This blog series aims to capture how the UofM planning program changes students' perceptions. During their time in school, students are exposed to a wide range of topics and issues that enhance their understanding of complex urban dynamics. These reflections highlight instances when their previous perceptions of an urban issue, historic event, development project, urban system, policy or even an entire city changed as a result of coursework, internships, guest lectures, or other experiences in planning school.

As other MUPs know, I come from a different academic background than most - I started my career in biology. One of the only things that I miss about my previous “life” is the rigor of science. For example, my lab was reasonably sure about the relative amount of protein produced at a certain time of day because we, and other scientists, could replicate the results. What I do not miss, however, is the “scientism,” the belief that what can’t be measured isn’t worth studying. Planning is an incredibly broad field that was originally a target for my scientism. Though planning lacks the scientific rigor of the natural sciences, I have realized that this is not as much of a downside as I first thought.

I started to consider my scientism in UP 506, Introduction to GIS. I recall reading a paper on bicycle suitability in Vancouver that, while otherwise logical, chose weights for its variables based on intuition rather than evidence. I wondered how a study could be taken seriously with such randomness. Later, I read an influential and dour paper in UP 540, Introduction to Planning Theory, which added to my suspicions about planning’s inferiorities. This paper, written by two cranky urban theorists, outlines why problems in planning are essentially unsolvable because the scientific method is not readily applicable.[1] That is, there is no consistency among cases and no end point at which data can be evaluated. Even though the authors oversimplify the scientific process, they are right in that approaching planning problems is fundamentally different than approaching scientific questions.

These two classes helped me come to terms with the lack of rigor in planning. Urban planning may not have questions that are “answerable,” but does it have to in order to be important? Of course not! Planning does not have to lead to theories or to a deep understanding, but instead make the cities and the people that live there incrementally better-off. It’s a field that measures its success by better, not by perfect. I started to realize that I was making things harder on myself by considering the scientific method above anything else. Understanding the benefits (creativity) and drawbacks of planning (not necessarily strictly scientific) have helped me come to terms with my doubts about planning’s usefulness. The type of problem solving involved in planning differs from the type of problem solving that I was used to; by accepting that, I was able to better appreciate the field as a whole.

[1] Rittel, H. W., & Webber, M. M. (1973). Dilemmas in a general theory of planning. Policy sciences, 4(2), 155-169.