Latinos and Planning: The Road Ahead

With the Latino population growing tremendously, it's time to begin addressing the shortcomings in the practice of planning regarding this key demographic.

 Leo VazquezFor more than a year, more than 150 planning and community development professionals have gathered in eight cities around the United States to explore this question: "What are the biggest challenges facing Latino communities?" You might find the top themes both surprising and uncomfortable.

What do you think would be the top challenges? Quality transportation? Good economic development? Affordable housing? Yes, they were mentioned, but these are considered more critical:

  1. The lack of participation in planning by Latinos
  2. The relationship of planners and planning profession to Latino communities
  3. The design and management of spaces and places are not meeting the social, economic or cultural interests of Latinos
  4. The lack of capacity within Latino communities to engage in planning
  5. Current planning processes are not effective in Latino communities

Yes, three of the top five themes are about planning practice and the profession -- not the stuff that usually goes on maps and illustrations. While you might say that some of these issues aren't the fault of planners, in some cases, planners may aggravate the problems. What's needed in many instances is simply more awareness. Once that's in place, work can start on working together to address the problem.

You've probably heard about how Latinos are arguably the largest and fastest-growing ethnic group in the United States. But how does this impact planning professionals -- especially those who don't work in predominantly Hispanic communities? In plenty of ways -- from economic development and public participation to project management within planning organizations.

Consider this:

  • Traditional models of local economic development assume that financial capital will stay in the community, or at least the region. But, according to the Inter-American Development Bank, Latino immigrants sent $45 billion -- yes, billion -- to Latin America in 2006. More than 70% of immigrants send about 10% of their income to their homelands.
  • The old model of immigration involves first generation immigrants moving to central cities, and their children or grandchildren moving to suburbs. But as we've seen with the growth of anti-illegal immigration efforts in Manassas, Virginia; Hazleton, Pennsylvania, and other small towns, plenty of recent immigrants are passing by major cities. Because these immigrants tend to have high demand for low-cost social services, public transit and jobs, towns and especially first-ring suburbs are facing new planning challenges.
  • Planners and architects tout the charrette as a democratic and efficient way to engage the public. Unfortunately, the model can be culturally biased and puts Hispanics at a disadvantage. Compared to Anglo-Americans (aka "Whites") and African-Americans, Latinos tend to have a more indirect communication style and be more reserved in mixed public gatherings. This means that in forums where those who speak more and with confidence tend to get greater attention, Hispanics are less likely to air their views. Meeting facilitators might take the lack of vocal disagreement as a false sign of consensus.
  • In general, Latino professionals tend to have much different working styles than their Anglo-American counterparts. Latino professionals tend to be more flexible about schedules and deadlines and are more comfortable in work settings that are more collaborative and mutually supportive than those where members have highly structured roles and are encouraged to compete among themselves for benefits and resources. A good-hearted Anglo-American planning director who is unaware of different workstyles might be critical of the way a Hispanic planner might approach a project. For the next project, the director gives the management tasks to another Anglo-American, rather than the Hispanic. And over time the white planners become managers and directors while the Latino planners plug away as technicians and supporting players.

These and other reasons have led to the creation of Latinos and Planning -- a national group started by a number of Latino planning, policy and community development professionals (including myself.) We started this in the summer of 2005 because Latinos are the largest ethnic minority in the United States, and the most underrepresented ethnic group in the planning profession. Latinos represent at least 14% of the US population, but in the planning profession, they are in the low to mid single digits. Only about 2% of American Planning Association members are Latinos. My 2001 study of ethnic diversity among New York City-area planning professionals showed only 6% of planners were Hispanic -- even though there's a much larger concentration of Latinos in the area, and New York is an attractive job market.

Latinos and Planning wants to address this problem. We started by holding dialogos (Spanish for "dialogues") that focused on two subjects: the biggest planning challenges facing Latino communities, and the biggest challenges facing Latino planners. We invited planning, community development and other related professionals who work in or with Latino communities. Though most of the participants were Hispanic, we tried as best as we could to make everyone feel welcome. (These dialogos were organized and conducted by volunteers working with small or no financial resources.)

The findings from these dialogos, compiled in the "National Agenda for Latinos and Planning" highlighted the top five challenges that I mentioned earlier.

Lack of participation in planning by Latinos. A number of obstacles -- from a lack of civic engagement and sense of empowerment by Latinos, to language barriers and misunderstood vocabulary -- keep Latinos from actively participating in planning their communities.
The relationship of planners and planning profession to Latino communities. Far too few planners are Latino (or have knowledge of Hispanic culture), making it difficult to for the profession to connect with Latino communities. As in other minority communities, mistrust of government also effects how people interact with planners.

