As any student or practitioner is already aware, planning can be a complex and nebulous topic. While it may be relatively simple to grasp onto individual concepts and techniques, it can also be easy to miss the forest for the trees when concentrating on the topic at hand.
Given the topic’s complexity and myriad concepts, what foundational ideas are truly important in the field? That’s the question driving Planning Ideas that Matter: Livability, Territoriality, Governance, and Reflective Practice (2012; MIT Press; 432 pp.; $27), in which fourteen scholars explore ideas under the umbrella of four unifying topics – the titular livability, territoriality, governance, and reflective practice. Those four topics came about, as the editors and authors of the introductory chapters point out, from a weekly symposium at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the course in city planning there.
Largely historical in their orientation, the text’s contributors typically provide an overview of each individual topic and how it’s evolved over the last century and subsequently provide insights and critical analysis on the topic.
In some cases, the authors are highly critical of their respective topics. For example, in Merilee Grindle’s chapter on good governance, the author argues that while few would advocate bad governance as opposed to good, the concept’s significance and effectiveness are relatively limited in relation to its popularity, and warns readers of the futility of uncritical enthusiasm for faddish ideas. And in Neil Brenner and David Wachsmuth’s chapter on territorial competitiveness, the authors go to great lengths to point out the harmfully dysfunctional effects of subnational competitive programs in that they waste considerable resources in vain attempts to profit at the expense of others, yet remain massively popular.
Others contributors are more hopeful and advocating. In Timothy Beatley’s chapter on sustainability in planning, the author attempts to set forth an agenda for sustainability within the planning profession for the next century. The three chapters on professional reflection highlight the importance to the profession of concepts such as social justice and communicative planning while noting that such practices are not often implemented and when they are may not always yield the results that participants are hoping for.
The scope of Planning Ideas that Matter is broad and its subject matter is discussed in depth, and while its ideas are rooted in American planning, the subject matter often roams into the international sphere. While most of the concepts and chapters will be immediately familiar to readers (greenbelts, New Urbanism), others may be less so (international urban development, self-help housing in the Americas). And while those looking for immediately implementable tips, tricks, and ideas may be disappointed, for those looking to immerse themselves more deeply into the planning practice will more likely be satiated.