The difference between planning and design (and their application to the urban)

A relative of mine asked me recently what the difference was between a planner and designer. My immediate response was that it was a “good question”. But the problem with generic labels and titles, like planner, designer, architect, engineer, is that they assume every practitioner of that discipline is the same. And that’s clearly not the case. What is absolute in the case of a planner and designer, however, irrespective of their particular application, is the concepts upon which the disciplines are defined and named by. To plan and to design are two very clearly defined and different activities. So to address the question it is best to define and explain the difference between planning and design. The question didn’t require me to define the difference between (urban) planning and (urban) design, so I didn’t lead my response with this. But by focusing on the concepts underpinning the two, a better understanding of their application to the city can be made (which I couldn’t help myself making).

Having received this question via email on the first day back to work from a holiday, I answered it with an example that was top-of-mind. Here is the first part of what I wrote in reply:

Good question. I had a holiday yesterday. If you plan your holidays, you tend to take-as-given a known or chosen destination, and map out how to best get there. If you design your holidays, you will question what it is you are really seeking. You may even discover that a holiday is not the best outcome for this. In city terms, planning tends to take-as-given existing circumstances, and at best re-configures them for the future. Design thinking re-imagines that future.1

And there you have it, at least as a fundamental distinction between the two activities.And as Paddy Harrington from Bruce Mau Design rightly declares, design “start[s] with desire”3 and is about addressing intentions, with imagination; planning, on the other hand, is about organisation within the known and the understood. Planning is accommodating; design is strategic.

Applying this theory to the making of the city, the difference between ‘urban planning’ and ‘urban design’ becomes clear. But is it?

Problems with nomenclature

The urban planning and urban design disciplines both make claim to the making of the city. The former has a longer history of recognition, and is a professional discipline with statutory entitlement. Urban design, on the other hand, has a much shorter history as a discipline, having only recently become a branch of academic study in its own right. But unlike urban planning it has no real professional representative body or professional recognition to date. In fact, the term urban design is inconsistently referred to. Is one an ‘urban designer’, or is one involved in an urban design process? Does one practice urban design, or does one produce urban designs as product? These questions reflect the current ambiguous nature and practice of the discipline, and its absence of a critical theoretical basis.4

Nevertheless, ‘urban designer’ has been taken as title. Despite a clear difference in the concepts by which each discipline is named (i.e. ‘planning’ and ‘design’), urban planners will have it that they are most formative in making cities, assuming a position that one must plan before one designs. ‘Urban designers’ will have it that they are able to create the best cities, combining the knowledge of what to make with how to make it. To add to the ambiguity, most ‘urban designers’ have backgrounds in another discipline and are also either planners, architects, landscape architects, or combinations thereof. Architects, for example, either claim they are best suited to ‘urban design’ or make the best ‘urban designers’, with a belief that other disciplines merely follow or support their lead. And then there is the counter-opinion of landscape architects who attest to the same claim based on their perceived superior capability to design at scale. The conservative consensus, however, being that everyone is a designer, and that urban design, indeed city making, is a collaborative process that needs to involve many disciplines! These, of course, are huge generalisations, as framed earlier.

The reality is that every problem situation or situation of unease, concern, need or desire, is a design opportunity, not a planning challenge. And herein lies the essential need for a recognition of the difference between design and planning; the important distinction between the designer (leader or change agent) and the design process (collaboration among many interested parties), and the meaning of the urban content in question, as distinct from its material evidence, the city. 

Defining the urban

Despite urban planning and urban design having clearly different conceptual foundations, both declare the same content, i.e. the ‘urban’, at least in name. And here is where the meaning and application of both is misleading and limited. As indicated in the About section of this website, and as readers of this blog’s posts will know, I advocate that cities are defined by people. And cities exist as people come together to produce broad forms of wealth that can be shared. The production of this wealth is through exchange of commerce and culture, principally. I refer to this exchange among citizens, as the ‘urban’. And I make distinction between the urban and its material evidence, the ‘city’.

The problem with appearances

Contemporary (urban) planning and (urban) design practice, paradoxically, prioritises the ‘city’ and its spatiality over any political and economic process and capacity that may be vital to enabling the production of community wealth. In this application, planning and design are more concerned with the effects of the urban — the outputs of exchange in the form of roads, houses, open spaces, social infrastructure, and accommodation of growth — that is to say, the ‘city’, than the causes for exchange — that which defines living and that which living is to be defined by, which is to say, human needs and values, the economic basis to survival, and the generation and sharing of broad forms of wealth in harmony with the rhythms of our living planet.

As Stephen Buckle points out, interpreting the work of David Hume, “the causes of events we observe in our daily lives are not themselves observed: that we generate causal explanations on the basis of the patterns we discern in experience.” He goes on to say “the best explanation of any experience or set of experiences depends on investigation into all the relevant patterns of human experience, not just into those that are most readily to hand.” And that “mixing up causes and effects is an easy thing to do”.5 Planning and designing a city based on what we see everyday in our lives (landuse, building forms, roads, open space) is not attending to the causes responsible for what we see (respective commercial interests), and certainly not in relation to the essential cause of cities (to produce and share broad forms of wealth).

Planning for, or designing the effects of, exchange rather than causes, misses the objective of the urban project. In so doing, this type of (urban) planning and (urban) ‘design’ falls short of addressing the urban it is named by. As a consequence, what is referred to as urban planning and urban design, in practice, simply does not address the urban; it does not address the reasons for which the city exists or the very basis by which it does. And since both planning and design are purposeful activities that are both real-world based and intended, it follows that any urban planning or urban design that isn’t about the urban is simply not planning or design; for it to be so, it would have to start with, address and deliver on the urban.

