Sustainable Cities and Communities

Living Edition
| Editors: Walter Leal Filho, Anabela Marisa Azul, Luciana Brandli, Pinar Gökcin Özuyar, Tony Wall

Communicative Turn in Spatial Planning and Strategy

  • Stefania ProliEmail author
Living reference work entry



The term “communicative turn” has been used to denote the spread of a planning theory, generally called “communicative planning theory” or “collaborative planning theory” that, instead of focusing on the production of a plan, emphasizes the value of planning in promoting public debates (Olsson 2009).

Communicative planning or collaborative planning is a planning approach where planners use discourse, communication, and consensus building for facilitating the dialogue between the stakeholders involved in a planning issue and reaching a shared understanding of the problem and consensus on what to do (Verma 2007; Machler and Milz 2015). Unlike systematic planning, where decisions are taken on the basis of the technical expertise and skills of the planner, the main concern of communicative planning is the democratic management and control of urban and regional environments and the design of less oppressive planning mechanisms (Allmendinger and Tewdwr-Jones 2002).


Over the last three decades, a loss of confidence in the decision procedures in planning processes and the political system it relied upon has quested a reaffirmation of the case for radical forms of social democratic planning as an alternative to the market models put forward by the “new right” (Allmendinger and Tewdwr-Jones 2002). Aiming to escape from the frustration and cynicism that marked the world of planning theory in the 1970s (Machler and Milz 2015), the communicative model has emerged in the 1980s with the purpose of moving the focus of planning from “a preoccupation with the distribution of material resources” to a much broader “process of working out how to coexist in shared space” (Healey 1996, p. 219). Since then, a growing number of planning theorists have taken the so-called communicative turn (Healey 1996) in describing and theorizing urban and spatial planning to the point where some have declared the emergence of a dominant new paradigm (Huxley and Yiftachel 2000), and the term “communicative planning” has been used to denote a variety of planning strategies and theories focused on discourse and process (Flyvbjerg and Richardson 2002; Forester 1999; Khakee 1998; Sager 1994; Verma 2007; Olsson 2009).

Collaborative planning is a form of planning conceived on certain theoretical foundations and assumptions and linked to concepts of democracy and progress (Healey 1992, 1997). It owes considerable debt to the critical social theory, mostly to Habermas’ theory of communicative action, which inspired the perception of planning as an interactive process (Healey 2003) and thus to the development of planning theories that recognize strategies and policies not as the outcome of objective, technical processes but as actively produced in social contexts (Stromberg 1999).

Communicative planning implicates a profound transformation of the planning profession (Rode 2016): instead on solving problems on their own, planners act at first as mediators among the people involved in a planning situation (Fainstein 2000) and pay more attention on dialogue than decisions (Verma 2007; Olsson 2009). To understand the impact of communicative planning theory on spatial planning and strategy, the following discussion focuses at first on the theoretical outline of this approach, by analyzing the work of the main authors who have influenced its program of research and of the planners and scholars who have contributed mostly to its theoretical development, bringing these ideas to the fore in planning and thus generating a change of paradigm in their practice. Then it analyzes the main focus of the work of communicative planners, in particular the role of public participation in the collaborative planning process, as well as the main positive innovations that the application of communicative planning has brought to the planning field as well as the main critiques and observations to this theory. Finally, the essay highlights the qualities of such approach in fostering sustainability in urban and spatial planning and the potentiality of using still the communicative planning paradigm in the planning practice for meeting the future challenges.

Theoretical Outline

During the last three decades, the so-called communicative turn has involved an increasing number of planning theorists: a rapidly growing amount of work drawing on social, ethnographic, and related studies has prompted some scholars and practitioners (Healey 1997; Forester 1999; Innes 1995; Mandelbaum 1996) to articulate the emergence of new forms of “collaborative” or “deliberative” planning and to affirm the ascendancy of a “new paradigm” based on the existence of a shared “consensus” among scholars on key theoretical and methodological questions (Huxley and Yiftachel 2000).

