By Cathy Klump
Most planners stumble into planning en route to their perceived destiny as lawyers, doctors, English professors, and business people. For a number of reasons, the career aspiration of a more mainstream job gets excused, and in its place comes a profession or lifestyle that is intertwined in every aspect of daily life. A portion of these professional planners call themselves “progressives” – a title that we typically associate with pushing the envelope past traditional planning and working to elevate the quality of life. Those of us who call ourselves progressives are haunted by the words of Saul Alinsky, Paulo Friere, and Paul Davidoff who seem to call us home to act rather than sit, and to voice rather than plan silently.
As an aspiring ac-countant in my freshman year of college, my eyes were on the prize of big business, the reality of large tax incentives, and the desire for a nine to five power-suit day. I was to be the math whiz of the family who mademoney doing the work of powerful corporate men. But life was about to change. For many students like me, college is a time when progressive planners are born. Unfortunately many planning students who focus on equity, empowerment, advocacy, and sustainability find that they are quite alone in the sea of land use and traditional planning curriculum.
As Planners Network reevaluates its role in the planning profession, we should look to the needs of future progressive planners and work to enhance their educational experience. After five years of planning education at a top school in the field, I saw what is lacking in planning education and what PN could provide.
Don’t get me wrong. I like nonprofit housing development and home ownership. It does provide needed housing to a lot people, including some low-income people. But there wouldn’t be any nonprofit housing without government subsidies, including huge tax benefits that the rich soak up. (The actual cost to the public of nonprofit housing is greater than the cost of building public housing.) And too many nonprofits are unable to house the very poor, but instead house middle-income people. Too many new middle-income owner-occupied homes are built over the ashes of low-income rental housing.
Changing Planning Education
I believe three changes need to be made in planning education. First, theory must be linked to practice. Secondly, students with practical experience must be taken seriously. Third, diverse communities must be part of the planning curriculum.
Theoretical study must be linked to real-world practice. Many times I and other students lament how we cram a hundred pages of theory into a week and ignore the practical implications of that theory. For example, we read about the effects of segregation on urban areas and yet ignore the results in our local communities.
Secondly, real-world practice by students must be taken seriously by the academic administration. How better to learn than by doing? Planning is a fortunate discipline. We have all the tools of planning knowledge right outside our doors. Some colleagues and I have gone outside of the academic setting to take second jobs working for local non-profit groups, municipalities, and volunteer organizations. Often the work is more enlightening, more fulfilling, and has a greater impact than sitting in a classroom learning about other people’s research in their field. We read about progressives in the early 20th century, but ignore opportunities for positive action in our own communities. Too many planning students graduate without ever facilitating a community meeting, conducting negotiations with a private entity or feeling the tug at their heartstrings when what is just and progressive fails. Finally, planning educators must include diverse communities in their planning curricula. Educators must make local and diverse community residents and issues the main focus of planning education.
If the traditional goal of planning education is to equip students with the theoretical knowledge, technical tools and the ability to function in real world planning dilemmas, then I feel it is partially failing. As Planners Network looks into the future and questions its mission, activities, and usefulness, students in progressive planning have a challenge for PN.
Students Challenge PN
Students aspiring to be progressive advocates for the underrepresented, the ailing environment, and the tarnished urban landscape need a more powerful voice. PN should advocate for progressive students and push for a comprehensive planning education that addresses the existing failures. These are some of the things that PN can do:
• Recruit a faculty member from all planning schools in the country to be a spokesperson for PN in their college and community. This faculty member would spread the word about PN, its mission, and how it can benefit progressive planners. Many students may be unaware of the wonderful outlet planners have for positive planning through the network of PN members.
• Lobby the Planning Accreditation Board to establish a required set of courses in progressive social planning. Possible required course topics include race and planning, sustainable development, empowerment planning, and planning in a culturally diverse society. These topics ultimately affect all planners and should be part of the required curriculum.
• Develop a mentorship program between PN members and planning students. A mentor might in some cases be the student’s sole link to progressive planning job openings, research opportunities, and national conferences and training. Mentors and students could be matched by area of interest and geographic location.• Create a larger voice within APA and ACSP on behalf of students who go beyond traditional land use planning. PN members could arrange for students to have more opportunities to learn about progressive planning issues and to display their work at both conferences and through monthly publications. Advocating on behalf of progressive planning students is right for the future of PN. Current planning students are the future policy makers, activists, municipal officials, government representatives, and lawyers. They need to be given the opportunity to grow as progressive planners and lead the world in a left direction.