Uncovering JAPA

Tracking the Major Themes in Urban Planning Literature

Students, practitioners, and academics in urban planning constantly seem to be asking themselves: What exactly constitutes the field of urban planning?

One way to answer this question is to examine the major themes discussed in planning-focused publications, which is what Li Fang and Reid Ewing do in their Journal of the American Planning Association article "Tracking Our Footsteps" (Vol. 86, No. 4).

Planning Publications' Evolving Themes Analyzed

In the article, the authors examine all research articles published from 1990 through 2018 in three major American planning publications:

  • Journal of the American Planning Association (JAPA)
  • Journal of Planning Education and Research (JPER)
  • Journal of Planning Literature (JPL)

They identify major themes and how these themes have shifted over time using latent Dirichlet allocation. In this method, computer algorithms classify texts into distinct categories, allowing researchers to analyze more texts and avoid errors common to manual sorting.

Li and Ewing identify 14 major research themes in each of the six five-year periods within the study years, noting how these topics shift between periods. See the table for major themes:

Research theme rank changes over time. From “Tracking Our Footsteps,” JAPA (Vol. 86, No. 4).

Table 2: Research theme rank changes over time.

The authors find that while several topics have retained their relevance over time — including planning processes, planning methods, and land use/growth management — interest in others, like planning theory and planning education, has waned. Still others, like planning ethics and food systems, have grown more prominent.

This focus on planning processes and methods reflects the enduring practicality of the field as an applied social science, while newer prominent terms show emerging areas of focus.

The authors also examine changes in popular keywords over time within three of the identified themes corresponding to their areas of focus: economic development, land use, and transportation.

Analysis Reveals Shifting Planning Themes Over Time

Most significantly, they find that the subfield of economic development has shifted to look more closely at issues of equitable development and cultivating human capital, while authors writing on land use have shifted to focus more on local issues and specific use categories.

Lastly, the study examines the impact of shifting editorial regimes at each journal on the major themes of focus and finds differing impacts across the three publications.

The authors ultimately note the usefulness of tracing large volumes of articles with this method for both:

  1. helping professional associations plan conference programming and specialization subgroups
  2. helping planning scholars to situate their work within the literature

As a current planning student considering further pursuing academia, but unsure where to position myself in such an amorphous field, I can certainly attest to the usefulness of the latter.

Top image: Covers recent issues of the Journal of the American Planning Association (JAPA), Journal of Planning Education and Research (JPER), and Journal of Planning Literature (JPL).

About the Author
Ben Demers is a Master of Urban Planning and Master in Public Policy candidate at Harvard University.

December 17, 2020

By Benjamin Demers