Planning Ethics

views updated


Planning is both a profession and a discipline that has at its foundation questions of how to best develop land, social programs, housing, parks, health services, and other aspects of human settlements. Planning ethics is focused on terms such as best as it appears in this characterization of planning, where ethics, or moral philosophy, provides a means of analyzing normative ways of responding to planning challenges.

Planning began largely as a community-led process focusing on aesthetics, safety, and health concerns at the neighborhood level. As planning became professionalized in North America in the late-1800s and early-1900s, urban design, economic vitality and order, beauty, and efficiency became prominent considerations. Planning issues later expanded to include environmental conservation and preservation, energy consumption, empowerment (including public participation), and heritage conservation (Hodge 1998, Krueckeberg 1994).

Historically the planning profession has evolved from an almost exclusive focus on the technical aspects of developing and conserving land to concern with a more holistic view of urban areas and regions. It has changed its disciplinary base from emphasizing engineering and architecture to striving for balance among the natural, physical, and social sciences. In addition, planning processes have shifted from focusing on technical, value-neutral expertise to addressing communicative processes, value-laden and normative analyses, and facilitation/mediation. Planning is thus often described as an art as well as a science (see for instance Canadian Institute of Planners 2004). While debates regarding these shifts are clear and progressive in academic circles, it is fair to say that society continues to view planners largely as technical experts in land development and, to a lesser extent, social and health programming.

Planning, Science, and Technology

Planning, science, and technology are connected in multiple ways. The use of science and technology by planning and planners is clear in the form of mapping techniques such as Geographical Information Systems (GIS), ecological theories, analytic and computing techniques, computer aided design, and others. Indeed one of the central criticisms of planning as an autonomous profession is the fact that it borrows methods, techniques, and tools from the social, natural, and physical sciences as well as the arts. This calls into question its independence as a field of inquiry, but is also often regarded as a strength in terms of underlining the inter- and multi-disciplinary nature of planning.

In addition to the use by planners of science and technology, technological advances have been linked to changing urban forms and activity patterns. Wireless communication, for example, calls into question the shape(s) of cities, transportation flows, and employment locations. Such phenomena have altered the perceptions and analyses of planners who help to shape these areas.

Conversely planning contributes to science and technology by demonstrating the effects of scientific theories and technological advances on the ground and can thus play a role in their refinement. Planners must, at the end of the day, develop a plan or make a recommendation, while scientists often study a given problem for an unlimited period of time. In this way, science and technology as used in planning has an immediacy that may lead to the adoption, adaptation, or abandonment of a given development.

Planning Ethics, Science, and Technology

Ethical aspects of planning, science, and technology may be discussed in terms of research as well as professional practice. Planning academics conduct research that contributes to the development of the field; planning practitioners also conduct research but their work is typically limited to issues with which they must deal in their everyday work. The ethical issues in both activities are similar, although particulars change. The following discussion includes examples from both fields of endeavor.

Ethics is used here as a synonym for moral philosophy; it does not replace other terms such as values, beliefs, morality, and morals. Instead it connotes a way of studying and addressing moral problems utilizing ethical theories and rigorous analysis. Ethical theories such as utilitarianism, Kantian thought, communitarianism, and rights-based morality, among others from sub-fields such as feminist ethics and environmental ethics, are used to help explore normative issues in planning and arrive at viable solutions.

Planning ethics, as part of professional ethics and, more generally, applied ethics, has been discussed in terms of five separate aspects of the field (Wachs 1985, Hendler 1995): everyday behavior; plans and policies; administrative discretion; the normative intent of the planning endeavor (planning theory); and planning techniques. Each category of ideas and action includes reference to issues of science and technology.

EVERYDAY BEHAVIOR. Everyday behavior refers to the actions of planners in the day-to-day context of their work. Conflict of interest is a typical ethical issue here. Should a land use planner accept a gift in return for expediting a development proposal? Should social planners bias a new service or program in ways that would help their family members? While such issues are commonly discussed in terms of planning ethics, they do not exhaust the field. As Joan Tronto argues, professional, including planning, ethics should be "about more than teaching [planners] that it is wrong to lie, to cheat or to steal (Tronto 1993, p. 134)."

Planners' behavior often includes their use of science and technology and the ethical aspects of that use. Most behaviors are linked to techniques and assessments that determine the efficacy of plans and policies. Some, however, include ethical issues that pertain directly to routine professional etiquette. For example, a bribe or a conflict of interest may pertain to the massaging of data (facilitated by such things as the sheer size of data sets that can be manipulated by computer programs), not only to the approval of a development proposal. Other concerns are equity, treatment of vulnerable populations (publics as well as colleagues), and relations with other professionals such as engineers and computer technologists. Included are such issues as sharing information with publics; for example, is communication via web sites and other means that require access to technology ethical when the target group is economically disadvantaged and may not have such access?

PLANS AND POLICIES. Plans and policies are inherently normative in that they allocate or reallocate resources among groups and individuals in a community or region. It is this normative content of plans and policies, as well as programs and projects, that is most strongly linked to ethics. Ethical theories and perspectives provide a conceptual basis for normative decisions in that a rights-based view of ethics, for example, directs plans and policies differently than would a utilitarian ethical theory. A plan that includes the provision of a transit route, or a park, in a particular neighborhood means that certain amenities will be part of this plan for particular people but not others. Such a distribution of benefits and costs is subject to ethical assessment.

