Improving The Purpose And Accountability Of The American Planning Association

When membership is not much more than a subscription and decisions are made with little group input, the APA needs to adjust the way it interacts with its members, according to self-proclaimed "APA lifer" Leonardo Vazquez, AICP/PP.
Photo: Leonardo Vazquez

Robert Moses didn't care too much for professional planners. But he would have felt at home in the corporate offices of the American Planning Association.

Moses was the "master builder" of New York City. He reshaped much of the city's landscape by leading the creation of bridges, cultural institutions, sports arenas, parks and playgrounds. He was also an arrogant, top-down leader whose efforts critically wounded areas like the South Bronx. In his blind faith in himself, he would have done the same to beloved areas such as Greenwich Village and Battery Park if he hadn't been stopped by activists who demanded more say in planning.

The APA is experiencing a high point in its history, with no signs of an apex. According to staff there, membership has grown tremendously –- from 36,000 a few years ago to 41,000 now. Its assets have grown from $12 million in 2002 to more than $14 million in 20051. It is undoubtedly the largest and most influential planning organization in the United States, and probably the world.

The APA also engages in behaviors that, if it were a person like Robert Moses, we might call arrogant and self-centered. Its members – if that is even the right term – are customers who are to be informed, not peers to be engaged. Though many planners join to get the same benefits other professionals find in their trade organizations, the APA appears to focus more on selling them publications and workshops. Volunteers – who donate hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of labor to APA – are treated not so much as assets as unpaid staff whose primary mission is to support the APA.

Lessons From Planning

Plenty of planning efforts in the last 20 years have shown that you can have better and more sustainable outcomes by working together with your clients. Yes, some things take longer to be resolved, but the long-term benefits tend to outweigh the short-term costs. Similarly, the APA can adopt a more collaborative and accountable culture and be even stronger for the 21st century.

There's another reason why the APA culture needs to be more collaborative and accountable. Our membership fees provide nearly half of the APA's total revenue -- $7.9 million out of $16 million in 2005. And the members are also the people most likely to buy its publications and pay to attend its conferences and workshops.

This situation is not one person's fault. It is a problem with the organization's culture –- the set of beliefs and practices that determine how people within the organization think and behave. But while the cultural problems may not be the leaders' fault, they are now their responsibility. If they fail to act, they simply perpetuate the problems.

Before we get to the evidence, here's some background:

I'm an APA lifer. I've been involved with APA at the local and national levels for nearly a decade. I am the Chair of the Latinos and Planning division of APA, and since 2004, a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners AICP Examination Review Committee. I was the co-chair of the New York Metro Chapter's Planners for Ethnic and Cultural Diversity Committee from 1998-2004. I was also on the APA's Diversity Task Force, and contributed to its final plan for increasing ethnic diversity in the organization. Over nine years, I've listened to national and local APA officers and senior and executive level APA staff (both current and former). I want to also emphasize that my comments are my own, and do not reflect the opinions of members of Latinos and Planning or the AICP Examination Review Committee.

The Evidence

Let's say you were going to create a plan that you knew would disrupt the lives of your stakeholders. Would you wait until the plan is complete then try to sell it to your stakeholders? Of course not. Many of us would consider that unprofessional and unethical behavior. Most of us would consider it at least unwise. If you don't give people a say in their future, you make them very angry.

On December 6, 2006, APA announced a detailed proposal that would require all members of the American Institute of Certified Planners (AICP), for the first time, to get continuing education credits: 48 credits (typically measured in hours) over a two-year period. And at least 24 of those credits have to be derived from products that APA owns or has a hand in. The requirement would have a major financial impact on members. Based on conversations with several leaders of APA chapters and divisions, the national leadership created an entire program apparently without much consultation from chapter or divisional representatives.

From the rash of comments in Planetizen, Cyburbia and other venues, a lot of people thought it was a terrible idea. So how did APA/AICP respond? By cutting the number of required credits from 48 to 40. This smells a lot like the developer's trick of proposing a 10-story office tower, then after hearing loud community opposition, coming back with the 7-story building that he wanted in the first place.

When you consider how little APA and AICP engages you as a member, think about this: When was the last time APA national sent out a survey asking what benefits you would most appreciate from your membership? When was the last time your elected APA or AICP board representative reached out to you to get your opinion on a matter?

A Lack of Accountability and Openness

With hundreds of pages, the APA website is an excellent resource for all kinds of information related to planning. So, if you wanted to get in contact with your local representative, you would probably just log in as a member and go to the "Leadership" website to get your representative's contact information. Too bad it's not there. The lack of contact information on the leadership page sends a poor –- and I hope unintentional -- message to the membership.

