Is planning an academic discipline?

Pour citer cet article : Simin Davoudi - Université de Newcastle "Is planning an academic discipline?" Riurba 2015/Numéro 1 URL : DOI : Date d'impression : 22 septembre 2015

L’urbanisme est-il une discipline académique ?


(Université de Newcastle)


In many countries, planning practice and planning education have a long history (more than a century in Great Britain), but there remains unresolved questions about the distinct disciplinary identity of planning. This paper first outlines how different disciplinary perspectives define ‘discipline’. It will then argue that while planning has become an academic discipline (at least in Great Britain) in terms of its institutional, social and pedagogical characters, its intellectual underpinning has remained ambiguous and there are still unresolved questions about its distinct disciplinary identity. This may lead to the weakening of its position as a distinct academic discipline. Three key areas are identified as the focus for future debate: space as the discipline’s substantive object of enquiry, the nature of integrative knowledge, and the interface between knowledge and action.
Keywords: planning, academic discipline, planning practice, planning education, Great Britain


Dans de nombreux pays, la pratique de l’urbanisme et la formation à cette pratique ont une longue histoire (de plus d’un siècle en Grande-Bretagne), mais il reste des questions en suspens concernant l’identité distincte de l’urbanisme en tant que discipline universitaire. Cet article s’attache d’abord à montrer comment différentes perspectives scientifiques définissent ce qu’est une discipline. Ensuite, il montre que si l’urbanisme et l’aménagement sont devenus au fil du temps une discipline universitaire (au moins en Grande-Bretagne) par l’institutionnalisation et des pratiques pédagogiques spécifiques, les fondements intellectuels sont restés ambigus. Les questions encore en suspens concernant l’identité disciplinaire distincte de l’urbanisme peuvent conduire à l’affaiblissement de sa position en tant que discipline académique. Trois domaines clés devraient orienter les débats à venir : le développement d’approches relationnelles de l’espace, la nature interdisciplinaire des connaissances produites, et enfin les relations entre connaissance et action.
Mots-clés : urbanisme, discipline universitaire, pratique de l’urbanisme, formation à l’urbanisme, Grande-Bretagne


A different and longer version of this paper is published as, Simin Davoudi and John Pendlebury (2010) Town Planning Review, vol. 81, n° 6, p. 608-613. As a centenary paper it is freely available at: .

An earlier version of the paper on ‘planning and interdisciplinarity’ was presented at AESOP Heads of Planning Schools Conference on 29 March 2009 in Lille, France.


A fundamental question for planning education and practice is: what is planners’ unique competence that no other professions can legitimately claim as theirs? What distinguishes planners from geographers, architects, environmental scientists or professional mediators? There are no easy answers to these questions. Some argue that the difficulty lies in the fact that “planning has not developed as an intellectual discipline in its own right”((Grant M. (1999). Planning as a Learned Profession, p. 4:, accessed 27/1/1999.)) and has drawn on other foundation disciplines. It is then suggested that, because the relative importance of these in planning education is fluctuating all the time “the intellectual basis of planning is exceptionally flexible and fluid”((Ibid., p.5.)) While some consider this as a weakness – making it difficult for planners to know exactly what belongs to planning – others see planning’s multidisciplinary foundation as a key strength. In order to present a deeper insight into this debate, it is useful if we first tackle a more fundamental question: what constitutes a discipline? Drawing on previous work and particularly Davoudi and Pendlebury((Davoudi S, Pendlebury J. (2010). Evolution of planning as an academic discipline, Town Planning Review, n° 81(6), p. 613-644, Centenary Paper.)), I will first outline how different disciplinary perspectives define ‘discipline’. I will then argue that while planning has become an academic discipline (at least in Britain) in terms of its institutional, social and pedagogical characters, its intellectual underpinning has remained ambiguous and there are still unresolved questions about its distinct disciplinary identity.

How do different disciplines define ‘discipline’?

