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Overcoming the Comfort of Powerlessness

If we as planners don't do better in defining ourselves, we risk being seen as irrelevant and superfluous, writes Leonardo Vazquez. Do planners assure their own powerlessness by ignoring those in power?

Photo: Leonardo Vazquez

"You're a planner?  Oh, that's interesting.  What
do you do?"  You've probably heard this a lot in your career.  We
tend to offer a resigned smile as we are reminded that most people know little
about what we do or why we matter.

It's not something to smile about.  If we don't do better
in defining ourselves, we risk being seen as irrelevant and superfluous.  As
the Oregon ballot initiative that effectively shuts down land use laws shows,
this is a critical time for our profession. Some cities
have relegated their public planners to reviewing development applications
while giving the real planning work to private planning firms that depend on
contracts from developers. Some places simply dissolved their planning departments.

Often, when we describe our work, we make ourselves sound like reserve infielders
who play a lot of different positions.  We can do land use analysis, economic
analysis, facilitation, and project management.  Architects do land use
analysis.  Economists and developers do economic analysis.  Professional
facilitators do facilitation, and managers do project management.  It
raises the question— if planners do the same things that other professionals
do, why do we need them?

The answer: Planners are unique among other professionals in their range of
knowledge and their ability to be balancing points for urban growth.  Most
planners do not know as much about architecture as architects, or about human
communities as social workers.  But most architects and social workers
know very little about the others' areas of expertise.

Planners have the power to shape perceptions and expectations of urban growth
and development.  We are often the hub of a large network of community
organizations, developers, businesses, policymakers and public managers.  The
greatest strength a planner has is not in doing demographic projections or
cost-benefit analyses, but in influencing the hearts and minds of all actors
in urban growth.  Plans tend to have a lot of analysis, maps and charts – which
they should.  But I believe that the conversations that happen before
the plan is published have more to do with its success than what's on
the page.

Some might say "no; developers and policymakers will respond more strongly
to market forces than illustrated visions."  I agree.  But
what is the "the market?"  It is a collective set of transactions
between buyers and sellers.  How do buyers and sellers decide who to interact
with, how much to spend and what to risk?  Their perceptions and expectations.   

One of the biggest challenges to strengthening the profession will be overcoming
the "comfort of powerlessness."  Many people complain about
their supposed lack of power to change situations.  But in fact, it makes
life easier.  When you are powerless, you don't have to take responsibility.  "It's
not my fault," a planner might say.  "I did a great plan.  They're
just too dumb/short-sighted/greedy/other to make it happen.  I can't
control what they do."  No, but you can influence them – if
you want. 

In Planning in the Face of Power, John Forester says that planners
assure their own powerlessness by ignoring those in power.  We do worse
by ignoring our own sources of power.

We have to start by recognizing that we can and should be leaders in the development
and policy process.  Being a leader is different than being a director
or manager.  Leaders influence and empower others to act.  There
are plenty of leaders who are not directors or managers, and vice versa.  As
leaders, we do not tell other people how to think, but provide them with the
knowledge to help them make informed decisions.

We have to be knowledgeable in analytical tools and information technology.  This
is not so we can do more analysis (nobody ever changed their beliefs because
of a regression line) but so we can get better knowledge faster, speak the
language of other technicians, and find different ways to communicate information.

We have to rethink the planning process that most of us take for granted.
Nobody really believes in the old rational planning model, but it still shapes
our work.  It tells us that we should peg our communication to certain
stages – such as information gathering or plan presentation.  That's
why we get the "parachuting in" model of planners doing a few charettes
and thinking they know the hearts and minds of stakeholders.   If
our ability to communicate strategically is our greatest strength, then the
rational planning model weakens us.

Finally, we have to come together as a profession by focusing on the noun
more than the adjective.  Advocacy planners. Economic development planners.  Transportation
planners.  If we spend more time doing advocacy, economic development
and transportation analysis than planning, we fragment and weaken the profession.  And
then the public relations professionals, developers and civil engineers can
rightly say: "What do you need them for when you have us?"

The American Planning Association has been working hard to "tell the
planning story." We have to develop our own story, not cut and paste
the narratives of other professions.

Leonardo Vazquez, AICP/PP, is an Instructor at the Edward
J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy
at Rutgers, the State University of
New Jersey.  He directs two programs there: Bloustein Online Continuing
Education for Planners and APA/LeadershipPlenty.  He is also a former
chair of the Planners for Ethnic and Cultural Diversity Committee and principal
author of "Lagging Behind" a study of ethnic diversity in the
planning profession in the New York area.




Identity crisis

Leonardo Vazquez in his article rightly points out that the profession of planning is going through the identity crisis. Being a professional who has recently taken a planning position in the large public sector organization, I must admit that it is hard to explain the job profile to my engineer and doctor friends.

