The Fall of Planning Expertise

Megan Miller / View from Stahl House
Reuben Duarte's picture
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Community participation can be rough. Residents regularly chastise and yell at city officials, developers, and planners. I once attended a meeting where a speaker threw objects towards city council members. Groups use the legal system to obstruct individual project and broader plans. Some even go to the ballot box to by-pass the planning process altogether. Planners can see months or years of effort grind to a halt, or face outright rejection of their game changing projects and plans, all because of opposition by individual community members or special interest groups. In the face of such conflict and stagnation, planners should ask: Are the powers and politics now vested in "community participation" undermining the planning profession?

Tom Nichols, a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College, wrote an excellent post for The Federalist blog. Nichols argues that we have lost respect for "experts"—those who have knowledge and/or experience in a particular field—and have replaced it with a kind of "expertise egalitarianism" whereby everyone's opinion is given equal weight. But it is not only that the layperson's opinions are given equal weight, experts increasingly face outright hostility. Laypeople attack experts as being arrogant, elitist, and imposing, if not outright threatening, often because the expert insists he or she knows something the other does not. Even more ridiculous, rather than being viewed as helpful or even essential, expertise is viewed as harmful or even antithetical to community participation.

Planning expertise

The true authority or influence in the planning profession, arguably, comes not from recognition of our expertise—advanced knowledge of a certain topic—but from how much others value or heed that expertise. As a knowledgeable and experienced professional, planners' testimony and advice should ideally be granted greater confidence than that of those who offer opinions, but no expertise. You should not view this as a claim of entitlement, but as justified respect earned through years of education and experience.

Planning is made of a diversity of sectors that together comprise the overall profession: universities, think tanks, consulting firms, and law firms to name only a few. There are many complex regulatory processes, technical modeling, economic analysis, environmental compliance, and stakeholder negotiations that planners must address, utilize, and often times grapple with. For example, there is an entire sub-discipline of the planning profession that focuses on the study of traffic and transportation. To understand how a particular project or policy may affect transportation, many days, weeks, or even months may be devoted to extensive data gathering, technical modeling, and analysis—usually using peer-reviewed methods that have become industry standards.

But to anyone who has actually attended a community meeting, a planner's advice and recommendation are frequently overridden by those who know very little on the range of topics that underline the profession. You have the planner arguing with, and losing to, the resident who has "lived in this neighborhood for fifteen years!" Yet such deniers give their own opinions equal weight in part because they often do not realize the body of evidence that corroborates a planner’s position. In dismissing the expertise of planners, non-planners engage in a damaging form or relativism, asserting that their personal opinion trumps not only individual expertise, but the collective expertise of the planning profession.

The rise of skepticism

Admittedly, there are no guarantees in the planning profession. Planners might have years of education and experience and might be able to create models to predict and analyze planning patterns (development, traffic, parking, etc.), but we must openly admit that we can also be wrong. And we have been. "Urban renewal," for instance, displaced entire neighborhoods of primarily low-income and minority residents after planners worked with city officials to acquire neighborhoods through eminent domain. Freeway projects destroyed entire neighborhoods and divided cities. Red-lining cut off a wealth building opportunities and left areas disadvantaged for decades. Thomas Campanella, a planning professor at the University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill, wrote an excellent essay for The Design Observer Group on this period of time and its effect on the planning profession.

Critics of my argument will insist that the community has every right to participate in the planning process. And I don’t disagree with this viewpoint. After all, communities' demands for more inclusion in the planning process were a justified response after being dismissed for so long. However, while granting more access may have been a reasonable gesture at the time, it has mutated into a battle over who is the final authority on the topic of planning and development. In doing so, the profession has actually surrendered its influence.

The decline of planning expertise

What's more worrisome about the decline of planning expertise is that we appear to sit idle while this problem has morphed into a self-sustaining system where planners are at a constant disadvantage. In San Francisco, one of the most expensive cities in the country, voters recently passed Proposition B—requiring voter approval for projects along the city's waterfront seeking to surpass height limits. The goal of Prop B proponents was a clever slogan: to protect the waterfront from unpopular developers. But, as Emily Badger of the Washington Post writes, it only takes power and influence from the planning experts.

“In reality, however, [Proposition B] yanks influence from a very different group: city professionals whose full-time job it is to weigh the insanely intricate implications of new development for affordable housing, property-tax coffers, economic development, public benefits, transportation infrastructure and more.”

The planning process has been designed to be democratic. That is, it's been designed to allow many opportunities for public participation, where planners and project owners may hear from the community and address concerns. In practice, however, the democratic processes has mutated to an environment where everyone's opinions are granted equal weight, even against experts. But democracy, as Nichols points out, "does not mean having equal talents, equal abilities, or equal knowledge. It assuredly does not mean that everyone’s opinion about anything is as good as anyone else's."