The design and management of spaces and places are not meeting the social, economic or cultural interests of Latinos. Planners need to better understand how Latinos make use of public space and design neighborhoods that fit with Latinos' notions of community. As tensions rise in communities where Latino immigrants bring new approaches to the use of streets and sidewalks, planners must deal with issues of access and public safety.

The lack of capacity within Latino communities to engage in planning. Planning works best when communities are organized and have well-informed leaders. Programs to involve community groups, disseminate information, and identify and nurture leaders in Latino communities and disseminate information are critical to successful planning in Latino communities.

Current planning processes are not effective in Latino communities. Conventional public participation strategies don't work well in Latino communities, and planning activities in Latino communities often default into a "doing for, rather than with" mode. New outreach practices and planning models are needed to address the unique circumstances of Latino communities -- such as transnational populations and assimilation over generations.

With the Latino population continuing to grow, addressing these issues will becoming increasingly important. To help bring more attention to theses issues, and develop solutions, Latinos and Planning recently became a professional division in the American Planning Association. While we like to think of ourselves more as a vecindad -- a neighborhood -- than a division, we will be continuing our efforts to make our colleagues -- and particularly our leaders -- aware of the planning challenges facing Latino communities.

Of course, this is just a start. In the future, I and others hope to expand on some of the issues raised above -- such as pubic participation in Latino communities, how Latinos use public space, and how to recruit and develop Latino planners.

Ultimately, we hope that by providing information and creating awareness, we can help the leaders in our field with the power to create change address these problems that threaten to disenfranchise a growing number of people in our cities.

Leonardo Vazquez, AICP/PP, is an Instructor and Director of the Professional Development Institute at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy of Rutgers University. He is the Chair and one of the founders of Latinos and Planning.



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Director, Professional Development Institute
Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy
Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey

Grand Assumptions

The website appears to be partially broken. Sure the "latinos" link worked but when I tried to access "caucasian" so as to understand the special needs of the minority population in my area nothing happens. I've been interested in this for a while. The city of Oxnard has long catered to Latino sensibilities replicating poor infrastructure, corrupt development policies, high density and subsidizing poverty just like many places in Latin America. I was hoping for support for minority views such as my own that feel more comfortable with adequate roads and sustainable revenue enhancing development practices.

Oh, did I mention that I am also left-handed?


Can you say, Rush Limbaugh?

Libertarian alert, call the authorities!

Straight for the ad homenium.

That reply sure addressed the concepts I raised. Not.

Why do Latinos need special consideration in planning affairs?
Is there an assumption of Latinos needing special considerations?
Would special consideration have detrimental effects both on assimilation and greater community planning goals?

Prof. Vazquez makes some interesting observations regarding the common perceptions of the Latino in the public policy arena. Perhaps in New Jersey but here on the ground in Southern California the reality is quite different. Claiming Latino participation in public discussions being characterized as "reserved" would have him laughed off the podium in any area forum.

The whole proposal to reach out to include Latinos sounds like just so much more planner principles in search of a receptive audience.


Why do Latinos need special consideration in planning affairs? Is there an assumption of Latinos needing special considerations?

The article by Leonardo answers these questions. It is just above, even for left-handed mousers.



Some of the broader issues.

Congratulations, Sr. Vazquez on a post that has finally urged me to become a member and a poster rather than just a bystander.

Other commentors have questioned why Latinos should get special consideration. I don't believe that the proposal is to give them special consideration, but to give them equal consideration. Although many areas of the country such as California, Texas, Arizona, Chicago, New York, and Florida have had a large Latino population for many years, other areas such as Georgia, North and South Carolina, and Tennessee have seen their Latino populations go from almost non-existant to rather sizeable.

Many of the immigrants in these newer areas have work visas or are here illegally. This temporary status has serious and, in my opinion, negative effects on the community. As the author of the orignial post stated, millions, billions of dollars are sent from these communities to their native countries each year. For someone who has a 2 year visa or who is here illegally, there is little incentive to learn more English than absolutely necessary, buy a house, or start a business, much less attend a public meeting.

People feel threatened because many of the newer Latino immigrants are not assimilating into the predominant American culture. When they are unsure of how long they will be able to stay here, whether their visa will get renewed, or if they might get deported tomorrow, there is little incentive for them to assimilate or become involved in the political process.

Many people think that "giving" citizenship to too many people (a logic I never understood) will somehow diminish American society. However, upon closer examination, it makes sense to think that if more people were granted perminant residency or citizenship, rather than a temporary work visa, they would be feel a more permanent connection to their new homeland and be more likely to assimilate and take on some characteristics of the predominant culture. Many adults who come here later in life may never be fully "assimilated", but if they have the guarantee of permanance, they will be more likely to urge their children to do so.

