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Latinos and Planning: The Road Ahead

With the Latino population growing tremendously, it's time to begin addressing the shortcomings in the practice of planning regarding this key demographic.
February 26, 2007, 8am PST | Leonardo Vazquez, AICP/PP
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 Leo VazquezFor more than a year, more than 150 planning and community development professionals have gathered in eight cities around the United States to explore this question: "What are the biggest challenges facing Latino communities?" You might find the top themes both surprising and uncomfortable.

What do you think would be the top challenges? Quality transportation? Good economic development? Affordable housing? Yes, they were mentioned, but these are considered more critical:

  1. The lack of participation in planning by Latinos
  2. The relationship of planners and planning profession to Latino communities
  3. The design and management of spaces and places are not meeting the social, economic or cultural interests of Latinos
  4. The lack of capacity within Latino communities to engage in planning
  5. Current planning processes are not effective in Latino communities

Yes, three of the top five themes are about planning practice and the profession -- not the stuff that usually goes on maps and illustrations. While you might say that some of these issues aren't the fault of planners, in some cases, planners may aggravate the problems. What's needed in many instances is simply more awareness. Once that's in place, work can start on working together to address the problem.

You've probably heard about how Latinos are arguably the largest and fastest-growing ethnic group in the United States. But how does this impact planning professionals -- especially those who don't work in predominantly Hispanic communities? In plenty of ways -- from economic development and public participation to project management within planning organizations.

Consider this:

  • Traditional models of local economic development assume that financial capital will stay in the community, or at least the region. But, according to the Inter-American Development Bank, Latino immigrants sent $45 billion -- yes, billion -- to Latin America in 2006. More than 70% of immigrants send about 10% of their income to their homelands.
  • The old model of immigration involves first generation immigrants moving to central cities, and their children or grandchildren moving to suburbs. But as we've seen with the growth of anti-illegal immigration efforts in Manassas, Virginia; Hazleton, Pennsylvania, and other small towns, plenty of recent immigrants are passing by major cities. Because these immigrants tend to have high demand for low-cost social services, public transit and jobs, towns and especially first-ring suburbs are facing new planning challenges.
  • Planners and architects tout the charrette as a democratic and efficient way to engage the public. Unfortunately, the model can be culturally biased and puts Hispanics at a disadvantage. Compared to Anglo-Americans (aka "Whites") and African-Americans, Latinos tend to have a more indirect communication style and be more reserved in mixed public gatherings. This means that in forums where those who speak more and with confidence tend to get greater attention, Hispanics are less likely to air their views. Meeting facilitators might take the lack of vocal disagreement as a false sign of consensus.
  • In general, Latino professionals tend to have much different working styles than their Anglo-American counterparts. Latino professionals tend to be more flexible about schedules and deadlines and are more comfortable in work settings that are more collaborative and mutually supportive than those where members have highly structured roles and are encouraged to compete among themselves for benefits and resources. A good-hearted Anglo-American planning director who is unaware of different workstyles might be critical of the way a Hispanic planner might approach a project. For the next project, the director gives the management tasks to another Anglo-American, rather than the Hispanic. And over time the white planners become managers and directors while the Latino planners plug away as technicians and supporting players.

These and other reasons have led to the creation of Latinos and Planning -- a national group started by a number of Latino planning, policy and community development professionals (including myself.) We started this in the summer of 2005 because Latinos are the largest ethnic minority in the United States, and the most underrepresented ethnic group in the planning profession. Latinos represent at least 14% of the US population, but in the planning profession, they are in the low to mid single digits. Only about 2% of American Planning Association members are Latinos. My 2001 study of ethnic diversity among New York City-area planning professionals showed only 6% of planners were Hispanic -- even though there's a much larger concentration of Latinos in the area, and New York is an attractive job market.

Latinos and Planning wants to address this problem. We started by holding dialogos (Spanish for "dialogues") that focused on two subjects: the biggest planning challenges facing Latino communities, and the biggest challenges facing Latino planners. We invited planning, community development and other related professionals who work in or with Latino communities. Though most of the participants were Hispanic, we tried as best as we could to make everyone feel welcome. (These dialogos were organized and conducted by volunteers working with small or no financial resources.)

The findings from these dialogos, compiled in the "National Agenda for Latinos and Planning" highlighted the top five challenges that I mentioned earlier.

Lack of participation in planning by Latinos. A number of obstacles -- from a lack of civic engagement and sense of empowerment by Latinos, to language barriers and misunderstood vocabulary -- keep Latinos from actively participating in planning their communities.
The relationship of planners and planning profession to Latino communities. Far too few planners are Latino (or have knowledge of Hispanic culture), making it difficult to for the profession to connect with Latino communities. As in other minority communities, mistrust of government also effects how people interact with planners.

The design and management of spaces and places are not meeting the social, economic or cultural interests of Latinos. Planners need to better understand how Latinos make use of public space and design neighborhoods that fit with Latinos' notions of community. As tensions rise in communities where Latino immigrants bring new approaches to the use of streets and sidewalks, planners must deal with issues of access and public safety.

The lack of capacity within Latino communities to engage in planning. Planning works best when communities are organized and have well-informed leaders. Programs to involve community groups, disseminate information, and identify and nurture leaders in Latino communities and disseminate information are critical to successful planning in Latino communities.

Current planning processes are not effective in Latino communities. Conventional public participation strategies don't work well in Latino communities, and planning activities in Latino communities often default into a "doing for, rather than with" mode. New outreach practices and planning models are needed to address the unique circumstances of Latino communities -- such as transnational populations and assimilation over generations.

With the Latino population continuing to grow, addressing these issues will becoming increasingly important. To help bring more attention to theses issues, and develop solutions, Latinos and Planning recently became a professional division in the American Planning Association. While we like to think of ourselves more as a vecindad -- a neighborhood -- than a division, we will be continuing our efforts to make our colleagues -- and particularly our leaders -- aware of the planning challenges facing Latino communities.

Of course, this is just a start. In the future, I and others hope to expand on some of the issues raised above -- such as pubic participation in Latino communities, how Latinos use public space, and how to recruit and develop Latino planners.

Ultimately, we hope that by providing information and creating awareness, we can help the leaders in our field with the power to create change address these problems that threaten to disenfranchise a growing number of people in our cities.

Leonardo Vazquez, AICP/PP, is an Instructor and Director of the Professional Development Institute at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy of Rutgers University. He is the Chair and one of the founders of Latinos and Planning.

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