Planners Need To Work With Difference

There are many voices in the process of community planning. To create effective plans, planners need to welcome these many voices and their respective differences, not suppress them into consensus.
Photo: Lewis D. Hopkins Photo: Marisa A. Zapata

Planners operate in communities of individuals and organizations that plan. Such multi-vocal planning is not cause for despair. If we believe that making and using plans enables people to achieve their aspirations, then plans should speak in the voices of poverty as well as wealth, renter as well as owner, recent arrival as well as longtime resident, region as well as municipality, and insurgent advocate as well as authority. Sustaining difference, as opposed to suppressing it, better equips planners to address inequality, marginalization, and oppression. Planners can work with difference and still make plans and facilitate consent for specific concerted actions.

Consensus-building techniques that make sense for groups of twenty people focused on a particular issue are not appropriate when transferred to thousands of participants creating a plan for the long-term future of a metropolitan area. Commitments to sustaining valued differences in community identity and intent, on the other hand, need not undermine the task of reaching consent for action at a particular time and place. Consider in turn these conventional and reframed ideas about consensus-building, ethnographic understanding, forecasting and scenario planning, and comprehensive planning.

Consensus Building

Consensus building brings expertise to bear in situations where stakeholders can be identified and can focus on creating consent for specific actions. Rather than extending claims for consensus building to the imagination of all-encompassing long-term visions, planners should place consensus building within the continually interacting interests of changing coalitions of interacting organizations.

Consensus building that acknowledges its place in a larger context would be explicit about considering the plans of participating stakeholders and the scenarios of different futures. It would assume that participating organizations would take any resulting agreement as legacy into future agreements with overlapping stakeholders in future consensus building events. It would acknowledge that an agreed action fits, or does not, into other aspects of a stakeholder's plans. Plans would remain active and belong to organizations or coalitions, rather than being overridden by one consensus building process.

Most importantly, we should acknowledge that a consensus building event forms at one time around one cluster among many interacting issues and actions. Other efforts will and should emerge around clusters of other issues and actions. Ethnographic understanding of difference, forecasts, and plans are means for expressing and working with these interactions among as well as within particular consensus building events.

Ethnographic Understanding

Ethnographic study characterizes and interprets difference. Rather than treating differences as problems to be solved, planners should use ethnographic insight to sustain difference. Difference among rich combinations of individuals and overlapping groups is a valued and essential aspect of adaptive societies.

Understanding difference is not the same as suppressing it into consensus. Understanding difference helps planners learn the varied ways that people interact with different subsets of society, and that groups of people tend to position other groups into separated roles. Understanding how the historic legacy of planning decisions affects the mindset of the public today also matters.

For example, the federal government's destruction of levees during the 1927 Mississippi flood shapes perceptions, attitudes and beliefs in present day Katrina responses matters. For some (mainly black) New Orleans community members, the possibility that the government deliberatively exploded the levees during Hurricane Katrina, a reality in 1927, matters in planning for New Orleans today. These historical meanings of flooding and levees are at least as important as other meanings, such as hydrological engineering descriptions of how levees failed.

Rather than trying to avoid these differences, consensus building should work toward commitments at a particular time to enable levee construction that makes sense across these differences. Successful consensus building on one issue does not depend on removing the underlying differences of legacy, identity, or interests. We can rebuild levees and retain the meanings of the 1927 flood and of Katrina for African Americans as evidence to achieve further changes toward social justice.

Scenarios and Forecasting

Forecasters make claims about what will happen. Rather than pretend to tell us what the future will be before we plan, forecasters should help us learn how the world can work by imagining different scenarios as we deliberate about actions.

Forecasting should focus on learning how the world can work by constructing stories that make sense of possibilities for people who want to take action. When a new housing project is proposed, we usually focus on forecasting traffic, local public finance, and infrastructure capacity. These are important concerns, but we should also forecast the effects on school integration and housing integration – two aspects which are usually quietly ignored or considered too controversial to make explicit.

Scenario planning is explicitly not concerned about forecasting the future. Good forecasting can be linked to scenarios with elaborate details of how the world can work in a particular situation contingent on a particular action. Scenario thinking takes us even further, however, by setting the specific task of trying to imagine structurally different futures: what might happen in a world we can influence but not control.