Should Latinos be given "special consideration" of course not. However, everyone should be given an equal opportunity to participate in the planning process. It is the ethical obligation of planners to make the process as open to the general population of the area as possible, whether that mean providing translators, scheduling the meetings later in the evening so that working people can attend them, or by posting notices in a Spanish-language newspaper. This isn't "special treatment", it's ethical treatment.

I think many of us who grew up in the predominant American culture (mainly white and black) take the existance of vibrant immigrant communities for granted. Especially those of us who live in larger cities - our lives would be over if we couldn't eat at a taco truck on Monday, have a falafel pita on Tuesday, go out for Gelato on Wednesday, have Samosas and Tandoori Chicken on Thursday, Tostones on Friday, a Burger on Saturday and Brunch on Sunday. Really - we should all take some time to learn about our neighbors and show them a little more respect.

Oh - some food for thought: One day I asked my ex boyfriend (an illegal immigrant from Brazil) how his life would be different if he had a green card. His response "I would have learned English and bought a house by now, and I wouldn't be working 80 hours a week."

Ad hominem

The website appears to be partially broken. Sure the "latinos" link worked but when I tried to access "caucasian" so as to understand the special needs of the minority population in my area nothing happens.

This comment above sure sounds like neoconservative, John Birch Society, passive aggressive, sarcastic, ad hominem to me. Stop trying to mask your ideological, politically-driven comments with humor. We all know your intentions are to eliminate affirmative action, welfare, gun control, government, social services, and immigrant rights.

Why would claiming that Latino planners in Southern California are reserved or not participating fully in the dialogue "have Prof. Vazquez laughed off the podium"? The situation is NO different in New Jersey than it is in Los Angeles. Latinos all across the country are underrepresented as urban planners and an effort such as this should be commended for raising awareness of the issue.

Typical Ronald Reagan-lite groupthink. How did these right-wing wackos like Robert Cote ever get into planning in the first place? Oh wait, he's from SOUTHERN California, that's why! Land of Richard Nixon and the "West Coast White House"...

Reactionary comments like Robert Cote's would get HIM laughed out of any Bay Area planning forum.

The road to Balkanization

I guess that my issue is that we continue to characterize people by whatever "group" we think they belong to. Why are we still talking about these "communities" when the real object should be to assimilate everyone into the "American" community? By the way, before anyone starts throwing out the "racist" accusation, my wife is Hispanic, and finds this "group" mentality every bit as silly as I do. We are a nation of individuals, and it's past time we started acting accordingly.


Compared to Anglo-Americans (aka "Whites") and African-Americans, Latinos tend to have a more indirect communication style and be more reserved in mixed public gatherings.

I don't think most "whites" would call themselves "Anglo-Americans." As someone who does not have a single ancestor from England, I certainly wouldn't.

I don't think the writer would like it if I told him that he is a Hispano-American (aka "Latino").

Another sign that our ethnic categories are socially constructed. Have people heard of the book named How the Irish Became White?

Charles Siegel


It pleases me that at least some people are allowed to express these thoughts without being attacked. That said, it speaks volumes that some people are not allowed to speak these same thoughts. That is the issue the APA should focus upon if the desire is to be truly inclusive in the planning process. Interesting isn't it that people with little experience in ethnopolitical processes have called people with that experience Limbaughs, Birchers, and the like. As if that is a way to reach out to every perspective.

What experience

in "ethnopolitical processes" do you claim to have, and why would you incinuate that I have "little" experience. You haven't a clue, "Southern Californian"...

Again, comments like yours regarding eliminating the need for a Latinos in Planning group, or perhaps even eliminating Black History Month for that matter, are what are turning the civil rights clock back fifty years to before Brown v. Board of Education. Jim Crow days were great, weren't they Robert?

And yes, comments like yours in a planning forum (of all places) are MOST politically suspect, and unfortunately seem to be popping up everywhere nowadays, thanks in no small part to the loose cannon pseudo-"urban theorist" that is Joel Kotkin. Mr. Kotkin is author of "The New Suburbanism", published by the "radical centrist" think-tank New America Foundation, and he is a Irvine Senior Fellow, whatever that is! Probably means some award for writing about the charms of sprawl in Orange County! Anyways, comments like yours ALWAYS carry the strong stigma of other neocon, ultraconservative, jingoist ideologues such as Rush Limbaugh, the John Birch Society, and the Minutemen.

If the shoe fits, wear it, right Robert?

APA should NOT be focusing on any issue regarding eliminating or even blocking a Latinos in Planning group, so let's move the conversation on to more realistic and productive matters.

Actually, I don't mind being called Hispano-American

Though I'm from Argentina, some of my ancestors were from Spain. "Anglo" is a term that some Hispanics (Latinos, Hispano-Americans, etc.) use to distinguish people who are racially caucasian (like myself) from those who are not culturally Hispanic. I've been told that the Amish in Pennsylvania refer to all of us who are not of their community as "the English."

