The Reality Effects of Policy and Planning: Public Lecture of Prof. Kristof van Assche

By Ciska Ulug

Despite attempts by policy makers and planners, there is always a discrepancy between what is laid out on paper and what is translated into reality. While the unrealistic expectations of this technical rational approach are, perhaps, old news for planners, how to actually cope with such effects, leaves much to be learned. Kristof van Assche, Professor of Planning Governance and Development at the University of Alberta, addressed potential management strategies of these so called “reality effects” during a Spatial Planning Lecture at the University of Groningen in March 2018.

Characteristic of modernist thinking is the romanticized trust in the power of bureaucratic policies, This fantasy is often trodden upon from all sides of the political spectrum, whether it is neoclassical economists critical of state intervention, constructivists suspicious of a “planned” reality, and even participatory “localist” planners on the lookout for potential injustices. Nevertheless, when executed, policies often have unintended results and the potential to change reality. Understanding the context of governance processes is therefore necessary to gain a broader illustration of how policies actually materialize.

According to Van Assche six distinct points necessary can be outlined, necessary to consider when to optimize and manage reality effects, from a government and planning perspective. Highlights include understanding the starting point and histories of community actors, observing and adapting on one’s own self-transformation, managing expectations from the public, and crediting informal institutions and the beliefs and values they might represent.

While these points are meant to assist policy makers and planners in addressing the multiplicity existing in our cities and regions, the lack of a “one-size-fits-all” prescription can be troubling for those wondering how to apply this knowledge to the real world. How can planners know when they are sufficiently reflexive? How does one know and define their role in the community? Perhaps a cop-out answer for spatial planners: depends on the context. Van Assche provided illustrious examples highlighting how this flexibility can occur in practice. He concluded that policy and planning are “productive fictions”: neither real nor fake. Ultimately, there is no true way to blueprint change, and even if policies are expected to do the impossible, knowing their limits is necessary.

His lecture is especially relevant in situations where spatial planners are confused about their role. Planners are expected to straddle the boundary between citizen and bureaucrat, while simultaneously juggling varying degrees of transparency, flexibility, formality, and participation. Being a “good” planner is, perhaps, less about being the “expert” in the room, rather about reflecting and balancing communication suited to the destined community.

Van Assche’s post-structual prose reverberated the multiplicity of our modern world, noting “if you want a perfect world, the worst you can do is assume there’s a perfect world”. You cannot plan reality, but you can manage it.

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