Keeping scenarios alive while we choose specific actions counters this problem of focusing on implementing an agreed plan and forgetting to watch how the world is working. As is well established in failure design in engineering, we should consider what happens if the world works a bit differently than it did last year or than we think it should.

Comprehensive Planning

Planners make claims about what could and should happen. Rather than pretend that everything will be represented in one visionary or comprehensive plan, planners should use their expertise to help make connections among the many plans of various organizations and scenarios of the future that we cannot control.

In a multi-vocal approach, a city's plan should highlight what the city has thought through and acknowledge that the city does not have complete control of what happens. It should, for example, identify transportation projects that are in process-designed and funded or nearly so. It should also identify connectivity questions yet unresolved, not as if they were agreed alignments, but as annotated graphic statements of what is known and what is at issue.
Plans designed to be used in multi-vocal communities provide information about how the interests of one scope and jurisdiction align with or differ from those of another. Negotiation about what to do-whether Federal funds will be obtained, whether the local match will be provided, who will be elected or defeated-are informed by these plans, not controlled by them. Instead of pretending to bring everyone together into one view, one public interest, and one plan, multi-vocal planning intentionally chooses to make plans of different scopes for different purposes.

Multi-vocal planning is different from advocacy planning. Advocacy planning builds on an analogy of legal advocates and political plurality. It suggests that there ought to be competing plans, but these plans focus on the same issue and compete to resolve the same questions. As in a trial or election, after advocacy for both or several sides, some decision wins. In contrast, multi-vocal planning recognizes that many organizations, both government and private, have authority and capabilities to act on their own as well as to influence the actions of others. The resulting network or ecosystem of plans is more complex than mere competing substitutes. The plans of a private developer or a neighborhood organization interact with the plans of a municipality. The plans of a municipality interact with the plans of regional agencies such as sanitary or transit districts.

Planners cannot work with difference by focusing on one consensus, one identity of place or person, one forecast, or one plan. Planners can and should take a multi-vocal approach, focusing on the interactions among consensus events, persons of difference, scenarios, and plans. Multi-vocal planning enables planners to achieve action and to sustain differences that enrich communities and increase our ability to adapt to change.


Lewis D. Hopkins, FAICP, is Professor Emeritus of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and serves on the Urbana Planning Commission. Marisa A. Zapata is in the PhD program in regional planning at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she completed her MUP in 2004. They co-edited Engaging the Future: Forecasts, Scenarios, Plans, and Projects, recently published by Lincoln Institute of Land Policy.



Insightful Commentary, but Difficult to Put Into Practice

My experience is that stakeholders, particularly disadvantaged stakeholders, have difficulty understanding the process, power, and intent of planning efforts. I am afraid that taking an explicit multi-vocal stance would increase this level of confusion among stakeholders.

It is helpful for most stakeholders to have a clear understanding of where the local government stands on key issues. The virtue of a concensus planning approach is that the final product creates a clear statement of intent on behalf of the local government that other stakeholder groups can then agree or disagree with.

No plan has ever completely controlled the future, nor could one. But a clear statement of intent in a planning document creates a framework that allows stakeholders to react to and try to modify the plan. A multi-vocal plan could undermine this clarity and therefore result in hidden agendas usurping the planning process.

Planners need to work with differences

Someone who has experience in dealing with developing plans using this approach is a professor at Ball State in Indiana. His name is Paul Foulger. You might want to contact him regarding the success of the approach being expressed in this paper.

The road not taken

Several environmental planners and designers have recognized that current models of community participation (such as consensus building) are no longer relevant if the goal of such practices is to include marginalized groups in the planning process. Identifying useful techniques that could include such groups isn't difficult - it's committing to idea of inclusion and implementing them that is the challenge. But we need to do it. There is no alternative to the status quo.

Whether we aim to develop one "vision" plan or consider multiple plans that are products of varying groups, planners must first accept that we no longer can control all aspects of the process, but we cannot simply hand over the process to the communities we serve so that they develop their own vision. This creates false hopes. Instead, planners must facilitate and reconcile the differing interests, desires and needs, and develop truthful, practical and inspiring "plans". The road will be longer and much more arduous, but we have no choice if we really want to change things.

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