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From Whence and Whither PN?

September 6, 1998 by Administrator in September/October 1998

by Tom Angotti

In the last couple of issues, we asked PN members to give us their views on what Planners Network and progressive planners should be doing. We got a variety of answers, which are printed in this issue of PN. Patricia Nolan urges us to take on a PN action project. Dick Platkin wants PN to support activists and engage critical discussions about capitalism. Gwen Urey says we should keep on networking. Cathy Klump wants PN to do more to support progressive student planners and make planning education more action oriented. Peggy Dye proposes a discussion group and organizing in the New York area. John McCrory points out PN’s limits, and suggests they can be transcended by reinvesting membership in PN with more authority and responsibility. We invite more ideas for future issues. Following is some background on PN’s history, and my own ideas about where we should be going.

In the Beginning…

Those were heady times for us, in 1975 when PN was founded. The Vietnam War was over and the U.S. defeated. The last major anti-colonial struggles were being won in Africa. With dÞtente between the U.S. and the Soviet Union there was optimism about an end to the Cold War and the prospects for socialism and planned economies. In Europe, the left was stronger than ever, and in Italy, where I lived at the time, the Italian Communist Party was on the verge of winning a majority.

Chester Hartman

360 Elizabeth Street
San Francisco, CA 94114

August 4, 1975

Dear Friends:

This is the first mailing of a new communications/ action network of leftist planners in the US and Canada. At the first level, the idea simply is to put the few hundred North American “radical planners” in regular touch with one another, to share ideas and experiences, discuss their work and lives, develop some sense of community and mutual support. What it might develop into at a later phase Is entirely open, although some possibilities will be discussed below. It is an idea I and others have talked about from time to time, and because I presently have the time, funds and initiative to begin the process I am undertaking the project, although I hope and expect that others will join me in directing this effort before long. Earlier this year I sent out a…..

For the full text download the First Newsletter from our Newsletter Archives

On the domestic scene, Jim Crow was dead and affirmative action alive. Community, women’s and other grass roots movements were at their apex. Community activists and planners celebrated the end of federal urban renewal, the main instrument for the wholesale displacement of low-income communities, particularly African-American communities.

In 1975, Chester Hartman typed a letter to about 300 planners and activists – people he knew and who had expressed interest, and members of the recently defunct Planners for Equal Opportunity (see PEO Reunion, p. 14). This was the first PN newsletter. (Chester, do you still use the same typewriter?) Chester posed these questions to us: Should we create a new association of planners (and who are planners?), what kind of association should it be, and what should we call it? Possibilities ranged from a loose association of individuals to a structured organization, with the possibility of a journal. We discussed whether to call ourselves “left,” “radical,” or “socialist;” whether we should be “planners” or “urbanists” or something else; whether we should be small and homogenous or large and broad. In the following years, what evolved was a network of loosely-defined planners, with a minimal organizational structure – a steering committee and some informal local groups. Interest in developing a journal never got very far, though a major publication came out of one of PN’s national conferences.

PN Today As PN approaches the 25-year mark, the differences in the political climate since the time of its founding are stark. Global capitalism has gained new strength and invaded everywhere. Neo-colonialism, economic dependence and inequality are universal and officially uncontested. The Cold War is over but many former planned economies have been transformed into a new and brutal form of capitalist accumulation. Planning is a dirty word, and privatization feeds social austerity and capital growth even in many of Europe’s historically strong social welfare states.

In the U.S., the Reagan Counterrevol-ution halted progress on racial equality and weakened unions. The social movements of the 60s and 70s have waned and fragmented. The Democratic Party has been Republicanized by Clinton’s Democratic Leadership Council. At the community level, welfare, social services and public housing were imploded by cutbacks and privatization. Economic inequality has expanded dramatically even in today’s boom economy. Planning and environmental regulations are under constant attack, leaving low-income communities and communities of color especially vulnerable to corporate predators. Pretty dismal, no? Maybe we should give up PN and start a business? We could make a fortune marketing gated communities for the socially responsible. Yet, if we stand back a bit from the moment and look at ourselves in historical perspective, it’s not so bad. We are now living in but the latest cycle of globalization – a process that began at least 500 years ago. As with previous cycles of globalization, the outcome is neither predestined nor inevitable. Throughout the history of capital, organized political action by labor has fundamentally shaped the world we live in for the better. In the last century alone, working class and anti-colonial revolutions, grassroots movements, and radical politics have made history through reform and revolution. I don’t believe the fairy tale that says today’s conservative ruling circles and the economic system they champion are eternal. History tells us there is no such thing as an end to history, and the idea that nothing will change is simply the latest version of the oldest conceit of the wealthy and powerful.

