You Should Read This: We Have Met the Enemy and He Is Us

My friend Jason Segedy posted something last week that I think should be required reading for every urban planner, every zoner, every economic developer and every other local government administrator.

Seriously.

If you teach college courses, you should be making your students read this.  If you manage a department, you should make your staff read this.  If you write a blog, you should reblog it.  Period.

It’s complicated stuff, and I know it will take you a couple of minutes.  And that you have other stuff to do.  And if you’re honest, this will make you squirm.

Read it anyways.

Thanks.

We Have Met the Enemy and He Is Us

By Jason Segedy

May 22, 2014

Follow me on Twitter @thestile1972

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Cascade Plaza, Akron (completed 1968) – A place with the all of the human warmth of a Soviet gulag, and a living humility lesson for urban planners

Hilary went to her death
Because she couldn’t think of anything to say
Everybody thought that she was boring, so they never listened anyway.

-Belle & Sebastian, If You’re Feeling Sinister

Charles Marohn of Strong Towns writes a great post today about the planning profession, its future, and some of its present challenges.

Excerpt:

We need the planning profession to not only be relevant but we need planners to be leaders in our communities. The current planning paradigm is stuck in 1950’s thinking. It is old, stodgy and defensive. It not only clings to dogmatic beliefs about zoning, projections and centralized planning but fails in the most important duty of any credentialed profession: to systematically challenge itself to improve.

APA comes across as less concerned about great planners and great places than in ensuring continued employment for their dues-paying members (and collecting said dues). 

His critique is spot-on.  The urban planning profession does a lot of good work, but Chuck is absolutely correct when he says that we are stuck in 1950s thinking; and are, far too often, defensive, dogmatic, unapproachable, inflexible, and needlessly abstruse*.

*See: I could have simply said “difficult to understand”

As a profession, we are generally followers, rather than leaders; risk-averse; and poor communicators.

Indeed, our three greatest weaknesses as a profession are in the realm of: 1) public policy leadership; 2) risk-taking; and 3) authentic, substantive, two-way communication.

Leadership

Take public policy leadership, for example.  Even now, after spending the past 19 years as an urban planner, I am still continually struck by how rare it is to hear or see a planning official actually offer a substantive subjective opinion on anything.

Planners make plenty of definitive statements when it comes to objective matters (e.g. “the code does not allow for that use”; “the design manual clearly states that these lanes must be 12 feet wide”; “the benefit/cost ratio of the project is sufficient to justify public investment”).

But you hear nary a peep from most planners on matters that they consider to be the least bit subjective.

Subjectivity is not a dirty word.  It is an inescapable reality of decision-making.

The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was to convince us that objective criteria are not subjectively chosen.

The code doesn’t allow for that use, because whoever wrote it made a subjective value judgment that that use was a bad idea at that location.

The design manual states that those lanes must be 12 feet wide, because whoever wrote it made a subjective value judgment that wide lanes are better than narrow lanes on that type of road.

All of these supposedly objective criteria reflect someone’s subjective value judgments about what is important. This doesn’t by any means invalidate them, but it should remind us that measures like the “cost-effectiveness” of a project are predicated upon subjective value judgments of what “effectiveness” means.

None of the supposedly “objective” tools that planners use came down from Mount Sinai carved into stone tablets.  They are all rooted in someone’s subjective opinions.

This should be self-evident, but, far-too-often, it is not.

I would argue that it is your job as an urban planner to have clear opinions on urban planning and development issues.  This doesn’t mean that your opinions are the most important ones, or that they are always right, or that they should be written in blood, or carved into those selfsame stone tablets, or that you can never change your mind; but the very essence of public policy leadership is the ability to say “I think that ‘this’ is better (or worse) than ‘that’, and here’s why”.

Then, let the debate begin…

We do elected officials and the general public a grave disservice when we shirk this particular responsibility.

I hear many planners dismiss the entire notion of public policy leadership with statements like “Well, yes, but we only play an advisory role, anyway…And it is the job of others to decide.”

Well, of course.  So what’s your point?

First of all, if you are an adviser, then for the love of God, you should be advising people.

Secondly, since when was it only the people with the formal, official power to change things, that were the ones who actually changed them?

In reality, hasn’t it often been the precise opposite?

Those with the formal power to lead, and to change things, have often been the very people that most vigorously enforced the status quo, and kept things from changing.

Think about it: the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the Abolitionist Movement, the Civil Rights Movement…

Most of the people in this world that have changed it for the better were precisely those that did not have the formal power to change it.  In fact, many of them did things to that were considered inappropriate, illegal, or heretical, and they were often ostracized, abused, jailed, or killed for their trouble.

It is safe to say that few urban planners are going to end up jailed or martyred for their beliefs.  So what is stopping us from becoming thought leaders?

