Research Design in Urban Planning: A Student’s Guide


Stuart Farthing

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    About the Author

    Stuart Farthing was Principal Lecturer in Urban Planning in the Department of Planning and Architecture at the University of the West of England, Bristol until his retirement in July 2011. He was the programme leader for the MA, Applied Social Research from 1997 until 2011, the (then) ESRC-recognised cross-disciplinary doctoral training programme at UWE, and leader of the specialist ‘Environmental planning’ pathway in that degree. Much of his career was spent in Bristol but he also taught at the Universities of Reading and Cardiff in the 1980s and early 1990s as a specialist in planning methods. Under Erasmus exchange programmes he taught at the Universities of Hannover and Tours and was a British Council visiting researcher in the Department of Planning at the University of Melbourne, Australia. He was Visiting Professor in the Département Aménagement et Environnement de l’École Polytechnique of the University of Tours, France for a number of years. His teaching interests were in urban planning research, social research methods, and research methodology. His research interests have been in planning for housing, and, more recently, comparative planning and city-region planning. He can be contacted at:


    Students on planning courses are usually expected to conduct a small-scale research project, and to write up the results of this project in a dissertation. But there are few texts which deal with the issue of how to conduct research for those students and researchers working in the discipline of planning and a lack of books on research design, though there are some aimed at the social sciences more generally. The starting point for this book is that this neglect of the question of research design in urban planning has been an unfortunate one, which has resulted in the production of dissertations which have been less worthwhile than they should have been, given the time that students have spent on them.

    Research design is about thinking through the key decisions which have to be made in advance of the stage where you set about collecting or generating the data and before you have to face the practical problems of conducting your research.

    When starting work on a dissertation it may not be immediately obvious how important thinking about research design is, and many students recognising the tight deadlines involved in producing a dissertation, are sensibly quite anxious to ‘get on with it’. But getting the design decisions ‘right’ will have a major impact on the claims that you can make on the basis of your research and, in turn, will have a major impact on how well your dissertation is received. For you as students, the critical audience for a dissertation is primarily composed of those who will be assessing the research you conducted as part of the dissertation and the justification you give for it. Parsons and Knight (2005: 45) say that one of the examiner’s favourite questions for a viva is ‘Could you explain the logic of your research design?’ So one reason for bothering with research design is that it maximises the chances of producing evidence that will convince your examiners, given the limitations of time and other practicalities involved.

    Academics are not the only possible audience for your dissertation. If you are a planning student who is sponsored by a planning authority or consultancy to obtain a planning qualification, and if your sponsor sees your dissertation as a way of understanding and responding to a problematic issue, then they too will be concerned about the trustworthiness of the claims that you make.

    A second reason for thinking about research design, and why you might find reading this book useful, is that increasing attention is being paid to the ethics of research in urban planning (discussed in Chapter 9), and to the need to get ethical approval for proposed student projects. You therefore may be asked to produce a research proposal as a formal part of the dissertation or thesis process. Requirements for the format of a research proposal vary but the issues considered in this book will help you to complete a proposal effectively, whatever the precise format.

    Finally I want to suggest that you should spend a considerable part of the time available for the dissertation in thinking about research design. Most of you will be faced with the challenge of writing a dissertation in no more than a year, often less. And of course the time available will be restricted by the need to engage in other academic work and courses which have deadlines of their own, apart from the dissertation. If, as a rule of thumb, we might say that a third of the time available should be used for planning and developing the research design, a third of the time to conducting the research and a third of the time to analysis and writing, then, you can see that research design is a very significant part of the research process.

    The book, then, is intended to be of assistance to planning students, both undergraduate and postgraduate, who are at the initial stages of work on their dissertations and to be a useful reference source for supervisors or tutors who help guide students through the process. Many planning degrees include taught courses on research methods alongside a dissertation module but these do not always consider design explicitly, so this book can fill that gap and be used to complement such courses.

    The book is structured in terms of the key decisions which have to be made in research design, and the chapters have been written on the assumption that they will be read in order. Hence there are discussions and activities in chapters which are intended to be of help when you are making decisions about the design of your own projects. But I recognise that students’ needs vary and you can sample chapters selectively depending on your own requirements (Not everyone, for example, will be contemplating undertaking comparative research in planning (Chapter 10)).

    Parsons, T. and Knight, P.G. ( 2005 ) How to Do Your Dissertation in Geography and Related Disciplines. London: Routledge.


    The author and publisher are grateful to Liverpool University Press for permission to use copyright material from: Wood, R. (2000) ‘Using appeal data to characterise local planning authorities’, Town Planning Review, 71: 97–107.

    I was fortunate whilst at UWE Bristol, to have worked over an extended period with colleagues in the Department of Planning and Architecture (and its previous incarnations) who taught me a lot about planning and planning research. Students and colleagues, too, particularly those on the Masters in Applied Social Research coming from departments across UWE challenged my thinking about social research and helped me to formulate the ideas underpinning this text. I would like to thank Professor David James for the idea of the iceberg model. Of course, I absolve all of the above of responsibility for any of my misunderstandings or any errors to be found in the text. Particular thanks go to Paul Revell who produced the diagrams, and to my wife, Ann, who encouraged me to finish the book, whilst she, almost unaided, redecorated the house.

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