Problematising the public interest as a tool of neoliberal urban planning

  • John Bronte

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


This thesis problematises the public interest as a tool of neoliberal urban planning. As a tool of planning, the public interest has always remained relevant for planners and the planning profession. Since the emergence of land-use or spatial planning as a distinct discipline and profession it has acted as a legitimating principle for the system, a norm for practice and in professional ethics, and as a criterion for evaluating planning and its products: policies, plans and projects. As such, the public interest has long been considered an important concept for planning theory and practice. It has been the only common standard to different planning forms and remains the pivot around which debates about the nature of planning and its purposes turn. It is planning's raison d’être. The justification for planning intervention centres on the public interest. In an era of neoliberal urbanism the waterfront has become a focal point of major planning intervention. This is regarded as being ‘in the public interest’ due to the ostensible benefits of waterfront redevelopment to a city and the multiple publics within it. An exemplar of this is in Belfast where the neoliberal planning of the waterfront is intended to showcase a new post-conflict, progressive city which is open for business and to everyone. Yet despite major urban transformation in Belfast city centre and on the waterfront adjacent areas remain imprinted by acute socio-economic deprivation, volatile identity politics, spatial segregation and entrenched enmity. This raises important distributional issues regarding the public interest and how it is operationalised and understood by planning.

While accepting the problematic and contested nature of the concept, the thesis contends that the much discussed difficulties of the public interest are with its use and application by planning. This is evident in the lack of a clear understanding and articulation of the public interest to which the system is working. In contradiction to its importance as a tool of planning, the public interest is little understood and lacks operational meaning. Epistemological distinction has been made between its procedural and substantive aspects; focusing on the quality of the decision-making or planning process, with implied standards of justice, fairness, democracy and rationality, and the respective content of actions and their consequences. However while it has been claimed that the procedural part of the public interest is ‘undisputed’ and it is its substantive element that must ‘command attention’, the thesis argues the two are inextricably linked. Moreover, it argues that both are influenced by how the concept is understood and by whom. Consequently the thesis, for the first time, examines the public interest at substantive, procedural and conceptual levels. The empiricism is grounded through a spatial focus upon the Belfast waterfront and informed by contributions from key stakeholders. Given its context, Belfast provides an instructive case to critically analyse the socio-spatialities of the public interest in a neoliberalised, [post] politicised and polarised urban landscape. More broadly, the research contributes to ongoing debates surrounding the conceptual merit and practical utility of the public interest as a central organising and justifying principle for spatial planning.
Date of AwardDec 2020
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Queen's University Belfast
SponsorsNorthern Ireland Department for the Economy
SupervisorLinda Fox-Rogers (Supervisor) & Stephen McKay (Supervisor)


  • Public interest
  • neoliberal urbanism
  • planning
  • waterfront development

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