Planning theory in city development

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This paper examines the theories of rational planning, incremental planning, and planning as a political process. It compares these three influences of planning specifically to town planning. Furthermore, the importance of rational planning, incremental planning, and planning as a political process will be highlighted in the examination of a case study of the ADA Light Rail Planning Project. Conclusions will be made as to the role these theories, in combination with politics, play in city planning.


Theory is a foundational part of knowledge because it describes how a particular field has been established and has evolved over time. Theory has been defined as "a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world; an organized system of accepted knowledge that applies in a variety of circumstances to explain a specific set of phenomena" (Wordnet, 2009). Based on this and other definitions, theory can be seen as a big umbrella that includes concepts, propositions, causes, explanations, definitions, and values.

Theories have been presented in regards to planning. These theories have been offered for planners to use as references. They provide guidelines for ways in which to go about planning and are used by many planners including town planners. Each planner holds a different view on the planning theories which have already been presented, and adjustments or suggestions are always made to well-known theories. Arguments are constantly being made as to which theory is better, and what theory is best used for town planning. Every planning agency is different and may use different theories to back up their ways of doing business.

Study Purpose

In this study, the theories of rational planning, incremental planning, and planning as a political process will be presented, especially in regards to city planning. These theories will be compared to each other and their significance to the ADA Light Rail Planning Project will be examined. It will be argued that the Light Rail Planning Project was, initially, a rational planning process but took a turn to incremental planning with the influence of politicization. It will also be argued that rational planning and incremental planning are insufficient in themselves as methods to fully approach town planning as politicization plays a larger role.

ResultsRational Planning Theory

Rational planning theory was first conceptualized as a specific form of planning in the Chicago School in the 1940s and 1950s. This was a program offered at the University of Chicago that came about after the Great Depression and WWII with the aim to better plan the economy. This program, which lasted only nine years, was enormously influential in setting the direction of planning theory. Rational planning was introduced to city planning in the 1960s. The incorporation into town planning came about due to a transition in thought: Town development was now regarded as a science rather than an art (Allmendinger, 2009). Despite its critics, rational planning has remained the most widely used planning theory for approximately 50 years. It remains a major foundation of planning school curricula, and has spawned the primary language planners use in methodological discussion (Baum, 1996; Dalton, 1986).

Rational planning is a procedural theory that focuses on the process of planning rather than on an object or end goal (Faludi, 1973). According to Nigel Taylor, the author of Urban Planning Theory Since 1945, rational planning is "the best method, or process, of doing planning," (1998, p. 66) He goes on to say that a rational decision is one that has persuasive reasoning (reasons can be persuasive if they are based on factual knowledge e.g., the knowledge has been gained based on a valid study). He argues that not every reason is persuasive; however, rational planning is designed to produce reasons that are persuasive. Taylor presented the fact that reasons can sometimes be persuasive for one group and not another. If reasons are persuasive based on individual values or group values, they are not necessarily persuasive in terms of science or for an entire community. This draws the conclusion that rational planning does not provide straight-forward formulaic answers to any given question. However, the rational process of planning does try to achieve unbiased, persuasive reasoning for any given problem (Taylor, 1998).

Since societies are made up of many people and all with different views, it is logical to think that decisions affecting large groups of people should be unbiased. Therefore, according to Karl Mannheim, a planner reflecting the ideals of social historian and economist Max Weber, planning should be objective (Allmendinger, 2009). This can be achieved by thinking rationally and focusing on the best method for reaching a decision. Rationalists are seen as those who have logical reasons for their views or decisions based on facts rather than emotions or values (ibid). It only makes sense that if decision-makers seek a rational decision they should follow a process that is rational.

To successfully achieve rational planning, there are steps that must be followed (Taylor, 1998). First off, a problem must be defined. Second, there needs to be identification of alternative options to solve this problem. Third, there must be detailed evaluation of each alternative. The fourth step is to implement the best alternative, and the fifth step is to monitor the effects of the chosen alternative. Rational planning does not end with the fifth step. Rational planning takes into consideration new problems arising or the fact that the initial problem or goal was not actually reached with the pre-determined best alternative. Therefore, rational planning may loop back to any step at any time as it is a continuous process (ibid). Rational planning is systematic by nature.

Just as rational planning does not have any criteria for concluding whether reasoning is persuasive or not in terms of the whole, the theory of rational planning is not perfect in regards to city planning. Rational planning was designed as a scientific way to approach planning (Faludi, 1973). The problem is that city planning is not a natural science. Town planning is a social problem; social issues are never solved but only resolved time and time again. There isn't an exact formula to answer the problems of town planning. Furthermore, social problems have no clear-cut indication of when adequate understanding has been reached since understanding for a social problem has no exact scientific criteria to be judged by. This indicates that town planners "can always try to do better," as there is no clear-cut stopping point for any planning process (Rittel & Webber, 1973, p.8).