Communicative planning theorists acknowledge several of the perceived inadequacies of those planners that, from the 1960s onward, have called to the attention of the planning community the need to clarify, in the planning process, the dynamics of decisions and information in order to establish an effective relationship between strategy and action, at first, by pointing out that planning problems are “wicked problems” because they are often confusing, dynamic, ambiguous, and difficult to identify and define (Rittle and Webber 1973) and, then, by underlying that problems usually tend to interact with one another at different levels, making it sometimes difficult to identify technical solutions (Schön 1983). Another critical point of decision-making in urban and spatial planning has been associated with the risk of making choices in a process built upon distorted information or ineffective forms of participation (Arnstein 1969).

At the fundamentals of the communicative theory lays in fact the idea that things are understood both through our communication and interaction with other human beings (Machler and Milz 2015). In this respect, it builds a new discourse, inspired by Habermas’ social construction of knowledge, which challenges the traditional notion of representative democracy – by encouraging more direct forms of participation – and which links the planning activity to broader concepts of participatory or discursive democracy (Rode 2016).

Jurgen Habermas and the Role of Communicative Rationality in Planning Practices

One of the greatest influencer of communicative planning theorists is the German critical theorist Jürgen Habermas. In his theory of communicative rationality, Habermas (1984) proposes a different conception of human reason based on a shift of perspective from an individualized, subject-object conception of reason to reasoning formed within intersubjective communication (Healey 1992). The fundamental idea of his philosophy is that knowledge is constructed by power relationships between groups: not only the conversation is controlled and influenced by the group who have more power but also the way knowledge is communicated, how it is understood, the language it is based on, etc. determine a distorted understanding that reinforces certain power relationships instead of others in society (Machler and Milz 2015).

This distorted communication described by Habermas reflects thus distorted power relationships: “groups who have more power than others, and can therefore control the conversation, have much more influence in establishing what counts as knowledge. More importantly, how this knowledge is communicated shapes power relationships” (Machler and Milz 2015, p. 20). Conversely, the theory of communicative rationality claims that broadly based interactive processes can produce not only real changes in people’s quality of life but can also bring quality of opportunities by fostering identity construction and social mobilization (Albrechts 2003).

Collaborative planners emphasize urban and spatial planning as an activity where the decision-making process plays a fundamental role from the perspective of deliberative democracy. Hence, they believe it is the interest of the planning profession to guarantee that this process can be simultaneously consistent and fair (Sager 2002).

The first who has transferred Habermas’ theories to urban and spatial planning is John Forester, who demonstrated that planners are not neutral participants in the planning process, but the words they use and the communication style they choose distort the flow of information and reinforce their power (Forester 1982, 1989). Judith Innes, in believing that the knowledge used by all the actors involved in a planning process – including planners – is not impartial but “socially constructed” (Machler and Milz 2015), has used Habermas’ communicative perspective to analyze the dynamics among community members and groups and thus reframe the evaluation parameters of a planning process (Innes 1992) (Table 1).
Table 1

Successful plans according to Innes (1992)

1. Key stakeholders are incorporated

2. The participant groups are aware that the agreement they reached matter and thus they take the collaboration as an important task

3. The planning process is conducted by giving to all members an equal voice

4. Delegated experts (e.g., planners) act as bridges to fill the knowledge gaps among the participants

Source: Machler and Milz (2015)

However, in the planning field, Habermas’ “communicative rationality” is mostly associated with the work of Patsy Healey, whose work is not only well known but also fully representative of the main objectives of communicative planning theory: a discipline that attempts to be empirical, interpretative, and critical (Khakee 1998; Mazza 2002).

The Influence of Patsy Healey

The work of Patsy Healey has been influenced not only by Habermas but also by other contributors to the “postmodern and antirationalist debate” such as Michel Foucault (1984) and Pierre Bourdieu (1990) and by the position of the economic geographer David Harvey (1989) and his attempt of reconstructing the “incomplete” project of modernity (Healey 1992). Like other communicative planning theorists, her research owes thus considerable debt to the critical social theory, and it is founded on “progressive planning practice,” “emancipatory way of knowing,” and “inclusionary argumentation” (Healey 1996).

