Breadth and Depth in Planning Education

Ann Forsyth's picture

A frequent query I receive from students is whether they should focus on gaining a broad understanding of many aspects of planning and places or if they should focus on one topic in depth. This is an important question.

On one hand, planning is an integrative field. When the Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning tried to articulate the "anchor points" that define planning, the first two items were a "focus on improving human settlements" and "on interconnections among distinct community facets." In order to see interconnections a planner needs to know something about a variety of issues and be at ease with different methods for understanding places. Many problems are complex and solving them requires using multiple policies and programs. This requires breadth.

However, many students look out at the work world and see specialists. An engineer may mainly focus on bridges. A real estate finance person may spend her days working on deals for high-rise office space. An affordable housing developer may be dealing with a narrow range of public programs and philanthropic funding streams. Planning students can be uneasy about their place in this world.

In 1950s, Harvey Perloff articulated the idea of planners being "generalists with a specialty" (published in Education for Planning [1957]). As Bruce Stiftel describes in an interesting article, planning education at the time planning was moving away from a design focus. There seemed to be some need to articulate what it was instead. Perloff's idea has been a remarkably resilient. If you surf the web you can find it in the course catalogs of a variety of schools including MIT and Rutgers. In practical terms this means planning students typically study a common core and then add one or two areas of concentration. This is not without controversy. In 1996 John Friedman, in a thoughtful paper, proposed lengthening the typical two-year urban planning program to allow more specialization. However, the training time period has not expanded.

So how should planning students manage this situation? Is there a need to worry about a lack of specialized skills in a two-year curriculum? In general, I think no. I say this for several reasons.

  • A graduate degree in planning is just the beginning of one's planning education. Hopefully all planners continue to read about planning and human settlements, attend conferences, and visit places. Many will gain other qualifications-certificates, second masters degrees, and the like. For a number of students such added qualifications have become a de facto third year.
  • Job opportunities don't always match your initial specialization. I've stopped counting how many students who specialized in economic development graduated to find most of the jobs were in transportation planning. Because they were not overly specialized they could find a place in the area that was hiring. They later gained additional topical knowledge and skills through various continuing education activities.
  • Some of the generalist areas of knowledge are incredibly important and I would not want to eliminate them in favor of specialization in a two-year program. For example, many fashionable ideas in planning recycle approaches tried at various times over the past century or so. Of course today's context is different but understanding planning history can be very useful. Similarly, understanding a wide range of methods, even if you never use them yourself, will allow you to understand the choices other specialists are making and even question them. Planning theory likewise can help you appreciate planning activities at a deeper level (from how people interact to how planning intersects with economic forces).
  • Understanding a range of planning activities and characteristics of places is very important if you want to make connections among them.

If a two-year graduate degree (or even a four-year undergraduate degree) constituted the entire education of a planner then there would be some cause for concern. However, planning education extends far beyond the initial degree.

The full listing of the anchor points is in in an article by Dowell Myers.

Ann Forsyth is professor of Urban Planning at Harvard University.



Remedial learning essential, too much damage done already

This is an extremely important issue. Urban planners are constantly demonstrating their shortfalls of education and knowledge. They really should not have been set loose on urban economies and societies, so ill equipped. They seem to believe in a considerable number of shallow assumptions relating to urban form. As Patrick Troy (Australian National University, Emeritus) calls it, "physical determinism": the comparative analysis of urban form and transport policy in isolation from urban economic and socio-economic evolution, much of which is path dependent.

Urban planners do sometimes discover a wealth of reading material to fill the gaps in their education, but tragically they are often trapped in a working environment where there is an enforced groupthink relating to the shallow assumptions they are working on the basis of.