Risk-Taking

It is often fear that is stopping us.  Most urban planners are risk-averse.

In a battle, or in mountain climbing, there is often one thing which it takes a lot of pluck to do; but it is also, in the long run, the safest thing to do. If you funk it, you will find yourself, hours later, in far worse danger. The cowardly thing is also the most dangerous thing.

-C.S. Lewis

I am fond of saying that the best humility lesson for today’s urban planners is a five-minute meditation upon the fact that our primary job is fixing the mistakes that urban planners made 40 years ago.  It will be all too easy for us to fall into the exact same trap.

At first blush, this would appear to imply that our risk-averse, conservative professional tendencies are justified.  But I would argue that it should lead us to the exact opposite conclusion.

Trends are an inescapable fact of life.  They are not going anywhere anytime soon.  Some trends leave lasting positive impacts, and are healthy reactions to things that truly need to change; some trends leave no impact whatsoever, and are harmless fads; while other trends leave lasting negative impacts, and in retrospect prove to be huge mistakes.

The history of urban planning is full of examples of all three types of trends.  The simple lesson for planners is that we can’t escape from any of these trends simply by staying risk averse.

It is our job to try to sift through them, figure out which is which, and to do our best to embrace and promote the first type of (positive) trend; to not concern ourselves too much one-way-or-the-other with the second type of (neutral) trend; and to actively resist and fight against the third type of (negative) trend.

This means that we need to be smart, savvy, and vigilant; to provide leadership; to exercise good judgment, and to demonstrate humility at the same time.

We need courage, integrity, and honesty; recognizing that it is not primarily our job to try to look good, or to tell people what they want to hear so they will like us, or to seem smart, clever, or important; but, instead, to tell the truth – to elected officials, to the general public, and to ourselves.

In fact, it is precisely our fear, and our unwillingness to take risks, that ensures that our profession will continue to be marginalized, and considered unimportant by most people.

The job is about helping people, and about making their lives better.  If you are an urban planner, and this is not primarily what you are concerned with, you should clear out your desk immediately and go do something else, because that’s the job. That’s what it’s all about.  The rest is just a bunch of paperwork and technical details.

Which leads me to my last point…

Communication

It’s about people.

Urban planners, as a general rule, are poor communicators.  This is unfortunate, because (like most jobs) communication is the single most important skill that you can possess.  It is not a substitute for other skills, but it is indispensable if you want to be effective at what you do.

This is especially true in a profession that involves ideas and concepts.  The success of your ideas or concepts is heavily dependent upon your ability to effectively communicate them.

One of the saddest ironies of the urban planning profession is that although it is fundamentally about people and places (two things that most people have a profound personal interest in) we end up managing to boil nearly all of the life out of it, and transform it into one of the most boring and obscure endeavors that there is.

But men love abstract reasoning and neat systematization so much that they think nothing of distorting the truth, closing their eyes and ears to contrary evidence to preserve their logical constructions.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky

The reasons for why this is the case could fill another entire blog post, but suffice it to say that much of it has occurred through a mixture of professional arrogance, an affinity for abstraction, sheer ignorance, and a lack of simple human empathy for our constituents.

Too often, we end up blaming the victim, and when our ideas, or concepts, or intentions are misunderstood; we are far too quick to criticize elected officials or members of the general public (intentionally or not) as being ill-informed, unenlightened, or disengaged.

Here’s a hint: when virtually no one seems to be able to understand what you are saying, perhaps it is time to look in the mirror and consider the fact that you may need to change your approach.

When no one seems to be able to get excited about what you are doing, or promoting, or planning, perhaps it is time to reevaluate the way that you are doing things.

When people are complaining on a regular basis that you are not listening to them, that they do not have a voice, and that you are just going through the motions, perhaps it is time to consider that they may be right.

Urban planning, done well, is one of the most engaging, exciting, and invigorating of all human pursuits.  It is the stuff of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the Library of Alexandria, Central Park, the Eiffel Tower, Greenwich Village, and Rockefeller Center.

At its highest and best, it is about the diverse and wondrous array of people that comprise our society; and about the incredible places and spaces in which they live, work, and play.  At bottom, these are things that every person is interested in, because everyone interacts with other people, and everyone exists within time and space.

Urban planning doesn’t have to be all about lifeless charts, and graphs, and maps, and budgets, and zoning codes, and design manuals, and forecasts, and plans, and other similar abstractions. These are simply tools.  They are means to an end.  Far too often, we portray them as ends in themselves.  And when we do, we only have ourselves to blame.

Chuck Marohn is right:  the most important duty of any credentialed profession is not to ensure continued employment for its due-paying members; it is to systematically challenge itself to improve.

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