In her view, planning is a governance activity that occurs in complex and dynamic institutional environments, shaped by wider economic, social, and environmental forces that structure but do not determine specific interactions (Healey 2003, p. 104). Her project that became “collaborative” or “communicative planning” was thus inspired first by the perception of planning as an interactive and interpretative process. In interactive, communicative planning practice, planners, who are directly involved in community concerns, politics, and public decision-making, need a diverse range or resource and a continuing education in order to reduce distortion of information, discuss the qualities of places, and address the evident reality of conflicts of interest in noncombative ways (Healey 1998a, 2003) (Table 2).
Table 2

Planning as a communicative practice in ten propositions (Healey 1992)

1. Planning is an interactive and interpretative process

2. Individuals are engaged with others in diverse, fluid, and overlapping “discourse communities”

3. Planning involves respectful discussions which means recognizing, valuing, listening to, and searching for translative possibilities between different discourse communities

4. Planning involves invention not only through programs or action but in the construction of the arenas within which these programs are formulated and conflicts are identified and mediated

5. A communicative process brings into play all dimensions of knowing, understanding, appreciating, experiencing, and judging

6. A reflexing and critical capacity should be kept alive in the processes of argumentation, using the Habermasian criteria of comprehensibility, integrity, legitimacy, and truth

7. This inbuilt critique serves the project of democratic pluralism by according “voice,” “ear,” and “respect” to all those with an interest in the issues at stake

8. Interaction is not simply a form of exchange, or bargaining around predefined interests, but it involves a process of mutual learning

9. The process of argumentation actively constructs new understandings and has the potential to change, to transform material conditions, and to establish power relations

10. Such an intercommunicative planning encourages the efforts at interdiscursive understanding, drawing on, critiquing, and reconstructing the understandings everyone brings to the discussion

According to Healey (1998b), communicative planning is to a large extent an interactive communicative activity that involves, therefore, a dialogue between “stakeholders,” meaning those who have an interest in a place and represent different parties in processes of urban development and regeneration, where information is presented in a variety of ways (Khakee 1998). In giving such importance to dialogue and interactions among the participants, Healey’s communicative planning gives a specific interpretation of spatial planning and its objectives, by centering its focus on the capacity of political communities to organize and collaborate for the improvement of their place (Healey 1997).

However, her position is not just confined in the analysis of the role of interaction and communication and is more complex: her work in fact focuses also on processes and outcomes and moves between two equally important themes: shaping the qualities of places and renewing the form of governance (Mazza 2002).

Relevant Issues in Communicative Planning Theory

Over the last three decades, the communicative turn has undergone a number of mutations, from “planning through debate” to “communicative planning,” “argumentative planning,” “collaborative planning,” and “deliberative planning” (Allmendinger and Tewdwr-Jones 2002), and the term “communicative planning” has been used to denote a variety of planning strategies and theories focused on discourse and process (Olsson 2009). However, the fundamental ideal at the core of this shift has remained the same: a new recognition of the diversity of people affected by planning, their complex relations, and varied interests and values (Rode 2016).

With the communicative or collaborative planning model, the focus of planning has thus moved from “a preoccupation with the distribution of material resources” to a much broader “process of working out how to coexist in shared space” (Healey 1996, p. 219), where planners serve as impartial mediators, working to ensure the results of collaboration are tailored for multiple and diverse audiences (Goodspeed 2016).

