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"Democracy, Technocracy and Publicity: Public Consultation and British Planning, 1939-1951

  • Author(s): Cowan, Susanne Elizabeth
  • Advisor(s): AlSayyad, Nezar
  • et al.
Abstract

This dissertation examines the way in which planning advocates sought to engage the public in democratic reconstruction planning in Britain in the 1940s. After the bombing of British cities during World War II, planners capitalized on an opportunity to expand the scale of town planning and redefine the role of the planning profession in shaping British society. As planners advocated for increased power for the government to plan, they recognized the need to embrace their role within the political system and legitimize their powers within a democracy. To address these concerns, planners created a forum through which they could inform, educate and consult the public about planning ideas and policies. They developed new techniques to engage and communicate with laypeople, including mobilizing publicity, measuring public opinion, organizing exhibitions, and experimenting with new visual strategies.

Overall, the 1940s is shown to be a period of progress in empowering of citizens to engage in the planning process. However, this empowerment remained partial and temporary, constrained by legal and professional structures that solidified the influence of technical experts. Publicity served as a tool for democratic engagement, but also as a means to promote the expansion of professional and government powers. Once planning legislation had passed, the ideological vigor and idealistic goals behind consultation faded along with their practical necessity. As planning practice shifted from prospective to statutory planning, many of the techniques developed in the 1940s fell into disuse. The phase of experimentation ended, and the malleable tools for consultation hardened in perfunctory bureaucratic hurdles.

Unearthing the roots of participatory planning within the 1940s complicates the traditional depiction of modernist planners as merely deciding, announcing and defending their work. It shows how the political conditions of war and postwar reconstruction fostered a climate in which planning could thrive, bolstering public support for large scale redevelopment and the impetus for state control. This historical research on planning in the 1940s adds complexity to the conventional portraits of modernist planners as heroes or villains, showing the ways in which they balanced the technocratic duties of their work with their commitment to public consultation.

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