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Democracy and Planning

Contested Meanings in Theory and Practice

Time: Mon 2020-09-14 09.00

Location: Register in advance for this webinar:, Stockholm (English)

Subject area: Planning and Decision Analysis Urban and Regional Studies

Doctoral student: Sherif Zakhour , Urbana och regionala studier

Opponent: Senior Lecturer Andy Inch, Department of Urban Studies and Planning, The University of Sheffield

Supervisor: Professor Jonathan Metzger, Urbana och regionala studier; Associate Professor Maria Håkansson, Infrastruktur, Urbana och regionala studier, Infrastruktur och samhällsplanering; Professor Philip Allmendinger, Department of Land Economy, University of Cambridge


"Democracy" is a frequently used concept in the Western planning field. Scholars, practitioners, and citizens alike regularly deploy it to both explain and contest the nature and legitimacy of urban governance. And yet, in the planning literature, the concept of democracy itself is rarely explained or debated. The assumption being made is that its root meaning for planning is self-evident or agreed upon: public participation in, or mobilization against urban governance. However, my argument in this thesis proceeds from the opposite assumption: that far from self-explanatory or accepted, the contested meanings ascribed to democracy play a central role in shaping conflicts and experiences in planning—both in the literature and in practice. My overarching aim is to contribute with knowledge on this role by specifically examining what the substantial meaning of democracy is assumed to be according to actors in the field; that is, among planning scholars, practitioners, and citizens.

The thesis is comprised of a cover essay and four empirical papers based on qualitative case study research on local authority planning in Sweden. In the cover essay, I explore the meanings ascribed to democracy among planning actors, first, by conducting a careful reading of key theoretical texts in the field and, second, by analyzing the individual papers’ key findings.

To help elicit these rarely explained, often implicit democratic meanings among planning actors, I develop a theoretical framework based on the work of historian Pierre Rosanvallon. He understands the democratic project as a ceaseless attempt to resolve the fundamental indeterminacy as to what constitutes its substantial meaning. This perpetual project is nourished by a deep-seated incompatibility between three of democracy’s central ideological components: voluntarism, rationalism, and liberalism. Their incompatibility stems from how each of them is regularly mobilized in response to the pathological tendencies ascribed to the other. These responses, in turn, can be empirically charted by how actors implicitly assume the role of "guardianship" over different "democratic temporalities"; manifested as repeated clashes between competing meanings as to what constitutes democracy’s substantial essence.

By applying this framework to planning theory and practice, I highlight a striking range and depth in democratic meanings among actors in the field. Moreover, the many debates in planning theory and conflicts in planning practice come across as being deeply nourished by these competing meanings—often in ways that are only partially explicit and thus have been rather neglected in the literature. But examining planning through the lens of democracy not only provides critical insights into the nature of its conflicts, it also challenges the established assumption that treats the meaning of democracy as exclusively intrinsic to participation or citizen action.

My intention with the thesis is not to advance the merits of one or another specific understanding of the essence of democracy, nor to promote a questionable relativism around its meaning. On the contrary, the intention is to stress that if our ambition is to challenge the broadly technocratic and neoliberal governance practices currently the norm in the field, we need to understand—and render contestable—those specific circumstances, ideals, and even democratic meanings that inform them.