The term discipline has its origin in two Latin words: one is discipulus meaning pupil and the other is disciplina meaning teaching. As a verb, it means not only “training someone to follow a rigorous set of instructions”, but also “enforcing obedience”((Krishnan A. (2009). What are academic disciplines? Some observations on the disciplinarity vs. interdisciplinarity debate, Southampton, University of Southampton, ESRC National Centre for Research Methods Working paper Series 03/09, p. 8.)). That is why Foucault((Foucault M. (1991). Discipline and Punish. The Birth of the Prison, London, Penguin.)) considers discipline as having a moral dimension because it limits individual’s freedom. The term ‘academic discipline’ includes some elements of these meanings but its exact definition is not the same for all disciplines. Krishnan (2009) identifies six ‘ideal type’ disciplinary perspectives on ‘disciplines’. The first one is the philosophical perspective. Philosophers define disciplines primarily in terms of epistemological positions and the way in which knowledge is understood and produced. This means that a distinct feature of a discipline is its intellectual underpinning which is defined by its objects of enquiry, theories, concepts, and approaches to validity of knowledge claims. The second perspective is the anthropological. It advocates that practices are as important as common paradigms in defining disciplines. It puts the emphasis on cultural practices and considers disciplines as analogous to ‘academic tribes’ whose members are defensive of their ‘knowledge territories’((Becher T. (1981). Towards a definition of disciplinary cultures, Studies in Higher Education, n° 6(2), p. 109-122.)) (Becher, 1981). According to anthropologists, members of a particular academic discipline distinguish themselves from others through self-constructed languages, values, social and cultural practices. The third perspective derives from sociology and defines disciplines primarily in terms of the sociology of work with academic disciplines being seen as an aspect of the professionalisation of science((Whitley R. (2000). The intellectual and social organisation of the sciences, Oxford, Oxford University Press, p. 21.)). The fourth perspective is educational and focuses primarily on pedagogic aspects of a discipline such as the content of the curriculum and the method by which it is taught and learned. According to this perspective, disciplines can be differentiated by what they preach in terms of truth, learning, and morals. In Britain, pedagogic concerns and the demands from professional practice have often been the main motivation behind the reform of the planning discipline. The fifth perspective is the managerial one and is often the main driver of the universities’ restructuring. Using the disciplinary lines as the dividing lines in the university’s faculties, schools and departments is seen as an efficient way of aligning the supply-side of knowledge to its demand-side. For university managers, the disciplinary structures pose management concerns about issues related to economies of scale and performance criteria in auditing and evaluation procedures((Baker V. (1997). The perils and promises of interdisciplinarity in the humanities, in: Pyenson L (ed.) Disciplines and interdisciplinarity in the new century, Lafayette, LA, The University of Southwestern Lousiana Press.)). Often the merging of planning schools with other schools to create larger academic units is motivated by management concerns despite the interdisciplinary rhetoric. The final and sixth perspective is the historical one which is critical in understanding the dynamics of a discipline over time. A historic perspective on discipline can be traced back to Aristotle’s division of ‘knowledge’ into three parts, namely: theoretical (episteme), productive (techne) and practical (praxis) with planning being often associated with the latter((See Davoudi S. (2015). Planning as practice of knowing, Planning Theory, DOI:10.1177/1473095215575919.)). Since then, numerous disciplines have emerged and many have submerged, but the rise and fall of disciplines have not always been due to a gap in knowledge or scientific necessities. Although some scholars argue that the rise