But it goes beyond that. We don't know how our elected representatives vote on any issue. Most of us don't know how they think about a particular issue –- such as continuing education requirements. And since members are not regularly consulted on these issues, how can the people we elect do a complete job of representing our interests?

There has been one positive sign: APA did publish an annual report last year, for the first time in several years. That's a good first step toward accountability.

Members or Subscribers?

My local museum calls me a member. When I'm paying $50 a year, I don't mind the museum board not consulting me about major initiatives. Because I'm really just a subscriber.

But when I'm paying $200 to $400 a year to be part of an organization that I believe shares my interests, I want to know that they care about what I think. I like Planning magazine and the fact that APA is fighting the good fight in Washington D.C. -- but is that alone worth the money?

Despite its name, the American Planning Association is not set up to be an association of planning professionals. It is an "educational organization," set up to educate planning professionals and members of the public. If you want the benefits of an industry association, you have to mostly create them yourself –- which is what those of us who helped build divisions and chapters have done –- or pay extra and go to a conference.

Building a Collaborative Culture

A collaborative and accountable culture can be just as effective and efficient as a top-down culture. Yes, some things do take longer to get done. But when they are done in the right way, they are more sustainable and supported by a greater number of people. The small cost of engaging people early on saves you much bigger costs at the end of the project.

Here are some steps APA/AICP can take to be more collaborative and accountable:

  1. Adopt and implement principles of collaborative leadership at all levels of the APA national board and staff.
  2. Create a Collaborative Planning and Leadership Policy template for all major initiatives proposed by APA or AICP, including clear steps for elected representatives, appointed officials and staff to follow when undertaking and managing any major initiatives.
  3. Conduct 360-degree evaluations of APA board and staff members by collecting comments from supervisors, colleagues, and direct reports.
  4. Conduct annual membership surveys to gauge the interest of members, what benefits they most enjoy from their membership, and what benefits they would like to see. The survey should also measure members' feelings about APA/AICP, and their perceptions of the organization over time. These findings -- and responses to them – should be included in all annual reports and organizational development plans.
  5. Have the APA Board and AICP Commission meet at least quarterly to discuss and vote on issues. Meetings can be held online to reduce travel and time costs for volunteers.
  6. Revise the APA/AICP website to make it easier for members to contact their elected representatives. Change the bylaws to allow underperforming elected representatives to be removed by a recall vote.
  7. Announce all open positions on committees, task forces, etc. Use an RFP process to recruit new members.
  8. Require elected representatives to make regular reports to their members indicating their own accomplishments and identifying how they voted on measures.
  9. Require minutes and voting records of leadership meetings be made available to all members.
  10. Make two representatives from the Chapter Presidents' Council and the Divisions Council voting members of both the APA Board and the AICP Commission.
  11. Divide APA into an educational organization/foundation and an industry association.
  12. Clarify and distinguish AICP from APA. This may involve untangling the knot of shared staffing among the two agencies. They cannot be truly independent if they are fully conjoined.

Cultural change takes time, will and energy. Those who are comfortable with the status quo will be inconvenienced. But they need not be hurt. If they work to promote positive change, they –- and all of us –- will have a stronger and richer American Planning Association.

1: The tax returns of the American Planning Association, as of all nonprofits, are available to the public. The APA's Form 990 tax returns for 2002 to 2005 can be seen at the Foundation Center's 990 Finder page.

Leonardo Vazquez, AICP/PP is an Instructor at Rutgers University's Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy and Director of its Professional Development Institute. He is a founder of The Leading Institute, which promotes models of collaborative leadership and management in planning and community development.



Some Vazquez Proposals Only Make It Worse

Daniel Lauber, AICP
AICP President 2003-2005, 1992-1994
APA President 1985-1986

Fellow "APA lifer" Leo Vazquez puts forth some really productive ideas -- greater accountability, actually recruiting members to serve APA and AICP committees, requiring minutes and voting records of leadership meetings be made available to all members and other points -- he also proffers a number of ideas that, if implemented would only turn back the clock and undo much of what has been done to improve APA/AICP.

His most egregious proposal is to "Make two representatives from the Chapter Presidents' Council and the Divisions Council voting members of both the APA Board and the AICP Commission."

Way back in 1985 when we reduced the size of the APA Board from 21 to 13, the opportunity to include an elected, voting representative from the CPC, Divisions Council, and Student Representative Council was considered. It would have been adopted, if all chapter members, division members, and student members were allowed to vote on their representative. But the leaders of these three insular bodies absolutely rejected that option -- they wanted to have only the roughly 47 members of the CPC, roughly 20 members of the Divisions Council, and 7 members of the Students Representative Council select each representative to serve on the APA Board. They wanted to enable their cliques to maintain control. And sadly, these cliques today maintain self-perpetuating, single-minded control of these bodies, particularly the CPC.