Urban planners actually have far too much power to be let loose on urban economies without it being obligatory that they have a firm grasp of applied urban economics and urban-economic history. They should be acquainted with the work of Fernand Braudel, Colin Clark, Sir Peter Hall, Alan W. Evans, Edwin S. Mills, the line of research being followed by the Spatial Economics Research Centre at the London School of Economics, and that of Peter Gordon et al as well as that of Gyourko and Glaeser and their colleagues. They should understand the different types of urban economy and the decades and centuries of evolution that lie behind them. They should understand that the "global city" (Saskia Sassen) and the capital city and the "superstar city" (Gyourko, Mayer and Sinai) are always going to be in a minority of cities and cannot be emulated by imposing policies of urban form and transport systems on any and every other city. This is no more rational than expecting everyone to be a world class marathon runner simply by following the same diet and exercise regime as the world's best marathon runners. It does help to have had the right genes. Some people will make better weight lifters or swimmers or discus throwers, and most people will just have to do the best with the genealogical hand they have been dealt.

This is the biggest lack with the education of urban planners today. They are incapable of recognising that most local economies, most of the time, simply cannot emulate Manhattan or London or Hong Kong or Zurich or Munich or Santa Clara. Trying to do so by blunt regulations will simply prevent the local economy from being what it SHOULD. By far the biggest negative impact is on the less skilled and the industries that employ them. It is simply not exciting and "vibrant" to let the market provide for these people; they should have social housing built for them, not truly affordable trickle down free market housing; and they should have costly "education" programes to up-skill them, or welfare programs to live on, not dirty hands in land and resource intensive industries.

Even if some cities succeed in becoming a "Superstar City", they do so by exclusion of the "least desirable" people and industries and urban features, not by maximising opportunity. "Rising average incomes" in these cities is more a case of the departure of the less skilled.

The UK's cities are actually the best case study; they have been doing "urban planning" of the contemporary fashionable "growth containment" kind the longest. Hence they have some of the best urban economics criticism of the outcomes of this. It is culpable to continue to educate urban planners without any reference to a fully representative set of the longest-extant real life working examples, rather than shallow assumptions backed up by cherry-picked success story urban economies that are actually unique for reasons that had little to do with contemporary urban planning fashions.

There are plenty of cities in the UK, and it is not honest to focus on the relative successes given that the average outcome of the whole set under conditions of urban planning very similar to "smart growth", is very bad.

To mention one point to illustrate how broad urban planners knowledge really needs to be: NYC reinvented itself after serious decline was evident in the 1970's: NYC could have been just another Chicago or even a Detroit. Glaeser in "Triumph of the City" points out that NYC's garment industry was even more important to its economy than auto making was in Detroit. But Wall Street saved NYC: the total share of profits in the US economy made by the finance sector rose from 10% in the 1970's, to 45% by 2006. Of course this was disproportionally concentrated in Manhattan. So urban planners need to understand, firstly, that NYC's amazing urban form and transport system is dependent on it being the world's second most significant concentration of global finance fee earning jobs; and secondly, what a global financial transactions tax would do to the NYC economy. The UK Government is fighting Tobin tax proposals tooth and nail - why? London is the worlds top concentration of fee income from global capital flows and this is a significant source of inflow of wealth into the whole UK economy.

Every local economy needs a flow of wealth into it to at least match the flow of wealth out of it for the importation of items and commodities not provided locally. And global capital fees are the easiest money for a local economy: no carbon emitted and no land or resources used. The same goes for capital cities with national taxpayers money flowing into local bureaucrats wages. These flows of EASY wealth into these lucky economies, has had to be created in OTHER economies the hard, get-your-hands-dirty way. There is hardly anything as sickeningly hypocritical as the politicians in "lucky cities" posturing on the high moral ground, and ignorant activists and advocates and planners from everywhere and anywhere adding to the misguided ego-stoking all round.

Graduate study

I wish our graduate programs had a second tier of speciallized study for those of us with an undergraduate degree in planning. Architecture graduate programs have plans for those who already have the breadth and generalist of a B.ARCH and those coming from another discipline, it is about time that Urban Planning did the same thing. Come on none of us really want to repeat all those generalist courses again, when need depth to do our jobs better.

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