Urban Planning


Published: 03/26/2021

/ Faculty Projects

Planning with(in) Complexity

An earlier generation of planners turned to Rittel & Webber’s 1973 conception of “wicked problems” to explain why conventional scientific approaches failed to solve problems of pluralistic urban societies. More recently, “complex systems” analysis has attracted planners as an innovative approach to understanding metropolitan dynamics and its social and environmental impacts. Given the renewed scholarly interest in wicked problems, we asked: how can planners use the complex systems approach to tackle wicked problems? We re-evaluate Rittel and Webber’s arguments through the lens of complex systems, which provide a novel way to redefine wicked problems and engage their otherwise intractable, zero-sum impasses. The complex systems framework acknowledges and builds an understanding around the factors that give rise to wicked problems: interaction, heterogeneity, feedback, neighbourhood effects, and collective interest traps. Complex systems thinking cannot “solve” or “tame” wicked problems. Instead, complex systems first characterize the nature of the wicked problems and explore plausible pathways that cannot always be anticipated and visualized without simulations. The intersection of wicked problems and complex systems presents a fertile domain to rethink our understanding of persistent social and environmental problems, to mediate the manifold conflicts over land and natural resources, and thus to restructure our planning approaches to such problems.

Zellner, M. L., & Campbell, S. D. (2015). Planning for Deep-Rooted Problems: What Can We Learn from Aligning Complex Systems and Wicked Problems? Planning Theory and Practice, 16(4), 457-478. doi:10.1080/14649357.2015.1084360

Zellner, M., & Campbell, S. (2020). Planning with(in) Complexity: Pathways to Extend Collaborative Planning, Incremental Planning, and Big Data with Complex System Modeling. In G. d. Roo, C. Yamu, & C. Zuidema (Eds.), Handbook on Planning and Complexity. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar.

Campbell, S. D., & Zellner, M. (2020). Wicked Problems, Foolish Decisions: Promoting Sustainability Through Urban Governance in a Complex World. Vanderbilt Law Review, 73(6), 1643-1685. Retrieved from…


Credit for the graphic art goes to co-author (Moira Zellner) and her staff at UIC: Dean Massey, Jaeyong Shin, and Elizabeth Kocs, who contributed to the causal loop diagrams and the 3D figures.


Scott Campbell

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