Planning Matter: Acting with Things

Planning Matter: Acting with Things

by Robert A. Beauregard

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City and regional planners talk constantly about the things of the world—from highway interchanges and retention ponds to zoning documents and conference rooms—yet most seem to have a poor understanding of the materiality of the world in which they’re immersed. Too often planners treat built forms, weather patterns, plants, animals, or regulatory technologies as passively awaiting commands rather than actively involved in the workings of cities and regions.

In the ambitious and provocative Planning Matter, Robert A. Beauregard sets out to offer a new materialist perspective on planning practice that reveals the many ways in which the nonhuman things of the world mediate what planners say and do. Drawing on actor-network theory and science and technology studies, Beauregard lays out a framework that acknowledges the inevitable insufficiency of our representations of reality while also engaging more holistically with the world in all of its diversity—including human and nonhuman actors alike.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226297422
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 11/03/2015
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 272
File size: 650 KB

About the Author

Robert A. Beauregard is professor of urban planning in the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation at Columbia University. He is the author of When America Became Suburban and Voices of Decline: The Postwar Fate of U.S. Cities.

Read an Excerpt

Planning Matter

Acting with Things

By Robert A. Beauregard

University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2015 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-29742-2



What does it mean to think and act as a planner? This is a daunting question, and any answer is going to leave much unsaid. Not only are its key terms — think, act — problematic, but planning (in both theory and practice) appears to us in various manifestations. One of the most common approaches to the question, and the one I have selected, is to juxtapose what lies within the fuzzy boundaries of planning with what lies beyond them. This is most often done by contrasting planning with its purported adversaries — the usual suspects being markets, particularly capitalist markets, and interest group politics. My foil, by contrast, is a particular way of representing the world. Before proceeding with further explanation, though, I need you to read slowly through these four lists:

transportation planner, negotiation skills, curb cut, GIS, plaza, air quality, mitigation fees, EPA, neighborhood activists, business incubator, variance, traffic lights, Executive Order 12898, density, property rights, Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO), illegal conversion, work-live space, public trash bins, wind turbines, court decision, tattoo parlor, microunit, empty nesters, eminent domain, block face, zoning officer, budget shortfall, group home, website, land seizure, arts district

flood zone, AICP code, nonprofit group, infrastructure, Census data, sidewalk cafés, construction loan, retail, Powerpoint presentation, woodland stream, business retention, growth boundary, automobile drivers

streets, 3D modeling, single-family house, stormwater runoff, building codes, soil contaminants, TOD, topographic map, trucks, housing tax credits, storeowners' association, public hearing, signage, administrative expenses, light standards, retaining wall, neighborhood surveys, movie theater, impact fee, visioning, calm streets

planning director, hazard mitigation, pedestrians, historic district, zoning ordinance, coastal zone management, certification, impact fee, car sharing, green buildings, AICP examination, endangered species, vacant lot, marina, planting, scale model, noxious facilities, eviction notice, interest rates, slum, access ramp, developers, staff directory, scenic views, street glare, trips, light rail stop, grants, air rights, BID, townhouses, cell phone tower, parking space, lease, trash, square footage, soccer stadium, residential conversion, Livable Communities Act (1995), retention pond, site survey, plan amendment, shopping mall, license fee, land use lawyer, payroll, redevelopment authority, value capture, disaster plan, city council, cars, abandoned factory, New Urbanism, speed bumps, riverfront parks

Each of these clusters is an ontography. The items are randomly arranged, and there is no obvious logic to the sequence. The intent is to embrace the arbitrariness inherent in lists and to subvert any complacency about the orderliness of everyday life and the elegance of our understandings. In a pure ontography, the items would also have nothing in common. These lists, however, are impure; all the items are drawn from the world of planning.

Ontographies challenge planners — both practitioners and theorists — to think differently about how they engage the world. Every item in these lists is either a process, a law, a tool, an object, or a place that comes into play as planners go about regulating the built and natural environments and improving the conditions under which people live. Such items also frequently appear in the writings of planning theorists as they strive to explain and advise on planning practice. Planners, however, would never display them in such disorderly fashion.

The qualities of ontographies are incompatible with those that, since the early twentieth century, have defined the planning ideal and its many means of practice. As one illustration, consider how planners' embrace of orderliness, rationality, and predictability is antithetical to the ontographic commitment to arbitrariness. In short, the values represented by ontographies constitute a world radically different from that of planning.

In this first chapter, my goal is a reading of the core qualities of planning from an ontographic perspective. Because the perspective is so alien, it provides a stark contrast with planning's central tendencies. It is a way of thinking that almost all planners would reject. By comparing planning to an antithesis, planning's qualities are accentuated and clarified. My specific focus is planning thought that I present not as settled dogma but as a cluster of dispositions that enable us to distinguish planners and planning from other types of actors and actions. Implicit in this is that a planning cast of mind is only one way to imagine the world. This should challenge planners to think of themselves less as experts applying a fixed methodology to produce a definitive answer and more as technically informed citizens engaged in a collective and open-ended endeavor.


