Lost in Translation?

Hanna Mattila & Jonne Hytönen

During the last couple of years, the research group of spatial planning and transportation engineering at Aalto University School of engineering has been busy with designing a new master’s programme in the field of planning. One of us has been involved in the process in the role of a lecturer. The other has followed the preparation process as a scholar whose research interests include comparative planning studies, in particular the differences between planning systems in Finland and the English-speaking world. We would like to reflect on a theme that has been repeatedly taken up by both scholars and practicing planners during the preparation for the new master’s programme: Aalto University’s new policy to provide all education at masters’ level degree in English.

Whereas most other research groups at the Aalto School of Engineering have regarded the choice of English language as a great opportunity to internationalize education, academics in the field of planning – not to mention practicing planners – have tended to emphasize the risks involved in this choice. Why is that? To start with, planning is not a discipline that is primarily based on the universal language of mathematics like the pure engineering sciences, but planning ideas are embedded, rather, in particular cultural contexts and communicated via natural language. Of course, planning scholars have already had to adjust to the requirements of international publishing, which means that they have to be able to express their ideas and theories in English. Yet, many scholars are bothered by the fact that something always gets lost in translation.

We Finns have a special relation to our own language, since it was only a little over 150 years ago that the Finnish language received an official position along Swedish in official and academic contexts. As was argued by the philosopher J. V. Snellman, this position was a precondition for the advances in different fields of Finnish culture – administrative culture included. Now, in academia, we are increasingly disposing both of Finland’s two national languages: Finnish and Swedish. This might pose considerable challenges for Finnish planning culture in the long run. The language through which the planning processes are constructed and in which the planning law is written does matter. Legal concepts and tools are difficult to transplant to another systemic context; straightforward translating of legal terms does not work. This is because, for example, in the English language legal terms convey meanings related to common law or case law contexts that differ in many ways from our own legal tradition.

In a common law context, to put it simply, the primary role of law is the regulation of private-private relationships. This differs from a Finnish context where law can be characterized as a genuine social enterprise. Also, in a common law context the courts hold significant discretion power, and are thus able to function as a backup-mechanism for the justness in planning. Due to various differences, even such a celebrated import from the Anglo-American context as communicative planning theory may be problematic in our context, unless it is carefully modified. In their original Anglo-American context, the ideals of communicative planning were meant to strengthen the position of public interest in planning. In Finland and in the Nordic context in general, however, they may undermine the traditional role of public governments and administration as guardians of the public interest, and open new doors for private interests in an unintended way. In the worst-case scenario, communicative planning turns against its own ideals and erodes the legitimacy of Finnish public planning. This legitimacy is based on strong institutional trust – on the sort of social capital that should not be disregarded as happens when transporting Anglo-American communicative planning practices indiscriminately to new contexts. (see Hytönen 2014)

However, not only legal cultures are at issue here. There are historical reasons for the fact that Finns have an exceptionally strong trust in public governments as well as in administrative agencies. We do not seem to share the point of departure of Anglo-American communicative planning, that is, the situation where the legitimacy of formal planning institutions seems to be always already challenged, and where the public interest is expected to arise from civil society rather than from formal institutions. Again, it might be useful to revisit Snellman and his Hegelian-inspired political philosophy if we wish to understand why we Finns still today tend to give an ontological priority to collective, public entities and not to private individuals and their interests.

It would go too far, however, to straightforwardly argue that Anglo-American planning ideals are harmful for Finnish planning culture. Finnish culture, Finnish planning and Finnish business are internationalizing in any case. We cannot escape the fact that we are receiving planning ideas from abroad. For instance, developers have been recently keen to lobby for the project-oriented and private-initiative based detailed planning approach that is typical, for instance, of the British so-called development control systems. Although our system is strongly plan-led, and not primarily oriented to reacting to private initiatives, Finnish planning scholars have observed that project-based and developer-led approaches have been common already for some time in those Finnish municipalities that are struggling with economic problems and that feel strong pressures to seek investments. Nonetheless, a recent study carried out by Aija Staffans and her team at Aalto University indicated that also Helsinki – a city where the planning department is well-resourced and where there is a long tradition of municipal land ownership – has also made room for the project-oriented approach: discretionary deviations at the building permission stage of the planning process have become common (Staffans et al. 2015). The Finnish model of detailed planning has so far been a model case of public and collective planning endeavor, but does it continue to be so in the future? Deviation processes include little if any space for the input coming from representative democracy or public participation processes. If the project-based approach sneaks into the Finnish system through the possibility of deviating from plans, we might want to consider complementing this planning approach with participatory practices – perhaps even with those models of participation that that are used within discretionary, development-control based planning systems.

To return now to the internationalization of planning education, we would be willing to argue that it does not do any harm to study English and American planning systems, which in any case continue to influence our system. Yet, it should be clear that in Finland, we should primarily familiarize ourselves with our national planning system and its socio-cultural context. Critical perspectives on the cultural context of planning are far more challenging to construct with tools from a foreign language. However, in the best case, studying planning in English will enable us to engage seriously in problems related to translating and transmitting ideas. This, in turn, would not only deepen our understanding of Anglo-American planning systems, but also enable us to take analytical distance, and to realize what is unique and worth preserving in our own system. As Patsy Healey – the mother of communicative planning theory – has reminded us, the “transnational flow” of planning ideas brings great learning opportunities for planning institutions, but only if we know well enough the cultural contexts where such ideas “land” (Healey 2011). An adequate comprehension of the Finnish planning’s cultural, social and political context needs to be the base on which planning education is being constructed, regardless of the language used.


Healey, Patsy (2011). The universal and the contingent. Some reflections of the transnational flow of planning ideas and practices. Planning Theory 11: 2, 188–207.

Hytönen, Jonne (2014). The problematic relationship of communicative planning theory and the Finnish legal culture. Planning Theory. Published ahead of print. DOI: 10.1177/1473095214549618.

Staffans, Aija et al. (2015). Periaatekaavoitus ja agenttipohjainen mallintaminen PEKA. Yhteenveto tutkimushankkeen tuloksista. Julkaisematon tutkimusraportti. Aalto-yliopisto, Espoo.

Hanna Mattila

MA, University Lecturer, Department of Built Environment, Aalto University.