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The Ethics Of Urban Planning: Remembering The Old AICP Code (1978-2005)

June 26, 2006, 7am PDT | Sarah Jo Peterson
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As the American Institute of Certified Planners (AICP) institutes its new Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct, Sarah Jo Peterson, PhD, Assistant Professor of Regional and City Planning at the University of Oklahoma, remembers the old code and its greater capacity to inspire America's planners.

Sarah Jo Peterson

Every spring I close the semester in the Regional and City Planning program at the University of Oklahoma with a three-week unit on planning ethics. This year, I've had to change my lesson plans. The American Institute of Certified Planners (AICP), the professional institute for the American Planning Association, put in place a new "Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct" on June 1, 2005.

Like other professional codes of ethics, the AICP code guides the behavior of its members. It also communicates to employers and the public what they should expect from certified planners. Despite having the same name, the "new" code makes a significant break with the past. Whereas the "old" code was organized around a unified set of responsibilities, the new code divides ethical standards into "Principles to Which We Aspire" and "Rules of Conduct". Before cranking out the powerpoint slides for my lecture on the new code's twenty-one "aspirational" principles and twenty-five rules of conduct, I want to pause for a moment in memory of the "old" code.

Although I had studied planning ethics and the AICP code in planning school, it was through teaching that I truly began to appreciate the power of the code to inspire. Granted, the "old" code could be a confounding document. It mixed idealism with common sense, including some goals perpetually out of reach, as well as clear no-no's. The code provided one guiding principle -- "the planner's primary obligation is to serve the public interest" -- but otherwise left it to the planner to find the ethical balance among competing precepts applicable to an issue or to a career. In its enforcement it was like the Ten Commandments. It left ambiguous what parts would be enforced by the AICP under threat of penalty, what would be relegated to the realm of peer approbation, and what would remain between the planner and her maker.

Scenarios drawn from the real world, such as those in Carol Barrett's Everyday Ethics for Practicing Planners, quickly made clear to students that the AICP took the common sense and the idealism seriously. Take her scenario "Temporary Toilets". You've been asked to evaluate a project that placed temporary toilets serving the homeless in an alley behind the downtown business district. Would you succumb to pressure, subtle and overt, from the city council, the chamber of commerce, and your own boss to tilt the study of temporary toilets against the homeless? To a group of starry-eyed twenty-three year olds, the answer may be obvious. To students with children and mortgages and all too familiar with the power of hierarchies, the answer is as straightforward as its implications are real. And what about the opposite -- would you tilt the study to favor the homeless? Putting the idealism into action in such scenarios taught students that AICP membership was not just about joining a professional organization, but an awesome responsibility. Even if actual enforcement was only a remote possibility, students saw how AICP's expectations could give planners the impetus to speak up when it would have been far easier to hold silent.

Sure, we would joke about the seemingly impossible dictate contained in the code: Go forth and plan with concern for long range consequences; interrelatedness; full, clear, and accurate information; meaningful citizen impact on plans and programs, including citizens who lack influence; the expansion of choice and opportunity for all, and especially for the disadvantaged; the integrity of the natural environment; strive for design excellence and preserve the heritage of the built environment. Yes, the AICP Superhero capes come in red and blue. I would also start to see students' spines stiffen and heads held higher. This effect was unintentionally amplified the year I had students from architecture and landscape architecture in the class. Out of sense of fairness, I assigned everyone to read all three professional codes. My new planning superheroes couldn't resist gently ribbing their more earthbound classmates.

As mentioned above, the new code distinguishes between principles and rules, but it appears that the AICP only intends to hold members accountable to the rules section. Reportedly, the legal world demanded enforcement clarity. The "Principles to Which We Aspire" are still there, of course, some expanded, some strengthened, and some watered down. The planner's primary obligation to the public interest is still a guiding principle, but not a rule. The AICP has also weighed in on finding an ethical balance. In those hopefully rare cases when the rules conflict with the principles, I feel that I must advise students intending to join the AICP to follow the rules. Presumably, the new code still holds the power to inspire, although it won't be in quite the same elegant way that the old code did. I miss it already.

Sarah Jo Peterson, PhD, is Assistant Professor of Regional and City Planning at the University of Oklahoma. She teaches ethics in the course Planning Management.


Barrett, Carol D. 2001. Everyday Ethics for Practicing Planners. Washington, DC: American Planning Association.

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