Theory in an applied profession? Planning theory arose in academia during the post-WWII planning boom. As planning departments grew, social science methods replaced design-centered curriculum. The scientific method and knowledge trumped both design aesthetics and progressive moral imperatives. With increasing specialization, designers weren’t prepared for the legal, economic, and logistical complexities of planning work.
The professional protocol, in drawing on the presuppositions of the rational planning model, either banishes the the politics of uncertainty entirely or translates these political relationships into methodological presuppositions and procedures… Practitioners adopt the rational model as a rhetorical device to legitimize their professional persona as an expert. (Hoch 51)
Hoch argues that, while this may make sense for bureaucratic planners, it’s debilitating for planners not vested with bureaucratic authority. The rational protocol constructs the planner as an apolitical expert doing good science and makes their relationship to power an precarious one. For example, “Man with a Mission” Tom’s commitment to the protocol and the objectivity of professional expertise blinded him to the political compromises he needed to keep his job. “Dangling Practitioner” Martin rejected courting a local power player–which he viewed as damaging to his professional integrity–in promoting a rational cooperative development plan between his organization and the city and was “left dangling between the powers of craft and the powers of coercion” (Hoch 69). Craft, coercion, and consent define the power relationships within which planners practice and they treat them as discreet or unrelated at their own peril. Successful planners embrace the interconnected complexity of these powers.
Although the modern planning profession is rooted in progressive reform, the more activist contingent exited the growing profession in the early twentieth century as the focus on social issues gave way to design and growth, because business and philanthropy powered most planning efforts, not government. This situation began to change after WWI. The 1920s saw a widespread adoption of zoning laws and planning commissions; with their non-electoral appointments and practical expertise, planners were regarded as politically independent and their work essentially scientific.
The Great Depression and New Deal programs introduced a different configuration by connecting planning efforts directly to the federal government: “Planning activity became an extension of the executive authority–a staff activity that focused on policy and institutional design, rather than a line activity organized to implement established goals.” These large-scale projects were conceived, directed, and implemented all within the government.
Even with challenges from states and property owners, this model of planning drove the development of cities into the post-WWII era. And it was in this era that local planning started to grow again. The federal agencies were providing the funds but the locals were making the decisions. The results: massive suburban sprawl between the 1950s and 1970s, white flight, and inner-city decay. Professional planners’ call for federal oversight spurred government support in the form of the Housing Act and federal planning grants. The planning profession grew by leaps and bounds, especially with local government. Eventually COGs would enter the picture to provide a regulatory conduit for federal planning dollars. These regional councils and the rational planning model flourished under the progressive aegis of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations.
The rational planning model claimed to link professional expertise and bureaucratic authority in the service of a democratically determined public interest. In the context of rapid growth and strong federal support for government planning, the rational model became the premiere rationale for professional planning practice. (Hoch 35)
The massive conservative backlash and economic downturn of the 1970s spelled the end publicly funded planning and the rational planning model’s hey day. Shrinking job opportunities and shifting professional ethos meant that planning would survive through accommodation and diversification. The result, as Hoch points out, was that planning activities continued “but usually without a commitment to comprehensiveness and the public good” (42). Lacking political and cultural capital, planners sought to professionalize by institutionalizing the rational model into a protocol.