Searching for the Essence of Planning at the National Planning Conference

With so many applications and intersections, planning can be hard to define. Planetizen Managing Editor James Brasuell is in San Francisco searching for meaning.

6 minute read

April 14, 2019, 10:00 AM PDT

By James Brasuell


2019 National Planning Conference

The Photo Group / Courtesy of the APA

"Big data has its place, and it's the job of planners to keep it there."

Those were the final words I heard spoken during sessions on the first day of the 2019 National Planning Conference, spoken by Michael Dobbins, FAIA, FAICP during audience questions of the "Technology's Impact on the Planning Practice" panel.

The point was well made, and well taken by the panel, but can anyone imagine offering that description of a definition of planning to someone encountering the profession for the first time?

Of course, "one of the" is implied before the word "jobs" in that statement, but that implication starts to uncover one of the largest challenges in communicating the value of planning in 2019—planning means so many things in professional practice, in academic study, and in public life. Urban planning, regional planning, community planning, environmental planning, transportation planning—the list goes on. What does planning even mean when all these niches are layered onto and around each other?

The national conference of the American Planning Association checked obvious boxes for the potential to reveal some of the truth I am seeking. In attending the first day of panel sessions and activities, I decided to set aside my own niche passions—water policy, public transit, and long-term land use planning—to search out some manner of essential quality to planning.

Here was my schedule:

  • Morning Keynote: Vijay Gupta
  • Politics and Power: Planners Influencing Change
  • Idealism in Professional Planning
  • Beginning with the Ending: Achievable Implementation
  • Technology's Impact on the Planning Process

The process of visioning for the future, and implementing that vision, was my naïve notion of the essential practice of planning at the beginning of the day. I heard a surprising number of panelists over the course of the day discuss never doing any long-range planning in their career, however, so I quickly realized a definition would require more nuance.

The morning session on politics—on all-woman panel sponsored by the Women and Planning Division of the APA—paid immediate dividends. Lisa Fisher, senior urban planner at the San Francisco Planning Department, said, "The superpower of planners is to bring a lot of people together." Fisher also used the term "polymath"—defined by a Google search as "a person of wide-ranging knowledge or learning"to refine that point. Sharp's erudite identification of the polymath term was echoed in other terms throughout the day. I heard three speakers on the first day of the conference speak of planners seeing the "big picture" as an essential quality of the profession.

Still, the "big picture" and knowledge of many subjects adds complexity to the definition of planning. I am seeking a unifying theory, the essential quality of planning. Luckily, a second superpower follows the planner's role as "polymath," according to Sharp: the ability to maximize co-benefits.

The idea of maximizing co-benefit advances the theme of this inquiry. First, it introduces the idea of optimization—working toward the highest and best, to borrow from the common land use cliché. Second, it introduces the idea of benefits. The idea that planners work toward the lofty goal of improving the world is the reason many people entered the field. The politics panel spoke at different times about the "honor in planning" because of its ultimate goal of making places where people can thrive and prosper.

Is planning, at its core, an act of altruism? The next panel I attended wrestled directly with that theory, and succeeded in further complicating the matter, by acknowledging that various moments in a planning career will challenge the idealism of planners.

Surprisingly, there was plenty of cynicism to go around on the "Idealism in Professional Planning" panel. Cade W. Hobbick, AICP, said, "Our role is dreamkiller," acknowledging that many planners will spend years, perhaps decades, telling developers and community members precisely what isn’t possible under the zoning code. Hobbick admitted to being deliberately provocative during the session, but still, the daily practice of planners—as the arbiters of the built environment or the keepers of the land use regulation—could be perceived as contrary to a notion of planning as a manifestation of altruism.

At the very least, the reality of planning practice doesn't live up to romantic notions about the all-powerful, benevolent planner. As Hobbick said to further that point during the session, "Younger people might be measuring success against grand notions of what planning is as taught in school." (The possibility, well established in most planning circles I have encountered, that planning education might mislead students on the essential qualities of planning is another reason for the current investigation, and one worth much more interrogation in the future.)

Perhaps planning is a process of tempering unrealistic expectations, or uncritical idealism. Panel moderator Timothy Douglas admitted that most planners must set aside their ideals at different points in their careers, "because we have to go about our daily lives." Hobbick went further, saying that planners excel only when they mitigate their idealism. Too many planners are guilty of conflating personal goals with goals of service to the community.

When discussing the question, posed by Douglas, "Does disillusionment offer the chance for growth?" Hobbick offered the following deadpan killer of a soundbite: "You should be disillusioned. You want that. Otherwise you’re planning for something fake." Hobbick also replied, intentionally or not, to those "big picture" thinkers out there. "[Planners] can’t pretend every project is going to solve every problem." Incremental solutions seem to be the necessary prescription for uncritical idealism, according to Hobbick. I'm not ready to pronounce incrementalism as an essential quality of planning.

The idealism panel also offered useful ideas and phrases to advance a more positive and proactive concept of planning. Catherine T. Chao described planners as inherently generous—a concept that allows space for planners to strive for social good, and for places where people thrive and prosper, while admitting the risk that they might not always succeed (more on that risk in the next section of this essay)

Chao also posed a compelling definition of an ideal system of planning, "where everyone has a voice"—even cynics, presumably. At this point, it seems everyone agrees that planners aren't choosing this career to build communities in their specific image and to their personal desires. A concept of planning as inherently social is emerging.

The "Technology's Impact on the Planning Process" panel dispensed with the notion of planning as infallible (in case that notion were still up for debate). Numerous speakers throughout the day discussed the need to bring the expertise of planners forward in public and personal life—as citizens, not just as professionals. With discussion of scenario planning software, data collection, online engagement, we enter an era where technology promises (or threatens) to superpower the superpowers of planners.

Someone on the panel or in the audience (apologies for failing to note the source) pointed out the potential unintended consequences of a new technology-enabled era of planning. [Technology] can be used for good or ill." The obvious question, still overlooked more times than not despite its obviousness, is "Who gains?" Big data sounds a lot like Big Brother, not by coincidence.

Planners must consider the fact that their work, and their tools, can and will be misused by political powers, or can and will backfire with unintended consequences of catastrophic scale (e.g., climate change, housing affordability, etc.).

Someone on the idealism panel, (again, apologies for failing to note the source) offered a very innocuous definition for planning, stripped of any political agenda or assumptions about value: "The study of places and people."

The problem is that only focusing on the research aspects essential to planning processes doesn't acknowledge the consequences of the policy-making process. As all of these panels made clear planning has consequences.

Consequential is one definition for planning I'll settle on for now. It fits the highest ideals we have for the field, in the hopes of doing work that matters and that has the potential to improve the lives of many of our fellow humans, and also acknowledges the rigor required in the face of tremendous risk. It's time to get back to the conference, and then to planning like it matters.

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