Just Who Are We Planning For Anyway?

Do planners need to give more consideration to public opinion and community interests?

June 3, 2002, 12:00 AM PDT

By Daniel Hamilton

 Daniel HamiltonA low-income housing project in a suburban single-family neighborhood. A drug-treatment facility on the next street over. Heck, let's include a commercial center at the next big intersection, which may include a discount retailer, pawn shop, or thrift store. What do all these have in common? Most planners will see them immediately as controversy laden, public outcry spurring NIMBY monsters, and those planners would be right. Projects such as these (and many others) generate huge amounts of public dissent, and were you to take poll of community residents, would likely be opposed by the majority of the population. So if this is the will of the people, then why are planners continually allowing them to be built? If we as a profession are charged with creating an urban form that best serves the people who live here, then shouldn't we let public opinion decide which projects are allowed and which ones aren't? After all, whom are we planning for?

Planners are called upon daily to make ethical decisions regarding the development of their communities. Professional ethics require that we work to provide suitable accommodations for low-income families and individuals, bring essential social services to the community however possible, and not discriminate economically or socially in making land use decisions. It is in this sense that planners knowingly and usually proudly stand up against public opinion, stating that "this is what is right and we will do it regardless of what the community thinks." Public opinion seems less important than the planners' own sense of morality, and it is rare indeed that a planner holds the ethics of the public in higher regard than those of their profession.

This is interesting for a profession that is supposedly charged with representing the interests of the community they work for. Public input is certainly asked for and "considered" in planning activities, but how often is it reflected in plans and actions when it violates our sense of professional obligation? If a city's people called for increased sprawl and no low-income housing, would it be or should it be a planners duty to plan for that? Should the environmentally conscious planner disregard his/her own sense of ethical responsibility to denigrate air and water quality if that is the will of the constituency? The answer to this seems obvious to most of us, but why? Most planners would answer that they have a superior knowledge and understanding of the big picture, and therefore they are better suited to make those decisions for the less-informed public. And while that is certainly a reasonable answer, it flies in the face of the democratic process, and leads to the inevitable conclusion that the development of a community is outside the control of the people that live there.

There is an old planning joke that says if a planner was a vegetable, he would be a watermelon - green on the outside, and red on the inside. This rings true now more than ever in communities faced with ever increasing pressures of suburban sprawl, overcrowded schools, and congestion. Planners feel the obligation to address these problems, but are constrained by a public that generally fails to understand that the health, safety, welfare, and morals of the community must take precedence over the potential negative impacts to some individuals. And when the planner makes the decision to approve that next controversy laden, public outcry spurring NIMBY monster, he should feel confident that he is improving the community for its residents, despite what they may think.


Daniel Hamilton is an Associate Planner with the City of Galt, California. He received his Master's Degree in Urban Planning from the University of Kansas in 1999, and worked as a planning consultant in Kansas City, MO prior to joining the City of Galt.

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