of mono-disciplines since the 18th century has been due partly to the orientation of western cultures towards analysis rather than synthesis and that, “modern scholarship lays inordinate emphasis on specialisation – which in modern university attests, implies and entails the segregation of knowledge into distinct ‘disciplines’”((Baigent M, Leigh R, Lincoln H. (1982). The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, New York, Bantam Doubleday Publishing Group.)) others have shown that the process of specialisation and institutionalisation into disciplines has been as much due to practical concerns as to intellectual endeavour((Thompson Klein J. (1990). Interdisciplinarity; History, theory, and practice, Detroit, Wayne State University Press ; Moran J. (2002). Interdisciplinarity: The new critical idiom, London, Routledge.)). Planning is a classic example of a discipline that was born in response to particular societal needs and historical conditions. In Britain, its impetus came from industrialisation and rapid urbanisation of the 19th century cities and their associated health, sanitation and housing problems as well as the fear of social unrest. The planning movement which preceded the statutory planning system was embedded in the reformist ideas of a number of visionary individuals who, despite being considered as the founding fathers of the planning movement, were not trained as planners. Ebenezer Howard, for example, whose 1898 tract on Tomorrow – A Peaceful Path to Social Reform((This was subsequently reissued in 1902 under the title Garden Cities of To-morrow (see TCPA, 2003))) pioneered the Garden City movement, was in fact a short hand writer. Other leaders of the profession such as Raymond Unwin, Thomas Sharp and Patrick Abercrombie were architects first and planners second, and probably none of them could have passed the qualification test set by the professional institutes((Davoudi S, Whitney D. (2005). British Planning Education: Past, Present and the Future, Urban, n° 10, p. 17-33.))!
To sum up, disciplines are social constructs that have evolved through historical processes. However, they are also grounded on being “epistemically efficient in producing new knowledge and in evaluating knowledge claims”. They do so by generating some forms of internal coherence theoretically, methodologically and conceptually((Krishnan (2009), op. cit.)). Fuller((Fuller S. (1991). Social epistemology, Indianapolis, Indiana University Press.)) refers to this integrated view as a ‘social epistemology’ approach to understanding discipline. So, an academic discipline does not simply refer to a subject taught at university. It also means a system made of epistemological, social and institutional interrelationships. I will elaborate on these in turn. In terms of epistemology, disciplines have: a) particular objects of enquiry which sometimes they share with other disciplines; b) a body of accumulated specialist knowledge related to their objects of research; c) theories and concepts that help them organise their specialist knowledge effectively; and d) methods that are deemed suitable to their enquiries((Krishnan (2009), op. cit.)). In other words, “disciplines provide a set of rules for: what constitutes a ‘problem’; what counts as evidence; and what is considered as acceptable methods by which knowledge is produced, evaluated and exchanged”((Davoudi S, Pendlebury J. (2010), op. cit., p. 617.)). In social terms, disciplines have their own discourses and practices by which they communicate their scholarships and research. These provide shared languages, identities, peers and even career paths. Finally, disciplines are reproduced from one generation to the next((Goodlad S. (1979). What is an academic discipline? In Cox R. (ed.), Cooperation and choice in higher education, London, University of London Teaching Methods Unit.)) through institutionalisation. This is achieved through multiple routes including university courses, academic schools, professional associations, peer-reviewed journals and conferences. While not all disciplines display all of these characteristics, a coherent epistemological/intellectual foundation is essential for a subject taught at universities to be recognised as an academic discipline.

