Planning as Persuasive Storytelling: Constructing Chicago’s Electric Future

James A. Throgmorton. 1996. University of Chicago Press. Chicago, Il.

Planning as Persuasive Storytelling is a revealing look at the world of political conflict surrounding the Commonwealth Edison Company’s ambitious nuclear power plant construction program in northern Illinois during the 1980s and early 1990s. Examining the clash between the utility, consumer groups, community-based groups, the Illinois Commerce Commission, and the City of Chicago, I argue that planning can best be thought of as a form of persuasive and constitutive storytelling that occurs within a web of relationships and partial truths. In this context, planners should be thought of as authors who write future-oriented texts (plans, analyses, articles) that reflect awareness of differing or opposing views and that can be read (constructed and interpreted) in diverse and often conflicting ways.

The book seeks to justify this alternative understanding by weaving an interconnected web of stories, each one of which establishes a context for making sense out of the ones that follow. The first chapter examines the history of planning up to the 1980s. The second argues that planning had begun making an argumentative or rhetorical turn. Chapter Three summarizes the modernist institution and rhetoric of electric power as a regulated natural monopoly. The next chapter reviews the Commonwealth Edison Company’s ambitious nuclear power plan from 1973 through 1986.

The next six chapters go deeper into Commonwealth Edison’s effort to have the cost of its new nuclear power plants paid for through a rate increase that emerged from a “negotiated agreement,” the Illinois Commerce Commission’s effort to persuade participating parties to accept a “settlement agreement,” the City of Chicago’s effort to explore alternatives to remaining on Com Ed’s system, one meeting in which a survey researcher employed by Com Ed engaged members of the City’s Energy Task Force, the end of the City’s exploration of alternatives, and an Illinois Supreme Court decision that went against Com Ed.

The final chapter draws the chapters together and, in so doing, restates its opening claim that planning can now be thought of as persuasive and constitutive storytelling within a web of relationships.

Juxtaposing stories about efforts to construct Chicago’s electric future, Planning as Persuasive Storytelling suggests a shift in how we think about planning. In order to account for the fragmented and conflicted nature of contemporary American life and politics, that shift would be away from “science” and the “experts” and toward rhetoric and storytelling.

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