Something that I have thinking about often recently is the idea of academic discipline hyphenation. My decision to pursue a PhD in City and Regional Planning was very intentional. At the time, I was working as a civil engineer at a very progressive firm that specialized in sustainable infrastructure (especially water infrastructure) design. We worked at scales ranging from the individual site all the way up to the ‘Eco-District’ but we rarely talked about the necessity of policy design to get these innovative approaches to infrastructure implemented at the city scale. The closest we got to this was on our China projects, which tended to be bigger, more ‘nothing is off limits’, more visionary than our domestic projects. But even then, China’s rather top-down political atmosphere made it so that we really didn’t have to think about how a policy might be received by a heterogeneous and fickle public, or how different effects of the policy might be experienced by different communities and subgroups.
A holistic understanding of the often not so straight path from technical solution to successful social adoption of said technical solution is what attracted me to the field of City Planning. Its interdisciplinarity affords researchers a lot of space to include not only any topic related to urbanization but also the space to look at questions from the perspectives of many other disciplines. Some common ones are: economics, sociology/anthropology, engineering/architecture/landscape architecture (design), geography, etc. As long as something can be related to planning and plan implementation (processes), I think the case can be made that it belongs as part of city planning. As planners though, we spend a lot of time thinking about why something is or is not planning. I believe that this constant questioning both strengthens and weakens our field. It strengthens it because it constantly forces us to consider how our research fits into the act of planning in practice. We must think about how our findings can be incorporated into process, how they might suggest changes to policy, and how to consider the unintended consequences of process. But, it weakens it because our wide perspective often leads to hyphenation, the so-called “jack of all trades master of none” effect.
However, we must reject this notion if we truly believe the urban problems are not only multifaceted, but require integrated, multidisciplinary approaches to define. The solutions must not just be combinations of the economist’s solution, the engineer’s solution, and a sociologist’s solution, just as definition of the problem cannot just come from one field. Solutions must be a synthesis, and we must believe that together, these viewpoints are more than the sum of their parts. There are great thinkers who have done this. They have successfully defined hyphenated areas of inquiry.
Pertinent to my current area of research, ‘natural’ hydrology-based stormwater management infrastructure, are Hughes’ “ecotechnological system,” Latour’s hybrid, Haraway’s cyborg, and Melosi’s “techno-environmental” system. These are all acknowledgements that what we think of as ‘natural’ remain embedded in existing social, cultural and political structures. Not only does infrastructure impact the ‘natural’ environment; what we conceive of as ‘nature’ is in fact infrastructural in that we impose utility on it and project social meaning onto it to meet our social and cultural needs. In the engineering field, more and more attention is being paid to an emerging field of ‘socio-hydrology,’ (eg Sivapalan) in recognition that when studying hydrological systems and their management broader social systems are not only important factors to consider, but fundamentally inextricable from the definition of the problem.
These hyphenated fields are not calling for the mere incorporation of the considerations of one field into another (although this is probably the primary way hyphenated inquiries take form). I believe that true hyphenation will only occur when researchers believe in a systems view of all observable phenomena. As Barry Commoner said, “everything is related to everything else.” It is a systems thinker that is able to step back from the conventions of any given field to successfully identify feedbacks, interactions, and anticipate unintended consequences.