Analyses of costs and benefits, as well as assessments of other ethical aspects of a plan or policy (such as social justice concerns), rest partly on the shoulders of science and technology. For instance, ecologists, environmental scientists, and other scientists, who study such things as carrying capacity, ecological stress, and environmental assessment, can determine whether a plan will result in the demise of a species or valued natural area. Similarly a transportation plan may be analyzed with regard to its ethical implications but one must understand the technical aspects of pollution generation and abatement, economic considerations, not to mention safety-related concerns pertaining to the materials used in road construction, the physical integrity of bridges, and traffic moderation, in order to conduct a rigorous ethical analysis. Further given the dearth of developable land in most urban centers, remediation of brownfield areas (lands on which polluting uses have occurred, thus necessitating corrective action) has become popular and the safety, cost, and efficiency of such action is subject to ethical, as well as scientific, analysis.

ADMINISTRATIVE DISCRETION. Administrative discretion pertains to the fact that planning roles are diverse and often ambiguous. This means that planners are often able to choose the role they wish to assume at any given time, where roles may vary from technician to mediator to advocate. This discretion gives rise to ethical considerations in that the selection of one role over another has implications for planners in their work. These implications pertain to clients, colleagues, employers, and publics in that all must know what to expect from the planners with whom they are working.

Planners may select roles that have more or less to do with science and technology. If they assume a role in which such expertise is required, they must ethically ensure that they have the necessary knowledge to act in this capacity. Most professional codes address this by referring to professional competence as a requirement for accepting, or carrying out, professional tasks. In addition to questions of competence, however, it is also possible that science and technology both broaden and restrict the role choices available. That is, some roles may be restricted when they require skills that are beyond the technical capacities of most planners. Conversely role choice might be broadened if such things as communication technologies make it easier for planners to collaborate with other experts, thus leading to more teamwork in planning.

PLANNING THEORY. Ethical aspects of planning theory pertain to the fundamental questions of why the planning profession should morally exist and how it is justified. Upholding individual rights, striving for maximum benefits for the greatest number of people, maintaining ecological integrity, ending oppression, and building community are all possible moral goals of the planning field (Beatley 1994, Hendler 1995, Howe 1994, Wachs 1985).

Science and technology enter into planning theory by indicating what is possible or feasible. It makes little sense to strive toward a goal that is, in fact, not physically achievable. Information provided by scientists indicates to planners what goals are reasonable in the face of available scientific knowledge. More specifically, an ethical analysis can suggest a way of life for society and, hence, to planners (for example, sustainable development). A scientific analysis can provide options as to how to achieve this goal and appropriate technology can assist in its implementation (solar energy, for example).

PLANNING TECHNIQUES. Planners use many analytic techniques ranging from statistical methods to economic forecasts to qualitative approaches. These are in addition to the methods inherent to each natural, physical, or social science that, together, make up the toolkit for most planning professionals. These techniques are connected to ethical ideas in that most make normative assumptions about their subject matter and such assumptions may be subject to ethical scrutiny. For example, assessing what is of sufficient value to count in a quantitative assessment of a particular development is an ethical, not a technical, question.

It is surprising to many scientists, as well as planners, to find that their methods and analyses are value-laden. This view of science and knowledge in general is consistent with a post-positivist perspective of the world in which it is recognized that experiencing the world from the perspective of a blank slate is not possible. Scientific knowledge is generated by people who perceive the world through particular lenses or filters. The best that science can do is to be as transparent as possible about this fact and its possible effect on decision making. The inherent subjectivity of knowledge is thus inescapable but this fact does not preclude critical assessment.

The choice of scientific techniques thus becomes subject to ethical inquiry, as do the data generated by such techniques or methods. Risk assessment, for instance, rests on definitions of risk, allocation of weights and probabilities to these risks, and normative conclusions as to what level of risk is appropriate. As already suggested, the same holds true for cost-benefit analysis, as well as environmental assessment. Forecasting methods and population projections, typically used in transportation planning, health planning, land use, and social planning are well-known for their often implicit value bases. More generally, certain methods can be linked to particular ethical theories; cost-benefit analysis, for instance, has been shown to be consistent with themes in utilitarianism—an ethical theory that holds that preferred actions should result in greater aggregate benefits. While entirely legitimate as one moral argument, the use of a method that rests solely on this sort of theoretical base can be problematic insofar as it neglects other values such as individual rights, community, and more. Analyses based on one restricted method may be criticized for ignoring other equally legitimate moral positions. Similarly computing techniques, such as mapping large quantities of data in order to show distributions of such things as literacy, poverty, and illness are useful in helping planners to distribute needed services. However in amalgamating these data (in true utilitarian fashion), minority populations and their needs are often left out, given the emphasis of utilitarianism on "the greatest good."