And you're right Charles. Ethnic identities are socially constructed. And they tend to be constructed from the relationships between a majority and the members of those who become part of that group.

Director, Professional Development Institute
Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy
Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey

Tricky Terms For Tricky Content

You may not mind being called a Hispano-American rather than a Latino, but an immigrant from Brazil whose ancestors came from Portugal might object.

The Amish identify people based on the language they speak, so they call themselves Dutch and call most Americans English. But if you use the term Anglo-American to mean whites who are not Latinos, you are including people who don't speak English, including the Amish themselves, Russian immigrants who put up signs in Cyrillic letters, etc.

On the other hand, "whites" also is not a good term, as you say, because many Latinos are racially caucasian.

And "Latinos" is also not a good term, because this group does not include Italians, whose language is closer to Latin than Spanish is (close enough that they would call themselves Latini, like the ancient Romans did).

All of this underlines the fact that the definitions of ethnic groups shift.

A century ago, it was necessary to talk about Irish and Italians as separate ethnic groups, because they were large immigrant populations with common cultural characteristics. Now they have both become "whites."

Today, it is necessary to talk about Latinos as an ethnic group, because they are a large immigrant population with common cultural characteristics. I suspect that in a century, they will also become something else, and people will be surprised to hear that used to believe that a person from Argentina with European ancestry, from Guatemala with Native American ancestry, and from Brazil with African ancestry were all part of the same ethnic group.

So I don't mean to criticize the main thrust of what you said in your article, that it is valuable for planners to understand that different ethnic groups tend to behave differently at public meetings.

I just want to point out that the definitions of ethnic groups tend to shift. And this is underlined by the fact that there are not good names for these groups: we have found that Latino and Hispano-American, White and Anglo-American are all inadequate terms.

Charles Siegel


Ok, now I understand your view better, and agree that the terms that are used are not entirely adequate. But as you said, we use terms like "Hispanic" and "Latino" to describe cultural characteristics, rather than racial characteristics.

I hope this resolves that thread so we can focus on the issues related to planning and Latino communities.

Director, Professional Development Institute
Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy
Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey

Please let's focus on the messages, rather than the messengers

I didn't realize that this article would touch such a nerve among some people. While I don't agree with some of the comments made by some of the respondents here, I hope that we can focus on their arguments, rather than them as individuals. I do appreciate those who stood up in defense of the op-ed.

For those who criticized what was said in the op-ed: please note that I was simply reporting what your fellow planners, and professionals in the community and economic development and policy fields have said in forums held in various cities around the United States. Most, but not all, of the participants were Latinos. While there were some variation among regions of the country, many of the comments were consistent. Please consider this before you push that "post comment" button: Why do so many of your fellow professionals feel this way? What could help to change these perceptions?

I'm seeing in a number of the criticisms the same theme: Fear. I see a fear of the impacts of growing Latino populations in communities, a fear of being victimized now that someone is no longer part of a majority group, and a fear that the planning profession and our society is being "balkanized."

This is all a natural outcome of the growing diversity in our society, and consequently of the planning field. Increasing diversity generates tension, confusion and risk. The benefits of diversity can far outweigh the costs -- as Richard Florida has shown in "The Rise of the Creative Class." The key to finding those benefits is in how diversity is managed.

What I ask is that we provide a safe space for respondents to share their comments -- whatever you may think of them. Let's focus on the arguments, rather than the people. By keeping open dialogues, we can better address the challenges of diversity in planning.

Just a reminder: If you're interested in the Latinos and Planning Division of APA, please visit

Director, Professional Development Institute
Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy
Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey

WOW!! About time...

If I had a hat senor Leonardo Vazquez, i will tip it off to you sir!! I dont know why people are so quick to look at the individual and rather than the actually TOPIC of discusion?! Is sad.

I am a planning student in the Mid-Atlantic region and I am also Latina (Dominican. Born in the Dominican Republic.). I see these issues that were discussed by el senor Vazquez on a daily basis. Im just afraid that as a Latina planner I will be looked over because of this and end up assimilating to the "box" planning practices.

I just wanted to give applause to Mr. Vazquez for his efforts in making this issue in planning known.

Jennyffer E. Vargas

Engagement of the Latino Community

Leonardo - I faced this issue while Director of Planning at the San Diego Unified School District. We were building a number of new schools in largely Latino neighborhoods, and wanted to constructively engage the residents relative to both site selection and campus master planning.

To do this, we stepped outside the traditional engagement model and held meetings at and co-facilitated with churches, social service agencies etc. I was very happy with the results and I think the community was as well.

Three schools that were a part of this process:

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