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Who are our Planners?

December 16, 2013

Who are the people planning our cities? Where do they come from? And in what do they believe? Most people live their life outside the sphere of influence on physical and community developments issues, not realizing that there exist an actually group of professionals charged with shaping these processes and decisions.  However, the answers to these aforementioned questions are fundamental to how all of us experience the neighborhoods and cities we call home.

As planners, part of our socio-professional responsibility is to include the populations we serve to the greatest extent possible in the decision making process. But raising questions about who become the thought leaders, planners, and designers of the future (and the mechanisms by-which they get there) is often left out of the discussion. Today diversity among employees and student bodies is of great importance to most companies and institutions, but I think the consequences of a diverse (or homogenous) population among planners, more so than in other professions, significantly impacts the progress of the field as a whole. Unlike other professions that operate around a highly rigid code of ethics, the field of planning leaves much up to the intensions and perspective of the practitioner. Recognizing this, along with the public’s relative inability to ‘elect’ or influence who become these professionals puts great responsibility on the educational institutions that accept, train, and accredit these future professionals to ensure that as individuals they are represent diverse perspectives and agendas.

More attention must be paid to this responsibility that falls largely to the colleges, universities and institutes that ultimately sort through applications and decide who they see fit to become the planners that often come to represent entire generations of development. A huge challenge faced by the planning education systems is to give students access to a diverse set of viewpoints, both from their piers, and in their practice. Working on projects from a diverse set of clients (developers, government, community organizations with various goals) allows us to understand how various groups prioritize outcomes and decisions. Similarly, working within groups of piers who can empathize with various causes and represent a wide variety of socio-economic conditions, races, cultural backgrounds and contemporary issues is essential in developing a skill set based on holistic thinking. Understanding issues from only one angle fails to serve the planner and fails to serve communities whose views are inherently diverse.

The AICP/ APA Code of Ethics does set very clear expectations for the conduct of planners, but not without first acknowledging that, “as the basic values of society are often in competition with each other, so do these [ethical planning] principles sometimes compete” (p.2). One of these most important examples of competing ethics and values is in the conflict of interests that arises when a planner has a personal stake in the outcome of their professional endeavor. While I agree that having a direct, personal or financial stake in a plan must naturally be avoided, it is unreasonable to think that a planner will not have, or develop, an emotional stake in a project. While having personal monetary gain at stake can more easily be identified and avoided, it is the emotional appeal of seeing a certain ideology represented in a proposed plan that can cause an even greater amount of bias on the part of the planner.   Although we must prepare a range of options and approaches for any client, it is individual values/ biases that will shape the types of suggestions we make.  For this reason it is exceptionally important that diversity in culture, political persuasion, ideology and values be maintained within the planning community.

Planners are pulled by a multitude of forces, in often opposing directions.  Because of certain limitations such as role, ethics, and practicality, many of our guiding principles are set in place for us without regard to personal preferences or ideologies.  Our actions are limited firstly by law, political hierarchy and bureaucracy, and then by the responsibility we have to uphold the quality and reputation our profession. Then while negotiating a specific approach based on the clients needs, we must also keep in mind the impact on the larger community.  Despite these forces, the values of each individual planner are still of utmost importance, as it is these individual persuasions that will help us each to navigate these thresholds differently.

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