By highlighting the role of social behavior, relations, and organization in planning, decision-making, and outcomes (Hoernig et al. 2005), the most critical issue in the work of community planners is probably how to link knowledge and action, which means at first the understanding of two main issues “how and under what circumstances knowledge affects decisions” and “how the planning process should be orchestrated in order to maximize the accumulation and use of knowledge” (Khakee 1998). In this regard, Healey (1996) has proposed to adopt an inclusionary approach, which means that planners, before initiating a strategic planning process, should design their activity by carefully investigating some crucial points: the place of the discussion and the style it will be used; the way issues will be addressed in the discussion; the development and the management of the chosen strategies; and the way citizens will agree or critique a strategy. In summary, in structuring their work, the role of participation – how and where it is delivered – is pivotal for the success of the communicative planning process.

The Role of Public Participation in Communicative Planning Processes

The forms of public participation in a planning process are diverse and can range from information-sharing, to formal consultation on proposals, through to various modes of partnership, delegated powers, and, finally, citizen control (Head 2007). Main issues in participation are information and dialogue (Innes and Booher 2004).

If the planning process provides structured opportunities for participation, which means that citizens and stakeholders have the tools to question and present data, as well as information that can help to develop the quality of decisions, then it will be easier to achieve not only a common vision but also other essential results, like the creation of network and of institutional capacity (Innes and Booher 2004). On the contrary, ineffective and weak forms of participation, based on episodic, narrow, and bad faith forms of involvement and consultation, will lead to the failure of the communicative activity.

To support knowledge development, problem solving, and the coordination of decisions and actions, some practical problems should be addressed when designing the planning process (Stromberg 1999). For example, the design and use of the type of arena (e.g., forum, courts, auditions) and their location (e.g., government building or neutral places) are a determining factor in open and participative governance which do not discredit the discussion (Healey 1996). Arenas could also change throughout the course of the communicative planning process.

Another example of critical issue to address in public participation is the style of discourse during the planning process: it should be inclusionary, which means it should be comfortable and understandable for all the parties (but it should also consider non-present parties at the discussion), and it should address diversity by paying attention to language techniques and cultural barriers or misunderstandings (Healey 1996).

By centering the planning activity around public participation, the role of communicative planners, as stated by Healey, is dual: one is to approach the need of shaping the quality of places and questioning institutional design so as to adapt the planning system to support communicative action; the other is to participate as mediator between the parties, by considering the planning process from a comprehensive cultural, social, and economic point of view and not from a specific and partial one (Stromberg 1999; Mazza 2002).

Critical Appraisal of Communicative Planning Theory

During the last three decades, the interactive and communicative nature of planning has been widely recognized by planning theorists and practitioners (Khakee 1998). Besides offering more inclusive and democratic decision-making, collaborative planning approaches have been seen to have multiple potential benefits that are not confined to policies but include other essential results such as (Forester 1989; Healey 1996; Khakee 1998; Innes and Booher 2010; Rode 2016) the generation of communicative networks and of social and human capital, transformative learning and community empowerment, consensus and long-term commitment of key stakeholders, and ultimately greater social and environmental justice.

In summary, the importance of collaborative planning has been seen in providing the possibility of a democratic approach to planning (Forester 1999), by moving between two equally important themes: shaping the qualities of places and renewing the form of governance (Mazza 2002).

However, these characteristics have been critically attacked by those planning scholars and practitioners who keep believing that urban and spatial planning is at first related to the spatiality of social and economic processes and thus to spatial management (Huxley and Yiftachel 2000), asserting that communicative planning keeps privileging communication at the expense of its wider social and economic contexts. Moreover, it has been argued that, by focusing the attention on achieving consensus, communicative planning may exclude actors and mobilize bias in favor of a few alternatives (Olsson 2009).

Even if communicative planning has undoubtedly increased its consensus through the years, becoming a dominant paradigm in postmodern planning, and most of the planning literature have taken the so-called communicative turn (Huxley and Yiftachel 2000), planning theory as a whole remains very diverse, and bias on communicative planning theory has been discussed by showing alternative positions. The main strengths and weaknesses of the communicative turn, which are diverse and interrelated, are summarized in the following two paragraphs.

