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A review of "The Network Society: A New Context For Planning" edited by Louis Albrechts and Seymour J. Mandelbaum, published by Routledge ISBN 9780415701518 (2005)




It is very hard to overestimate the impact of Manuel Castells’s seminal The Information Age on the social sciences. Since this trilogy was published during the 1990s, with a revised edition in 2000, many scholars have adopted the network paradigm to base their work on, and have sought to tease out the implications of networks for their own particular research. This resulted in a plethora of books and articles that use the ideas of networks to understand a certain empirical phenomenon. While some may lament that this has contaminated the network concept, it actually shows that one of the great strengths of Castells’s work is that it invites further exploration and experimentation with different ways to understand social and physical reality.

From the onset, it was clear that The Information Age would have major consequences for the way we understand the intersection between the physical environment and the social environment. This edited volume is another attempt to use the network paradigm in order to investigate a vast range of topics in planning. It brings together a number of papers that were written for the Third Joint Conference of the Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning and Association of European Schools of Planning (2003). The book is part of the Networked Cities Series. The editors cite Castells’s work as their main motive for putting this book together. However, stories about the network society and the implications for planning abound, so one should critically examine what this book has on offer.

Goal and Structure of the Book

The main goal of this book is to investigate whether the network society provides a new context for planning. The initial conference in 2003 resulted in a large number of papers, and the editors made a selection of those papers to feature in this book. After selection, the contributions were revised in order to fit the book. The editors admit that there were no initial guidelines for the papers. Regardless of the editing, there are still major differences between the various papers in terms of topics, focus and style. Some authors offer novel research, other authors offer essays and the empirical focus varies with each paper.

In order to structure this wide variety, the editors have distributed the papers over three parts, each concluded by a commentary by a well-known researcher. The parts are named “The Network Society: A New Paradigm?” (commentary by Judith E. Innes), “Organization of Space and Time” (commentaries by Gabriel Dupuy and Leonie Sandercock) and “Policy Networks and Governance” (commentaries by Susan S. Fainstein and Patsy Healy). Some parts of the book have multiple subsections. There is an introductory chapter by the editors that describes the goal of the book and presents a research agenda. There is no concluding chapter.


The first overall impression is two-fold. The editors brought together an impressive collection of well-known researchers in planning and related studies, and many of the contributions discuss many of the current issues in planning. There is a large variety of perspectives. The term ‘network’ provides an opportunity to understand the dynamics of physical networks (e.g., the contribution by Bertolini), the dynamics of information networks (e.g., the contribution by Drewe), the dynamics of social networks (e.g., the contribution by de Souza Briggs) and the dynamics of governance networks (e.g., the contribution by Van Ark and Edelenbos). Obviously, there is no neat separation between all types of networks. Many of the authors address the multiplicity of the network concept and point at how the built environment, social dynamics and governance respond to each other. While some contributions are very conceptual, most of them (also) present case studies from many parts of the world.

By choosing the network perspective, the authors have made a clear ontological choice. However, epistemologically, there is a large diversity. Some contributions are embedded in the realm of narratives and discourse analysis (e.g., the contribution by Throgmorton). Other contributions use a quantitative approach (e.g., the contribution by Siembieda), and many contributions are somewhere in between these extremes. The suggestions made for planning in the network society are often of a communicative, collaborative and deliberative nature. With that, the authors explore the consequences of networks for policy making and planning beyond the more traditional approaches that are fairly top-down and rigid.

This variety provides an impressively encompassing overview of debates in planning. That is a good thing and many readers will find something for their own particular interest. But there is also a danger in having such a diverse collection of stories and this book is plagued by lack of coherence. Dividing the book in several parts (and then again in subsections) has helped building some coherence but the overall impression is that of a rather loosely coupled bundle of texts on planning. Despite the concluding commentaries at the end of each part, there is little connection between the parts. There is no attempt to build bridges between the stories in the introductory chapter, nor is there a final chapter that summarizes the findings. Consequently, the reader is left with a feeling of dissatisfaction.

There are ample opportunities to start a dialectic discussion because of the diverging views on how the network society can be understood and the consequences for planning and policy making. Surely, it can not be that all authors would agree with all statements made by others in this book? Lack of debate (the commentary by Sandercock is an exception) and lack of coherence mean that it is also hard for the reader to critically examine the core question of the book: whether the network society is indeed a new context for planning.

A New Context?

