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Why The Field Of Planning Should Revise Its Goals

The American Planning Association and the planning profession as a whole have lost their way. Constant compromise has led to mediocrity. Now it's time to get re-focused.
May 3, 2004, 12am PDT | Konrad Perlman
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 Konrad PerlmanThe American Planning Association (APA) and the planning profession have lost their way. I stopped my APA membership after my term as Vice President of the National Capital Chapter ended years ago. Why? Because APA has become institutionalized inclusiveness. Its primary focus on urbanism and physical planning has disappeared. This changed focus has not resulted in many places the profession can brag about. Mediocre or slightly better results and too many compromises have become accepted as the norm, because that's the "real world."

The current APA focus is balkanized. Anyone who has "planner" in his or her job title can pay dues and become a member. Certification comes from passing a very general interest test. Competing interests are housing, zoning, GIS, transportation, the environment--the list goes on and on. Proof of continuing fragmentation is the new New Urbanism division. APA recognized it because of its widespread acclaim, but gave it the same status as the others. The value of New Urbanism is not agreeing with or believing all of its charter. It is its comprehensive physical planning principles that encompass all of APA's interests and can refocus its goals. APA doesn't now really understand that all of its interests are interconnected in a physical region in three dimensions, not the two that most planners plan.

Regional, urban, town, hamlet design, call it "civic design," is where the rubber hits the road in planning. The planning problem to be solved always is the "best form" for development. The best form sets aside real protected space for the natural environment where development is prohibited, not just sort of prohibited. Best form defines pathways for rivers, streams, wetlands, etc. Best form comes from giving equal consideration to each of APA's issues, and avoiding decisions that make winners and losers. Best form is the participation of everyone in the planning process. Best form is making places that are pleasing to workers, residents, and tourists who walk, bike, drive, and observe.

How can APA get re-focused?

  • Regard "civic design/best form" as the planning product.
  • Promote new zoning that implements "civic design/best form."
  • Employ computer technology to put all of the facts on the table for valid plan making, instead of using competing and incomplete data that encourages controversy. Technology can identify needs and problems using vast amounts of easily stored data. It can delineate impacts of all kinds by employing mathematical models: traffic, pollution, specific areas of the environment, the fiscal capacity of municipalities to provide services and facilities. One software application, as universally accepted as something like Microsoft Word, must be developed in place of many now disconnected ones. The data used and the assumptions underlying models need to be accurate and inclusive. Capital must be invested to make this happen.
  • Require a planning process that promotes equal and active participation by citizens, politicians, and developers from plan making through plan maintenance. Shift the locus of decision-making away from the powerful few that have been assigned superior status for too long. Aggressive and persistent political leadership by citizen and business groups is a must, as is a comprehensive publicity campaign to promote and maintain the process. Citizen surveys ensure the democracy of the planning process. Charrettes, work groups, and town meetings must be planning protocol to identify problems and goals for the future and to construct and review planning scenarios. Employed skillfully, these tools can provide consensus about the "preferred" planning alternative and the "best form" for places to live and work. This new model has been successfully used in Portland, Oregon, Seattle, Washington and Salt Lake City, Utah.
  • Institute regional economic development planning that assigns space for office and industrial development to bring jobs closer to living. Share taxing.
  • Change planning laws and procedures to require all of the above.
  • Share taxing to implement this new planning model.

To accomplish this, the following practices, beliefs, and compromises must end:

  • Road building and the establishment of road standards that ignore land use. This has contributed to more traffic, enabled more malls and "big boxes," and disconnected neighborhoods with wide streets and too many arterials.
  • Large lot zoning. Eats up more land than it attempts to conserve.
  • Public transit is the way to decrease car use. Only if there are higher than suburban densities along the route; "walkable" mixed density neighborhoods that reduce car use; and dense, mixed use transit-oriented town centers.
  • "Affordable neighborhoods" with affordable housing can be created by the private market. The private market has not done it because profit, not social equity, is its highest priority. Instead, insist on politically unpopular mortgage, rent, and land assembly public subsidies that truly close the gap between supply and demand.
  • Environmental protection, clean air and water, and the conservation of agricultural land can be achieved mainly by political activism and support. Only if protected physical space is allocated by a comprehensive regional plan.
  • Private property advocates, developers, politicians, planning commissioners, and business interests have the final say in land use policy. Citizens have the majority of interests and logically should have the greatest decision-making power.
  • Municipalities can somehow provide timely infrastructure to support development. Not without a plan, budget, and fiscal resources, they can't.
  • We can have "guns" and "butter." No government has done it. The first national goal must shift to "Equity for All Americans."

I am not out of touch with the "real world." I worked in it for 43 years. But the "real world" has not achieved APA's goals. It is time for APA to work in a new "real world" that has been the "real (three dimensional) world" all along.



Konrad Perlman is a retired planner with 43 years of experience in the areas of urban renewal and community development, planning administration, information technology, subway routing, private development, strategic planning, teaching, lecturing, private consulting, and writing. Working as a planner for the government of the District of Columbia, he developed one of the first GIS in 1975. Mr. Perlman attended Colgate University and the Yale University City Planning Program in its Art and Architecture School.

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