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Planners: Embrace the Technical!

Chuck Donley argues that planners should get over their fear of being pigeonholed as "the technically-savvy" one in the office and learn to embrace new graphics technologies like Google Earth.
September 15, 2008, 5am PDT | Chuck Donley
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 Chuck DonleyAs planners, our primary responsibility is to provide information for better decisions. Many planners try to influence stakeholders and leaders, enlightening others about their own preferences and biases. Our role is to guide decision-making, not advocate. We should focus our energy on providing better information about the choices and their likely impacts. Better decisions emanate from better information.

So, how can we do a better job of providing information about planning issues? Communicating information takes a variety of forms, including written, verbal, and visual. Consistently, the weakest part of planner's presentations is the graphic portion.

Google Earth provides the perfect tool for presenting planning information. It is easy to add site specific information like site plans, better aerials, traffic impacts and development hazards. Navigating around the landscape is straight forward. With practice you can respond to questions in a hearing, identifying relationships, dynamically. Many people can't read 2D maps. By tipping the landscape, the modeled world becomes more real. Project scale and proximity gain meaning.

Many planners avoid cultivating technical skills, such as GIS. They fear being categorized as technicians, and thus less professional. Proficiency in presentations and impact analysis are a core skills of planners. Strong technical skills do not make planners a technician; in fact, they can make planners more professional. Neglecting your technical skills makes you less qualified for advancement. The best managers understand the potential of various tools so they can maximize the productivity of others.

Some find using a computer easy, whether by genetic makeup or generational familiarity (grew up in a digital age). For those so blessed, put those talents to good use. For the rest of us, learn incrementally, doing things that are relevant to the job. Incorporate learning new techniques into daily tasks.

Practice by planning a trip or just take a virtual trip using Google Earth. You may miss the culture, smells and sounds, but then you also will not suffer lost bags, delayed flights and jet lag. Alternatively, go visit your hometown. Conjure up memories of schooldays, secret gardens and past romances. You are not wasting time. Place is important. With practice comes greater confidence, leading to accepting the challenge of making a public presentation. You will ask how to apply the technology to planning.

Learning by Doing

Weeklong (or even daylong) cram courses, teaching software's bells and whistles are of minimal value. Planners are shown too much to remember. The information includes many topics irrelevant to their work. When they return to their office, they spend weeks working through a backlog of projects or simply handling the usual crises. There is no time to apply what they learned.

I taught those classes to hundreds of students and knew there had to be a better way to learn technology. Teaching for 3 or 4 days was very lucrative. Despite good reviews, I felt the students deserved better. Short sessions, ideally daily, provide the best learning environment. Internet meetings provide the venue. By sharing each others' computer screens, WebEx, GoToMeeting and other internet meeting software allow frequent meetings without the travel costs and time. Although I rarely meet my students, I can sense their confidence in applying what they learned, in contrast to classroom training. Webinars are a powerful tool for learning relevant new technology, incrementally.

Google Earth examples
At left, a site plan showing contours and land use bubbles, a potentially confusing jumble of lines and colors. At right, Google Earth images provide 3D context of the plan and the ability to control the layer shown in a presentation.

The key is for the planner to immediately apply the lessons learned. The Planning Commission will applaud excellent presentations. They will ooh and ah over Google Earth visualizations of a site plan or comp plan amendment. The problem is they will expect live flybys for every presentation. But with a little practice you can consistently deliver Google Earth illustrations, with minimal effort. At a minimum, you will find it much easier than good approval conditions. With each project ask how technology could make it better. But the real goal is for the Planning Commission (or other decision-makers) to see the light without you telling them what to think.

The planning profession suffers each time a misguided planner tries to impose their vision of the world. Better to identify the choices and their potential impacts. If you know how the future should be, consider a career in politics. If you think you have a great vision, do your homework and objectively explore the implications of your ideas, both positive and negative. Then communicate this opportunity, not as the answer, but as an alternative.

Professional planners with technical skills are not a contradiction, they are the rule.


Charles A. Donley, AICP is an urban planner who specializes in applying technology to planning issues. Chuck is president of Donley & Associates, where he has worked on projects nationally and internationally. Chuck brings 25 years of experience in public and private sector planning, working on current and long range processes. As Technical Director for CommunityViz, he guided training, professional services, technical support, and software development.

Chuck is also the instructor for Planetizen's Google Earth webinars.

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