Planning in the Public Domain: From Knowledge to Action by Friedmann (1987) was the first planning theory book that I read as a PhD student at the University of British Columbia. The book was unlikely to have been written with China’s urbanization in mind; however, I found it to be of great relevance to China’s contemporary urban changes, a main theme of my scholastic enquiry as well as a research interest of the book’s author. Friedmann argues that planning theorizing involves three main tasks:

examining the philosophical origin of planning, adapting planning practice to local contexts and transferring knowledge from other fields into planning (Friedmann 2008). For Planning in the Public Domain (Friedmann 1987), the main theoretical concerns lie in the philosophical homes and the reconstruction of the planning profession. Friedmann identifies four traditions of planning, namely social reform, policy analysis, social learning and social mobilization, and he traces their roots to a wide range of western philosophical foundations. Different from traditions of social reform and policy analysis, social learning is action-based, process-oriented and empowered by empirical knowledge. Compared with social mobilization, another action-based planning tradition, social learning is incremental and conservative. Friedmann thinks that the intellectual root of social learning is John Dewey’s philosophy of pragmatism. The author also links this tradition to the writings of Mao Zedong, the founder of the People’s Republic, and implies that Mao’s theorizing was influenced by Dewey, possibly in an indirect way. This is suggestive of the nexus between the social learning theory and the Chinese sociopolitical practice. Theorization of pragmatism is said to originate in the West; however,

pragmatic philosophy is by no means the monopoly of the western world. Shih (1995) argues that pragmatism is actually deeply ingrained in the Chinese culture and hence has shaped the country’s sociopolitical changes. Perhaps this cultural root explains the great significance of the social learning tradition in shaping the Chinese urban trajectory. That being said, the term “pragmatism” has a more complex connotation in the Chinese context.

Dewey’s thinking revolves around a theory of knowledge production, and it is understood as a conscious, methodological and well-orchestrated process. All other western social learning literature cited by Friedmann, be it by the Organization Development School or Mumford, follows a similar thread. Mao’s writing also takes this perspective. But beyond the application in formal intellectual enquiries, the China study literature also notes the exercise of pragmatism in the quotidian life of the common people. Lu (1999), in his writing about the pre-1949 Shanghai, depicts life narratives of the petty urbanites as “incorporating whatever was appealing and available to make life better (or in some cases to make life possible)” (Lu 1999, p.295). A similar understanding can be derived from Bergère’s (1989) depiction of Shanghai’s bourgeoisie around the same historic period. Likewise, Shih suggests that pragmatism in China means “flexibility in people’s behavior in order to suit the context” (1995, p.3). Here, the meaning of “pragmatism” stresses the survival philosophy of societal members or entities when they are confronted with harsh, hostile and constrained environments. In contrast to the rationalistic “pragmatism” embodied in the process of

knowledge acquisition and application, “pragmatism” as a way of life is exercised in a less conscious and structured way. It is more related to personal and individualistic choices than collective social projects. As the essay will demonstrate in the following sections, this survival-based pragmatism shapes a local version of social learning that in some way departs from the models covered by Friedmann in his seminal book. The rest of the paper includes three sections. The first section provides a

brief narrative of Shanghai’s economic restructuring over the past two decades. The second section analyzes Shanghai’s trajectory by employing social learning as a theoretical framework and highlights a few unique aspects of Shanghai’s experience with this approach. The last section explores the relevance of social learning theory to the broad urban transformations in contemporary China.