking and clarification of the common goals and values of the profession.

André Pereira (MSc in Urbanism and Spatial Planning, Técnico Lisboa) is a research assistant at ICS-ULisboa on the “Softplan – From Soft Planning to Territorial Design: Practices and Prospects” project, focusing on institutional and policy changes in planning systems. His interests involve bridging complexity and planning theories, institutional transformation, and the multiple ‘rights to the city’, particularly concerning climate change and technologies in cities.

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