Planning with roots and wings: Critical and constructive reflections on social learning in planning

Kim Carlotta von Schönfeld

Research output: Thesisinternal PhD, WU


Planning practice is increasingly intricately intertwined with social interactions at all levels and in all areas of society: involving local citizens and large-scale developers, local, regional and national level public officials, politicians and entrepreneurs, NGOs, private companies and self-employed citizens, rich and poor. This involvement is even dictated by official regulations. In this context, social learning, as the process of gaining, confirming, disconfirming or indexing knowledge, skills and experiences through social interaction, becomes a key source of roots for planning, as well as a key contributor to its wings. Roots are here are understood as situated, contextual knowledge, skills and experiences, and highlight the value of the historical and the contemporary. Wings are understood as visionary knowledge about hopes, dreams and wishes for local but also global planning objectives, and highlight the value of looking to the future with inspiration that is informed by historical and existing knowledge but also going beyond it, including through change and the addition of the new.

Due to the above-described developments, the starting-point of this research assessed that social learning warranted a closer look in the planning context. So far, the concept has been understood as one that can actively structure participatory planning moments by focusing on encouraging the building of new knowledge and understanding for others’ views and practices, often within the context of encouraging more sustainable planning and lifestyles. Notwithstanding the value of these existing research avenues, this dissertation proposes that a psychology-informed view on social learning can provide a more analytical than instrumental lens. This is helpful to be able to assess both benefits and drawbacks of how social learning can unfold in particular planning contexts, and to allow for reflectively informed planning research and practice.

To study this topic, this dissertation asked the question,

How does social learning at the individual and small group levels impact co-creative planning processes?

It furthermore set two key research objectives: First, asking what a psychological perspective on social learning in planning uncovers. This led to the findings that social learning leads to the reinforcing the status quo as much as to change, and that social learning does not lead to particular predictable outcomes (explored in Chapters 2.1 and 2.2). The second research objective therefore explored the question of, if social learning does not lead to change as easily as previously presupposed, how can/does it nevertheless impact change? The findings here present two ways in which social learning can lead to change, often in deep intertwining with its function as maintaining the status-quo. For example, endurance was made possible in one case study through the reinforcing effect that social learning had for the feeling of spite and mutual support felt by initiators, but at the same time this in turn enabled the initiative to plough forward, making changes to the initiative until it could be implemented (see Chapter 3.1). In the other case study studied for this objective of exploring social learning and change revealed the role social learning can play in influencing framing strategies of contesting actors whose audience is not so much the other contestant but a third, usually absent party (see Chapter 3.2).

To conduct this research, I conducted in-depth case studies in The Netherlands (one of which was followed longitudinally between 2016 and 2018) and Brazil. For all, in-depth and semi-structured interviews were conducted with initiators of the given cases or, in one case, with contesting actors surrounding the subject at hand, and with surrounding actors and/or experts. Furthermore, meetings concerning the planning of the initiatives or contested object were followed.

The findings revealed, in summary, that:

Social learning contributes to both reinforcing the status quo and to bringing about change (Chapters 2.1 and 2.2).Social learning cannot be expected to lead to a pre-defined result (Chapters 2.1 and 2.2).Social learning, if viewed analytically, can be a powerful tool for reflection in planning (throughout thesis).An instrumental approach to social learning, in terms of attempting to force it in any particular direction, can have ethically problematic effects due to its impact on the will and cognition of individuals (throughout thesis).Small social learning moments in an initiative’s pre-implementation lifecycle can be critical for initiators to be able to reach implementation (Chapter 3.1)Conflicts, and the framing strategies they involve, can be better understood by analysing how social learning unfolds in them, who learns what from whom and with which audience in mind (Chapter 3.2).

Overall, this dissertation has contributed to a critical and reflective understanding of social learning in the field of planning, and has set up important connections to the discipline of psychology. It has highlighted the value of both roots and wings for planning, and how they can be understood in a connected sense.

Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Wageningen University
  • Mol, Arthur, Promotor
  • Salet, W.G.M., Promotor, External person
  • Janssen-Jansen, L.B., Promotor
  • Tan, W.W.Y., Co-promotor
  • Wiekens, C.J., Co-promotor
Award date12 Apr 2021
Place of PublicationWageningen
Print ISBNs9789463956956
Publication statusPublished - 12 Apr 2021


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