The difference between urban planning and urban design

The essential difference between urban planning and urban design is simply that the former makes provision for known spatial arrangements of known forms (land use, transport, open space, infrastructure) that are reliant upon the effects (outputs) of known forms of  exchange (particular industries, e.g. property development, housing, infrastructure, social and government services), and the latter makes imagined spatial arrangements (e.g. ‘village hearts’, ‘green lungs’, quay-sides, urban boulevards, housing typologies, single-loaded dwellings), the realisation of which are reliant upon the effects (outputs) of the very same known forms of exchange. Both do not enquire into intentions for living, or enquire into existing or imagined forms of exchange for living. Both promote effects over causes. Planning focuses on land use, rather than the use of living; on housing provision rather than a concept of home. Urban design focuses on how land is to be used, with little regard to who it may be for; on housing typologies with little enquiry into how housing is or could be delivered. Both promote ‘mixed use’ almost exclusively over mixing people, ideas, interests, resources. Both ignore the content they are named by. Both deny the cause of cities. In recalling the distinction in the underlying conceptual basis of planning and design made earlier, the fact that this planning deals only with the known and the given, and that this design imagines only formal outcomes of the city, and both are without relation to urban intention, means they could be more accurately described as ‘city engineering’.

City follows urban

Once it is apparent that this type of planning and design deals with effects over causes, it becomes clear that the way our cities are conceived and developed is less about “the people” than we may think. Moreover, not only is the essential cause of cities overlooked, but in prioritising the city’s form by focusing on the formal outputs of particular industries (e.g. property development, retail, infrastructure, government services) which constitute the city’s form, urban planning and design are prioritising those industries that produce those forms. And in so doing, they are supporting interests that are exclusive, not collective; causes that do not relate to the essential cause of cities. As revealed in a previous post, this planning and ‘design’ relies on, supports and defines the city by the business of industries, rather than being a process that devises strategic investments which would constitute the business of and for the citizens of community. 

As cities are about, and for, ways of life, for citizens, collectively, it is the collective ‘means’ by which they live (i.e. their economic capacity), for the collective ‘ends’ (their desired modes of living), which is important. It’s not that a city’s spatiality is of no importance, nor that the industries producing that spatiality are insignificant; it’s that industries need to be orchestrated to deliver on the shared objectives of community in ways that are resilient to change, that the resultant city spatiality will support the desired modes of living. For “city follows urban like form follows function”, as Ingo Kumic has succinctly identified.6

If we accept intention as the essential essence of design, then we could imagine better ways to live and better ways through which to live. If we were to take this urban as content, then it would follow that we would need to understand peoples’ values and needs, set performance targets for living, and creatively devise strategies to deliver on how people could live, both in terms of the ideal and the practical. This is an urban project that requires the questioning, imagining and testing of design. In this scenario, an urban designer would be a change agent; the urban design process inclusive and participatory. And if we designed this urban process, if we created these urban conditions for and by which to live, for real citizens, then we would have a clear picture of what must be planned accordingly. And perhaps instead of (urban) planning prioritising the management of the physical form of the city as a way of ‘making the city’ (through designation of land uses, activity centres, building heights, transport corridors and open spaces made by some form of (non designed and unplanned) exchange), it may more usefully support the urban design process and the urban conditions designed — that which would enable people to maintain the networks essential for exchange of commerce and culture — the planning of resource use and allocation for a community’s ability to ensure its own sustenance, shelter, mobility, exchange, learning. Planning that could lead to the production and sharing of broadly defined forms of wealth — physical and psychic health, access, choice, equality, democracy, prosperity, community, clean air and water, and contact with nature.

I haven’t attempted to address the particular forms of planning in city-making as we know them (‘strategic planning’ and ‘statutory planning’); that would be a topic for another day, perhaps. My main point here is that it is less meaningful to invest in planning until one knows what it is one must plan. And before we make plans, we must make sure of our intentions. Design explores, tests and delivers on intentions, and for this reason should be formative in shaping community futures.

The vital and unacknowledged opportunity in city-making is the urban, yet the urban planning and urban design disciplines neglect it. Moreover, the missing planning in the making of the city is the planning which supports the design of the urban. Yet the design of the urban is the missing design in the making of the city. It is also the missing design in urban design. Urban design, however, is the perfect name with which to identify this challenge. If only it were true to the content and process it describes. And that’s a challenge that could define the meaning of an urban designer.

1. Of course, design is a much layered subject that I won’t attempt to cover here, but for more on defining aspects of design, see previous posts: “First post and the (strategic) nature of starting (in design)“, and “What’s in a name? The city research we need“.

2. I generally dislike the popular use of ‘design thinking’ on the basis it is tautological; it is impossible to conduct design without thinking. Nevertheless, I use it here to emphasis the design process. It could well prove to be a necessary term to elevate what is an undervalued process that humans have practiced ever since they existed.

3. Paddy Harrington, lecture, Arts + Technology = Magic, Or Does It?, “Creative Mornings Toronto”, June, 2012. (To see the part referenced, watch 10 mins in.)

4. For a comprehensive review of western urban design theory and a critical review of urban design, see the remarkable text by Alexander Cuthbert, The Form of Cities: Political Economy and Urban Design, Blackwell Publishing (Carlton, Victoria), 2006.

5. Stephen Buckle, “The Myth of Misogyny”, Quadrant, No.493, (Balmain), Jan-Feb 2013.

6. Ingo Kumic, pers comm., 2011. I would add that in referring to this concept I use ‘function’ in the broadest sense, equivalent to intent, and inclusive of emotional identity, not merely in its utilitarian sense.


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