The Advocacy Tradition Today

By Kevin Keenan, PhD, AICP

The Advocacy Tradition in Urban Planning dates to 1965, when Paul Davidoff, then the founding chair of Hunter College’s Department of Urban Studies in New York City (now Urban Planning, Policy, and Leadership), published a manuscript in the Journal of the American Planning Association titled “Advocacy and Pluralism in Planning.”  The Advocacy Tradition, as Davidoff defined it, asked planners at that time to be much more than “rational technicians.”  Instead, planners should be technicians and advocates, fully articulating, embracing, and utilizing values to guide technical solutions to the many problems stemming from urban growth.  Of course, some who lived through that decade, such as my baby-boomer parents, would say that the 1960s were a very different time.  That era was marked by dramatic cultural change, increasing levels of violence (in cities, but also around the world), visible racial discrimination and palpable tension, and growing awareness of declining urban centers and unbridled suburbanization.  It is curious to me, then, that the editors of Readings in Planning Theory—one of the foundational texts that essentially introduces theory of planning to students around the country—have chosen yet again to publish Davidoff’s piece in the 4th edition of the book released this year.  What possible relevance could this dated piece have for today?
I offer two answers to this question: the first concerns the practice of planning, while the second concerns the education of planners.  The relevance of the Advocacy Tradition to planners today is found among the very first words of the paper: “The massing of voices protesting racial discrimination have roused this nation to the need to rectify racial and social injustices.”  Davidoff channeled that growing awareness of forced racial inequality into a broader link to “social injustices,” which included heightened wealth inequality, disparate rather than equal opportunity for many different groups, and the public’s growing alienation from planning.  He argued that solutions would not be technically derived, but rather they must “arise from social attitudes.”    Perhaps the editors of Readings in Planning Theory were thinking about the recent Black Lives Matter movement, which underscores the continued racial issues in the U.S., when they decided to include Davidoff’s paper.  Or, perhaps they were sensing the destabilizing forces of severe income inequality plaguing the country that both political parties have harnessed to great effect in the current primary season.  Both phenomena are clear evidence of the continued need for advocacy—in all professions, not just planning.  However, perhaps the editors were also prescient enough to “see” the response of dramatic, community-based advocacy in response to Dylann Roof, the murderer in Charleston.  Social attitudes have changed, in part due to the work of advocates over the many decades since 1965.

This brings me to the second possible answer regarding why the editors included a 50 year old piece in a contemporary theory book.  Davidoff spoke specifically and critically to planning educators.  He lambasted planning schools and faculty for inculcating the very narrow role of technician that he believed was at the core of the problems facing cities.  He lamented a pedagogy of value neutrality, and he detested the obsession with the physical and built environment: “The city planning profession’s historical concern with the physical environment has warped its ability to see physical structures and land as servants to those who use them.”   He believed it was impossible for the social dimensions of human life to be divorced from the instruction of planning, and he specifically called for “a liberal arts under-graduate program affording an opportunity for holistic understanding of urban conditions.”  Perhaps the editors of Readings in Planning Theory want planning faculty to think about education in ways that are transformative of people and not just places, and to remember that undergraduate education is as important—if not more so given its foundational position—than graduate education.

Of course, planners cannot be everything to everyone, but a planner can be something to someone.  Davidoff asks you to be completely honest with yourself about who that someone is, and transparent about what is really guiding you as a planner.  He asks you to deeply examine your values, and if you find them worthy, to fight for them and to let them inform your work.  The Advocacy Tradition today is the same as it was a half-century ago: a way of practice and of teaching that is meant to transform people, not just places.