The spirit and purpose of planning: challenging urban growth?

30 augustus 2021

Planners are frequently seen as urban growth facilitators. This allegiance to the urban and to growth has severely limited the societal relevance of the planning profession. It is time for planners to challenge such obstructive definition of their work, and to embrace broader and more exciting possibilities. This requires, first, understanding why economics became so dominant, and why planning has not. After this, it requires changing what the term planning is supposed to mean.

It is surprising that degrowth and post-growth remain peripheral terms in contemporary planning theory and practice. Assuming that economies can grow indefinitely in a finite planet is absurd (Kallis, 2018). Still, growth continues to frame the way most individuals think today – and this applies also to planning (Ferreira & von Schönfeld, 2020).

Planning has deep historical connections and natural affinities with growth. Looking at the foundations of the profession, one can find a relationship (and even an interchangeability) between the notion of planner and the notions of growth regulator, growth facilitator, and growth designer. Alternative notions of planners as degrowth regulators, degrowth facilitators, and degrowth designers only emerged in rather timid and implicit ways when the phenomenon of shrinking cities forcefully imposed them. Nevertheless, today, planning shrinking cities under the pro-growth regime remains a paradox for many planners (Sousa & Pinho, 2015). Against planetary boundaries and empirical evidence, the perceived context, conceptual hierarchies, and drivers that planners are asked to embrace are overwhelmingly ruled by both pro-urban and pro-growth principles.

Planners, largely due to the influence of regulatory bodies with powers to unilaterally decide what planning is, were asked to accept as law a narrow, uninspired, and technical definition of their profession. Consequently, planning schools typically define what they teach as something remarkably vague and lacking ambition, yet clearly related to space, land, territory, cities, regions. Due to this, either strategically or by lack of insight, planning became structurally vulnerable to colonization by economics. Indeed, planners have increasingly adopted concepts and values directly taken from economics to decide what to do at work, for example promoting competitiveness, innovation, value. The result was the emergence and consolidation of a narrow, uninspired, and technical jargon that uncreatively combines the two sets of terms, as in land value, regional competitiveness, urban innovation.

Figure 1: The dominant imaginary for the city of the future is shaped by values such as promoting technological development, economic growth and, as a consequence, increasing land values (photo: geralt via Pixabay)

Some of the historical roots of this colonization process induced by regulatory bodies might be found in the UK in general, and in the (contested) debate about what planning means in particular. As Vance Presthus has put it about seventy years ago (1951): “While established associations such as the Town Planning Institute regarded planning as primarily a technical function, restricted in the main to the physical aspects of design, housing, and public works, an opposing view, largely of a social science orientation, insisted that planning was multi-dimensional, requiring not only physical design but a synthesis of several disciplines including economics, geography, sociology, and public administration.”

Beyond this particular tension referred to by Vance Presthus, and if we care to look at what dictionaries say about what planning is, we find something very intuitive and simple, yet thought-provoking, along the lines of (emphasis added): “The process of formulating a plan, that is, a proposed or intended course of action.”

This is a powerful definition, that could have enabled planners to become influential professionals, and planning schools highly attractive organizations for great students. Had this definition been adopted, planners would be those that are employed when an important course of action is to be formulated. This would correspond to a massive set of high-impact strategic opportunities for the profession. Planners would have operated in a multiverse beyond ‘physical aspects of design, housing, and public works’. Planners would have played a key role in the collective process of defining whether cities in particular, and things in general, should or should not grow. This power, combined with the abilities of planners to work collaboratively and in a participative manner, and with their commitment to the public interest, would make a remarkable societal difference.

However, in informal conversations with planning experts (some of which based in the Netherlands) that I have conducted while preparing this short piece, I concluded with some concern that the term planning is not necessarily seen with sympathy by my esteemed peers. How can a profession stand when it does not believe in itself? – I had to ask myself. As examples, these individuals said to me that:

“I do not care about planning; I care about cities.”

“Planning is a word with a top-down connotation, and that is increasingly perceived as unacceptable.”