Strengths of Communicative Planning Theory

Much of the reasons for the success of communicative planning theory is that it provides valuable strategies for conflict management, by building local coalitions with common interest and even bridging social capital among stakeholders, and that it provides a useful lens for looking at the participation of community groups in comprehensive plan-making processes (Gallent and Ciaffi 2014).

Furthermore, as a collective action, supporters of communicative planning theory assert that this planning approach is not only designed to create plans, data, and analyses but also networks that have the potential to create and sustain social capital, which can be utilized by each individual in further interactive contexts (Olsson 2009): in other words, it shifts the task of urban and spatial planning from “building places” to fostering the institutional capacity in territorial political communities for ongoing “place-making” activities (Healey 1998a). The undiscussed value of social capital is therefore regarded as an important incentive for actors to contributing time and other resources in a communicative planning process (Olsson 2009).

By placing the emphasis on the importance of building new policy discourses about the qualities of places, of developing collaboration among stakeholders in policy development as well as delivery, and widening stakeholder involvement beyond traditional power elites, the collaborative approach has been credited with the merit of recognizing the value of different forms of local knowledge and with the quality of building rich social networks as a resource of institutional capital through which new initiatives can be taken rapidly and legitimately (Healey 1998a). It has in fact been acknowledged that these types of mechanisms could bring multiple benefits such as an increase appeal of a common political project, a renewed policy process, a more equal balance of power, and a better understanding of the nature and of the possibility of political consensus (Rode 2016).

Even if communicative planning theory is mainly a theory of planning practice, advocates of this approach assert that it has also a strong normative concern and, moreover, that a basic feature of the communicative planning theory is the intertwining of the interpretative and normative aspects (Khakee 1998). In describing, interpreting, and explaining what they do, planners are not only forced to define, exemplify, and elucidate their planning practice, they are inevitably reflecting on the relationship between problems and issues experienced in their everyday work and facing the larger structural shape of the political economy in which they work (Khakee 1998).

In summary, the communicative turn would positively involve not only theories that look primarily at the dynamics of successful group processes but also to the understanding of the setup and functioning of institutions and governance arrangements in order to promote transformative change (Machler and Milz 2015).

The Limits of Communicative Planning Theory

Probably as first critique to communicative planning, detractors assert that communicative theorists privilege the study of planning processes, rather than outcomes, with the result of forgetting the multiple nature of the planning process, which is characterized, instead, by all policies and practices which contribute to the development of the urban and regional environment under the rules of the current democratic system (Fainstein 2000; Huxley and Yiftachel 2000; Brand and Gaffikin 2007) and thus of producing vague or ineffective consensus plans, policy, or investment ideas (Tewdwr-Jones and Allmendinger 1998). The theory has also been criticized for the limited understanding it provides of social relations necessary for the redistribution of resources to marginalized groups and thus for not addressing complex structures of power and influence in planning situations (Olsson 2009; Gallent and Ciaffi 2014).

Another issue regards stakeholders’ involvement. Critics of communicative planning assert that, if one examines the “deliberative designs” that are advocated, the logistical problems are clearly revealed (Allmendinger and Tewdwr-Jones 2002). The first problem is that only the minority of the relevant population is usually involved in the plan-making process because the tools used by communicative planners are designed for small groups of citizens randomly selected from the populations concerned: “citizens,” “juries,” “community workshops,” or “focus groups” are an example of underrepresented form of inhabitants’ involvement (Allmendinger and Tewdwr-Jones 2002). To them, it is also questionable the level of comprehension that such groups could achieve when involved in the making of strategic plans and other “integrated land use policies” which permeate urban and regional economies and environmental systems (Allmendinger and Tewdwr-Jones 2002).