Planning and the paths to disciplinary identity

The argument put forward by Davoudi and Pendlebury and summarised below is that in Britain, although planning has evolved into an academic discipline in terms of its social and institutional characteristics, its epistemological position has remained ambiguous. As mentioned above this ambiguity has contributed to planners’ chronic identity crisis((Myers D, Banerjee T. (2005). Towards greater heights for planning: reconciling the differences between profession, practice and academic field, Journal of the American Planning Association, n° 71(2), p. 1-9.)). Over the last century, attempts to address its intellectual identity questions have focused on positioning planning relative to other disciplines and in particular those that are known as its ‘parent’ disciplines, i.e. architecture, engineering and surveying. In Britain, this goes back to Gordon Cherry’s reflection on the Town Planning Conference, organised by the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) in 1910. He stated that, the Conference helped a change of attitudes, “highlighting that it was no longer adequate to regard town planning as the prerogative of the architect, […] town planning was something more”((Cherry GE. (1974). The evolution of British town planning, Bedfordshire, Leonard Hill Books, p. 45.)) (emphasis added). Since then, defining what exactly ‘something more’ means has been at the heart of the debate about planning as an academic discipline, albeit not always in relation to its epistemological underpinning. Exploring the one hundred-years history of planning in Britain, Davoudi and Pendlebury identify three windows of opportunity which could have been used to develop the intellectual basis of the planning discipline but were largely neglected by the planning community. The first one was during the formation of the discipline (the late 19th century to the 1940s), the second done during its consolidation (the 1950s to the 1960s) and the third one in its maturing phase (the 2000s to date). I will elaborate these in turn.

