So…what _Is_ urban planning’s Knowledge Domain (and what is missing? Hint: important stuff)

This piece of research from Tom Sanchez and Nader Afzalan is insightful for both what it includes and what is does not include.  Tom and Nader examined the reported areas of expertise among hundreds of academic urban planners and graphed the resulting prevalence various areas of expertise, as well as the commonalities in areas of expertise.  This is what they found:



Take a close look at the chart.

We have a huge number of people focused on urban design, infrastructure, natural resources, etc.  All well and good.

We have very, very few academic planners who profess any knowledge of or academic interest in economics.  Regional economics is one of the smallest circles on this map, indicating that relatively few academics listed any interest in that topic.

And what few things does that paltry circle eclipse?

Among others, Real Estate (the economics behind all that design stuff), and

Citizen participation (the work of actually working with the communities where all that design stuff happens).


No wonder planners get accused of being design dictators, fantasy-makers, people who design places that are supposed to have all these social and economic benefits … That.Never.Happen.

Apparently it’s because we’re teaching them that way.

If you are involved in training urban and community planners at the academic level, I think this indicates a serious challenge.  This would appear to indicate that you are not teaching your students to interact with the actual, real world.   Which may be why urban planning has not lived up to its potential to make the broad swath of community existence more successful, more intelligent, more healthy.

We claim to be broad and inclusive and wider-ranging and thoughtful, but this chart would seem to indicate otherwise.  And our inability, especially to understand and effectively interact with the core factors that underlie how communities work — people and economics — bodes ill for the future relevance and impact of the profession.  People and economics are not, cannot be someone elses’s job while you do cool maps and pretty designs.



2 thoughts on “So…what _Is_ urban planning’s Knowledge Domain (and what is missing? Hint: important stuff)

  1. Honorata

    I couldnot agree more with this piece. Infact since joining the a Department in my country Ghana for some time now i have noticed a similar pattern where all our designs mostly never get implemented.We do indeed need to allow greater participation by communities because at the end of the day it is their design and we should learn to facilitate the process because of our technical know how. Thank you

  2. Ben Kenny

    I agree wholeheartedly, Della. When I went through the OSU CRP Masters program in the pre-GIS late ’70s, there appeared to be two distinct areas of focus – space, mapping, and design, and economics and numbers. Being a former econ major, I gravitated to the latter. If indeed the former is drowning out the latter, the profession appears to me to lose much of its grounding and legitimacy. There is a need out there for the timeless tools of the dismal science, including market studies, cost/benefit analysis, and evaluation of metrics; planners should be able to sort through the numbers and make sense of them as well as doing all that envisioning of vibrant, sustainable, walkable complete streets that we do so well.

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