The fact that perfectly rational and educated people believe it is not simply acceptable, but preferable for laymen to attack the authority of experts is creating many of the problems that planning projects face. Community meetings where laymen make grand conclusions are, unfortunately, quite common. Capitulation by decision makers to community groups over experts on transit projects, for example, can be directly responsible for increased costs and lower performance. Similarly, when a high-rise development that would inject hundreds of units to a neighborhood is defeated, it can contribute to increases in the cost of housing over the long term.

But when the public sees these higher costs and/or lower performance, they often critique the planners for "poor planning," or developers of price gouging, rather than recognizing their complicity in the devolution of the individual project or the housing market (on the grander scale). Thus, planning experts suffer a credibility loss for consequences they, not only did not advocate for, but warned against. The public and decision makers then see even more reason to dismiss the expertise of the planning expert—replacing it with more reliance on the opinions of the laymen.

When the EIR for [the project] is finally finished, it is 8,711 pages long—75 percent of which are dedicated to traffic analyses—and has cost more than $1 million to compile. Says one councilmember, "I'm not going to read 8,000 pages." (Source: Curbed LA, May 15, 2014)

The rise of relativism in planning

We are witnessing the rise of relativism in the planning process, where democracy is co-opted and opinion is not only valid, but equal to expertise. But the planning process is also a deliberative and decision making process, where relativism can actually slow, and even halt quality planning.

The goal of planning is to facilitate the orderly and sustainable growth of our cities and towns. Unlike architecture, planning occurs on a macro scale, applicable to large swaths of lands, if not entire regions, filled with thousands or millions of people. These jurisdictions, overtime, develop overarching goals, such as density, housing, and transportation. City general and community plans are examples: they establish the overarching development and transportation goals of a neighborhood or city. They do this with policy statements like "high density here" and "more reliance on transit." But with the rise of relativism in the planning process, even these accepted goals are rebuked.

It may very well be city policy to increase density to facilitate walkable neighborhoods near transportation nodes. But in reality, community meetings and the reliance on relativism often dilute projects from their full potential to meet these overarching goals. Residential projects that promise to bring hundreds of units to a needy market are downsized and costs increased. Transit only lanes are reduced to mixed-traffic "rapid" lanes with lower performance outcomes. In Los Angeles, NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) opposition successfully sued and placed an injunction on the new Hollywood Community Plan—a plan that has not been updated since 1988—because it called for "too much" density. In some communities, councilmembers even refer to the opinion of individuals as factual evidence.

[The Councilmember] said he chose to vote in support of the “overwhelming evidence” — a majority who spoke in opposition to the Starbucks — instead of the small minority who supported it. (Source: The Daily Californian, March 12, 2014)

If the planning profession wishes to re-establish its place as the authority on planning, we must be willing to accept that our field is advocating for objectivism—that the planning goals of a city are the goals and we must progress towards them. Community participation on individual projects should be narrowed in scope, as not to hinder our progress towards already understood and approved goals.

If a plan calls for higher density along transit corridors and prioritizes transit over cars, then projects that propose dense housing, fewer parking, or bus-only lanes should be given more weight as preferred alternatives in the face of individual opposition. Again, it's not that the views of the individual are invalid or that they should be ignored outright, but rather that they are incommensurable with the views of the experts.

The future of planning expertise

I am not advocating for a technocracy—rule by experts. I still believe the community has an important role in the planning process, and I think it's important for planners to have the concerns and preferences of the local community in mind. Urban design, for example, is as much driven by community tastes and preferences as it is driven by facts of public health and environmental benefits. And as the past has shown, even as experts, planners are not guaranteed to always be correct. But even as I begin to close by asking planners to remember our own humility, it is important for the community to understand that experts will likely be correct more often than a community member with no background in the field.

Ultimately, can we do anything about this?  The quick answer is maybe. But not right away. The current state of the planning process took some time to evolve, and it will likely take just as much time to change again. The planning field is at a rich point in its evolution where we are bridging technology, transportation, public health, sustainability, and urban design. We are seeing planners re-assert their expertise in small areas, such as in California where SB743 (2013) eliminated the removal of parking for infill projects as grounds for legal challenges—a bill that recognized the priority of overall policy goals rather than individual opposition. But it will still take time for new planners to grow more comfortable as true leaders and unashamed experts, not simply as moderators of debate. In the long run, doing so will not only benefit the planning profession, but cities as well.  

But then again, what do I know?

I’m just a planner.

Reuben is a Land Use Planner at Gresham Savage Nolan & Tilden in Los Angeles, where he works on development projects in Southern California. He received his BA from UC Berkeley and a Masters in Urban & Regional Planning from UCLA.

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