There are many viable progressive movements around. Progressives are clustered in unions, community, environmental, human rights and other organizations, including PN. They are more diverse and, in some ways, more mature, even if they are more scattered and have lost some of their militancy. If PN and progressive planners are going to be effective as advocates of social justice, we need to strengthen our ties with these movements – as we did with the civil rights and anti-war movements in the past.

You’re certainly right that “public housing attracts only a narrow political constituency.” In fact, eliminating poverty by any means is not a big vote-getter these days. But in the age of “greed is good,” if the middle and upper classes hate housing the poor with public money, what makes you think they’re going to want to voluntarily give up the homeowner tax breaks that help distinguish themselves from the poor? That seems like “desperate martyrdom” to the feudal philosophy of noblesse oblige. It’s hard to take seriously right-wing proclamations of elite commitment to “fairness.” As for corporate responsibility, they’re already doing a pretty good job of discrediting the idea that anything besides the bottom line can advance social welfare.

PN’s membership and leadership is more diverse today in terms of race, gender and geography. Members work in local, state and federal government, and the non-profit and private sectors. They are engaged politically on issues of race, gender, and class in a wide array of community, environmental and rights organizations. A significant section of professionals in the mainstream American Planning Association are by all measures progressive planners. Many of them read PN and attend our events. Students at campuses across the country seek out PN as an alternative, especially where PN is brought into classrooms by professors. PN’s membership has fluctuated between 700 and 1,000 over the last decade. We now have members in 37 states and 16 countries. Last year PN was incorporated as a non-profit organization and instituted by-laws. The Steering Committee is now elected for two-year terms. In recent years, with the exception of this year, PN has held successful annual conferences. Since 1975, the most consistent and continuous part of PN life has been the newsletter, which evolved from a 6-page letter to a 16- to 20-page publication including articles on current issues, PN member updates, and information on publications, conferences and jobs. Whither PN and Progressive Planning?

I agree with Gwen Urey that networking, through our publication and conferences, is the greatest strength of PN, and if we do nothing else we should maintain it. But PN’s networking would be even stronger if there were more active local PN chapters. And more joint action.

Networking isn’t enough. It doesn’t maximize our ability to address major issues facing progressive planning. In principle, I agree with Patrician Nolan and Dick Platkin that PN needs to be more action-oriented. But I remember hearing this cry in PN many times. Why hasn’t it been heeded?

It has been hard for PN to focus on joint action because of the localistic nature of the planning issues we’re involved in, our geographic spread, the diversity of issues, and a reluctance to build PN as an alternative institution. Our leadership is also short on representatives with experience in national advocacy.

I think there are two clear areas in which PN can play a more active role – labor and environmental justice. Both are the focus of recent upswings in organizing. Both arenas focus the central issues of racial, economic and gender justice. Both are critical to progressive urban planning.

Organized labor is beginning to wake up to the issues of urban environment and inequality, though progressives in labor have been awake all along. With the deconcentration of the workplace, growth of part-time work, temp work, and work at home, old distinctions between workplace and residence are breaking down. Some unions are realizing they have to organize workers not only where they work but where they live. PN can help link community and labor issues and community and labor movements. Planners have a special role to play when it comes to dispelling the old nostrum that jobs are necessarily at odds with the environment. The PN99 Conference in Lowell is an excellent way to build ties with progressives in labor, and make connections between community and workplace.

The environmental justice movement has focused both the environmental and community movements on questions of racial and economic equality. The environmental justice movement is concerned with more than just pollution and its impacts. It deals with all aspects of the quality of life in cities, especially the unequal distribution of environmental hazards. It goes to the heart of urban planning. PN can help link progressive environmental and community movements with planners committed to social and economic justice. If PN can focus on labor and environmental justice, and begin to take a more active role in each area, our network will grow, and we will better fulfill our objective of promoting “fundamental change in our political and economic systems.”


Tom Angotti is Editor of Planners Network.

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Planners Network is an association of professionals, activists, academics, and students involved in physical, social, economic, and environmental planning in urban and rural areas, who promote fundamental change in our political and economic systems.