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Overcoming the Comfort of Powerlessness

If we as planners don't do better in defining ourselves, we risk being seen as irrelevant and superfluous, writes Leonardo Vazquez. Do planners assure their own powerlessness by ignoring those in power?
May 23, 2005, 12am PDT | Leonardo Vazquez, AICP/PP
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 Leonardo Vazquez"You're a planner?  Oh, that's interesting.  What do you do?"  You've probably heard this a lot in your career.  We tend to offer a resigned smile as we are reminded that most people know little about what we do or why we matter.

It's not something to smile about.  If we don't do better in defining ourselves, we risk being seen as irrelevant and superfluous.  As the Oregon ballot initiative that effectively shuts down land use laws shows, this is a critical time for our profession. Some cities have relegated their public planners to reviewing development applications while giving the real planning work to private planning firms that depend on contracts from developers. Some places simply dissolved their planning departments.

Often, when we describe our work, we make ourselves sound like reserve infielders who play a lot of different positions.  We can do land use analysis, economic analysis, facilitation, and project management.  Architects do land use analysis.  Economists and developers do economic analysis.  Professional facilitators do facilitation, and managers do project management.  It raises the question— if planners do the same things that other professionals do, why do we need them?

The answer: Planners are unique among other professionals in their range of knowledge and their ability to be balancing points for urban growth.  Most planners do not know as much about architecture as architects, or about human communities as social workers.  But most architects and social workers know very little about the others' areas of expertise.

Planners have the power to shape perceptions and expectations of urban growth and development.  We are often the hub of a large network of community organizations, developers, businesses, policymakers and public managers.  The greatest strength a planner has is not in doing demographic projections or cost-benefit analyses, but in influencing the hearts and minds of all actors in urban growth.  Plans tend to have a lot of analysis, maps and charts – which they should.  But I believe that the conversations that happen before the plan is published have more to do with its success than what's on the page.

Some might say "no; developers and policymakers will respond more strongly to market forces than illustrated visions."  I agree.  But what is the "the market?"  It is a collective set of transactions between buyers and sellers.  How do buyers and sellers decide who to interact with, how much to spend and what to risk?  Their perceptions and expectations.   

One of the biggest challenges to strengthening the profession will be overcoming the "comfort of powerlessness."  Many people complain about their supposed lack of power to change situations.  But in fact, it makes life easier.  When you are powerless, you don't have to take responsibility.  "It's not my fault," a planner might say.  "I did a great plan.  They're just too dumb/short-sighted/greedy/other to make it happen.  I can't control what they do."  No, but you can influence them – if you want. 

In Planning in the Face of Power, John Forester says that planners assure their own powerlessness by ignoring those in power.  We do worse by ignoring our own sources of power.

We have to start by recognizing that we can and should be leaders in the development and policy process.  Being a leader is different than being a director or manager.  Leaders influence and empower others to act.  There are plenty of leaders who are not directors or managers, and vice versa.  As leaders, we do not tell other people how to think, but provide them with the knowledge to help them make informed decisions.

We have to be knowledgeable in analytical tools and information technology.  This is not so we can do more analysis (nobody ever changed their beliefs because of a regression line) but so we can get better knowledge faster, speak the language of other technicians, and find different ways to communicate information.

We have to rethink the planning process that most of us take for granted. Nobody really believes in the old rational planning model, but it still shapes our work.  It tells us that we should peg our communication to certain stages – such as information gathering or plan presentation.  That's why we get the "parachuting in" model of planners doing a few charettes and thinking they know the hearts and minds of stakeholders.   If our ability to communicate strategically is our greatest strength, then the rational planning model weakens us.

Finally, we have to come together as a profession by focusing on the noun more than the adjective.  Advocacy planners. Economic development planners.  Transportation planners.  If we spend more time doing advocacy, economic development and transportation analysis than planning, we fragment and weaken the profession.  And then the public relations professionals, developers and civil engineers can rightly say: "What do you need them for when you have us?"

The American Planning Association has been working hard to "tell the planning story." We have to develop our own story, not cut and paste the narratives of other professions.

Leonardo Vazquez, AICP/PP, is an Instructor at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey.  He directs two programs there: Bloustein Online Continuing Education for Planners and APA/LeadershipPlenty.  He is also a former chair of the Planners for Ethnic and Cultural Diversity Committee and principal author of "Lagging Behind" a study of ethnic diversity in the planning profession in the New York area.


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