Rational vs. Disjointed-incrementalist Planning

Charles Lindblom, a well-known critic of rational planning theory, disagrees with radical decision-making and believes that any decision made should be closely related to the policies that are currently in place. He proposed a theory of planning referred to as disjointed-incrementalism. Lindblom argues that disjointed-incremental planning is best for real-world situations (Allmendinger, 2009). He proposed some simple steps for incremental planning: Limit the analysis of alternatives to a few familiar options, focus on the problems rather than end-goals, and learn through trial and error (ibid). Lindblom wants to keep planning and implementation simple: An easy goal is established, and the alternatives considered are based on past experiences and values (Lindblom, 1959).

Lindblom has one major criticism of rational planning. According to Lindblom, planning cannot be rational if it is not comprehensive, and planning cannot be comprehensive because planners lack the ability to fully absorb all information related to the process (Lindblom, 1959). At first, many may agree that if rational planning is not fully comprehensive then it cannot be rational. However, Nigel Taylor offers an example to argue differently. He depicts a story of a man with a gun at his head. This situation does not allow ample time to consider all options and therefore cannot be comprehensive. Yet, the man quickly goes over all options readily available to him and makes the best decision he can with that knowledge. Under the circumstances, that decision is still considered rational (1998). A rational decision can be made after considering all alternatives available to the planner at the time (Banfield & Meyerson, 1955 cited by Allmendinger, 2009). What is learned from this is that a plan or a process can be rational without being comprehensive.

Faludi (1973) also offers criticism of Lindblom's theory. He criticizes the fact that incrementalism only offers limited alternatives for any given issue. Faludi says that incrementalism goes against making rational choices that affect a large number of people such as a community. He also disapproves of the fact that Lindblom proposes to make plans that are satisfying to one group of people that have the most influence in the community whether or not they are the majority (ibid).

Like rational planning, incrementalism still poses problems in relation to city planning. A key aspect to incrementalism is learning through trial and error. However, in town planning, there isn't an easy way to learn through trial-and-error. It's not easy to implement a highway and then take it out if it proves to be an insufficient response to the issue. Furthermore, if putting in a highway was the chosen alternative for an issue, and it did not resolve that issue, a new complication is created (Rittel & Webber, 1973). Each and every public policy is unique in and of itself. It may be possible to take other towns and policies for example, but each problem will be different; therefore, each implementation will result in a different scenario. What works for one town may not work for another. It seems as if this trial-and-error suggestion does not entirely work for city planning; thus, the theory of incrementalism does not fully encompass all issues related to town planning.

There is a link between rational planning and incremental planning. Faludi proposes that planning is usually somewhere between disjointed-incrementalist and rational-comprehensive. Planning agencies move more towards rational comprehensiveness but of course can never be fully comprehensive, only rational at best. Therefore the plan is somewhat still incremental and lies between the two extremes (Faludi, 1973). Like the man with a gun at his head, in some situations it is rational to quickly go over alternatives to any issue. At times, this may even be disjointed or incremental. Therefore, the suggestion that rational planning and incremental planning are completely different theories of planning is not entirely accurate. It is possible to have a combination of both theories in one plan (Taylor, 1998).

Rational and Incremental Planning vs. Planning as a Political Process

Thus far, city planning has been analyzed in comparison to the theories of rational planning and incrementalism. It seems these two theories lack a huge component for town planning: Politicization. However, city planning being considered political is not new (Taylor, 1998).

The main problem with the rational planning theory in regards to town planning is the disregard in reference to politicization (ibid). Incrementalists acknowledge some of the roles politics play in city planning, but it seems as if their views are a little naïve when it comes to the balance of power affecting this (Allmendinger, 2009). When it comes to town planning, decision-making is affected more by the power of politics rather than by rationality or even incrementalism. This is largely to do with the amount of people city planning affects and the different values or interests these people have.

[S]ince town planning action can significantly affect the lives of large numbers of people, and since different individuals and groups may hold different views about how the environment should be planned, based on different values and interests, it is therefore also a political activity. The planning theorists in the 1960s who saw planning as a science therefore misconceived the very activity they were seeking to describe (Taylor, 1998, p. 83).

