Planners Need To Work With Difference

There are many voices in the process of community planning. To create effective plans, planners need to welcome these many voices and their respective differences, not suppress them into consensus.

Read Time: 7 minutes

January 14, 2008, 5:00 AM PST

By Lewis D. Hopkins, Marisa A. Zapata

Photo: Lewis D. Hopkins Photo: Marisa A. Zapata

Planners operate in communities of individuals and organizations that plan. Such multi-vocal planning is not cause for despair. If we believe that making and using plans enables people to achieve their aspirations, then plans should speak in the voices of poverty as well as wealth, renter as well as owner, recent arrival as well as longtime resident, region as well as municipality, and insurgent advocate as well as authority. Sustaining difference, as opposed to suppressing it, better equips planners to address inequality, marginalization, and oppression. Planners can work with difference and still make plans and facilitate consent for specific concerted actions.

Consensus-building techniques that make sense for groups of twenty people focused on a particular issue are not appropriate when transferred to thousands of participants creating a plan for the long-term future of a metropolitan area. Commitments to sustaining valued differences in community identity and intent, on the other hand, need not undermine the task of reaching consent for action at a particular time and place. Consider in turn these conventional and reframed ideas about consensus-building, ethnographic understanding, forecasting and scenario planning, and comprehensive planning.

Consensus Building

Consensus building brings expertise to bear in situations where stakeholders can be identified and can focus on creating consent for specific actions. Rather than extending claims for consensus building to the imagination of all-encompassing long-term visions, planners should place consensus building within the continually interacting interests of changing coalitions of interacting organizations.

Consensus building that acknowledges its place in a larger context would be explicit about considering the plans of participating stakeholders and the scenarios of different futures. It would assume that participating organizations would take any resulting agreement as legacy into future agreements with overlapping stakeholders in future consensus building events. It would acknowledge that an agreed action fits, or does not, into other aspects of a stakeholder's plans. Plans would remain active and belong to organizations or coalitions, rather than being overridden by one consensus building process.

Most importantly, we should acknowledge that a consensus building event forms at one time around one cluster among many interacting issues and actions. Other efforts will and should emerge around clusters of other issues and actions. Ethnographic understanding of difference, forecasts, and plans are means for expressing and working with these interactions among as well as within particular consensus building events.

Ethnographic Understanding

Ethnographic study characterizes and interprets difference. Rather than treating differences as problems to be solved, planners should use ethnographic insight to sustain difference. Difference among rich combinations of individuals and overlapping groups is a valued and essential aspect of adaptive societies.

Understanding difference is not the same as suppressing it into consensus. Understanding difference helps planners learn the varied ways that people interact with different subsets of society, and that groups of people tend to position other groups into separated roles. Understanding how the historic legacy of planning decisions affects the mindset of the public today also matters.

For example, the federal government's destruction of levees during the 1927 Mississippi flood shapes perceptions, attitudes and beliefs in present day Katrina responses matters. For some (mainly black) New Orleans community members, the possibility that the government deliberatively exploded the levees during Hurricane Katrina, a reality in 1927, matters in planning for New Orleans today. These historical meanings of flooding and levees are at least as important as other meanings, such as hydrological engineering descriptions of how levees failed.

Rather than trying to avoid these differences, consensus building should work toward commitments at a particular time to enable levee construction that makes sense across these differences. Successful consensus building on one issue does not depend on removing the underlying differences of legacy, identity, or interests. We can rebuild levees and retain the meanings of the 1927 flood and of Katrina for African Americans as evidence to achieve further changes toward social justice.

Scenarios and Forecasting

Forecasters make claims about what will happen. Rather than pretend to tell us what the future will be before we plan, forecasters should help us learn how the world can work by imagining different scenarios as we deliberate about actions.

Forecasting should focus on learning how the world can work by constructing stories that make sense of possibilities for people who want to take action. When a new housing project is proposed, we usually focus on forecasting traffic, local public finance, and infrastructure capacity. These are important concerns, but we should also forecast the effects on school integration and housing integration – two aspects which are usually quietly ignored or considered too controversial to make explicit.

