The Urbanist Musings of Pete Saunders

When Will Planning Decide What It Is, And When Will Planners Decide Who We Are?

Honestly, is there any other profession that is as professionally insecure as planning?

Look at this link from Planetizen.  Titled, “What is Planning?” author Tom Sanchez highlighted the results of his research on the teaching and research interests of 851 planning faculty members nationwide.  True, this may not be the best sampling of the planning universe — there are plenty of public and private sector planners who may have a say in this — but it does provide a good sense of what academia thinks planning is, and what it’s teaching future planners to be.

It’s not pretty.

Here’s what Mr. Sanchez had to say:

Because of the large number of topics (nodes) and ties in the network, it is difficult to identify distinct clusters.  This is not only a function of the number of nodes, but also the density resulting from strong connections among the core topics identified.  The top 20 topics by degree centrality (number of faculty mentioning the topic) are shown below:

Look at that. The academic focal points are so disparate that it’s hard to discern a planning core. No wonder we’re so disjointed as a profession — and we wonder why other professions have a hard time taking us seriously. Because planning touches so many other professions and disciplines (economics, history, geography, sociology, architecture, landscape architecture, civil engineering, etc.) it’s always viewed as an amalgamated profession rather than one with a true core. The Frankenstein profession.

This is underscored in a recent post from Chuck Marohn at his Strong Towns blog.  Going over his reluctance to renew his AICP certification, he said:
The first answer is the easiest: I don’t really identify with the modern planning profession. The tools of the modern planner — use-based zoning codes, planned unit developments, comprehensive plans, projections, superficial public input — are the relics of process-driven era. Every planner working for a municipality today can name more than one absolutely idiotic thing that came about in their city because of adherence to the established rules. In my early planning days, I tried to build a better system. Call me cynical, but I’ve simply concluded that it’s the wrong approach, even if it could be reformed.

Why are we doing what we do anyway? What is our core?

I’ve long believed that the planning profession, and the affiliated professions that do similar work, at their core want to make cities better places. The problem has been how to do it. Four approaches seem to have been in play since planning’s earliest days:

Better regulation = better cities. It’s no coincidence that the rise of the modern planning profession happens with the rise of Euclidean zoning. In fact it’s become the foundation of the profession — and it’s arguably facilitated the sprawl that hurts our cities to this day.

Better design = better cities. The place where planning intersects with architecture and landscape architecture, and a key contributor to the start of the profession. Many of today’s upholders of this approach can be found in the Congress of the New Urbanism. However, the problem has been that design is often perceived as an elitist tool, only to be used by those who can afford to implement it in communities that can afford it.

Better systems = better cities. This is the calling card of transportation planners, environmental planners, and possibly even urban economists. If we can improve the things that make our cities go, or the city’s interface with its surroundings, we have better places.

Better information = better cities. Perhaps the most recent inclusion to this list, there is a growing group that believes technology can improve cities, through the data that shows how well policies and programs work and through providing information that can help individuals make better decisions.
Sometime ago Urbanophile Aaron Renn wrote a piece arguing that cities could use a creative director, in charge of developing and maintaining a city’s “brand”:
I think this notion has appeal because a) most cities have no concept of brand or vision, and b) strong creative directors have pulled off miracles in the private sector by reviving fallen brands. 

Related to that, I think planning perhaps should evolve into something like the research and development arm of local government. Planners could hold onto their multidisciplinary nature but work together to continually research and evaluate best practices that could be implemented in their respective cities. Often that is the mayor of a city, but the time horizon of most mayors is far too short for that to truly happen. Making cities better places usually happens at a generational scale, and only a research-oriented group operating outside of a typical political timeframe can take on that task.

Well, at least that’s where my ramblings lead me today.

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