But why planning?

Guest post:

Caroline McCalman is a PhD researcher looking into the implications of nuclear power as a sustainable energy source might have for modern environmentalism. Her interests include but are not limited to: energy systems, discourse analysis, conservation, genocide studies, South Africa, classical music and opera, goat farming and gardening.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Source: Wikimedia Commons

I am moved to write this short post in response to having been asked this question again and again, most recently by a professor in another social sciences discipline who, I believe, really should know better. This is often the first question directed to me when I explain the nature of my doctoral research, which is to do with the rise of nuclear power as a climate change mitigator and the implications that this has for modern environmentalism. Immediately, people want to know “Why planning? What are you doing in a planning department? Surely your research has nothing to do with town planning?”

Usually I reply by dissembling: saying that it’s really to do with where my supervisor is based, not with the department, or that it’s very interdisciplinary and rather than presenting a question to a particular department I applied for a pre-determined project with funding. These are certainly the most glaringly obvious reasons why I am based in the Department of Town and Regional Planning here at the University of Sheffield, but having given the issue some serious thought I have realised that there are no alternative departments that I would seriously consider taking this project to. Hopefully by the end of this post it should be clear why that is the case.

As has become glaringly obvious to me, and perhaps also to many others, the question of what ‘town planning’ really is – theoretically and practically – is a hotly contested subject. Note the title of Jamie Gough’s post from December 2014; “What is ‘planning’? Planning of what? Planning by whom?” The messiness surrounding town planning as a concept has become commonplace to me, and perhaps also to many others in the department – so much so, that I rarely give it much thought. I have accepted that Town Planning, as an academic discipline, is a many-roomed palace, full of unexpected treasures. It is the broadest social science discipline one could come across, and although in our research school and among our academic staff you will indeed find people researching topics that are linked to “traditional” town planning issues (perhaps a few mentions of Le Corbusier here and there), you are equally likely to find people researching violence and masculinity in Israel and Palestine; urban poverty and women’s issues in South Africa; renewable energy in the USA; meta-infrastructures; the use of narrative and story as a social resource; the implications of toll roads in Malaysia; the consequences of social policy on vulnerable families; and probably a bunch of other interesting and surprising topics that might not, to the casual observer, be related to what can be rather narrowly defined as ‘town planning’. It constantly surprises me that intelligent and well-informed professors and researchers in other social sciences disciplines seem to have rather parochial ideas of what might go on in our town planning department.

Because although Jamie Gough, in his excellent essay on “What is planning?” differentiates between ‘state planning of land uses’ and ‘planning of the economy’ as two broad fields within academic planning, I would simply say that from my perspective, town planning as an academic field covers any and all attempts at social and material organisation/dictation. Hence, in my research on what essentially amounts to the effects of technology on a social movement, I do not ever feel that I am on the fringes of my department. There is almost never a situation where I cannot find some aspect of my research to speak about with another member of staff or another researcher.

The broadness of the research interests of the department also has an extra benefit in terms of methodological approaches. I have been allowed, even encouraged, to dip into the literature and methodological practices of various other social sciences and humanities disciplines. There is no hidebound expectation to ‘stick to your own’. I have come across other researchers who have been quite surprised at my happiness to read politics textbooks, sociology papers, history papers, and methodological texts on narrative theory that have leapt out of English literature approaches. I have been left to read widely, discuss with anyone who will stop and listen, and then make my own decisions about which writers, thinkers and theorists suit me. I have been encouraged to disagree and debate with my supervisor. I have had experience in Politics, History and sociology departments, and none of them ever seemed to offer the freedom and support that I have encountered in Town Planning.

So the next time someone asks me “why town planning”, I will simply reply: “But why not town planning?”