It is not only the number of people affected but the power of certain groups and their political influence which plays into the decisions made, especially in city planning. Norton Long, an American planning theorist, words it quite well:

The question is not whether planning will reflect politics but whose politics it will reflect. What values and whose values will planners seek to implement?...[P]lans are in reality political programs. In the broadest sense they represent political philosophies, ways of implementing differing conceptions of the good life. (1959, p.168).

Charles Hoch, an experienced author on the subject of planning theory, agrees with this. He says that the complexity of city planning is due to the social and environmental factors and is greatly determined by the players involved. Hoch says that the players' motives always change, and that further complicates the politics of city planning (2009). In fact, public policy is hardly ever implemented due to planning authority alone; it relies on other actors to support the decision as well. Of course, these actors don't always hold the same position as the planners or policy-makers (Pressman & Wildavsky, 1973 cited by Taylor, 1998).

Therefore, the assumption can be made that social problems like city planning are political in nature, not scientific (Taylor, 1998). Rational planning and incremental planning are inadequate in themselves to successfully complete a town planning project all the way through implementation. They are hindered by political influence as well as ethical issues (Guba & Lincoln, 1989 cited by Hostovsky, 2005). Using rational planning for public policy creates deceptive expectations for what knowledge is really required to turn those plans into action; it doesn't recognize politicization, the largest factor in implementation (Hoch, 2009). However, incrementalists hold belief in pluralism: The power of putting initiatives into motion does not necessarily come from the person in the highest ranking position but rather it is affected by groups who hold special interest and power (Merelman, 2004). They do acknowledge some of the roles politics play in planning. They realize that government doesn't necessarily mean those directly in position but rather government is a collection of groups that have their own special interests (Faludi, 1973). It seems as if incrementalism is a step closer to embracing the full scope of city planning than rational planning due to this acknowledgement.

With politicization playing such a large role in town planning, theorists have suggested that planners stop being completely objective and become more involved with the entire process (Long, 1959). Planners should be technical in the formulation of plans, but should be advocates for the alternative deemed as the best option. City planning calls for debate of many social and political issues and should be kept in view of the public (Davidoff & Reiner, 1962 cited by Taylor, 1998). Taylor says that in order for a plan to be effectively implemented, planners need to identify lead actors that play a role in the implementation and persuade them to fulfill the objectives of the planning authority (1998). It seems planners can no longer rest in the assurance that their plan was carefully carried out. They now have to worry about other contributing factors outside of planning to ensure implementation. Rational planners and decision-makers hope that their government will do what is in the best interest of the community (Faludi, 1973), but that is not always the case. In comparison, it seems that incrementalists realize their plans won't be implemented if they don't have the support of actors who have strong political power, so they gear their plans towards pleasing these players. They are not advocates for a plan they think is best, but rather they try to make their plans to please those in power.

This leads to the issue of what political involvement should imply. In a society, especially a democratic one, something of political nature should imply the participation of the public (Taylor, 1998). It makes sense that those most affected by any town plan should have a say in the decision-making. Based on these three aspects of planning theory, it seems that city planning should aim to be somewhere between incremental and rational while considering input from the public and keeping their best interest in mind. Planning should be objective and unbiased but keep in mind the limitations that plans may face at the implementation phase in regards to politicization and special interest groups that hold lots of power (ibid). If a plan goes against the desires of those in power, planners should be advocates for what they think is best for the community while keeping in mind that they can't impose their ideas of what is right or wrong (ibid.).

Planning Theory Applied to Case StudyAlrriyadh Development Authority Project Background

In the summer of 2002, a team was selected by the Transportation Planning Unit at Alrriyadh Development Authority (ADA) to work on a project to find the best solution to resolving the congestion problem in Riyadh (I was part of this team). The traffic congestion posed destruction of Riyadh's living system. Riyadh is the capital city of Saudi Arabia and has over 5 million residents. It doubles in size every ten years and is the fastest growing capital worldwide. It is forecasted there would be "15 million car trips a day by 2021" in Riyadh ("City without Limits," 2002). After examining alternatives, which will be elaborated on below, the planning authority dubbed the project: Light Rail Planning Project. The following is an examination of the Light Rail Project in reference to rational and incremental planning as well as planning as a political process.

The Planning Theory of the Light Rail Planning Project

The ADA relies on rational planning for the majority of its projects. In reference to the Light Rail Planning Project, the ADA made sure the team was fully knowledgeable in rational planning. This was accomplished by bringing a professor of technical planning from Berkeley, California to give training workshops for five months. This allowed the members to be knowledgeable in rational planning in direct regards to city planning.

