What Planning Won’t Do

To realize what the act of planning is capable of, it helps to consider what is out of reach.

December 13, 2013, 8:32 AM PST

By Norman Wright

I don’t recall ever seeing a candid discussion about what the act of planning cannot do. One can find countless examples of where planning takes credit for something but when do we acknowledge the opposite? To me, there’s nothing more refreshing than when I ask someone for help and they say, kindly but honestly, “I’m sorry but I can’t help you with that.” Such honesty and quick detachment is usually far more helpful than having the good-natured but inept assistance of one who can’t or won’t admit such truth.

It reminds me of an amazing restaurant in Ft. Worth, Texas called Joe T. Garcias*. It is a massive, popular, beautiful restaurant serving hundreds of people a day. Its menu includes two dishes: enchiladas and fajitas. Both are amazing. If you asked them for a slice of pizza or some Peking duck, they would happily and truthfully say “I’m sorry but we can’t help you with that.”

Compare this to the Italian restaurant that also serves hamburgers. Or the “full-service” consultant who will not only write you a land use plan but also engineer a culvert.

That’s not to begrudge generalists. I am a generalist myself, a jack-of-all-trades, given my role as a local government planner. But if I want something done to the best of its potential, I know I must hire a specialized expert. Similarly, when I write a plan, I know it can’t claim to do everything because such a lack of focus leads to a lack of effectiveness. I’ve learned this the hard way.

So with that in mind, let’s consider what the act of planning cannot do. Let’s find those limitations. Here’s are a few from my viewpoint:

Planning will not make the city better. This is my absolute greatest frustration. Far too often I see people misinterpret a planning effort as progress. It is not. Planning is simply the active search for a way to achieve progress. All cities plan. So do businesses. But not all cities or businesses improve. So again, the act of planning doesn’t make the city better. Success requires action, execution, implementation—things that so few cities and businesses ever consistently do. Coincidentally, I know of cities that have experienced great success without ever developing a plan.

Planning will not predict the future. This myth is so pervasive, so misleading, that I will reserve my frustrations for another blog post. But suffice to say that if you ever see a planner trot out a twenty-year projection and use it as a basis for making decisions, throw a copy of The Black Swan at them. And if you ever hear a planner say planning will create a “predictive environment”, invite them to your next poker game.

Planning will not unite the city. I’ll make an exception here: in times of acute crisis, planning can very possibly unite the city. But as soon as the dust settles and the crisis subsides, such unity does not survive. I think we all recognize this. And still we seem shackled by some strange desire to still seek consensus between all parties when we make our plans.

Sometimes, this compromise is successfully forged. But once all parties leave the committee room or conference table, that compromise erodes. Time passes; fragmentation rises; ideas suffer and are “watered-down”.

One thing is clear: the act of planning brings attention to divisive issues. But it cannot be expected to reliably bridge such divisions. That is too much to ask.

Finally, planning will not solve problems. This one is a bit trickier to navigate but please keep an open mind. Problems, however we may define them, vary in scale and scope. Some problems are crisis-level. When there is a crisis, we do not waste time doing a plan. We act. We do. Ironically, what we do is often detailed by a plan that was already developed. But the act of doing is still quite different from the act of planning.

I think that’s a key distinction. And outside of the rare crisis, this distinction still presents itself. For example, let’s say a chemical factory is proposed in your city. You, the planner, must judge its suitability and offer options for decision-makers. The act of analyzing the case and making recommendations is not “planning”. It is problem-solving. These are fundamentally different acts.

The act of planning involves forming the process for analysis. But the actual analysis is separate. Every other profession in the world recognizes this difference. Yet, for some reason, we still call it “planning”. Some will say that my distinction is just a matter of semantics. And they are right. And in this case, the semantics really matter because our techniques for planning are quite different from our techniques for problem-solving. These separate skills should not be confused.

To put it more simply, I have seen many planners who are terrific at making plans but are terrible at problem-solving. Coincidentally, I find that these people are usually consultants. That’s not an insult; it’s simply an observation. After all, the act of planning is still incredibly valuable (so are some consultants). The act of planning is also inevitable. “To plan is human.” But let’s not pretend it is the entirety of the human experience.

Maybe I’m wrong. If so, don’t let that distract us. What’s important about this exercise is that we can define what the act of planning is by recognizing what it is not. Let’s battle against the misperceptions and misplaced expectations. Let’s address the deep, existential lack of identity within our profession. We can’t be all things to all people. We can’t do everything. If we recognize our inabilities, we can make our true abilities all the more valuable.

So here’s an open call for other suggestions: what does planning not do?

*Author’s note: it appears that Joe T. Garcia’s menu has “diversified” since my last visit. Must be part of their plan.

Norman Wright

Norman Wright, AICP, was a Director of Development Services for a municipal government in Tennessee.


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