A further critical point of communicative planning theory is based on the recognition of the apparent paradox that occurs when the promotion of collaborative practices – rooted in values of cohesion, solidarity, and inclusivity – meets “a world that can be seen as ever more individualist, socially fragmented, competitive, or in other words, un-collaborative” (Brand and Gaffikin 2007, p. 283). In summary, according to this point of view, communicative planning theory is founded on the assumptions that the parties engaged in the collaborative process are negotiating in good faith and willing to compromise (Gallent and Ciaffi 2014). At the basis of this position, there is the belief that despite the factors which appear to favor a new platform for more collaborative decision-making – e.g., the reduced certitudes and predictabilities and thus the level of complexity of the postmodern word; the demands for accountability and the need to interact with multiple stakeholders due to the shift to new modes of governance; the new forms of entrepreneurship and collaboration among these stakeholders, linked to new characteristics the changing economy; and the increasing hegemony of a model of neoliberalism that has dismantled old divisions between state and market to accommodate new synergistic partnerships – the material and political process which shape cities and regions includes also dynamics that foster much less participative practice and thus the purpose of greater decisiveness and speed in plan-making (Brand and Gaffikin 2007).

The Longevity of Communicative Planning Theory

Despite the critics, it is widely recognized that the communicative turn has shaped current urban and spatial planning by establishing its presence in the planning community with more participatory practices (Machler and Milz 2015), becoming undoubtedly the most prominent postmodern planning approach (Rode 2016).

The loss of confidence in the political system (Forester 1989; Sager 1994; Innes 1995) has contributed to the rise of a new planning model – that one proposed by communicative planning theory – where the solution of problems and conflicts is developed with a comprehensive cultural, social, and economic point of view and not with a specific and partial one (Mazza 2002).

Other factors have contributed to the communicative turn. The environmental problems that started to threat the planet (e.g., environmental disasters, energetic crisis, etc.) from the late 1970s onward have introduced the concept of sustainability, which has begun to be systematically debated and discussed in major policy and academic conferences (e.g., the Brundtland Report in 1987 and the Rio Summit in 1992), with the growing assumption that sustainable development is more than environmentalism: it is a cultural problem and a social attitude, too (Machler and Milz 2015).

Communicative planning theory, thus, has also been developed with the attempt of tackling sustainability – and problems related to sustainability – by proposing a different perspective in challenging problems which is not based on the pure application of technical knowledge of external experts but founded on a collaborative approach where strategies and policies are actively produced in social contexts through comprehensive plan-making processes (Stromberg 1999; Healey 2003).

Considering the impact that climate change and related sustainability problems is having in the context of governmental policies and actions at diverse levels (from the global to the national, the regional and the local level), it can be easily assumed that communicative planning will continue to provide not only a useful lens to understand the impact of these problems on local communities – without missing the understanding of the diverse dynamics in the wider strategic context – but also a valuable tool for developing a set of collective actions that can lead to effective and durable transformative change.

The diffusion of communication technologies and social media, where the Internet appears as a giant network of interconnected computers sharing information and as a place organized without a hierarchy or a chain of command, represents another crucial issue for communicative planning theory (Machler and Milz 2015). If the “networked society” is summed with the fact that culture worldwide is increasingly fragmented and volatile, achieving consensus appears as the first step for the success of spatial strategies (Faga 2006), and communicative planning represents probably the most effective practice to ensure better debate, discussion, and deliberation for the designing of shared futures.

More recently, the recognition of the high level of complexity and fragmentation in current environments has brought communicative planners to refocus and evolve their theories toward planning models which propose an adaptive governance framework able to incorporate the diversity inherent in complex problems (Machler and Milz 2015). Within such a scenario, the value of public debates and interactions will continue to grow, and the need for places where building new policy discourses will still be a key requisite of plan making. If this is the future, the structural weaknesses of communicative planning theory argued by part of the planners’ community (e.g., see Fainstein 2000; Huxley 2000; Huxley and Yiftachel 2000) could probably appear as less relevant, and the communicative turn will continue not only to flourish, but its appeal as a planning practice will probably increase (Goodspeed 2016).



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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of ArchitectureUniversity of BolognaBolognaItaly

Section editors and affiliations

  • Elisa Conticelli
    • 1
  1. 1.University of BolognaBolognaItaly