I first became aware of the existence of ontographies (although not under that label) in doing research on the history of urban decline in the United States (Beauregard 2003). Across the twentieth century, lists of urban problems have been commonplace in both popular and scholarly writings about the condition of cities. When commenting on the dire conditions in the slums of Philadelphia, say, observers are likely to put forward an inventory: high unemployment, juvenile delinquency, entrenched poverty, racial discrimination, substandard housing, rapacious slumlords, fatherless families, poor schools, unscrupulous storeowners. One purpose of such lists is to convey the breadth of urban decline — its multiplicity — and the difficulties any policymaker or community group faces in trying to ameliorate it. Decline is not one thing but many things, and implicit in these lists is a conviction that reversing decline means acknowledging the interconnectedness of conditions and the need to act comprehensively. Because they reminded me of incantations, I thought of them as litanies. They differ from litanies and pure ontographies, however, in implying that such conditions are so intertwined as to make decline even more intractable. Consequently urban decline is considered obdurate, even if the sequence of the items in the list is arbitrary. The arbitrariness, however, is mitigated by suggesting what the items have in common — they are all qualities of specific places. In this way, one of the standards for a workable list is met.

Years later, I encountered lists in Bruno Latour's (2005b) writings on actor-network theory. Actor-network theory proposes that humans do not act alone in the world but act in conjunction with tools such as felt-tip markers, technologies such as geographical information software and zoning regulations, nonliving things (for example, bicycle racks), and even living nonhuman things such as sedge grasses, storm surges, and deer populations. These things, including humans, enable Latour to convey what he calls the heterogeneity of the world and to remind us how far human actions require not just nonhuman allies but nonhuman entanglements.

As an example, consider Latour's We Have Never Been Modern (1993, 2). He begins this well-known book by commenting on what he has found in the daily newspaper:

On page eleven, there is a slag heap in northern France, a symbol of the exploitation of workers, that has been classified as an ecological preserve because of the rare flora it has been fostering! On page twelve, the Pope, French bishops, Monsanto, the Fallopian tubes, and Texas fundamentalists gather in a strange cohort around a single contraceptive. On page fourteen, the number of lines on high-definition television bring[s] together Mr. Delors, Thomson, the EEC, commissions on standardization, the Japanese ..., and television film producers.

Note how Latour's list extends beyond human subjects to include nonhumans, thereby introducing us to the variety of things that make up matters of concern: the consequences of mining, birth control, and the manufacturing of televisions. Another example comes from his research into the politics of science that expected to find "citizens, assemblies of 'mini-kings,' ideologies, deliberations, votes, elections; the traditional sites of political events" but instead found "[a] vaccine, an incandescent lamp, an equation, a pollution standard, a building, a blood screening procedure: those were the new means through which politics was being carried out" (Latour 2007a, 812–813; emphases in original). For Latour, any controversy — or planning event — contains a differentiated array of actors that gives the controversy its political salience.

Latour, however, never allows his lists to become pure ontographies. They have a heterogeneous quality — note the inclusion of a blood screening procedure and an incandescent lamp in the category of political things — with each item part of a single category with a particular purpose — "science" in this instance. Or, as regards Fallopian tubes and the pope, they are entangled with a contraceptive device, women's bodies, and nonprocreative sexual intercourse. These lists constitute domains that Latour calls networks or assemblages that represent the constituent forms of the material world. Latour (2010a) thus views scholarship and social practices as compositional activities; that is, they put things together to enable intellectual positions and material conditions to become stable and endure.

One of the purest of ontographies comes from a famous essay — "The Analytical Language of John Wilkins" — written in 1942 by the Argentine poet and short-story writer Jorge Luis Borges (1964, 101–105). In discussing an attempt in the seventeenth century by John Wilkins, a principal of one of Oxford's colleges, to develop a universal language, Borges mentions a list ostensibly discovered by a Dr. Franz Kuhn in a Chinese encyclopedia titled Celestial Empire of Benevolent Knowledge — all of which, given his attraction to labyrinths and magical realism, might be a Borgesian fabrication. The list is of animals and reads as follows (103):

Belonging to the Emperor
Suckling pigs
Stray dogs
Included in the present classification
Drawn with very fine camel-hair brush
Et cetera
Having just broken the water pitcher
That from a long way off look like flies

This list seems wholly arbitrary, lacking any sense of coherence or boundedness. While all the characterizations are meant to apply to animals — we can imagine a cat knocking over a water pitcher or rabbits being innumerable — the list does not serve a single purpose. That is, neither does it depict the essential qualities of animals, nor are the items (such as "fabulous" and "frenzied") necessarily confined to them. Consequently, the list allows readers to imagine nonanimals (for example, "innumerable" pebbles on a beach) that conform to the classification scheme. Moreover, Borges has inserted a most disconcerting item: "Included in the present classification." On first reading this seems redundant, needless to mention, yet it also seems perfectly appropriate for an ontography; that is, for a list meant to be capacious. Here we begin to sense what a pure ontography might be. And by listing flies, brushes, dogs, and the emperor, Borges also offers us a glimpse into Latour's heterogeneity. His intent seems to be to subvert the list as "a practical tool for organizing work" (Bowker and Star 2000, 137).

