The Planner’s superpower: no straight edges required.

“This is not the planning profession John Nolen built. A century later, our great recession has sparked a full re-evaluation of what a city’s urban planning department should be ‘doing’ for its citizens. As witnessed in Los Angeles and San Diego, the planning profession is being measured by its eternal conundrum between Forward Planning Departments that plan for future development projects and Current Planning Services that process today’s development applications….

Having been regulated to stakeholder status in a city’s Economic Development prioritization, planners must reclaim their place at the city’s Capital Improvement Planning table.”

-“The Future of Municipal Planning: Is John Nolen rolling over in his grave?” http://t.co/lCrdPWdQQq

It’s always a little disorienting to agree and disagree with an author at the same time.  This article by by Howard Blackson on Placemakers gets at many points that I’ve advocated in the past– planners needing to be proactive, responsibility for fiscal decision-making, important role of planners in guiding economic development decisions.

But…the objective is “a place at the Capital Improvement Plan table?”   No doubt, that would be helpful. But it’s not enough.

Planners do more than lay out physical improvements.  We do more than illustrate desired future developments.  And we have to.  Our communities need more, a whole lot more. The responsibility, the importance of planning, goes far beyond capital improvement plans. Today more than ever before.

I know this is a long, long debate in planning…Moses vs Jacobs, van de Rohe vs Davidhoff, etc etc.  We sometimes joke about it as why the profession gets no respect…no one knows what the hell a planner does, and sometimes that includes the planners themselves.

But there’s a very practical reason why we all have to reach beyond our core skill sets: doing the job that needs to be done takes a lot more tools than pens and zoning codes and AutoCADD.

If all you do is physical design, and you meant it when you said way back when that your purpose was to make places better, you’re hamstrung by the box you have allowed yourselves to be stuck in.  Even if you are in a proactive and forward-thinking community and you can do great design work, how much of your ability to enable change and improvement is constrained?  How much difference can your design work make if people can’t find jobs?  Will they be happier just because you make it look good?

If you’re only tool is a hammer, how often do you actually fix the problems that need fixing, and how often do you just bust the box instead?

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I was in Chicago for the American Planning Association conference last week.  Chicago has this incredible history of urban design and physical planning.  By the end of the week I suspect even design junkies might have had their fill of the Burnham Plan and the World Fair and Mies van de Rohe and the rest.

But Chicago is not the buildings or the parks.

I love Chicago’s architecture, but I would not move there to look at buildings, as much as I appreciate the buildings.  My husband and I, 20 years after leaving, still talk about retiring to Chicago…because of the human activity.  The things to do, the character of the place.

Crowd at festival
One of the real reasons why people go to Grant Park. www.lollapalooza.com.

Buildings and spaces set the stage for the things that make a city great or miserable, but they are just that: the stage upon which us as the actors make the play.   People often attach intensely to places that don’t have Millennium Parks and Sheds Aquariums, as delightful as those are.  Sometimes, they attach fiercely to a place despite their absence, or in the face of the lack of such loveliness.

It’s one thing to be an Artiste and dedicate your life’s work to pure aesthetics.  It’s another thing to take on the responsibility for using design skills to make our stages for human activity work better.  That’s a critical and necessary differentiation.

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I know…it’s not your job to fix everything. You can’t do it all. You don’t know it all. You don’t have all the answers.

Understood.  But… you, you might be our best hope.

I have spent most of my adult life in the intersections between professions– physical planners, landscape architects, traffic engineers, civil engineers, economic developers, community developers, Main Street managers, city admins, neighborhood rabble rousers, so on and so on.  My address book needs a sorting system that doesn’t come with the software.

This next part is for you who have some kind of degree or job with the word “planning” in it….and only you.  Everyone else go get a sandwich or something.

Ok.  Are they gone?

Here’s the deal: you guys, the Planners, whatever flavor, you understand the interconnections.  You get that, frankly, better than anyone else.   You guys have either learned or intuitively see how the human elements and the design elements and the infrastructure and the programs and the hundred other things fit together.  It’s not a perfect understanding, by any means, and you each come at it from a little different direction, but you’re closer to it than any of the other professions that deal with communities.

You’re at least talking about it…for all its warts and limitations, a conference like APA enforces that.  I can tell you that the economic development profession, for one, is deep in the throes of understanding the limits of its historic siloed approaches right now….and I think it’s going to be a long time before that profession, as a whole, comes out the other side.

I think a secret to the planner’s insight is this crazy messiness we’ve inherited… the fact that”planners” do a hundred different kinds of jobs, to the point where sometimes we have no idea what that word actually means anyways.

That always bugged the crap out of me.

But…I’m coming to the conclusion that it’s an advantage.  Or maybe a burden, but the kind of burden you have to carry to be able to do something great and meaningful and needed.  Kinda like a superpower.

“Able to see interconnections and interrelationships through walls and silos!!  It’s a design geek…no, wait, it’s a zoning director… It’s Planner Person!”

cartoon of superhero holding paper labelled Plan
eh….maybe not. www.branded4good.com

Ok, I won’t get the t shirts made yet…

But the communities we work in need you to use your superpower–to reach across the disciplines and find the interconnections. We need to do that better.  We need to develop the tools a and analytical frameworks to do that, and right now we’re still weak on that.

But we’re probably the best chance our communities have for getting to it.

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So if your main gig is design, incorporate into your design work the best understanding you can possibly muster as to how people actually use places and how they can support people better.  If you deal in land codes, strive to anticipate those unintended consequences– how one site’s development might have rolling impacts.  If you make land use plans like I used to, don’t just color maps–work through all of the interrelated elements that will either empower or hinder those recommendations.  And if you do any of those other 97 things… wade into the edges, take on the messiness, do your damnest to use the full range of your knowledge to make places work.  You won’t do it perfectly.  But try.  And keep trying.

Why? Because most of the others probably won’t get there any time soon.  And our communities won’t wait.  You, you might be our best hope.

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