There is an interesting printing error in the book. While the title on the inside of the cover has a question mark ( “A new context for planning?”), this question mark has disappeared on the cover itself. This could have been a Freudian slip as most of the contributions already accept the idea that today’s society has the characteristics of tangible and intangible networks. Consequently, the authors acknowledge that planning needs to take a different shape from past practices, and by that they have, implicitly, answered the main question. It is interesting to see that quite some actors are not stepping into the pitfall by professing that networks have come to replace hierarchies in planning. As shown by Cilliers in the context of complex systems (2001), systems are loosely structured by both horizontal and vertical connections that reshape over time. This idea resonates throughout the book. The contribution by Gualini, for example, is a well-thought rethinking of modes of governance that do justice to the complexity of networks. He argues that researchers should take into account the paradoxical situation that governance is both space-bound and connected to multi-level forms of governance that are increasingly disconnected from a given local situation. Indeed, that is a challenging proposition for researchers and practitioners, the latter whom are often used to building compartments around the constituent parts of a planning project.

Not many scholars will argue against the network-like structure of societies. However, as Innes point out in her commentary, the idea of the network-like nature of societies predates Castells work. But for a long time planning did not show the attributes that are advocated in this book. Still, roads were build, public transport systems were created, the polycentric city was discovered and experimented with, all in a supposedly ‘old-fashioned’ way. Perhaps it is not the network society as such that provides a new context for planning, but rather the rediscovery of networks that now reframes thinking about planning. That provides a different kind of answer to the question posed by the editors. The key might be in the observation that the systemic nature of social and physical reality is more complex than a strict network/hierarchy dichotomy can capture. This could explain why planners struggle to get things done in a certain way. Because systems can not be known from one single perspective (exclusive hierarchic thinking does not do justice to networks, exclusive network thinking ignores hierarchies) any one-dimensional planning approach fits uncomfortably with the nature of systems.

Ideas like these shape a context for planning. Not necessarily a new context, but rather a deeper understanding of the context in which planning activities take place. Does that provide an explicit answer to the main question of the book? Unfortunately, the editors remain ambiguous about this. They state that some authors insist on a hierarchy/network dichotomy, while others do not. For the reader, it would have been interesting to know the editors’ evaluation of the argument, rather than just reading a summary.

Is This Of Interest For E:CO Readers?

The book has no explicit references to complexity theory. This is not a flaw of the book, it was just simply never the goal to use complexity theory. However, this does not mean that it is of no interest for the E:CO readers. There are many implicit references to concepts that complexity theorists are familiar with. For example, the editors’ description of what networks constitute (2005: 2) is very similar to how complex adaptive systems are understood in complexity theory. That is no surprise because complexity theory is systemic thinking, and so is thinking in terms of networks. There are many more of such connections but they are not always that obvious. In her commentary, Innes touches upon the linkages between the themes of the book and ideas from complexity theory.

Perhaps the most explicit reference to complexity theory comes from the contribution by Bertolini when he investigates the relationship between transport and urban form. His node-place model allows a deeper understanding the feedback mechanisms between change in the transport system and change in the spatial functions around infrastructure. The thesis is that an improvement in transport will lead to concentration and diversification of functions, which, in turn, leads to incentives to further improve transport. This could start a self-propelling mechanism, but could also lead to an unbalance between place and node. The trajectory through time depends on the initial conditions of the place and node and, as Bertolini shows in case of stations in Amsterdam, planners struggle with finding and keeping the desired development pathway.

Complexity theory concepts can be found everywhere in the book, albeit mostly implicitly. Those readers in search for an explicit link between planning and complexity better turn to, for example, the special issue of Environment and Planning A (2006), the work by Innes and Booher (e.g., 1999) or the forthcoming book edited by De Roo, Hiller and Van Wezemaer (2009). However, this book could serve well as a source of inspiration for those who search for ways to operationalize the sometimes arcane conceptual frameworks of complexity theory.

Final verdict

The Network Society: A New Context for Planning provides an instant overview for those who would like to get an update on current developments in planning and planning theory. However, despite its grandiose title, the book does not deliver what it promises to. The main question, whether the network society is indeed a new context for planning, remains unanswered and it is left up to the readers’ judgment what the answer could be. While each contribution is definitely interesting in itself, the lack of coherence and lack of debate between the different contributions is rather disappointing. There are ample reasons to reflect on what the authors write, but this reflection is missing. The book is worth reading if you like the work of some of the important scholars in planning bundled together, but can be missed if you search for answers to the main question or a clear central argument. A Chinese edition is currently being prepared.



Cilliers, P. (2002). “Boundaries, hierarchies and networks in complex systems,” International Journal of Innovation Management, ISSN 1363-9196, 2(June): 135-147.


De Roo, G., Hiller, J. and Van Wezemael, J. (2009). Complexity and the Planning of the Built Environment. In preparation.


Innes, J.E. and Booher, D.A. (1999). “Consensus building and complex adaptive systems: A framework for evaluating collaborative planning,” Journal of the American Planning Association, ISSN 0194-4363, 65(autumn): 412-423.


O’Sullivan, D., Manson, S.M., Messina, J.P. and Crawford, T.W. (2006). “Space, place and complexity science,” Environment & Planning A, ISSN 0308-518X, 38: 611-617.

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