The positive attribute or the problem with the planning profession is that it is too generalized, broad and I have even heard the word ‘abstract’!! The planners often find themselves competing with specialized professionals like Urban Designers, GIS Analysts, Historic Preservationists and Transportation Engineers. It is not rare to see regional plans, comprehensive plans, neighborhood plans….. not get executed which only impacts the creditability of the planning profession.

The national, state, local planning organizations and individual planning professionals should take significant steps for public outreach. Planning conferences should include wide spectrum of professionals as the planning profession impacts their every day activities. Planners should accept the responsibilities of their plans/ studies not get implemented. It is also the time to further propagate the use of a prefix to the word, ‘Planner’, like Regional Planner, Urban Planner, City Planner, Preservation Planner, Transportation Planner …….. just to distinguish the Regional Planning/ Urban Planning from non spatial planning professions.

Creating support networks

Planners, especially public sector planners, tend to be starry-eyed idealists. The public process, with mendacious applicants, the political process, and subversion of the public interest tend to disempower planners. Add to that the low esteem in which the profession is held by politicians and developers and it can become very hard to see the value in one's daily work.

I'm a member of several professional planning groups and there is little support available for planners. Sure, going to a conference revitalizes our practice with ideas and a can-do attitude, but a few days or weeks back in the office find us back in the same mental rut. Formal meetings of professional groups typically are a business development opportunity for the speaker and attendees, involving a lot of business cards and little or no lively debate of the issues.

Locally, we have developed several means by which we share information and ideas. First, our county has a monthly meeting for planning directors, where
they share their experiences and frustrations. There is also a
monthly planners' social, to which planners countywide are invited and various
and sundry issues are discussed over adult beverages. I find a lot of
support from individual like-minded planners with whom I can debate
issues and share ideas and those are the people I develop as friends; these are some of the most satisfying professional and personal relationships I have.

However, there are certainly other means by which planners can improve the discourse of planning. We can educate and support quality candidates for office
and help them gain a majority. We can also select an issue or two in
her community and rally support for solutions among the local
citzenry by acting as a facilitator.

Creating a quality human environment is what we care about. Keeping our profession and our practice fresh, our step light and, at the ends of our careers, being able to look back and knowing we made a substantial positive contribution takes extra effort.

L. A.'s have been dealing with this worse...

Landscape Architects have been dealing with this since our profession was coined in 1899. The American Society of Landscape Architects has been struggling with defining the profession ever since. I swear, if one more person asks me to "do my yard" or "provide some landscaping" or ask me "whats wrong with my tree" I am going to go for their jugular!

We're the ones with the identity issues!

New methods of public participation

I think planners at any level are in a position to advocate certain changes. I offer the following four examples. I worked in the dregs of planning bureaucracy for 6 years, but I can imagine myself agitating internally for any of these:

First, argue the need to take stock of all past and current plans in a rigorous way. Before embarking on another single plan-making effort, engage in critical self-appraisal: what happened to the last plan? How effective was it? How often was it over-ridden, and why?

Second, has there been a comprehensive survey of the local area to reveal the full dimensionality of settlement preference? Do respondents (citizens) understand the implications of their preferences – from visual effects to social, economic, and environmental costs?

Third, to stimulate change of conventional zoning, expose its inherent flaws. Make zoning real for people, showing them the full, long-term implications of their ordinances, showing them in graphic form the kind of world they are creating, and the kind of world they are disallowing.

Finally, suggest new methods of public participation, ones that ensure a more representative review of proposed change. Specifically, they should use methods that rely on the random selection of participants, an approach that seems to be working well in Australia.

Emily Talen
Department of Urban & Regional Planning
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
111 Temple Buell Hall
611 Taft Dr.
Champaign, IL 61820

Public sector planning

This article came at an opportune moment. I was just corresponding with a former student who is now the city planner in a small town. We were talking about the fact that public sector planners have a huge responsibility but generally no where near the authority they need to do what they might think is right. They are squeezed between private sector interests and political pressures, with "bosses" who have a tendency to think that "leadership" means giving firm directions in a loud
voice and then changing their minds like a windvane swinging with minor
eddies of the political winds. It's very frustrating work, and I know a lot of planners who have burned out and gone to the private sector. She's fairly committed to the idea of public sector planning, but I get the impression that she's trying to come to terms with the constraints and frustrations of a small planning department that has its hands full just with the statutory stuff.

It occurred to me that what she really needs is the right kind of professional support network-- for ideas, moral support, and occasional reminders of why the job is so important. It's easy to lose sight of the possibilitiies for making a difference, the little interventions and opportunities for leadership, for education and a little vision, that tend to disappear in all the bureaucratic stuff.

Leadership 101

I am pleased to see urban planning professionals decide to take their expertise to the next level by pursuing leadership positions. I'm sure their ability to contribute in a positive fashion on the City Council will be given every consideration by the voters. Indeed, there is an example that deserves careful watching. San Buenaventura has two city councilmemebers who are also planners along with a planner city manager. Oh but wait, Leonardo Vazquez, AICP/PP has already said "Being a leader is different than being a director or manager" so Rick Cole's influence will surely be minimal.

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