It seems as if the ADA followed the rational process of planning in the first few steps of planning. They first identified the problem, which was the congestion of Saudi Arabia's capital city, Riyadh. Following the identification of the problem, the team came up with alternatives to the problem. The alternatives considered were widening some main roads, creating an effective public transportation system with buses, and installing a light rail system. These are not all options that could have been considered, but they were pre-determined to be the best alternatives collectively. This form of rational planning is not comprehensive but still seems to be rational as it made use of the best available options available to them (Banfield & Meyerson, 1955 cited by Allmendinger, 2009). This step also seems to be incremental as there were only a few alternatives chosen. However, the alternative for the light rail system was not closely related to the current system, and therefore seems to be based on more rational thought than incremental as Lindblom (1959) would not suggest an alternative that required much deviation from the current system. In reference to these issues, it seems that this step was somewhere between rational and incremental as Faludi (1973) pointed out most plans are.

The third step in the rational planning process is to evaluate alternatives against each other. To make sure this and the following steps were accurate, multiple resources were used including inviting an expert from GTZ, a big consultation company in Germany, to help with developing alternatives and analyzing them. The team was also sent to Berkeley, University of California to spend five months learning technical skills, information analysis and how to make alternative planning evaluations. Using the skills learned from Berkely and GTZ, alternatives were evaluated in detail. Planners went to the residents of Riyadh and asked if they would use the new alternatives. In fact, this is the first planning project in Riyadh that included input from women. This input was of major importance as the women in Riyadh make up the majority of the population. In regards to the light rail system, if women would not use it then it would surely fail. In the end, the women reported that they would use the light rail system if it was implemented. After many more studies and evaluation, the light rail system turned out to be the best alternative environmentally, socially, and economically. This showed the light rail system to be the best alternative by far as there were only those three categories to be weighed.

In the evaluation step of ADA's traffic congestion project, it seems that the process of rational planning was completed. Then again, evaluating alternatives is also suggested as part of incremental planning, so this step shares a little of each theory. However, this phase proved to be more comprehensive than any other step. In considering each alternative, it seems that the ADA planners made every effort in evaluating every aspect. They even interviewed women, which had never before been done in Riyadh. On the other hand, this step did not take into consideration any political views that would influence the implementation of the chosen alternative. To be truly comprehensive, all views would have to be taken into consideration as part of fully understanding the issue. Nevertheless, planning theorists have constantly pointed out the rational planners' lack of consideration towards politicization. Consequently, it seems that this step of planning was somewhere in between rational-comprehensive and incremental. Strictly incremental planning would have acknowledged political actors in the implementation of the light rail system and probably would have not considered that option from the beginning. Hypothetically, if it had, it would have been eliminated after considering the desires of the groups in power of the city of Riyadh.

Before the fourth step, implementation of the light rail system, was undertaken, the planning team was sent to various workshops with road authorities, engineers, and city planners from all over the world. They were taught operation management, maintenance, and how to run a light rail system in these workshops. They were also sent to a total of eight cities and spent two weeks in each city in order to evaluate their light rail systems. These cities were Stockholm, Sweden; Toronto, Canada; Tokyo, Japan; Los Angeles, California; New York City, New York; Paris, France; Berlin, Germany; and Sydney, Australia. Various observations were made in each city, such as Sweden had a very organized and well-planned light rail system, and Tokyo had amazing light rail management. All considerations were taken into account as they prepared the proposal to the CEO of ADA. They had plans to implement and follow through with evaluation afterwards.

With all the planning and extensive research that went into the Alrriyadh Development Authority's project of the light rail system, it is clear that a rational process of planning was being attempted. The team had planned to complete the five steps of rational planning from the beginning of the project. The first three steps were followed to the best of their abilities, although there is a combination of rational and incremental planning. The planning was objective due to the fact that it would affect a large group of people as suggested by Karl Mannheim (the planners even sought advice from women) (Taylor, 1998). It was procedural as Faludi (1973) says planning should be (following pre-determined steps for each phase of planning), and it produced persuasive reasons as they were based on a valid study as suggested by Nigel Taylor (experts allowed the team to conduct valid studies) (1998).

When the team presented their findings to the CEO of ADA, he told them to stop the planning after already completing seven years of the process. He admitted to them that he was convinced that the light rail system was the best solution. However, he said there was something behind the scenes that played a part. The CEO proposed to widen some main roads, which he claimed was an incremental approach to planning.

