Rethinking power in participatory planning : Towards reflective practice

Abstract: High hopes for democracy and sustainability are placed on participatory planning. Policy makers and scholars argue that broad participation can revitalise democracy and tackle sustainability challenges. Yet, critics claim that power asymmetries stand in the way of realising the potential of participatory planning. In the everyday practices of planning, this controversy comes to a head. Here, planners interact with citizens, politicians and developers around making choices about places and societies. Planners’ practices are contested and they are challenged by the complexity of power relations. They need conceptual tools to critically reflect on what power is and when it is legitimate. Reflective practice is a prerequisite for making situated judgements under conditions of contestation.Yet, the planning theories, which are most influential in practice, have not been developed with the intention of conceptualising power. Rational planning theory, which still is influential in practice, largely reduces planning into a technical power-free activity. Communicative planning theory, which underpins participatory practices, instead suggests that expert power ought to be complemented by inclusive dialogue. This theory criticises hierarchical power relations as domination, without providing elaborated understanding of other facets of power. Hence, the conceptual support for reflective practice is too reductive.The aim of this thesis is to rethink power in participatory planning by developing concepts that can enable reflective practice. I draw on power theory and explore the utility of treating power as a family resemblance concept in participatory planning. Applying this plural view, I develop a family of power concepts, which signifies different ideas of what power is. The usefulness of this “power family” is tested through frame analysis of communicative planning theory and Swedish participatory planning policy and practice.The result of the research is a family of power concepts that can enable reflective practice. Power to signifies a dispositional ability to act, which planning actors derive from social order. This ability can be exercised as consensual power with or as conflictual power over. The latter is conceptualised as an empirical process which, on a basic level, can be normatively appraised as illegitimate or legitimate.This thesis contributes to planning theory and environmental communication by problematising reductive notions of power and, as an alternative, rethinking power as a family resemblance concept. This theoretical contribution matters to planning practice as it can enable planners to develop their ability to be sensitive to what a situation requires, i.e. to acquire practical wisdom (phronesis).

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