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A Retiring Dean Considers the Changing Responsibilities of Planners

Former L.A. City Councilmember and retiring Cal Poly College of Environmental Design Dean Michael Woo reminds readers of the visionary responsibilities of elected officials to ensure the plans of today indeed consider the needs of tomorrow.
August 16, 2019, 9am PDT | Clare Letmon
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The Planning Report sat down with Michael Woo, retiring dean of the Cal Poly Pomona College of Environmental Design (ENV) and a former Los Angeles City Councilmember and city planning commissioner, to discuss the skills valued in city planning departments today and to revisit the perennial question of whom planners should be planning for.

Demonstrating the practical value of pursuing the profession, ENV recently released a report, "Design for the Future: ENV Jobs in a Transforming Jobs Market" that projects new design-related job opportunities coming on line in Southern California over the next five years. To the former point, Woo reminds readers of the visionary responsibilities of elected officials to ensure the plans of today indeed consider the needs of tomorrow, commenting:

"Professional planners frequently feel constrained about becoming advocates for policy change, especially if they are planners working in the local discretionary approval process. If a planner is a public employee involved in what the lawyers call a 'quasi-judicial' process, then he or she is expected to be an impartial interpreter of zoning ordinances or plans. Unless the local elected officials in a jurisdiction are unabashed advocates for changes in housing policy, it could be dangerous for a planner to get into the habit of sticking his or her neck out.

On the other hand, planners may have useful knowledge or experience relevant to our current housing problems. Therefore, if professional planners want to be relevant to the housing debate, they may have to get out of the conventional roles in a planning agency and bring their expertise to a different role or setting in which they can use their knowledge to fight for housing. At the municipal level, this could mean going to work for a mayor or a councilmember who cares about housing issues and is willing to take some risks. It could mean going into the nonprofit affordable housing sector or finding a spot in the for-profit world in which profit and an affordable housing product are compatible. Or you can go into the media or academia (like me) and try to influence the opinions of others"

Read the full interview on The Planning Report.

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Published on Wednesday, August 14, 2019 in The Planning Report
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