The first missed opportunity!

Although it was a legislative intervention which in 1909 placed the practice of planning firmly within the public sector and created a growing demand for it, the development of planning as an educational field owes as much to what was happening outside practice as inside it. Three developments in particular played an important role. The first was the upsurge of the literary contributions and the launch of the Town Planning Review journal in 1910. These grew into a series of forums for debate and exchange of planning ideas. The second was the establishment of Town Planning and Civic Design course at the University of Liverpool in 1909. The third was Geddes’ intellectual persuasion. During the formation phase of the planning discipline in the 1920s and 1930s, Geddes was pleading for a systematic study of cities and advocating a sociological, rather than merely physical, framing of the term ‘civic’. He promoted sociological methods of enquiry, the need for ‘survey before plan’ and the need for synthesis of other social sciences as the basis planning education. He was calling for “a veritable orchestration of all arts, and […] all the social sciences”((Geddes P. (1915). Cities in evolution, London, Williams and Norgate, p. 95)), offering a social philosophy foundation to the utopian idealism of the time. However, it took nearly forty year for Geddes’ sociological reading of the city and his emphasis on synthesis to be reflected in planning education which continued to be rooted in the design and engineering traditions of its parent disciplines((Batey P. (1993). Town planning education as it was then, Planning Careers and Education, n° 79(4), p. 25&33, April.)) The question of ‘something more’ was interpreted mechanically by seeing civic design as the extension of architecture and offering to the parent professions “a knowledge of supplementary subjects”((Adshead SD. (1911). Report on the October 1910 Town Planning Conference, Town Planning Review, n° 1, p. 178; quoted in Cherry GE (1974), op. cit., p. 54.)).
The second missed opportunity!
The second missed opportunity was a lack of proactive response by the then Town Planning Institute (TPI) to the post-war call for widening the intellectual basis of planning education. Instead, the gap was filled by the government-appointed Schuster Committee whose report in 1950 recommended the inclusion of social sciences in planning education. The Committee suggested that the “best potential planners would be produced not through devising a basic discipline”((Schuster Sir G. (1950). Report of the Committee on Qualifications of Planners (Cmd 8059), London, HMSO, p. 226.)). And yet, it emphasised that, “planning was something different from the product” of its parent professions without clarifying what exactly made it intellectually different. In any case, Schuster’s proposition which aimed at transforming the shape of planning from a design-based to a social science-based discipline was not taken up immediately. It took the TPI more than twenty years after Schuster to change the syllabus((RTPI (The Royal Town Planning Institute). (1982). Guidelines for Planning Schools, London, The Royal Town Planning Institute.)). Meanwhile, the emergence of systems theory in planning led to a revisiting of the way in which the discipline’s object of enquiry (i.e. space) was understood. Until then, spatial problems were framed as design problems, articulated through physical representations and tackled through the art and craft of master planning. Systems theory framed spatial problems as scientific problems, articulated through spatial interaction models, and tackled through the science of systems analysis and control. Although the premise upon which the application of systems theory to spatial relationships was contested, its claim to scientific rigour based on quantification methods provided planning a better standing within the social sciences. The positivist view of spatiality, advocated by systems theory, crept into planning academy and practice almost uncritically, while its parallel theory of procedural planning attracted substantial criticisms and the bulk of academic scholarly attention. The challenges to positivist conceptions of space which had begun to gather pace in other disciplines did not permeate planning until relatively recently((See Davoudi S, Strange I. (2009). Space and place in the twentieth century planning: An analytical framework and an historical review, in: Davoudi S, Strange I (eds.), Space and Place in Strategic Spatial Planning, London, Routledge, p. 7-42.)). Overall, scholarship in planning was slow to develop and apart from survey works, little research was undertaken by planning academics until the late 1970s((Thomas AJ. (1981). Developments within the education of British town planners, in: Thomas AH, Thomas K (eds), Planning education in the 1970s, Working paper n° 55, Department of Town Planning, Oxford, Oxford Polytechnic.)). Thus, the consolidation of the planning discipline in the 1950s and 1960s was founded mainly on institution building rather than through scholarly contributions to its epistemological development. Emphasis was put on ‘coordination’ as the essence of ‘something more’ and as the basis of planners’ claim to a distinct competence. Yet, coordination was understood a management challenge of bringing together different types of expertise in the policy domain, rather than an epistemic problem of integrating different knowledge(s). As will be discussed later in the paper, it was interpreted as a multi-disciplinary rather than interdisciplinary effort.
The 1980s saw a significant increase in research and publication in planning which was triggered largely by the introduction of the Research Assessment Exercise in Britain and its ranking academic units according to their research and publication strengths((Davoudi S. (2015). Research impact: Should the sky be the limit?, in: Silva E, Healey P, Harris N, van den Broeck P (eds.), The Routledge Handbook of Planning Research Methods, London, Routledge, p. 405-414.)). This, however, had a paradoxical effect on the discipline. On the one hand, scholarship within and outside planning was contributing to the expansion of its knowledge base. On the other hand, it was challenging its coherence and identity by introducing competing social science theories, adding new subject matters and methods, shifting the established principles, and redrawing its demarcation lines. The resulting fragmentation meant that planners could no longer say what planning as a discipline was about. In the 1990s, the rise of environmental concerns in the 1990s provided a new rationale for planning, but it also led to the expansion of the planning curriculum beyond the social and into the natural sciences. Planners were encouraged to draw on numerous fields such as geography, sociology, politics, economics, biology, geology, architecture, engineering, and estate management((RTPI. (1991). Guidance on initial professional education programmes in planning: content and performance criteria, London, RTPI.)). This continuing expansion was exacerbating what was described as a “layer cake” approach to curriculum((Batty M. (1984). Information technology in planning education, papers in Planning Research 80, Department of Town Planning, Cardiff, University of Wales College of Cardiff.)). This approach was making it increasingly difficult for planners to know the nature of what their ‘something more’ could add to the sum of available knowledges. As Healey((Healey P. (1991). The content of planning education programmes: some comments from recent British experience, Environment and Planning B, n° 18, p. 177-189 (p. 178).))points out, despite the renewed rationale for planning, “a renewed debate about the philosophy which could underly planning-education programmes” was still lacking. In practice, therefore, the discipline’s claim to possess a distinct knowledge base remained ill-defined and difficult to sustain.