What Leo doesn't know is that the current corporate culture that prevails at APA/AICP is the culture of the very unrepresentative CPC (I say unrepresentative because so many chapter presidents are elected without opposition and generally far less than 20% of a chapter's members vote in chapter elections).

Before I go any further, let me make it real clear that a lot of fantastic people have served as chapter presidents and on the CPC and that being a chapter president may be the most difficult role in APA. Many of them have complained to me about how the CPC crushes independent thought and dissent (if you disagree with the position of the clique, you are "divisive") and very effectively maintains control in the hands of the same clique year after year. Some were so turned off by serving on the CPC that they want nothing to do with APA leadership ever again.

It's the CPC in particular that has driven this ill-conceived certification maintenance proposal -- and every AICP Commissioner supporting it is a product of the CPC. It is this culture that has produced the secrecy of the APA Board and AICP Commission. When I was AICP President, I was chastised by the APA President and APA Board for sharing publicly-available information with the AICP Commission, namely the salary of APA's Executive Director (you can see he was getting $192,000/year by visiting the web site Leo gives you where APA's tax return is posted -- as a nonprofit it is public information).

It is this CPC culture that has led to the lack of accountability. While I applaud Leo's suggestion that Board and Commission minutes be quickly and easily accessible, it would be almost a Pyhrric victory because the minutes no longer include details of the discussion and all too often you can't tell who voted for or against a motion or what an individual Commissioner's or Director's views were on the issue at hand.

I love Leo's idea to effectively broadly advertise to recruit members to serve on APA and AICP Committees. I've done that each time I've been APA and AICP President -- and caught hell from the CPC and Divisions Council because I was recruiting committee members from outside their insular circles. That's how I came upon Leo and appointed him to the AICP Examination Review Committee in 2004. I don't think I've ever met him or talked to him, but I still appointed him because he came so highly recommended and seemed so incredibly competent. (And according to the committee chairperson, Leo did a great job on the committee.)

To reach out to the members I had to recruit via my own mass emails and the APAWatchDog website at . Even though I requested it, AICP's own email newsletter was never used to seek out committee members. I remember the concerned buzz when it turned out my colorblind technique of choosing committee members resulted in one committee being majority-minority (and the committee had nothing to do with "minority"-focused issues).

Today, the APA/AICP corporate culture is completely in the hands of the CPC -- nearly every AICP Commissioner and APA Director is from the CPC. I think that nearly every candidate in the last election emanated from the CPC or Divisions Council (a less insular and more diverse group - idea-wise - than the CPC). Reserving seats on the Commission and Board would achieve nothing positive in terms of changing the APA/AICP culture and opening up the organization.

And I deliberately write "organization," the singular, rather than "organizations," the plural. This is one organization. AICP is a subsidiary of APA charged with four specific tasks by the Articles of Incorporation and/or bylaws. It is not a separate organization. I think Leo misunderstands the legal and philosophical nature of APA/AICP when he calls for them to be "truly independent." They are joined at the hip and, frankly, it would be another step backward to do anything to separate them further. During my term and Sam Casella's term as President of AICP we worked hard to undo the damage in the late 1990s caused by efforts of some in APA leadership to further separate the two entities. I very much appreciate the gracious efforts of APA President Mary Kay Peck, in particular, to bring the two closer together and repair the ill-will and hard feelings generated by some of her predecessors.

Leo again misses the boat when he calls for the Board and Commission to meet quarterly. They already meet in person three or four times a year -- as opposed to just twice a year prior to the mid-1990s when the organization ran much more smoothly despite having a wide diversity of opinions represented on the Board and Commission. These bodies should be setting policy and allowing the staff to do their jobs without interference. I know for a fact that staff morale continues to be extremely low for a wide variety of reasons I will not go into except to note that the most recent APA Boards and AICP Commissions have only helped reduce staff morale -- and the overwhelming majority of APA's staff is incredibly competent, dedicated, and devoted to serving the profession and the membership.

Finally, Leo's intriguing but imprudent idea to "divide APA into an educational organization/foundation and an industry association" is probably a product of a lack of information. The late APA Executive Director Israel Stollman did a masterful job of crafting APA/AICP's very favorable legal status. What Leo proposes would destroy that and lead to much higher dues because APA would almost certainly have to start paying income taxes as an industry association. Given how insightful and productive so many of Leo's suggestions are, I suspect he means well, but is very unaware of the delicate and very favorable legal standing APA/AICP enjoys.

That said, a loud "thank you" goes out to Leo for speaking out and getting involved. APA/AICP desperately needs a new generation of genuinely independent-thinking leaders to return control of APA/AICP to its "ordinary ol' planner" members. Hopefully Leo's outspokenness will help motivate other independent thinkers to get involved now, before it is too late and APA/AICP permanently becomes like nearly every other professional association with their insular, exclusionary, and one-minded leadership.