This unacceptability is not applicable, of course, to economics. Economists can top-down everyone and as much as they like. Indeed, economists had the (in my view, rather unfortunate yet brilliant) strategic insight of not making the spirit and purpose of their profession narrow and powerless. Indeed, schools of economics, and particularly through their MBAs, claim the relevance of their neoliberal knowledge for anyone, everywhere and anytime, from CEOs to politicians, from artists to dentists, from those ‘interested in knowing how the economy really works’ to… planners. Schumacher, in his iconic book Small is beautiful (1973), presents us with some noteworthy historical insights about the origins of such bold claims:

“[…] when there was talk about founding a professorship for political economy at Oxford 150 years ago, many people were by no means happy about the prospect. Edward Copleston, the great Provost of Oriel College, did not want to admit into the University’s curriculum a science ‘so prone to usurp the rest’; even Henry Drummond of Albury Park, who endowed the professorship in 1825, felt it necessary to make it clear that he expected the University to keep the new study ‘in its proper place’. The first professor, Nassau Senior, was certainly not to be kept in an inferior place. Immediately, in his inaugural lecture, he predicted that the new science ‘will rank in public estimation among the first of moral sciences in interest and in utility’ and claimed that ’the pursuit of wealth … is, to the mass of mankind, the great source of moral improvement’. Not all economists, to be sure, have staked their claims quite so high. […] even Keynes, in contradiction to his own advice […] that ‘avarice and usury and precaution must be our gods for a little longer still’, admonished us not to ‘overestimate the importance of the economic problem, or sacrifice to its supposed necessities other matters of greater and more permanent significance’. Such voices, however, are but seldom heard today. […] In the current vocabulary of condemnation there are few words as final and conclusive as the word ‘uneconomic’.”

In summary: planners, whose profession could be about formulating courses of action for the benefit of the many, became instead narrowly focused on spatial, and increasingly on urban, issues that serve the interests of the few – and typically of the rich who own the land and want to see its value maximized. Conversely, those whose profession is explicitly about promoting materialism and avarice, willingly worked towards expanding their reach and powers into virtually all other areas, including planning, since the very beginning of their profession. Their level of success is impressive: the values, models, and assessment tools of economics are now the matrix through which the future is envisioned and major decisions are made.

Figure 2: A caricature of how economists demand for precedence of their own views. (source: António Ferreira)

As a result of the above mentioned, caricatured in Figure 2, many, if not the majority of, planning departments became dominated by the logic of economics, and are being increasingly forced to justify their choices under the problematic assumptions of cost-benefit analysis. As stated by Kelman (1981): “It is amazing that economists can proceed in unanimous endorsement of cost-benefit analysis as if unaware that their conceptual framework is highly controversial in the discipline from which it arose – moral philosophy.”

How planning tames alternatives: the case of urban agriculture in Portugal

Following a global trend, urban agriculture (UA) is now a hot topic also in Portuguese planning, as can be confirmed by the research conducted by Delgado (2018, 2020). I have myself participated in some research about the subject, and for this we conducted a variety of interviews with UA-related local stakeholders. The interviewees noted that UA became so popular in Portugal because of the economic hardship following the 2008 global crisis. It is now perceived as a practice capable of giving to local communities in general, and deprived social groups in particular, basic means for subsistence while also achieving some positive sustainability-related externalities such as promoting biodiversity and reducing carbon. In other words, UA-friendly policies emerged in Portugal within a perceived context of economic hardship that, following the habitual neoliberal predicament, place on the deprived and vulnerable the responsibility to take care of themselves. This time they also have to produce their own food.

It is also clear, for these stakeholders, that UA in Portugal is typically seen as a marginal practice to be accepted only when and where it does not conflict with the core planning goal: urban growth. In practice, this means that UA is better when performed in temporary spaces (that will be promptly developed as soon as an opportunity for urban growth emerges) or in undesired spaces (that is, those that cannot be suitably used for construction). UA-friendly policies are, therefore, emerging in Portugal within a conceptual hierarchy where urban pro-growth concerns remain uncontested.

The stakeholders also noted the extent to which UA remains a fringe practice in Portuguese cities. It is not aimed at fundamentally challenging corporate powers and consumerism – despite the negative impacts of such logic on food resilience (Clapp & Moseley, 2020). It is instead, and as Delgado’s (2018, 2020) work suggests, envisioned as something foreign to the (pro-growth) urban system. Metaphorically speaking, agriculture did not become a citizen, but instead a rural refugee to whom urban asylum was granted. With this, it is duly asserted that the corporate drivers of economic growth are not to be interfered with by Portuguese cities.

Figure 3: As illustrated by this aerial image of Almada, Lisbon Metropolitan Area, most Portuguese cities have significant amounts of land that could be converted into agricultural sites (photo: Ronilda David via Pixabay)

In summary, agriculture as a nurturing practice conducted by urban dwellers – and despite its transformative potential – is being tamed by the Portuguese planning system into something that does little or nothing to promote a meaningful change. The pro-economic growth context, hierarchies and drivers remain unchallenged by UA – even when the urgency of challenging them seems more obvious than ever, and when the means for doing it are just before us. Importantly, research shows that this taming process is not at all exclusive to Portugal (see, for example, Paddeu, 2017).

