Theory classes were my favorite, whether in architecture or urban planning. In fact, theory of anything has always interested me. Very early on in high school, I realized understanding the concepts behind formulae was key to solving physics problems. I figured these problems come in different forms, with different given variables and values to solve. Memorizing how to tackled each problem (like the GRE preparation books teach you!) did not look appealing nor interesting to me. I credit my success in physics to my grasping of the concept behind each formula.
My fascination with theory continued when I was studying architecture in my undergraduate years. Not only did it provide me with a great mental challenge but it helped me develop a personal design principle to apply in practice. In my master’s studies, it was theory of urban planning the course that enjoyed the most. At that time was also when I started realizing some of my classmates did not see the relevance nor the importance of theory to planning practice. I never engaged with anyone directly about it but when I heard references like that for the first time, I was surprised. To me theory classes have tremendous value; they give you a fundamental understanding of your field and a set of values from which to operate. I have no idea if this would have resonated with my then classmates who were dismissive of the relevance of theory; it probably would have been too abstract. I am currently a PhD student in the urban affairs and planning department. A few weeks ago, I heard references about the irrelevance and unimportance of theory to practice in the context of a planning theory course.
One of the courses I plan to teach as a professor is theory of planning. Hearing those remarks made me realize that I need to be able to convince my students of its relevance and importance to practice. Planning schools do not make theory courses mandatory for no reason! But I also do not want my students to come to class just because theory is a required course. I want them to come to class convinced that they will gain knowledge and develop skills that they can apply in their work as planners. It is something I have been actively thinking about lately; I figured I might as well start preparing for it now.
This past weekend, an opportunity presented itself for me to ask how theory is applied in practice. I was a panelist at the ST Global 2018 Conference held in DC to present a talk on Information and Communications Technology in Transport Inclusion. On the second day of the conference, there was a non-academic career panel for Science, Technology, and Society graduates who might be considering a non-academic career. I attended the panel out of sheer curiosity. It turned out to be one of the highlights of the conference for me. I asked the panelists how the theory classes help them in their non-academic work and how to convince students of their importance. I was not going to let this opportunity slip! Here are their responses as I understood them:
Panelist – 1: You learn the ability to think in your practice based on the theoretical thinking you gained from those classes.
Panelist – 2: It helps the practitioner detach themselves from a challenging work situation and view the issue at hand from a theoretical point of view by considering themselves as a player in the scenarios discussed in theory classes. It helps not to take things personal but instead think for example of the situation as a power differential. In the class, give an example of an issue that may arise in practice and unpack it for them using theory.
Yes, these panelists were speaking from the Science, Technology, and Society discipline but somethings are transferable and universal in nature; I believe the theory-practice tension is one of them. I was very pleased with their responses and felt like they gave me a place to start in my early preparation for my future theory of planning students.
How is theory of planning relevant to practice? Well, you will have to attend my future theory class in a few years to find out.