Widening the roads is a more incremental approach in this situation and seems to be less rational as the facts from the study were mostly ignored. This alternative also appears incremental as the CEO suggests there is influence behind the scenes that has contributed to his decision. There is the suggestion that politics influenced the CEO's ultimate decision to widen the road. Speculations can be made that the CEO was afraid to lose his job if the project failed at the cost of $9billion when the council of ministers were the ones allocating the money for the project. He may have been concerned that the council would disprove of his decision. There is also the assumption that the CEO was under pressure from the religious leaders in Riyadh who did not agree with mixing men and women, which would happen with the completion of the light rail system. Furthermore, it seems likely that the CEO was influenced by the oil companies as they would not want people to stop driving cars at the risk of oil prices dropping. All of these reasons involve powerful parties that hold political interest in public policy. These groups have tremendous influence in Riyadh, and it is speculated that their influence contributed to the incremental switch in planning during the Light Rail Planning Project.

After the CEO made his decision to widen the roads, the team members became upset. They realized that there was political influence involved. They very strongly wanted the light rail system implemented as they worked seven years on rational planning to make sure it was the best alternative. At this point, some of the team members decided to take some action to persuade the CEO that implementing the light rail system would be the best alternative. They became advocates for their cause as some theorists suggest planners should do (Long, 1959). With some convincing, the CEO agreed to leave space for the light rail system and reconsider it in 2020. This step was much more incremental as it would give time to evaluate the effect of widening the roads on Riyadh. Furthermore, having already made the space to put the light rail system in, if the CEO agreed to implement it in 2020, it would not be too far from the current system. This step also proved to be political as the team members deviated from their plan to speak out about their proposed resolution. They realized that simply presenting a rational plan would not necessarily grant them the resolution they prescribed. Here it seems that the rational planning led them to consider incremental planning after addressing the politicization of the issue.

With this huge political influence, the issue of public participation arises. If a social issue is to be resolved, it would make sense for those affected by this matter to play a part in the decision-making. In the case of the Light Rail Planning Project, city members did contribute to the study. They reported that they would be happy with the light rail system and would make use of it. However, their opinions were disregarded by the CEO as he was concerned with something other than the majority of the public. As Sherry Arnstein wrote in an article, "participation without redistribution of power is an empty and frustrating process for the powerless. It allows the power-holders to claim that all sides were considered, but makes it possible for only some of those sides to benefit," (1969, p. 216). With the decision to widen the roads, it is not completely clear who benefitted most, although there are the possibilities of the oil companies, the religious leaders, and the CEO himself. Maybe these parties did not necessarily benefit from the widening of the roads, but they likely didn't lose anything as the implementation of the light rail system implies they would have. The planners tried to come up with an alternative that would best solve the traffic congestion in Riyadh and benefit the public, but they were unable to complete their process as they did not anticipate the power of politics in their planning. The "powerless" that Arnstein refers to in her article seem to be the planners as well as the majority of residents in Riyadh in this particular plan. Despite majority input and studies that showed the light rail system was the best solution environmentally, economically and socially, it was not implemented. However, when the planners finally became advocates for their cause and appealed to the nature of politics while abandoning simple rational planning, they seemed to make some progress. This shows how seemingly ineffective rational planning theory is singularly in regards to city planning. It appears that rational planning would only be effective in regards to public policy if it acquired use of other theories as well as politicization.

Lessons Learned

In examining this case study, it appears that plans are often made but the deciders don't necessarily take actions that reflect those proposed by the plan (Taylor, 1998). Rationalists cannot assume that their plans will be implemented if they have not put thought into the support from other key players; implementation of town plans often requires the support and cooperation from a group that holds power in the community. Plans can be aborted or changed if there is no support from those who hold political power (ibid.). Incrementalists have a better understanding of town planning. The proposals of incrementalism suggest better application for real-world situations as they acknowledge the troubles faced during implementation. More specifically, incrementalists recognize that certain groups hold political interest in city planning, and they do not ignore this (ibid). Based on this case study and professional planning theorists' knowledge, a connection between rational planning, incremental planning, and politics as a process of planning is seen in city planning.


From the examination of rational planning, incremental planning, and planning as a political process, the Light Rail Planning Project was able to be analyzed against these theories. Multiple planning theorists have suggested that rational and incremental planning are not completely separate theories. They suggest that the theories often intertwine in town planning. As seen from the case study of the ADA Light Rail Planning Project, it seems these theorists were correct. City planning is a complicated process as it is based around social issues rather than completely scientific ones. To claim that a planning process must be either completely incremental or rational does not seem to be accurate against these findings. Furthermore, in ignoring the role of politicization in town planning, it will likely lead to the unsuccessful implementation of plans. As planning theorists and this case study propose, politics play a major role in city planning. The conclusion can be made that town planning encompasses many planning theories, and politics have an important part to play in the completion of any town plan regardless of the planning process.

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