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Planners and their ethical deliberations in Dutch planning practice

Graduation work by Ruud Oosterhaven

My thesis dealt with an exploration of how spatial planners and politically elected decision makers in Dutch spatial planning practice deal with ethical or moral, as perceived by them, dilemmas in their work and the values that guide them in their work.

Planning and ethics

It has been argued that in relation to the altering perceptions of the practice and theory of planning, the view of planning as a technical profession based on a rational comprehensive decision scheme or based on design skill has diminished significantly in popularity over the years. A widespread recognition of the political, and therefore value based characteristics, of the planning activity replaced this technocratic premise. This moving away from technique or the rational mode of decision-making to provide a basis for the legitimacy of the planning profession asked for more engagement with ethics. In the last few decades a growth in interest in ethics within the planning domain has taken shape, culminating in the publication of the book Planning Ethics by Sue Hendler in 1995. (Campbell, 2012).

As Campbell explains, the idea behind planning is that through intervention and action a better spatial configuration can be achieved than without planning. The word ‘better’ places ethics in a fundamental place in relation to the further development of a progressive spatial planning discipline and profession. Though ethics is central to furthering progress in planning, the way how a good understanding of ethics is developed is debated. Some doubt that normative ethical theory can or should guide planning professionals understanding of ethics (top down orientation). It is proposed that ethical insights are most effectively developed from the direct practical experiences of the individual planner (bottom-up). (Campbell, 2012)

The finishing of this thesis, coincidently, mirrored abundant media attention about issues of integrity and ethics in spatial planning in the Netherlands. This thesis adds the perspectives of planners working for those decision makers and the ethical issues they deal with in their daily practice.


In-depth interviews were conducted with spatial planners working for governmental agencies and politically elected decision makers. Through interviewing eighteen respondents it has been found that planners and aldermen deal with a large number of ethical issues and use different ethical principles or values to guide themselves in their work. Through categorizing the results it appears that certain ethical issues are specifically relevant for spatial planners or aldermen working for governmental agencies.


In total, 156 situations were described by eighteen respondents in the interviews. The issues are divided over six categories. Table 1 shows how often issues placed within a specific category were mentioned, by how many planners a specific issue in a specific category was mentioned, and the percentage of issues in a specific category of procedural or substantive nature. Thus the table gives an idea of what kinds of issues were mentioned most often and how many planners talked about issues in a specific category. In a majority of cases, planners talked about procedural issues which concerned the means, methods and processes in spatial planning. In a minority of cases planners talked about substantive issues or the ends of planning.

A short descriptive and abbreviated text covering each category below table 1 will give an idea of what kind of concrete examples planners and aldermen described in the interviews. The sixth and last category deals with a broad range of issues that did not fit any of the other categories and will not be discussed in detail in this article.

Table 1. Overview of the types of issues that were described by the respondents by subject

1. Conflict rule of law and ethics

In the first category planners and aldermen, among other things, talked about the possibility to unconsciously or consciously bypass spatial planning law. Sometimes because of backdoors or omissions in the law, through which for example the zoning plan could be bypassed or procedures be shortened. But also through hierarchical pressure to follow different procedures than those required by law.

2. Conflict of interest

The second category emerged from planners or aldermen that talked about situations in which there was a (possible) conflict of interest on behalf of a planner or alderman. This could for example be related to planners and/or aldermen being influenced or bribed by private parties through gifts. These gifts could be of various sorts such as offers to go on excursions, material gifts and other favours. Other examples revolved around land speculation and how spatial planning sometimes is executed with a focus on financial benefits. It is also described how planners and alderman can have a conflict of interest themselves through having a personal or financial stake in a certain development. Planners also talked about the possibility that aldermen make informal agreements that contradict policy and the dilemma’s this can lead to.

3. Provision and framing of information

The third main category is about issues concerning the provision of information and facts. The selection and framing of information to support planning proposals is considered to be a possible ethical dilemma by five planners. Next to the selection and framing of information it was also discussed who to inform from their role as a planner. Should you only inform and communicate with the board of executives or also with the municipal board, and in which cases is it appropriate?

4. Advising: being objective and political pressure

The fourth main category concerns the planners role as independent advisor to politicians. Often planners mentioned circumstances that thwarted or did not allow for them to take such an independent role. Planners were asked to change their advice to accommodate the alderman’s wishes for example. Planners also mentioned the possibility that personal preferences or political views influence the way a planner advises.

5. Participation and process

The fifth main category deals with issues relating to participation or the spatial planning process. Relating to participation, planners talked about its importance, legitimacy and difficulty. Planners for example talked about the democratic legitimacy of bottom-up processes, insufficient participation procedures, the difficulty of involving the public or participation being merely a façade. Related to planning processes, ethical issues were discussed related to using legally required methods or, in general, techniques to back up planning proposals. Ethically challenging issues were discussed related to a number of planning procedures such as the selling of land, dealing with the zoning plan, and the perceived difficulty to stick to policy at the municipal level.

6. Others

Other issues concerned conflicts planners might have with their superior(s), issues relating to dishonesty, the equal and reliable treatment of stakeholders, ethical issues working for a certain political party, informal past agreements, the relation to the media, the spending of governmental money and other substantive issues.


Next to ethical issues planners dealt with in their work, specific questions in the interviews were directed towards identifying values that planners and aldermen considered to be important in their work. Table 2 indicates in an abbreviated way what kind of ethical principles or values were expressed by planners to be important in the profession. Some values are quite straightforward, others are interpreted in different ways by different planners.

Table 2. Values mentioned by planners

Conclusive remarks

The main lessons and reflections that can be derived from this study are especially relevant for educational and reflective purposes. Planning students, scientist and practitioners might benefit from discussing examples which planners and aldermen brought up. The issues provide a sneak peek into the reality of the daily work of planners and aldermen and the difficult sides associated to the job.

Ultimately, reflections and discussions about ethics in planning are not discussions which have a definite end or an ultimate truth claim. History has shown that our ways of thinking about ethics constantly changes. Therefore this thesis must first and foremost be seen as a stimulation and incentive to think further about ethics and values in spatial planning.

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