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Sara Westin, The Paradoxes of Planning: A Psycho-Analytical Perspective, Ashgate, Aldershot, 2014, 304 pages, £63.00 hardcover, ISBN 9781409448037.

Also see Jamie Doucette's Society & Space Open Site review of ASIA AS METHOD BY KUAN-HSING CHEN

This review forum on Sara Westin’s The Paradoxes of Planning: A Psycho-analytical Perspective originated in an author meets critics session that Christian Abrahamsson and I organized for the annual meeting of the Association of American Geographers in Chicago earlier this year. The panellists at that session included Felicity Callard (Durham), Mark Davidson (Clark), Jesse Proudfoot (Toronto), and Andrew Shmuely (UBC). The latter three provided reviews for this forum. As the book’s contents and main arguments are critically assessed in these reviews, I will limit my introduction to some contextual remarks on the text and some notes about the broader, interdisciplinary traditions it brings together.

The Paradoxes of Planning originated from Westin’s doctoral dissertation completed at Uppsala University in 2010 and entitled Planned, All too Planned, which she subsequently translated, revised and updated for publication with Ashgate. The book itself is centered on a series of powerful and sensuous demands for urbanity -- for the urban as a site of desire and emotion, reason and passion, experience and encounter.

Readers familiar with Swedish geography will notice the influence of Westin’s former supervisor, Gunnar Olsson, in the book’s proclivity for transgressing disciplinary boundaries, and in its embrace of ‘perspectivism’, an approach that brings conflicting viewpoints into dialogue (Abrahamsson and Gren 2012). Westin pushes this dialectical approach -- first developed by Olsson (1980) in Birds in Egg: Eggs in Birds -- in a novel direction by using it to generate a close interdisciplinary engagement between urban planning and Freudian psychoanalysis. To do so, she calls on disciplines such as philosophy, sociology, literature, and critical theory to illustrate a series of contrasting viewpoints that highlight the conflicted nature of the self and of the world inhabited by professional planners. The tension between what Westin calls the ‘eye’ of the architect and the ‘body’ of the flaneur, for instance, provides one of the book’s central motifs.

Starting with a critical analysis of the Stockholm area of Hammarby Sjöstad, Westin slowly builds her arguments into a critique of modern planning itself, and the way it builds cities without ‘urbanity’, full of ennui and devoid of the diverse encounters that make cities desirable places in themselves despite planners’ best intentions. What accounts for the gap between vision and reality, form and process? One of Westin’s answers is that the modern planning profession suffers from a form of neurosis that elevates logic over desire, function over form, and reason over experience. This repression, she argues, leads to alienation and creates a void between vision and reality, intention and outcome, within the built environment.

To get at this psychoanalytic kernel of truth, Westin asks about not what planners think, but about how they think. Moving away from the image of the planner as a rational and transparent being, she ventures into the complex realm of the conflicted psyche. This approach allows Westin to move beyond a mere ideology-critique of the structural biases of the planning profession – i.e. whose interests it includes and excludes, what relations of exploitation it obscures – to look into the self-sabotaging psyche of planners themselves that is produced by their tendency to elevate ends over means, logic over experience, reason over desire. Thus, Westin comes to regard planning as a practice of self-oppression and alienation; of a neurotic suffering that she sees as intimately connected to the human condition as such.

This approach yields a number of stimulating rewards by pushing the well-known critique of modernist planning by authors such as Jane Jacobs, Henri Lefebvre, Herbert Marcuse and Richard Sennett in new, interdisciplinary and psychoanalytical directions. However, as the reviewers suggest, Westin’s psychoanalytical treatment of the planning profession also raises some critical concerns. At the AAG session, Callard raised important points – which are unfortunately not reproduced in this forum – about psychoanalysis’s own internal limits and conflicted history. Meanwhile, while the reviews included here critically praise Westin’s approach, they also raise critical points concerning the historicization of urban planning in capitalist societies, where urban space is produced to suit the requirements of capital accumulation. Here, the neurotic suffering and alienation of the planner may be less a factor of self-sabotage and more a question of the social relations that separate manual from mental labour. This separation, or alienation, as Westin might put it, produces the planner as an ‘expert’ whose knowledge is more often than not insulated from both the sensuous experience of urban space and its political contestation.

Altogether, the reviews in this forum aim to encourage further explorations of the planning profession’s conflicted psyche that build upon Westin’s approach and to push her work in new directions. 


Abrahamsson C and MG (eds) (2012) GO: On the Geographies of Gunnar Olsson. Surrey: Ashgate, Farnham.
Olsson G (1980) Birds in Egg: Eggs in Bird. London: Pion Limited.