Cultural Competency: A Critical Skill Set For The 21st Century Planner

Understanding the needs of ethnic minorities is critical for contemporary working planners, says Leonardo Vasquez, AICP/PP.

Read Time: 6 minutes

December 21, 2009, 5:00 AM PST

By Leonardo Vazquez, AICP/PP

Photo: Leonardo VazquezIn the list of facts you keep in your head for work, please add this: $2.5 trillion. That's at least how much buying power ethnic minorities in the United States had in 2008. That is 23% of the $10.7 trillion in total disposable income in the US last year. And minority buying power is expected to grow – even faster than White buying power.

Whether you do regional economic development or neighborhood planning, leveraging the growing wealth of non-white ethnic groups (and the political power that follows) can help your community be more successful. The most successful planners in these efforts will be those who are more culturally competent.

Cultural competency is a set of skills focused on working with diverse individuals and communities. It's not about 'being nice to minorities'; it is about engaging people who are different from you effectively. Cultural competency can help you whether you're an African-American planner working in a White community; or a White planner on a team with White architects and engineers.

Cultural competency is as much a skill set as urban design, economic development, or transportation analysis. Planners may find it more challenging than the traditional skill sets. Seeking order and harmony is part of our professional DNA. Cultural competency requires that you be comfortable with the sloppiness and tension that comes from valuing and bridging different viewpoints.

Urban planners have been working with diverse populations since the beginning. What's different now? The expectations and powers of diverse communities. In Daniel Burnham's time, most ethnic minorities didn't expect to directly influence the decisions of government agencies. In Jane Jacobs' time, getting information to and mobilizing communities was costly and time-consuming. We now live in the age of direct democracy. More people expect to be consulted, not just 'informed.' And if they're unhappy, they can let thousands of others know easily.

Communities that will most benefit from the growing wealth of minorities are those whose leaders and their advisors understand and value them. (The dollar figures come from our analysis of data developed by the Selig Center for Ethnic Growth at the University of Georgia's Terry College School of Business.)

Cultural competency defined
Culture has many definitions, but in the realm of social sciences, it usually refers to a shared set of beliefs of behaviors exhibited by a distinctive group. Culture is manifested in many ways, including through language and non-verbal communication, customs, religious exercise, and bodies of knowledge passed on by mentors and teachers. Objects, symbols and other elements of the physical environment reflect the cultural values of the decision makers and the communities they are working to serve. The red brick (or stamped red concrete) sidewalks in the suburbs of New York are not simply design features. They are meant to evoke a romanticized image of what many residents might consider a simpler and more orderly period in American history. And it also could mean "This time period (and the elements of it) are what is most valued here."

Like the air we breathe, our cultural views are so ingrained in us that we have trouble seeing them. Consider the usual response of planners when they face opposition to their ideas: Some variation of 'They just don't understand.' The planners believing this assume that if they could just 'educate' the opponents, those people would see the facts the way the planners do. But we all construct the facts to fit our own views of what is right, wrong, real and fantasy. In other words, 'truth' may be built with facts, but it is cemented by cultural perceptions.

Culturally competent planning practice
Cultural competency focuses on three dimensions: awareness, beliefs and behaviors.


  • Of one's own theories of what 'good planning' is, and how one's own experiences and biases shape those theories.
  • Of the cultural beliefs and behaviors of one's own professional and sectoral cultures.
  • That stakeholders are likely to have experiences and biases about planners and planning that will affect how they relate to planners. In other words, stakeholders may be responding more to the position than to the individual.
  • Of the impact of land uses on people of different cultures, in particular members of low-income and disenfranchised communities.
  • Of the roles planners have historically played in promoting and institutionalizing the interests of dominant cultures within communities.
  • That members of cultures which have had little positive experience with urban planners are less likely to participate in collaborative planning engagements. As a result, planners may inadvertently prepare reports and plans that serve the needs of dominant groups within an environment.
  • Of the distinct and overlapping cultures within a study area, and the ability to see the 'cultures within cultures' (for example, national origin in Latino or Asian communities).
  • Of the norms of different cultures, as a way of demonstrating respect and knowledge.
  • Of the relationships of power among planning professionals and other actors in the development and maintenance of the built environment, and among planning professionals and the various communities with which they interact.


  • Planning is about making choices, and all choices in planning are normative. In other words, a choice is neither right nor wrong, but a better (or worse) way to further values.
  • Cultural beliefs and behaviors have significant impacts on urban planning from the neighborhood to the regional levels.
  • Cultural beliefs and behaviors are important sources of data to be ascertained prior to preparing a plan.
  • The best ways to understand how people of different cultures would be impacted by planning is to engage them in collaborative planning practices.
  • The best teams are diverse, and are led by individuals who value diversity and inclusiveness and have the skills to manage the conflicts that arise from diversity.
  • Planners and planning organizations should seek to model the same kind of cultural competency they hope to see in communities.
  • Planners should seek to be both more self-aware and aware of other cultures as part of their own professional development.
  • Planners must have the courage to reconsider and change beliefs and behaviors that are counterproductive or inefficient in the context of cultural competency.


  • In culturally diverse environments, significant amounts of resources are focused on engagement and collaborative practice.
  • Planning directors and managers habitually build culturally inclusive organizations and teams. Directors and managers develop skills suited to lead such organizations and teams.
  • Planners work to understand and be understood by culturally diverse audiences. Where planners are limited by their own communication skills, they engage others (individuals, organizations) to bridge communication gaps.
  • Planners prepare documents that can be understood by as many people as is reasonably feasible.
  • Planners and planning organizations engage in continual reflective practice so that they can become more aware and better adapt to new information and changing conditions.

You don't have to know cultural competency to do urban planning, just as you don't have to know transportation analysis to do a circulation plan, or urban design to do physical planning. But you and the communities you serve will be more successful if you are more culturally competent.

For more information:

'Principles of Culturally Competent Planning and Placemaking,' by Leonardo Vazquez…

'The Multicultural Economy 2008,' by Jeffrey H. Humphries is the most recent in a series of reports from the Selig Center for Economic Growth at the University of Georgia's Terry College of Business. You can download the report at In addition to national figures, the report includes buying power by racial and ethnic group by state.

Important: Precise calculations of buying power and especially minority buying power are difficult, if not impossible, to get. All buying power statistics underestimate the total dollars in communities, because the statistics can not account for income in the informal economy – such as the dollars held by undocumented workers and their cohorts.

Leonardo Vazquez, AICP/PP, is director of The Leading Institute and the Professional Development Institute, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy.


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