Scenario planning is explicitly not concerned about forecasting the future. Good forecasting can be linked to scenarios with elaborate details of how the world can work in a particular situation contingent on a particular action. Scenario thinking takes us even further, however, by setting the specific task of trying to imagine structurally different futures: what might happen in a world we can influence but not control.

Keeping scenarios alive while we choose specific actions counters this problem of focusing on implementing an agreed plan and forgetting to watch how the world is working. As is well established in failure design in engineering, we should consider what happens if the world works a bit differently than it did last year or than we think it should.

Comprehensive Planning

Planners make claims about what could and should happen. Rather than pretend that everything will be represented in one visionary or comprehensive plan, planners should use their expertise to help make connections among the many plans of various organizations and scenarios of the future that we cannot control.

In a multi-vocal approach, a city's plan should highlight what the city has thought through and acknowledge that the city does not have complete control of what happens. It should, for example, identify transportation projects that are in process-designed and funded or nearly so. It should also identify connectivity questions yet unresolved, not as if they were agreed alignments, but as annotated graphic statements of what is known and what is at issue.
Plans designed to be used in multi-vocal communities provide information about how the interests of one scope and jurisdiction align with or differ from those of another. Negotiation about what to do-whether Federal funds will be obtained, whether the local match will be provided, who will be elected or defeated-are informed by these plans, not controlled by them. Instead of pretending to bring everyone together into one view, one public interest, and one plan, multi-vocal planning intentionally chooses to make plans of different scopes for different purposes.

Multi-vocal planning is different from advocacy planning. Advocacy planning builds on an analogy of legal advocates and political plurality. It suggests that there ought to be competing plans, but these plans focus on the same issue and compete to resolve the same questions. As in a trial or election, after advocacy for both or several sides, some decision wins. In contrast, multi-vocal planning recognizes that many organizations, both government and private, have authority and capabilities to act on their own as well as to influence the actions of others. The resulting network or ecosystem of plans is more complex than mere competing substitutes. The plans of a private developer or a neighborhood organization interact with the plans of a municipality. The plans of a municipality interact with the plans of regional agencies such as sanitary or transit districts.

Planners cannot work with difference by focusing on one consensus, one identity of place or person, one forecast, or one plan. Planners can and should take a multi-vocal approach, focusing on the interactions among consensus events, persons of difference, scenarios, and plans. Multi-vocal planning enables planners to achieve action and to sustain differences that enrich communities and increase our ability to adapt to change.


Lewis D. Hopkins, FAICP, is Professor Emeritus of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and serves on the Urbana Planning Commission. Marisa A. Zapata is in the PhD program in regional planning at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she completed her MUP in 2004. They co-edited Engaging the Future: Forecasts, Scenarios, Plans, and Projects, recently published by Lincoln Institute of Land Policy.


Redesigning Streets for Livability: A Global View

An excerpt from the introduction of the recent book, “Streets For All: 50 Strategies for Shaping Resilient Cities,” edited by Vinayak Bharne and Shyam Khandekar.

January 18, 2023 - Vinayak Bharne

Chicago Commute

The Right to Mobility

As we consider how to decarbonize transportation, preserving mobility, especially for lower- and middle-income people, must be a priority.

January 26, 2023 - Angie Schmitt

Aerial view of Bend, Oregon with river and old mill district

Bend Eliminates Parking Minimums

The city is complying with an Oregon state mandate that some cities have challenged in court.

January 20, 2023 - KTVZ

Pedestrians and people on bikes on Atlanta BeltLine multiuse trail

How To Prevent ‘Green Gentrification:’ Lessons from the BeltLine

For one author, the key is focusing on affordable housing from the start.

January 27 - The Conversation

View of stone-paved street with pedestrians and "Farmers Market" neon sign on left and old buildings on right in Seattle, Washington

Push and Pull: The Link Between Walkability and Affordability

The increased demand for walkable urban spaces could make them more and more exclusionary if cities don’t pursue policies to limit displacement and boost affordability.

January 27 - Smart Cities Dive

Rendering of freeway deck over Interstate 10 in El Paso

El Paso Freeway Cap Linked to Road Expansion

A deck reconnecting neighborhoods divided by the interstate is part of a controversial freeway expansion proposal.

January 27 - Smart Cities Dive