A New Purpose for Planning?

Two final remarks are warranted. First remark: the allegiance of contemporary planners to the public interest is being tested today in an unconventional way. Will they continue accepting planning as the process of facilitating urban growth in the name of avarice, as Keynes has put it? Or will planners choose to see planning as the practice of formulating possible courses of action in the name of social justice and environmental sustainability? These are two key questions for planning professionals today, and their answers – and plans – will inevitably play a major role in the future of our societies.

Second remark: the legacy of economics is deeply problematic because that discipline is ideologically committed to economic growth (which is not a suitable proxy for the public interest) and wealth accumulation (which is a materialistic value). It is, therefore, preferable to give greater powers to planners – but only to the extent to which they prove themselves committed to serve the public interest. But what is that? The public interest is an elusive concept that can only be defined when considering specific issues and contexts, and through critical thinking and public engagement. Being open to this elusiveness is precisely what legitimates the planning profession. It is also why the dictionary wisely tells us that planning does not etymologically mean facilitating urban growth. It means, instead, formulating courses of action.

This article is part of a Roolijn series of publications on ‘Degrowth’/’Ontgroei’, see the introductory article (in dutch), including links to the other contributions (partly in English): ‘Los van groei: diepgewortelde duurzaamheid voor de planologie?

Author profile
António is Principal Researcher at CITTA: Centre for Research on Territory, Transports and Environment, University of Porto, Portugal.

António Ferreira ( is deeply concerned with the environmental, social, and economic crisis the world is currently facing, and what that crisis means for our children and future generations. He hopes to contribute to address this crisis through the development of a deeper and ethically-informed understanding of the world around us. He works as a Principal Researcher at CITTA: Centre for Research on Territory, Transports and Environment, University of Porto, Portugal. His research interests cover a variety of themes, namely planning theory and practice, worldview theory, emotions in planning, and planning education. See also his page on Researchgate.


Clapp, J., & Moseley, W. (2020) This food crisis is different: COVID-19 and the fragility of the neoliberal food security order, The Journal of Peasant Studies, 47(7), 1393-1417
Delgado, C. (2018) Contrasting practices and perceptions of urban agriculture in Portugal, International Journal of Urban Sustainable Development, 10(2), 170-185
Delgado, C. (2020). Local food policies – their constraints and drivers: Insights from Portuguese Urban Agriculture initiatives. Morovian Geographical Reports, 28(3), 223-235.
Ferreira, A., & von Schönfeld, K. (2020) Interlacing planning and degrowth scholarship – A manifesto for an interdisciplinary alliance, disP – The Planning Review, 56(1), 53-64
Kallis, G. (2018) Degrowth, Newcastle upon Tyne, Agenda Publishing Ltd
Kelman, S. (1981) Cost-Benefit Analysis: An Ethical Critique, Regulation, 5, 33-40
Paddeu, F. (2017) Legalising urban agriculture in Detroit: a contested way of planning for decline, Town Planning Review, 88(1), 109-129
Schumacher, E. (1973) Small Is Beautiful. Economics as if People Mattered, New York: Harper & Row
Sousa, S., & Pinho, P. (2015) Planning for Shrinkage: Paradox or Paradigm, European Planning Studies, 3(1), 12-32
Vance Presthus, R. (1951) The Schuster Report: An Interpretation, Journal of the American Institute of Planners, 17(1), 43-45

Author profile
António is Principal Researcher at CITTA: Centre for Research on Territory, Transports and Environment, University of Porto, Portugal.

António Ferreira ( is deeply concerned with the environmental, social, and economic crisis the world is currently facing, and what that crisis means for our children and future generations. He hopes to contribute to address this crisis through the development of a deeper and ethically-informed understanding of the world around us. He works as a Principal Researcher at CITTA: Centre for Research on Territory, Transports and Environment, University of Porto, Portugal. His research interests cover a variety of themes, namely planning theory and practice, worldview theory, emotions in planning, and planning education. See also his page on Researchgate.

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30 augustus 2021

De tekst en tabellen in deze bijdrage zijn gepubliceerd onder een CC BY-NC-ND licentie. Voor hergebruik van foto’s en illustraties dient u contact op te nemen met Rooilijn.

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