Liberation Planning

March 14, 2014 9 Comments


Last week Darren Walker opened the Resilient Cities lunch reminding us that not only do we need to work to make cities resilient and sustainable, we must also work to make them just. As I listened to Xav Briggs, Joan Clos, Toni Griffin and others speak, I thought about my work at MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning and what working to make just cities means for planning and planners. How does one attend to the myriad issues facing cities: poverty, crumbling infrastructure, environmental sustainability and economic collapse?

Now add demographic complexity to the mix, and the tensions between races, religions, socio-economic classes. Top it off with entrenched systems of power and oppression and you see the real struggle that is happening right now in our cities. While planners play an important role in helping cities attend to these issues, they are also faced with a persistent question:  replicate the status quo or transform planning to focus on the creation of just cities.

While planning practice has always evolved in response the challenges of the time, for the most part that evolution has been what AIM leader Russell Means called “the same old song.”  In July of 1980, before several thousand people attending the International Sovereignty gathering in Black Hills, South Dakota, Means spoke about revolutionary theories coming out of Europe:

“You cannot judge the real nature of a European revolutionary doctrine on the basis of the changes it proposes to make within the European power structure and society. You can only judge it by the effects it will have on non-European peoples. This is because every revolution in European history has served to reinforce Europe’s tendencies and abilities to export destruction to other peoples, other cultures and the environment itself.”

What Means is asking us to keep in mind is that whatever theoretical traditions emerge out of the same society, they in actuality are not that different at all and are part of what he considers “the same old song.”

So how do we create a new song?  One that is capable of breaking new ground and moving us in a new direction. For me, the answer for planning and planners is contained within what I call liberation planning. Liberation planning asks the planner to transform society by working with and orienting the work of planning around the socially excluded, the poor, and those least served in our society. Moreover, liberation planning suggests that success in planning can only be determined by how it impacts and changes the condition of the excluded and how it, in turn, changes us.

Traditional (?) planning asks, “How do we really engage the voice and knowledge of the community in a particular planning process?”  Liberation planning asks “What do we understand about the city and ourselves as planners by virtue of our effort to work with and serve those who are socially excluded?” To engage in liberation planning is to be committed to a lifelong dialogue with oneself, with one’s profession, and with those in poverty. The dialogue is one of holding ourselves accountable for the conditions of those in poverty and engaging each other to alleviate the conditions of those in poverty.

The metric of success in liberation planning is not merely the transformation of the built environment or the social system; it’s also the transformation of the individuals engaged in transforming society. Liberation planning, in borrowing from liberation theology, suggests there is an important role for faith. Planning and the planner’s actions are not merely determined by technical and social skills, but also by faith, by values, and by principles. Each of these must continually be visited and examined for its ability to transform the conditions of the excluded and to support Darren’s call for the creation of more just and peaceful cities. Without such an orientation, different approaches to planning practice – no matter what they call themselves – are merely, as Means says, “the same old song.”

The question in which we at IISC are engaging is “What new songs are out there for building just cities and a just world?” We hope you and others who care about social justice and about creating a more peaceful world will engage in this with us. I’m listening.

At IISC, we view our work through these three lenses: building power, pursuing equity, ensuring inclusion; leveraging networks for social change; and harnessing love as a force for social transformation.


  • Curtis Ogden says:

    Beautiful! Thanks, Ceasar.

  • Cynthia Silva Parker says:

    Love liberation as the signifier for justice-oriented planning! Love that planners are thinking in these terms! This really raises the bar on planning in at least two ways.

    Process-wise, we have to move from developing a smart, well-informed plan in a collaborative way (which is challenging enough to pull off), to making sure that the needs of those are the margins are at the center. It’s going to take a lot to shift mindsets away from the kinds of planning processes that feature quick timelines and limited options for involvement beyond the planners and other professionals.

    Content-wise, we can’t judge the success of a plan simply by whether it is implemented, but by what the actions do to condition of the most vulnerable. Stands to reason that focusing on their needs would have to be front and center in the planning process, but I know from experience how challenging it can be to get institutional players to shift their attention in that direction.

    • vanessailc says:

      Cynthia, that last part you mentioned about the challenge of getting “institutional players to shift” is what I wondered about as I read this inspiring piece. How often is a planner given such an opportunity to implement designs that are focused on the needs of the “socially marginalized”? I am curious if it happens more often than I would think, or if there is maybe a trend for this perspective?

      • Cynthia Silva Parker says:

        There is increasing attention to these questions in planning circles. Organizations like Policy Link are starting to push the field in very productive ways.

  • Jen Willsea says:

    Excellent! Thank you!

  • Jen Willsea says:

    Have you checked out this guy’s work? Justin Steil, co-editor of Searching for the Just City: Debates in Urban Theory and Practice, 2009.

  • maanav says:

    Very moved by what this is asking of the field. It also directly links to the conversation organizers are having under the banner of “transformative organizing”:

  • Abe Lateiner says:

    One way to plan with the challenges and opportunities of diversity in mind is to plan for alternative business models. For example, the Stone Soup Cafe in Greenfield, MA, Haley House in Boston, and the new Port Cafe in Cambridge are businesses that serve delicious food at a price that all people can afford. The valuing of all types of wealth (including yet not limited to financial wealth) is built into the model of a pay-what-you-can/will/like cafe. When done right, this creates space around shared food for powerful dialogue and joyous knowing of others.

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