Theories of Change and Your Planning Career

Traditionally, planning is seen as developing and implementing plans, but there are many theories of change embedded in the profession.

"Theory of change" simply refers to assumptions about how a particular approach will produce results. Sometimes it is described as a logic model, in which a planning strategy is implemented so that impacts, influences, and results occur.

Better planning happens when theories of change are explicitly considered. If things aren't working out as hoped, it is worth asking, "What is my theory of change?" and "Is that the best theory for the situation?"

There is usually room for innovation and improvement.

Comprehensive planning, for example, is based on a theory that the articulation of community goals improves outcomes by adding vision, comprehensive thinking, and a long-term perspective. On the other hand, current planning is based on the theory that fair and efficient administration of zoning and subdivision rules improves outcomes. Neither is superior and both are necessary — the point is to recognize different assumptions and assess them against context.

Planning encompasses many theories of change. The thumbnail version of these theories includes care, knowledge, solutions, communication, power, tools, and implementation.


Lack of care — about the community, the environment, social justice, and so on — is the impediment to change. Documentary film makers, for example, induce care about climate change by telling stories about those who are affected by environmental degradation. Planners may induce community members to appreciate others, value human interdependency with natural systems, or appreciate restorative spaces. They assume that care translates to decisions. Will it?


A lack of information or analysis is the impediment to change. Those working on transportation models, GIS analysis, environmental impact analysis, and public opinion surveys have a theory that better information leads to better outcomes. They assume that knowledge insights will be taken up in the decision-making process. Will it?


A lack of innovative solutions is the impediment to change. Problem-solvers address defined issues and find solutions such as developing programs to revitalize a commercial district, create affordable housing, or mitigate environmental impacts. They assume the logic of the solution will be compelling. Will it?


Communication practices are the impediment to change, either through insufficiency or distortions.
Planners bring disagreeing stakeholders to the table for dialogue, facilitate negotiation to counteract communication distortions. They bring unrepresented parties to planning dialogues. Communicative planners assume that better communication will solve value and technical conflicts. Will it?


A maldistribution of political power is the impediment to change. Community organizing, legal advocacy, mobilization of protest, supporting leadership development bring power to those who don't have it. Power is seen as more important than plan-making and implementation, which can co-opt or manipulate the disempowered. Is it?


A lack of or flawed implementation tools is the impediment to change. Plans without implementation mean little. Those tools include rules such as zoning or subdivision regulations or market-based mechanisms like dynamic parking pricing or carbon trading markets. Tool-makers assume the primacy of their tools. Are tools more important than vision?


A lack of follow-through on plans, policies, and programs is the impediment to change. Action-oriented planners are involved in project review, capital programming, project implementation, and regulatory compliance. They know that lofty visions don't mean anything without implementation. Is implementation really the issue?

There many ways in which theories of change are important.

First, in career planning, reflecting on the alignment between one's personal theories of change and those embodied in a current or prospective job yields insights. Implementers are rarely happy writing plans and vice versa. If theories of change are out of alignment, a planner may be frustrated and be served by seeking new assignments.

Second, considering theories of change at the outset of a planning assignment helps practitioners be more effective and strategic. While job descriptions prescribe roles and assume a theory of change, additional theories can enhance effectiveness.

For example, plan-writers benefit from considering how policy language translates to regulatory procedures. Communicative planners benefit by ensuring that scientific evidence has proper standing.

At the beginning of a planning assignment, one can pause and ask, "What is my theory of change for this project?" "Do my activities align with that theory of change?" "Would additional theories of change be appropriate?" That way, planners can move theories of change from an implicit level to an explicit, strategic one for more effective planning.

Read previous installments of this blog series, "A Guide for the Idealist," here. This blog series is amplified in Richard Willson's book, A Guide for the Idealist: How to Launch and Navigate Your Planning Career. The book includes perspectives, tools, advice, and personal anecdotes. It is available now at Routledge, Amazon, and most retailers.

Top image: Pixabay photo.

About the Author

Richard Willson, FAICP

Richard Willson, FAICP, is a professor in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at Cal Poly Pomona. He has also served as department chair, interim dean, and independent planning consultant. Willson's research addresses planning practice and parking policy. His book, A Guide for the Idealist: How to Launch and Navigate Your Planning Career, amplifies the themes in this blog series. Willson is also the author of Parking Reform Made Easy (Island Press, 2013) and Parking Management for Smart Growth (2015). Willson holds a PhD in urban planning from the University of California, Los Angeles, a Master of Planning from the University of Southern California, and a Bachelor of Environmental Studies from the University of Waterloo.

January 9, 2018

By Richard Willson, FAICP