I quit APA several years ago. Being a member was a fine way to get a nice magazine when my employer paid for it, but when it started to come out of my own pocket I realized it was of little real value to me.

Quite frankly, I'm seeing much more innovation in and emphasis on planning issues from CNU, ASLA, AIA and others. APA is more of a follower.

And for a profession that supposedly emphasizes stakeholder involvement and public engagement, its professional organization has no idea what those words mean.

While I commend those "lifers" who want to fix APA, from my perspective its much, much easier to simply join other organizations that are already there.

Harrison Marshall

Generally agree with Leo

While I won't comment on Leo's specific suggestions for adjusting the APA/AICP leadership framework, I agree completely with the overall tenor of his commentary. The example which compared the initial 48-hour CE requirement to a developer's initial proposal is particularly apt.

Personally, as a result of how the continuing education requirements were handled, I'm actually interested in voting on APA/AICP leadership for the very first time - and against every single member of the existing leadership who has any opposition candidate.

Good comments, Leo

I believe that the certification requirements as approved are a slap in the face to working planners.

APA/AICP is owned by academics and highly paid consultants and has little relevance to the practicing planner in the "real world" where resources are finite and solutions have to be politically palatable to be feasible.

The implementation of these certification requirements is a ruse by those who "own" the AICP to drive up the value of their membership by forcing many, many members out of the organization. Shame on you.

From this point forward I will vote AGAINST any candidate for office at APA that does not specifically state their OPPOSITION to the certification requirements as adopted and who does not pledge to work to reform the requirements.

I will vote FOR any candidate that promises to work to reform the certification requirements. This is the only issue that matters to me within APA/AICP, as unfortunately the organization has become irrelevant for any other purpose than managing its membership roll.

It's too bad that it has come to this, but so it goes.

I've been a member of AICP since 1998 and it chaps my hide to pay outrageous membership fees to an organization that has so little respect for its rank and file members.

An AICP Member
Rochester, NY

Yes, things aren't quite right, are they?

I always tell people that more or less you can tell a good place when you see it. Take a walk down the block. Now that won't account for everything, but its a pretty good start.

I too am active in APA at state chapter level, and also attend conferences and even present at National on occasion. And yes, I think there is a general worth to participating and belonging...but I can sense deep down that things aren't quite what they could be. Without delving too deep into the minutiae of representational boards, governance and chicken v. egg issues I think more should be said.

What is more maddening than paying my dues and paying even more to attend conferences and the net result is I have the benefit of being sold more products? Or how about talking with the staff at the national conference about ideas for next year's conference to find out that they have already decided what to talk about? Where is the dialog and discourse? Or why is it that I have to struggle to engage other big city planners in APA because they feel the organization isn't really about "urban" planning? Why is it that the 100th planning conference is taking place in Las Vegas; in an age where our biggest issue is sustainability and confronting the way we live now?

I guess these could just be quips and complaints, but I think my instincts are correct. I've done a walk around the block more than once, and there are broken windows to say the least. I think possibly the first thing to look at is the organizational culture and whether we want to be an organization of members or subscribers? Whoever gets to decide that will tell us everything we need to know.

Sean P. Bender
Community & Learning Partnerships
Wentworth Institute of Technology

I'm the original 'Ordinary Ole Planner'; APA for me at all?

Years ago, I wrote a letter to the editor-type response to a question I no longer recall. I lamented the fact that, as a practicing planner, I found so little help from the APA as it was then, and was less than thrilled with the emphasis on certification. (We don't do bridges or brain surgery; ours is a craft, not a science.)

The situation has declined since that time. APA, like most of this profession, has developed a major inferiority complex and now believes that it must worship all things Design (New Urbanism), despite the fact that a cookie-cutter approach to imposing a 'transect' that ignores environmental assets, historic features and the like no more solves problems than does a sprawl of suburbia. If my employer didn't pay my membership, I wouldn't bother to continue.

What does APA give me? An opportunity to meet in an informal, nonconfrontational setting with citizen planners and policy makers to discuss issues, like the old ASPO did? No. Free job market info, like the old 'Tab'. No. Affordable conferences? Not so much.

Now I hear that APA and AICP are 'joined at the hip'.The cost of AICP dues is beyond me. I still can't see why, after 30-some years of practice, I have to memorize New Urbanism statements to feed back on a test, so I can get a piece of paper that qualifies me to do what I'm already doing. Meanwhile, APA eagerly pushes nonsolutions, like mandatory inclusionary housing instead of innovative approaches such as mixed use development with increased FAR incentives (something we want to try here in Seminole County, Florida.)

Don't bother to split APA from AICP. Bring back ASPO. Help, I'm a dinosaur.....

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