Related to these methods is the issue of norms and standards; many plans and planning processes include the use of quantitative guidelines such as X amount of parkland for Y number of people (for example, one acre of neighborhood park area per 1000 population). The efficacy and usefulness of such standards is a legitimate ethical question, especially because most are conventions that were developed in very different historical and socio-political contexts, often with little in the way of logical or empirical justification. Also of relevance here are such things as allowable, tradeable pollution levels that enable planners to plan differently than they would if there were standards that were cast in stone. Planners concerned about air pollution, for example, would need to write their development plans in a way that incorporated more in the way of uncertainty if industries within their jurisdiction were allowed to generate more or less pollution by trading their emission allowances with other industries and still staying within their permitted limits.

In a more positive vein, advances in computer technology enable public participation—a longstanding tenet of good (hence, ethical) planning, given its contemporary normative emphases on democracy, empowerment and diverse interpretations of 'the' public interest. Such technology, through video conferencing, instant messaging, listservs, and chat rooms, provides potentially accessible means for discussion of planning issues and, perhaps, arrival at consensus on such issues. This applies especially to remote areas in which residents are not concentrated in a single geographic locale. Issues of equity, however, arise in ensuring that the populations most sought after in terms of their participation are indeed those able to access the technology needed to have a voice in the planning issue at hand.

Planning Ethics, Science, and Technology in Practice

Within these five categories of planning ethics, the consideration of planning techniques displays the deepest connections to science and technology. Yet as also indicated, each aspect of planning includes reference to issues of science and technology and accompanying ethical concerns. Scientific and technological developments change the face of planning and of planning ethics by altering the analytic tools and descriptive information available to planners making decisions that will impact people's lives.

All of these themes are manifested in the professional codes of planning organizations. Such codes are vehicles for ethical analysis and direction in that they present practical guidance for planners facing ethical problems, while also providing a vision of what the profession should be trying to accomplish. Developments in science and technology, however, are often poorly addressed in professional codes; such developments occur at a pace that is difficult to maintain in terms of revising and adopting a code of ethics or a code of conduct (see, for example, Canadian Institute of Planners 2004, American Institute of Planners 1991). For example, fast-moving advances in computer technology, which facilitate the fraudulent manipulation of information and which can be adapted, with increasing ease, to circumvent safeguards, should be an important consideration in professional codes. However, because professional organizations revise their codes sporadically at best, practitioners are left to extrapolate solutions for emergent and rapidly changing problems from dated principles. Similarly, the positive contributions made by science and technology to planning and planners should be addressed in professional codes as an example of good professional practice. For example, and as suggested above, facilitating public participation with the use of computer technology could be cited as ethically appropriate in the sections of codes that deal with planners' responsibilities to various publics.

Whether codes of ethics and conduct will keep pace with the challenges provided by scientific and technological developments remains to be seen. That the work of planners rests on science and technology is clear; what is less clear is how and whether science and technology can assist planning and planners in addressing their basic ethical concerns or whether they simply add their own ethical issues to the mix. Either way, discussions in planning ethics mirror, and contribute to, fundamental debates in ethics, science, and technology. The interdisciplinary and applied nature of the planning field is a strength in this regard in that its analyses are far-reaching and pragmatic. The outcomes of the ethical decisions of planners, in their use of science and technology, become part of the lives of ordinary people in cities and regions. They thus become subject to scrutiny by all. Subsequent accountability by those accorded the status of professional, with all of the ethical implications of this label, necessarily follows.


SEE ALSO Management.


American Institute of Certified Planners. (1991). AICP Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct. Washington, DC: American Planning Association.

Beatley, Timothy. (1994). Ethical Land Use. Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press.

Canadian Institute of Planners. (2004). Statement of Values and Code of Professional Practice. Ottawa: Author.

Frankena, William K. (1973). Ethics, 2nd edition. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Hendler, Sue, ed. (1995). Planning Ethics. A Reader in Planning Theory, Practice and Education. New Brunswick, NJ: Center for Urban Policy Research. This is a collection of essays focused on the integration of ethics and planning. A wide variety of ethical theories and planning issues, including planning education, is represented.

Hodge, Gerald. (1998). Planning Canadian Communities, 3rd edition. Toronto: International Thomson Publishing.

Howe, Elizabeth. (1994). Acting on Ethics in City Planning. New Brunswick, NJ: Center for Urban Policy Research.

Krueckeberg, Donald, ed. (1994). The American Planner: Biographies and Recollections, 2nd edition. New Brunswick, NJ: Center for Urban Policy Research. This book represents a biographical approach to planning history in which notable men (and some women) are introduced to readers with emphasis on their contributions to planning cities and regions in the United States.

So, Frank; Israel Stollman; Frank Beal; and David Arnold. (1979). The Practice of Local Government Planning. Washington, DC: International City Management Association.

Tronto, Joan. (1993). Moral Boundaries: A Political Argument for an Ethic of Care. New York: Routledge.

Wachs, Martin, ed. (1985). Ethics in Planning. New Brunswick, NJ: Center for Urban Policy Research. As the first book-length discussion of ethics and planning, this collection includes discussions of ethical aspects of planning organizations, policymaking, administration and environment.

About this article

Planning Ethics

Updated About content Print Article