The third missed opportunity!

The third possibility to renew the debate on the intellectual basis of planning was created during the reform of planning education in the early 2000s but, this window of opportunity was largely overlooked. As the planning discipline entered the 21st century it began to show signs of a double-edged maturing process. On the one hand, it was firmly established as a distinct academic discipline in institutional and social terms. On the other hand, its educational and intellectual bases were becoming diffused and extending into not only social but also natural sciences. These concerns were reflected in the debates that underpinned the restructuring of the discipline in the early 2000s and a series of recommendations by the RTPI which among other things brought the question of ‘something more’ back on the agenda. However, as with the Schuster Report mentioned above, in practice the intellectual challenges that stemmed from these recommendations were not followed up, as discussed below.
It is reported that of particular interest to the RTPI’s Education Commission of 2003 was “the question of the claim over a distinct body of knowledge […] (and) the intellectual core of planning”((Brown C, Claydon J, Nadin, V. (2003). The RTPI’s Education Commission: Context and challenges, Town Planning Review, n° 74(3), p. 333-345 (p. 338).)). This shows that the lack of “intellectual underpinning” in “post-war planning”((Ibid.)) had not been addressed and even in the early 2000s, “the distinctive knowledge base of planning” had remained “ambiguous and contested”((Ibid., p. 339.). It was argued that, despite (or perhaps because of) the growing interdisciplinary trends “a common intellectual basis for planning remains elusive, and ‘role confusion’ for planners is widespread”((Ibid., p. 340.)). Similar concerns were raised in a paper commissioned by the RTPI Professional Qualifications Committee. This pointed out that, “there is less certainty than with other professions about what planning ‘owns’ and what, therefore, it should be developing”, and there is a “lack of confidence as to the proper role of the professional planner”((Grant M (1999), op. cit., p. 5.)). There was evidently as much unease about the exact nature of ‘something more’ in the early 21st century as it was in the early 20th. It was clear that “a much stronger intellectual rationale” had to be provided and “reflected in planning education” because, among other things, “planning is no longer able to rely on its place in government to maintain its professional status”((Brown C et al., op. cit., p. 340.)).
The question of intellectual underpinning came to the fore through a return to spatiality of planning in the RTPI’s Policy Statement((RTPI. (2004). Policy Statement on Initial Planning Education, London, RTPI.)). This echoed a wider trend in the late 20th century which saw place and territory regaining prominence as the focus of policy attention((For a detailed account of “the ascendance of place”, see Davoudi S, Strange I (2009), op. cit., p. 7-11.)). After about three decades of almost neglecting space as the substantive basis of planning’s disciplinary identity, the focus on spatiality was brought back on the agenda and given a prominent position in the RTPI’s corporate slogan which is: ‘making of place and mediation of space’. This move was reinforced by defining the Institute’s “basic discipline as spatial planning”((RTPI (2004), op. cit., p. 1.)). Rather than considering planning as an activity which deals with the management of environmental change, it advocated that planning “deals with spatial relationships, and competing claims to spaces” to achieve sustainability and inclusiveness((Ibid.)). More succinctly, it advocated that “planning education should seek to promote critical thinking about space and place as the basis for action or intervention”((Ibid., emphasis added.)).
This brief statement represents a more coherent understanding of what the planning discipline is about and how its claim to ‘something more’ can be articulated. However, while the redefinition of the discipline was noble in intent, it was limited in interpretation and implementation. The intellectual challenge associated with the new definition was not followed through in the RTPI’s Policy Statement on Initial Planning Education((Ibid.)). Critical thinking was defined as “achieving outcomes” which “involves processes which are qualitative as well as quantitative”((Ibid., p. 1.)). “Spatial planning education” became a mere change of terminology to replace the notion of ‘core’ subjects, and was defined as “a broad understanding of the main principles relevant to making of place and the mediation of space”(( Ibid., p. 3.)). In the attempt to convey the need for integrating “planning knowledge, skills and values”((Ibid., p. 9.)) the pedagogic distinction between these three dimensions – which was a key feature of the 1990s reform – was lost. Instead, an undifferentiated checklist of 19 indicative learning outcomes((Ibid., p. 10-11.)) for the core and a further five for “specialist planning education”((Ibid., p. 13.)) was provided. These, which had to be delivered in a much shorter timescale (one instead of two years Masters programmes), did not leave much room for indulging in ‘critical thinking about space and place’ and embedding a sound understanding of the epistemological challenges of integrating different forms of knowledge(s) and actions. Furthermore, as the RTPI accreditation was based on the submitted documentation with no discussion, it is perhaps not surprising that there was not generally much intellectual experimentation in the design of the new courses, despite the rhetoric about promoting diversity of provision. What could have been the beginning of an intellectual paradigm shift in the planning discipline slipped away almost unnoticed, as attention focused on the practical issues of course structures, meeting learning outcomes and the process of accreditation itself. It is true that much has been achieved and should be celebrated but, as far as the intellectual development of the planning discipline is concerned, the 2004 restructuring is likely to be remembered as a third missed opportunity!

Planning and the interdisciplinary claims

If the planning community is to address the question of ‘something more’ at epistemological level, it needs to focus on at least three key areas that are fundamental for clarifying the position of the planning discipline: first, space as the discipline’s substantive object of enquiry; second, the nature of integrative knowledge; and third, the interface between knowledge and action. As regards the first, I have argued in this paper and elsewhere((Davoudi S. (2012). The legacy of positivism and the emergence of interpretive tradition in spatial planning, Regional Studies, n° 46(4), p. 429-441; Davoudi S, Strange I (2009), op. cit.)) that until recently the planning community has neglected its scholarly interest in developing new insights into the nature of spatial relationships and the articulation of space in relational and non-Euclidean ways.
The second area relates to the discipline’s claim to interdisciplinarity which deserves further elaboration. Although this term is often used interchangeably with multidisciplinarity, it conveys a different meaning((Sillitoe P. (2004). Interdisciplinary experiences: working with indigenous knowledge in development. Interdisciplinary Science Review, n° 29(4), p. 327-341.)). A multi-disciplinary approach involves a number of disciplines coming together but each working independently and primarily within their own frame of reference and methods. Hunt and Shackley((Hunt J, Shackley S. (1999). Reconceiving science and policy: academic, fiducial and bureaucratic knowledge. Minerva, n° 37, p. 141-164.)) call this the ‘science of interaction’ whereby disciplines can co-exist in a particular context but retain their boundaries. Interdisciplinarity, however, involves occupying the spaces between disciplines to build new knowledge((Sands RG. (1993). Can you overlap here? A question for an interdisciplinary team. Discourse Processes, n° 16, p. 545-564.)). Hunt and Shackley((Ibid.)) call this, the ‘science of integration’ whereby synthesis of the knowledges is sought and participants’ understanding is modified in the interplay with other perspectives((Lau L, Pasquini M. (2008). Jack of all trades? The negotiation of interdisciplinarity within geography, Geoforum, n° 39, p. 552-560.)). It is worth mentioning that there is also a distinction between ‘cognate interdisciplinarity’ and ‘radical interdisciplinarity’. The former happens within natural or physical, or social sciences while the latter takes place between them((Evans R, Marvin S. (2006). Researching the sustainable city: three models of interdisciplinarity, Environment and Planning A, n° 38, p. 1009-1028.)) spanning the natural and the social. There is also transdisciplinarity which creates a cross-road in which different disciplines intersect, problematise and challenge each other((Sands RG (1993), op. cit.)). It transcends, re-negotiates and re-draws traditional disciplinary boundaries((Petts J, Owens S, Bulkeley H. (2008). Crossing boundaries: Interdisciplinarity in the context of urban environment, Geoforum, n° 39, p. 593-601.)). Hunt and Shackley((Hunt J, Shackley S (1999), Ibid.)) call it the ‘science of hybridisation’. A more significant feature of transdisciplinarity is the move beyond disciplinary knowledge to include all forms of expert and non-expert knowledge. Transdisciplinary approaches involve organisation of knowledge around complex subjects, or real world problems, rather than disciplines. That is why some scholars argue that it makes research more accountable to society((Barry A, Born G, Weszkalnys G. (2008), Logics of interdisciplinarity, Economy and Society, n° 37(1), p. 20-49.)). Such approaches are more likely to produce outcomes which are more than the sum of different parts. Contrary to the suggestion that trans- and inter-disciplinarity “can engender concerns about the loss of quality within individual disciplines”((Lyall C, Meagher LR. (2012). A masterclass in interdisciplarity: Research into practice in training the next generation of interdisciplinary researchers, Futures, n° 44(6), p. 608-617, (p. 611).)), one of their positive by-products is a greater awareness and reflection on one’s own particular disciplinary knowledge.
In practice, these categories are not neatly separated. They are positioned on a continuum whereby at their weakest, they account for no more than cooperation, while at their strongest they can be transformative and capable of recasting disciplines. Furthermore, the above categorisation does not necessarily suggest the superiority of one type over the others; it basically highlights the fundamental differences between the often interchangeably-used terminologies and the uncritical claims to interdisciplinarity in contexts such as planning. Over the years the unconditional addition of new subjects to planning education has been justified and even celebrated as interdisciplinarity (integration of knowledges) but, what planning has actually offered is multidisciplinarity. At its best, this has allowed problems to be looked at from different perspectives and cultivated collaborative values in planning processes. At its worst, it has been little more than an uncritical picking-and-mixing of subjects from competing and sometimes conflicting epistemic communities to satisfy, sometimes superficially, the expanding range of educational learning outcomes and professional demands.
The third area which requires more philosophical deliberations is the challenge of connecting forms of knowledge to forms of action. While the normative questions of ‘which action’ have been widely debated, the nature of the link itself has not. In a recent article, I have argued in favour of conceptualising planning as practice of knowing. This suggests that we should “shift the focus from knowledge as something that planners have to knowing as something that planners do […] and rather than thinking about knowledge as having an instrumental place in planning, […] we need to think about planning as practice of knowing that involves: knowing what, knowing how, knowing to what end and doing”((Davoudi S. (2015). Planning as practice of knowing, op. cit. p. 1.)). Furthermore, “practice of knowing is a dynamic process that is: situated and provisional, collective and distributed, purposive and pragmatic, and mediated and contested”((Ibid.)).

Summary and conclusion

From a relatively humble origin when planning was an add-on to disciplines such as architecture, engineering and surveying, planning has evolved into a recognised social science discipline in terms of its social and institutional characteristics. However, the evolution of planning and its maturing has been a double-edged process. On the one hand, planning has adapted and extended its educational base to respond to the growing expectations from it. This has helped the discipline to find new rationales and renewed public support for the continuation of the planning project. On the other hand, this has happened at the cost of a vaguely defined and diffused intellectual foundation. The knowledge base of planning is now expected to cover multiple areas of enquiry, each with different philosophical and epistemological underpinnings. Its original physical design base was initially complemented with a multitude of social science theories. This was later fused with natural sciences coupled with a resurfacing of design. Today, partly due to climate change concerns, engineering subjects are also added to the previous layers. The process has generated overlaps, diffusions and fragmentations. There is a risk that planning could be reduced to a subject taught at universities only to fulfil the demands of professional practice rather than being a distinct academic discipline. Engaging fully and widely in an intellectual debate about the epistemological underpinning of planning, especially in relation to the above three areas, is critical for substantiating the discipline’s claim that it offers ‘something more’ than the sum of subjects it draws upon. This is not to suggest that nothing has ever been done or written about these, but rather to stress the need for firstly greater intellectual deliberations and secondly deeper and wider articulation of the ways in which the planning discipline claims to integrate the expanding range of knowledge(s) that it draws upon as the basis for spatial intervention. In discussing the content and structure of planning education, we need to focus on not just the “subjects of planning knowledge”, but also “the nature of the knowledge to be acquired”((Healey P, (1991), op. cit. p. 185.)). If it is agreed that planning education is about critical thinking about space and place as the basis for action and intervention, there needs to be a degree of intellectual clarity about what this entails. A coherent knowledge base is essential for sustaining planning as a distinct academic discipline particularly at the time when the instrumental enthusiasm for interdisciplinarity and the managerial rationale for the creation of larger units in universities are leading to the merger of planning schools with other schools such as geography, architecture and/or environmental studies. The idea is not to abandon the planning’s interdisciplinary aspirations but to clarify its distinct contribution to the mix. Indeed, one of the key conditions for effective trans- or inter-disciplinary works is having a clear and coherent perspective on one’s own disciplinary strengths.

Simin Davoudi(( est professeure en politique environnementale et en aménagement à l’université de Newcastle. Elle a été présidente de l’Association of European Schools of Planning (AESOP). Elle a conduit des recherches pour un large éventail d’organisations nationales et internationales. Parmi ses dernières publications, on peut citer : Climate change, securitisation of nature, and resilient urbanism, Environment and Planning C – Goverment and Policy, 2014, n° 32(2), p. 360-375 ; When does unequal become unfair? Judging claims of environmental injustice, Environment and Planning A, 2014, n° 46(11), p. 2686-2702 (avec E. Brooks) ; Reconsidering Localism, codirigé avec A. Madanipour, Routledge, 2015.