Although Ian Bogost (2012, 35–59) does not mention Borges's list in the discussion of ontography in his Alien Phenomenology, he does draw examples from the writings of Latour, Roland Barthes's autobiography ("I don't like: white Pomeranians, women in slacks, geraniums, strawberries, the harpsichord, Miro") (41), and a wonderful song by the Brazilian composer Antônio Carlos Jobim titled "Áquas de Março" in which the lyrics depict the things seen and heard in Rio de Janeiro: "It's a sliver of glass; It is life, it's the sun; It is night, it is death; It's a trap, it's a gun" (43), continuing in this fashion over the rhythms and harmonies of a bossa nova.

For Bogost, an ontography is a list that allows each item to be imagined in its specificity and repleteness; that is, to be perceived as having an integrity that would be stifled in a more structured setting. Opposed to minimalism, an ontography embraces the plenitude, the density, and "the jarring staccato of real being" (40). In an earthy metaphor, Bogost likens an ontography to a landfill, in contrast to a Japanese garden (59). The intent is "the abandonment of anthropocentric narrative coherence in favor of worldly detail" (41), thereby decentering humans in order to reveal the "countless things" that litter the material world and the infinite couplings possible among them. Bogost proposes an ontology of multiplicity and contingency. Along with Latour, Barthes, and Jobim, he wants us to look at the world without the lens of classificatory presumptions; he wants us to see it anew.

While all this seems only tenuously connected to planning and, in many ways, antithetical to how planners think and act, the otherness of ontographies strikes me as useful for reflecting on planning's central tendencies. In our relations with others, the differences matter the most. This truism also applies to thinking about what we are doing when we plan; that is, the differences between planning and not planning. To explain this, I first need to expand on what I understand to be the core qualities of ontographies: heterogeneity, symmetry, repleteness, and contingency.

Ontographic Qualities

First, heterogeneity. Ontographies encourage their readers to embrace a world that comprises a diversity of things whose similarities are obvious because, and only because, they are socially constituted through the making of categories and classifications. In this latter form they are useful and enable work to be done (Bowker and Star 2000). From this premise emerge two important claims. One is that humans are not alone in the universe. The other is that humans cannot undertake purposeful action without the participation of nonhumans. The former challenges the notion that action is a matter of humans deciding what to do and then manipulating and shaping the world around them. From an ontographic and actor-network perspective, there is not a world "in-here" made up solely of humans and a world "out-there" made up of nonhumans passively awaiting human instruction (Lieto and Beauregard 2013). Heterogeneity is taken to mean not just that the world consists of different kinds of things, but that all things participate in making that world. Humans do not act alone. This is often characterized as the symmetry between humans and nonhumans, with each potentially influential in any assemblage of actors. Positing a nonhierarchical or flat ontology, actor-network theorists refuse to privilege humans over nonhumans, thereby undermining the very basis of humanism (Latour 1987, 145–176).

Moreover, it is not just humans who use tools (for example, an earthmoving machine to shape the landscape) or engage with animals (for example, when they attempt to control the population of deer in an area by introducing coyotes). Actor-network theorists additionally argue that nonhuman things are also active agents with tool-using and collaborative capacities. The deer react to how they are being culled by changing their daily paths, the cell phone reminds you of an upcoming appointment so as to maintain good relations with your client, and the speed bump relieves you of the moral calculation of how much to slow down while driving in a residential zone (Latour 1992). Nonhuman things are not passive; they create effects with and irrespective of humans. Without their participation, moreover, we could hardly manage.

Rather than an asymmetrical world where humans dominate, the argument is that nonhumans are ontologically equivalent to humans, the second quality of ontographies. Both have the capacity "to act as quasi agents or forces with trajectories, propensities, or tendencies of their own" (Bennett 2010, viii). More important, both influence relationships among actors, thereby having effects that must be acknowledged. Adopting symmetry is a way of recognizing that nonhumans are as consequential in making the world as humans. When humans and nonhumans act together, whether in concert or in conflict, they have to be given equal standing in any interpretation of their actions and the consequences they produce.

In addition, piercing the barrier between culture and nature makes a statement about morality. Our moral obligations are expanded such that humans share individual and collective responsibilities with the animals, plants, and things that surround them (Nussbaum 2006, 325–407; Young 2011). These responsibilities, moreover, extend beyond family and nation as human constructs to those others with whom we share the planet. Action and morality are thus cast as inseparable.


Excerpted from Planning Matter by Robert A. Beauregard. Copyright © 2015 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents


1 Ontographies
2 Talk, Action, and Consequences
3 Planning with Things
4 Neglected Places of Practice
5 Distributed Morality
6 Truths and Realities
7 Planning in an Obdurate World
8 Temporalities
9 Unfulfi lled Promise
10 The Worldliness of Planning Theory
11 Planning Will Always Be Modern

Cited Index


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