The Urbanist Musings of Pete Saunders

Planning Diversity Matters

Students at USC’s Sol Price School of Public Policy.  The diversity exhibited here could become the exception, not the rule.  Source: news.usc.edu

Does social and cultural diversity matter in the urban planning profession?  Some future changes in policy recommended by the Planning Accreditation Board (PAB), the board that accredits schools that award planning degrees at the bachelor’s and master’s levels, might put this question to the test.

Last week, Next City published a story saying that the PAB would recommend changes to its language and standards on diversity for programs seeking accreditation.  From Next City:

“Present standards mandate that programs have a student body that reflects regional demographics “in the aggregate,” as well as established recruitment and retention tactics. They also require universities to document their diversity strategies in progress. The new amendments would drop these points and instead ask that schools “pro-actively seek to expand opportunity for under-represented minorities…”

Faculty diversity standards were similarly rehashed. And notably, a guideline advising that faculties boast “a range of specialized knowledge” and count alumni from a diverse assortment of universities is set to be scrapped.”

Next City found some negative reaction from academic planners and those representing the interests of minority planners:

“What we were told in a presentation of these pages was that the PAB was making minor tweaks to clean up the standards, to fix glitches,” says Lisa Bates, a professor at Portland State University and co-chair of the Planners of Color Interest Group of the Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning, recalling when the draft was first shared with the group. “When we got the document I think we were all really surprised at how far beyond [the changes were.]”

Leonardo Vazquez, executive director of the National Consortium for Creative Placemaking and co-founder of the American Planning Association’s Latinos and Planning Division, found the proposed changes disappointing. “The new language regarding diversity — and I say this with some sadness because I think there are great people who work on these things — is, quite frankly, superficial,” he begins. “It seems to be more about being sensitive about diversity than about being smart.”

Me?  I tend to think that diversity in the urban planning profession is more relevant now than it’s been at any other time in my career, and any changes in the diversity of the profession may be directly related to broader changes in the diversity of our cities.  I can explain by using my own story.

I’m now in my 25th year as a full-fledged planner, having received my master’s degree and first planning job in 1990.  At the start of my career I realized that I was firmly in the minority in the profession, but that didn’t faze me; as an African-American man with an advanced degree, that’s to be expected.

I started my career working in the Department of Planning with the City of Chicago.  This was three years removed from the death of Mayor Harold Washington, Chicago’s first African-American mayor, who made diversity a priority in his administration.  Many departments began to develop staffs that looked more and more like the city during this period, but that was beginning to wane in the aftermath of his death.

There were only a handful of minority planning professionals, including me, in DOP in 1990, but that mattered little to me at the time.  At that same time, the City also had a Department of Economic Development that had a considerable number of minority professionals and was one of the few city departments that mirrored the composition of the city itself.  The departments had distinct functions but routinely interacted with each other — DOP handled long range, strategic planning and development review responsibilities, while DED handled development incentive programs like TIF and special service areas, as well as managing HUD CDBG funding being spent in local neighborhoods.

In the early ’90s, a clear distinction could be made between the staffs of the departments.  DOP was comprised of many younger, highly educated white planners who increasingly relocated from the suburbs or outside of Chicago to work here.  DED was largely made up of older, less well educated (meaning a bachelor’s degree only, instead of a master’s), and far more diverse group of professionals.  This led to some fundamental philosophical differences in how the city should view and prepare for its future — find ways to support and build on the nascent gentrification that was taking hold, or continue the incremental, incentive-laden approach to attract people and businesses to the city.

Over time, the departments morphed and their functions collided.  Mayor Richard M. Daley ultimately pushed for a merger of the departments around 1994.  Starting then and over the ensuing ten years, this period coincides with a lot of the planning leadership attributed to Mayor Daley — using public investment (public works, police stations and fire stations, and libraries) to catalyze development, developing more stringent design standards to improve the built environment aesthetic (this approach is recognized by many as achieving overreach when the City closed the Meigs Field lakefront airport, and reached its peak with the parking meter lease deal.)

Also over time, the composition of the newly merged department changed, just as the composition of the city was changing.  The change was not dramatic or overwhelming.  Older minority workers retired, or accepted early retirement buyout plans as the city’s fiscal situation worsened.  Their numbers decreased.  Younger white staffers took their place.  The change was subtle.

However, the philosophical change was as important, if not moreso, as the demographic one.  Many of the city’s hard-scrabble neighborhoods on the South and West sides lost some of their biggest advocates as those minority staffers moved out and others moved in.  Try as they might, the new staffers lacked much of the historical and institutional knowledge to effectively deal with the issues and concerns of the city’s distressed communities, and as a result may have instead developed a laser focus on the areas of the city they are most familiar with — the Loop and the revitalizing North and Near West sides.

I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that the bifurcation that plagues the city today could have its beginnings in this very subtle transition.

So yes, I believe that planning diversity matters.  Without it, a disconnect can develop that inhibits understanding, and ultimately, opportunities at revitalization.

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