Friday, December 31, 2010

Anglo-American town planning theory since 1945: three significant developments but no paradigm shifts

Planning Perspectives, 14 (1999) 327–345

In recent times it has become fashionable to describe major changes in the history of ideas as ‘paradigm’ shifts, and some have described changes in town planning thought since the end of the Second World War in these terms. In this article I offer an overview of the history of town planning thought since 1945, and suggest that there have been three outstanding changes in planning thought over this period. These are, first, the shift in the 1960s from the view of town planning as an exercise in physical planning and urban design to the systems and rational process views of planning; second, the shift from the view of town planning as an activity requiring some technical expertise to the view of planning as a political process of making value-judgements about environmental change in which the planner acts as a manager and facilitator of that process; and third, the shift from ‘modernist’ to ‘postmodernist’ planning theory. I argue that none of these changes represents a paradigm change in anything like the strong sense of that term. Rather, they are better viewed as significant developments which have ‘filled out’ and enriched the rather primitive town planning theory which existed half a century ago.
Over the fifty-year period since the end of the Second World War there have been a number of important shifts in town planning theory. But what have been the most significant changes, and how significant have these changes been? In this paper I offer a retrospective overview of the evolution of town planning thought since 1945, and an interpretation of the most significant shifts in planning thought over this period. My geographical focus will be on planning theory as it has developed in Britain and North America, though the developments I describe here have been influential elsewhere. My conceptual focus will be on those ideas or theories that have been concerned with clarifying what kind of an activity town planning is (and hence what skills are appropriate to its practice). In other words, I shall concentrate on changing conceptions of town planning itself over the last fifty years. But I shall also examine the modernist–postmodernist debate and its bearing on changing views about the purposes (and hence normative theory) of town planning.

RIBA - Royal Institute of British Architects 1934: London art deco, image by mermaid99

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