Guest author: Simin Davoudi, Professor of Environmental Policy and Planning, Director of GURU, Newcastle University.
On the 20th of April 2018, the City and the University of Newcastle welcomed about 100 delegates representing over 45 universities from across Europe and beyond to the 13th AESOP Heads of Schools Conference.
We were delighted to be the first planning school in the UK to host this event, and to do so in a year when we are celebrating the 25th anniversary of our research centre, Global Urban Research Unit (GURU).
On a personal level, hosting the conference meant a lot to me because the inaugural meeting of the Heads of Schools took place during the first year of my presidency of AESOP in 2006 in Bratislava. Twelve years on, these meetings have gone from strength to strength and become a key forum for exchange of ideas and experiences about planning education and research.
The Newcastle conference was very well received especially because of the quality of the speakers and the discussions that it generated. Following from a great introduction by Professor Suzanne Cholerton, our Pro Vice Chancellor for learning and teaching, we heard an inspiring speech by Professor Patsy Healey, the founder of the first planning research centre in our school which later became GURU. Patsy talked passionately about her experience of leading a planning school and mobilising its research agenda. Many of the points that she raised in her talk were picked up in subsequent discussions in four panels as well as the closing remarks by our Head of School, Professor Adam Sharr.
We asked panel speakers to reflect on issues that are at the heart of planning education and research; issues that most planning schools in Europe are grappling with. The plenary panel focused on the challenges and opportunities of leading or being involved in an interdisciplinary planning school.
I am going to use this Blog to share my own reflections on this theme, which has long defined planners’ soul-searching for disciplinary identity and will, undoubtedly, do so for the generations of planners to come, including AESOP young academics community. It is about a question which John Friedmann asked exactly thirty years ago and I, along with my colleague John Pendlebury, revisited in 2010 in our centenary paper for Town Planning Review: what is planners’ unique competence that no other discipline can legitimately claim as their own? What distinguishes planners from geographers, architects, environmental scientists or professional mediators?
The usual answer to these questions is that planning lacks a disciplinary foundation as such; that its intellectual basis is exceptionally flexible and fluid; and, that it draws on other disciplines whose relative significance changes all the time. Another typical answer is that planning is interdisciplinary but this answer does not go into the details of how to define a discipline. There is also some confusion about the difference between inter-disciplinary and multi-disciplinary.
This lack of clarity and acknowledgment of the epistemological challenges of engaging in integrative knowledge construction has meant that the unconditional addition of new subjects to planning education over the years has been justified and even celebrated in the name of interdisciplinarity. The results are mixed. At its best, it has enabled planners to look at problems from different perspectives and cultivated collaborative values in planning processes. At its worst, it has led to what Mike Batty called a layer cake approach to planning curriculum; an instrumental picking-and-mixing of subjects from other disciplines, and from competing and sometimes conflicting epistemic communities.
In many countries, planning education has been extended to adapt and respond to the growing expectations from it. This adaptive approach, which has been useful for its survival, has come at the cost of a vaguely defined and diffused intellectual foundation. The knowledge base of planning now covers physical design traditions, a multitude of social science theories, natural and environmental sciences and engineering. With all its benefits, this approach also presents a risk of further overlap, diffusion and fragmentation of planning discipline.
The Heads of Schools Conference provided us with stimulating ideas and thoughts but, I believe the real impetus for energising the debate and digging deep into planning’s underlying epistemological, methodological and ethical issues lies in the AESOP Young Academic community. That is where we need to look for novel and imaginative ideas, going forward.
Professor of Environmental Policy and Planning
Director of GURU
School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape, Newcastle University
Past President of AESOP
For a detailed account of Simin Davoudi’s work, follow the link to her staff profile at the Global Urban Research Unit (GURU), Newcastle University.
Photo gallery of the event: