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By Peter Marcuse

I. Good Planning in the Mainstream

Planning, urban design, and development are in the public mind today. The increasing public interest in city development has grown out of exposure to architectural and design ventures, interest in historical preservation, studies of city growth and shrinkage, and new concepts around the relationship between physical design and human welfare. And the interest ranges from the very practical (zoning, building heights, transportation alternatives, the design of public spaces) to a call for alternatives to mainstream planning practice. The interest is driven not just by progressivism, but also by the calls for visionary alternatives in the planning of new cities in new countries and fields, redefining “urban” as a way of life, and seeing cities as engines of prospect.

The actual characteristics of what planners do in the field and what they produce range widely from the very limited practical to the seemingly utopian. Some planners approach problems from a very practical point of view, focusing on what their clients want and what is politically feasible, economical, and implementable. Other planners incorporate imagination, innovation, and bold new ideas into their practice, disrupting the status quo. And, in most mainstream cases, neither the values of the practitioners or communities nor the social justice issues involved are highlighted, if they play any role at all.

A classic example of mainstream planning practice is a set of stories and projects highlighted in The New York Times special section of its July 20, 2016 edition titled “Cities for Tomorrow.”[i] The articles present illuminating examples of innovative solutions to the challenges cities face and are well worth reading. The contributors include eminent scholars, architects, and planners; the contributions are informative, well-written, and well-intentioned. And The New York Times is not a bad representative of the mainstream understanding of planning. Examples of what the articles propose include:

  • Pursuing inner peace in more human interactions and get people the help they need;

  • Teaching hi-tech internet skills and foster the sharing of innovative, environmentally friendly, agricultural practices;

  • Using new technologies in cities including replacing old public pay phones with gigabyte Wi-Fi stations;

  • Designing tall buildings so “to make it possible for people to at least have a visual connection to each other “ in common areas;

  • Preparing for the effects of new technologies, such as self-driving cars and drones, on our transportation and shipping systems;

  • Mixing newly-developed live-work spaces that capitalize on the blurred lines between life and work;

  • Promoting the use of environmentally friendly initiatives, such as light rail transit in Los Angeles or innovative urban agricultural practices;

  • Supporting emerging practices in neighborhood revitalization such as the development of pedestrian-friendly parks and restaurants and bars to spur further development,

  • Replacing “11 aging bridges across a one-mile stretch of highway cutting through downtown with bridges that are green, artful and iconic,” and;

  • Developing “an ethnically diverse food hall, … on the ground floor of [a] redeveloped department store, transforming 535 acres into …a convention center, hotels, 1,500 apartments, offices, and retail.”

These examples represent what I believe to be “Good Planning” within mainstream planning work today. While these proposals are presented as innovative and futuristic, they conceal major systemic problems. The programs presented provide at best ameliorative solutions to systemic inequality in cities, do not discuss the social justice consequences of what they propose, and fail to address the causes of the problems they face.

What is key to these articles, and Good Planning practice, is that there is an absolute acceptance of the process of urbanization as it now takes place. Good Planning never attempts to address the systems of urbanization itself. Good Planners simply want the systems which drive urbanization to abide by basic rules without obvious corruption.

[The designation “Good Planning” is not intended to be derogatory, but only to suggest that it is planning limited in scope and avoiding the critical approach of what is here called “Progressive Planning,” likewise capitalized, and described in further detail below.]

Good Planners depoliticize urban issues, and thus, propose non-controversial solutions that avoid addressing or even revealing the realities of inequality in the city. Implicitly, Good Planners are conservative, refraining from critical consideration of the causes of inequality. Their net political impact is represented as much by what they omit as what they say or do.


"Good Planners depoliticize urban issues, and thus, propose non-controversial solutions that avoid addressing or even revealing the realities of inequality in the city."


Examples of issues that were omitted from the “Cities for the Future” special section include:

  • Segregation and the existence of racial tensions;

  • Inequality and poverty;

  • Working conditions and labor relations;

  • The political environment, including the deep conflict of interests and ideologies that shape political decisions in cities;

  • National urban policy; and

  • Land values.

Because important issues in planning are not addressed or even mentioned, progressive alternatives are not presented, leaving a whitewashed set of solutions that do not address critical urban problems. Progressive solutions missing from these articles, and rarely highlighted in Good Planning, include:

  • Regulation of land speculation through real property or income taxes;

  • Rent control;

  • The provision of affordable housing and the necessary subsidies required;

  • Alternate forms of non-profit tenure which provide permanently available and financially feasible affordable housing, such as limited equity co-ops, mutual housing associations, and community land trusts;

  • The strengthening and democratization of urban planning controls such as zoning and land use regulations;

  • Planning practices that affirmatively support gender equality; and

  • Planning practices that affirmatively deal with segregation along racial and ethnic lines, or examine approaches to income inequality in residential and services provision.

The practical approaches of Good Planners neglect these issues. They simply want the system to abide by the existing rules, and not to be rigged or corrupt. Good planning does not question the ultimate purpose of those rules; what they do or say, the values affected by their impact, and most importantly, whom they benefit whom they hurt. A more critical view than that of Good Planning is necessary to address the foundational flaws of such a practice.

II. Progressive Planning

A critical view requires a practice that reveals who the actors are in the city, what positions of power they hold, and how their decisions determine the outcomes of planning proposals in the city. In The New York Times’ examples, "cities" are the actors, with no reference to who within the city is making decisions, nor who is benefiting or suffering from them. By removing the actors from the conversation, these articles obscure who is in fact responsible. An alternative view to Good Planning, Progressive Planning, would require the goals of any plan or proposal include the values of social justice, equality, democracy, citizen participation, environmental protection, and historical preservation, to name a few—all values held to be those of planning by the profession itself. An alternate view to Good Planning would address the omissions in the Times’ examples.

Progressive Planning is then a useful name for such an alternative. It would not be a rejection of Good Planning, but would rather go beyond conventional practice such as that celebrated by the Times. Progressive Planners question some aspects of conventional practice, and accept and build on others through actively embedding critical values and goals into practice. The theoretical bases for Good Planning and Progressive Planning are also different. Both types of planning express concerns about social issues, but their rationales for doing so are different. In Good Planning, economic growth is almost always a top priority. While social issues are important, they take a back seat to economic growth. In Progressive Planning, social issues are cardinal. Progressive Planners may go so far as to assert that growth that does not promote social justice is not worthwhile. On a rough continuum from conventional Good Planning to Progressive Planning, we could posit different approaches on key issues. Poverty, for instance, is a key issue in both types of planning. Both would agree that it should be reduced. However, there are differences in the way each type approaches poverty: how they measure it, whether they address the causes, and whether they advocate private growth or public measures to combat it. Establishing a minimum standard of living for what is acceptable in a decent society should be the goal of both, although that standard may look different along the continuum between Good and Progressive Planning.

Both practices value economic equality, with a focus on reducing poverty. Bernie Sanders’ campaign has shown there is widespread agreement that the reduction of poverty is an essential policy to pursue. Good Planning acknowledges that the gap between the 1% and the 99% must be reduced, but it is to be done by improving the conditions of the poor, not narrowing the income gap from the top down. A $15 an hour minimum wage, decent welfare provisions, mandatory parental leave, and job training are all desirable proposals in both Good and Progressive Planning. But redistribution from rich to poor, both as a necessity for getting the resources to combat poverty and as desirable in itself to reduce income inequality, is characteristic of Progressive Planning. Profit sharing by a business is a weak form of redistribution that attributes the making of a profit untouched as the motor of the business, rather than as a result of the injustice of depriving workers for the value they have produced. Thus, rather than achieving social justice, Good Planning leaves equality as the product of bargaining in the market.

Equality, but with a focus on both ends of the spectrum (rich and poor), is a foundational concern of Progressive Planning. A focus on the poor can leave the rich untouched; a focus on inequality can lead to a questioning of the causes of poverty, examining whether the poor are poor because the rich are rich. A much more controversial point from which mainstream planning shies away, but Progressive Planning pursues. Might not thinking of a minimum wage suggest thinking of a maximum wage, if the present difference between the top and the bottom is really held to be unjust?

Social justice, in practice, means addressing the overall fairness of income and wealth, especially in terms of their relationship to working conditions, labor expended, and needs met in society. Fairness at this level is not something with which Good Planning willingly deals. Good Planning takes for granted that the fundamental distribution of wealth is determined by the prevailing economic system; capitalism is sometimes, but rarely, mentioned. Progressive Planning makes capitalism, and its effect on distribution of wealth and power, a central concern, both in analysis and recommendations. The criteria for justice may be debated, but precision in the definition need not be sought at this point, because the achievement of justice simply equated with fairness (the basic Rawls definition) is thus far enough. Society is so far from that goal of fairness that it may be generally stated as the desired direction in debates on concrete policy alternatives, without the ends being precisely laid out. Which direction is fairer can almost always be agreed on without an exact definition of ultimate fairness. In light of these points, one could say that the key distinction between Good and Progressive Planning is that Progressive Planning strives to alter the conditions that lead to inequality and injustice, while Good Planning works to temper the effects.


"Good Planning takes for granted that the fundamental distribution of wealth is determined by the prevailing economic system; capitalism is sometimes, but rarely, mentioned. Progressive Planning makes capitalism, and its effect on distribution of wealth and power, a central concern, both in analysis and recommendations."

III. Transformative Planning

It would be easy to say a fully progressive approach to planning is idealistic and unrealistic today. However ideal Progressive Planning’s goals and values are to those who adopt them, they must recognize that compromise will be a constant theme in their pursuit. For progressives, it would be desirable for conventional planning to move along the spectrum from Good Planning to Progressive Planning. In practice, the transformation from one to the other will not be easy. Absent a revolution hardly in sight today, Progressive Planners need to have their immediate goals set substantially lower than the ultimate results they believe are necessary for justice. Practical and attainable solutions to immediate issues must be pursued.

Why then waste time on theoretical discussion of what is not immediately practical and attainable, if it does not further the goals of Progressive Planning?

Such an objection to this discussion, if it is today only theoretical and useless, is valid. But how then, abandoning the theoretically desirable for the concretely feasible, can decisions be made as to which planning proposals will lead in the future beyond Good Planning to advance the more difficult but fundamental goals of Progressive Planning?

The answer to this tension between Good Planning and Progressive Planning is a focus on the transformative aspects of plans and proposals. Transformative actions are plans or proposals that meet the requirements of Good Planning, including being implementable, but also include explicit goals that open the door to more progressive results, raising the need for policies that may be politically infeasible today but should be pursued into the future. This allows for the insertion of the values of Progressive Planning into conventional planning practice.

The following practical examples are illustrative of such a planning approach.[ii]

Family leave

Mainstream family leave policy proposals include requiring family leave for employees who are in the early child-rearing process. Good and Progressive Planning would support this proposal. Conceptually, this policy suggests that a mandatory part of employment should be a concern for the individual needs of the employee. Family leave is an example of a progressive idea, leading the way to a more progressive understanding of the employee-employer relationship. Benefits should not be based on the employee’s capabilities or profit contributions, but rather based on the need of the employee. Family leave is an implementable policy, laying the framework for a more radical reframing of employment.


Good Planning comfortably accepts housing policies including standards for decent, safe, and sanitary housing, zoning bonuses that enable the profitable provision of affordable housing, and public subsidies to prevent homelessness and incentivize private development of limited affordable housing. Clearly, even many policies that fall under Good Planning practice will require increased taxes to raise the necessary revenues to pay for public subsidies. But if a minimum standard of housing is an accepted public obligation, why not go all the way and argue that fair housing would require those revenues to be grounded in fairness? Such a proposal would call for those who have housing in excess of their needs to contribute to the costs of housing for those with unmet needs. Why not propose a progressive luxury housing tax with rates that increase as the market value of a home increasesat some point at the high end of the market? Why not propose a progressive speculative profits tax on the profits gained from the sale or exchange of land, which is, after all, only private as a result of public decisions?

Public Participation

Democratic participation in public decision-making is hardly a radical idea; public participation in planning is accepted in mainstream Good Planning and espoused by Progressive Planners. Government currently holds hearings on zoning matters, provides information on new policies, and opens debates to the public. But if public participation is an accepted part of democratic decision-making in Good Planning, why not go further? Why not include public participation as a tool for decision-making? Why not require public participation such as participatory budgeting[iii] in all decisions, including the expenditure of public funds, affecting land for economic development?

Land Use

If, as all planners would agree, all decisions affecting the uses of land are appropriately matters of public interest, why not formally consider the expansion of community land trust policies to all land under public control? Such trusts typically consist of non-profit entities that hold the title to land on which housing is built and lease it to residents with restrictions on their right to dispose of its use for a profit. Going further than community land trusts, would it be possible to put all land into public ownership to begin with, with community-based planning deciding on its best uses?

These are examples of Transformative Planning: turning an idea accepted by Good Planning into a radical progressive one. In this pursuit, the goal is not necessarily to pursue such a change over night but to open the conversation to more progressive policies. Pursuing Transformative Planning, constantly raising controversial issues that produce no immediate transformation but indicate that there is always more that remains to be done, is not likely to endear planners to conventional political leaders or clients of Good Planners. It may, however, give hope to advocates who are fighting for radical change in their communities. This approach may also remove the fear of advancing progressive ideas by at least putting them on the table. In the end, Good Planning does not go far enough to address systemic inequality, and Progressive Planning is not implementable in the short-term. A Transformative approach begins to address the shortcomings of Good Planning while pursuing the changes necessary to begin to address and combat the systems of power in cities which contribute to mass inequality along economic, racial, and gender lines.


I. Key Terms

Mainstream planning may be bad or good, conservative or progressive, depending on the time and circumstances, and represents the norms in planning in that time and place. Conventional planning, likewise differing from time and place, might be a synonym to mainstream planning. It might include bad planning as well as planning held to be good at that given time and place, but is less likely to involve progressive tactics. Conventional planning will inevitably reflect current power, political, social, and economic relationships.

Bad Planning, rarely used here, is planning that holds itself out to be mainstream, but whose goals are unjust or environmentally harmful. It may be considered bad by the eventual judgment of history (e.g. slave plantations, fascist enclaves, Jewish ghettoes, deliberate racial segregation). Bad planning may be mainstream when undertaken (fascist Germany) but later criticized (e.g. urban redevelopment policies in the U.S. a la Robert Moses in New York City, including slum clearance, auto-use facilitation, extensive highway construction, residential relocation, and top-down authoritative planning decisions).

Good Planning, as used here, is simply what is considered good and/or desirable innovative planning in professional, governmental, and most establishment urban development circles today. The New York Times’ treatment of planning issues is used here as representative of that view. Good Planning has, if not always initially, the support of the key established holders of decision-making power over its adoption. Its definition will vary over time and place.

Progressive Planning, as used here,[iv] gives priority concern to issues of social justice. It is typically associated with concepts such as: progressive redistribution of resources, equality, rights to housing, spatial justice, public ownership, anti-speculation and anti-privatization measures, land as a public trust, citizen participation, community-led planning, affordable housing, and diversity. This approach to planning, if not always identified as such, is espoused by social movements and community activists among the 99%. It will generally have little concern with protecting or extending the prosperity of the 1%. Consequently, it is likely to be critical of Good Planning. There may, however, be plans and proposals that meet the requirements of both Good Planning and Progressive Planning. Compromises among plans and proposals render the dividing lines between Good and Progressive somewhat fluid. Community and participatory planning, for instance, may be held to be Good Planning or Progressive Planning depending on how community is defined or whose participation is involved. Idealism will be found among proponents of Good as well as of Progressive Planning, but is likely to be much more openly class-conscious in Progressive Planning.

The most prominent operational difference between Good and Progressive Planning concerns the relationship of each to government. In theory, Good Planning sees government as a necessary evil, while Progressive Planning sees good government as a necessary support for the best social objectives of planning. In practice, Good Planning is likely to rely on the basic benevolence of government[v] to implement plans, while Progressive Planning will examine carefully the distribution of power in figuring out how to bring its plans to fruition.

Transformative Planning is an appropriate term for an approach to Progressive Planning that has broader goals than its own implementation, without downplaying idealism. Transformative Planning raises questions as to what might be necessary to achieve what is desired in a progressive city, putting together and pursing the contributions and implications of Progressive Planning to their logical ends.[vi]


[i] There are several versions of its content, some in the July 20 edition, some only in the New York City edition of July 21, from which the below quotes are taken.

[ii] See my blog, urban and political, at, Blogs #30 and 31, Transformative proposals and Transformational Provocations, for further examples.

[iii] Progressive planners might also want to explore the question of defining “community” or “public” in such a way as to not permit wealthy communities from acting to create exclusive communities, perhaps by setting substantive requirements on the creation or of such groups or their proposals.

[iv] There are other largely parallel definitions available, often more detailed and adding richness to the term, that deserve new attention. See, as a direct predecessor to the discussion here and still a key document highlighting the relationship to advocacy planning and community-based planning: Tom Angotti, “Advocacy and Community Planning: Past, Present and Future,” April 22, 2007, Progressive Planning Magazine, available at See also Pierre Clavel, arguing for redistribution and participation as the cornerstone of Progressive Planning: ”What is “Progressive?,” February 21, 2011, available at:, and “Progressive Cities and Neighborhood Planning,” May 2, 2016, available at:

[v] See David Madden and Peter Marcuse, “The Myth of the Benevolent State,” in In Defence of Housing, Verso Press, London, forthcoming.

[vi] It is discussed with examples in Section V. above.



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