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Changing the Culture of Planning Toward Greater Equity

July 19, 2001 by Administrator in July/August 2001

by Norman Krumholz

I want to report on my impressions of planning after years of close association with the American Planning Association (APA) and American Institute of Certified Planners (AICP), and much conversation with planning practitioners around the U.S. I have come to believe there is a new culture evolving in planning.

The New Planning Culture

First, the new planning culture does not reject politics, it embraces it. Robert. A. Walker’s book The Planning Function in Urban Government, recommended that planners needed to relate more closely to their mayors if they wanted to be more effective. Many planners have followed this advice, and have sought to be closer to the executive in the decision-making process. Structurally, there are fewer planners in government working for appointed planning commissions and more working for departments with a direct line of accountability to the mayor or city manager. These planners believe that, if their work is to be more effective, planners need political support as well as good intentions and technical skills.

According to such observers as Anthony Catanese, Mel Levin and many others, their proximity to the mayor’s office has meant greater short-term operational planning effectiveness (Levin, Planning in Government: Shaping Programs that Succeed). Such planners are Close to Power, as William Lucy puts it in the title of his book, and they like being there. And, as planning issues become more regional and complex, more local and even state politicians are beginning to see political stakes in planning decisions and want to keep the process closer to themselves. So the new culture of planning is more political. It is also becoming more diversified, with more and more planners moving out of traditional jobs in local government and working outside of city hall for banks, developers, foundations and non-profit community development corporations (CDCs). They are becoming generic urban professionals who are expected to function across a wide variety of settings.

Second, the new planning culture is marked by a fascination with the current scientific business and management approach popularized in such books as Reinventing Government by David Osborne and Ted Gaebler and In Search of Excellence by Thomas Peters. In this perspective, government should be run more like business. Planners are “entrepreneurs in the market” and “managers”; citizens are “customers;” and planning helps “customers be empowered to solve their own problems” and, of course, “the customer is always right”.

Third, the new culture of planning is less concerned with the long-range and more sensitive to short-range outcomes. My informal conversations with practicing planners suggest that planners are doing fewer comprehensive long-range plans and are spending more time on strategic planning, economic development projects, real estate deals and nurturing public-private partnerships. This is a partially a product of sharp cut-backs in federal largesse, but also a more dynamic and turbulent metropolitan environment in which change happens faster than it used to. Also, planners with executive responsibility who act as close advisors to mayors do not enjoy the luxury of time, but must join the rest of the firemen in city hall’s hot shot alley and deal with the crisis of the moment.

Fourth, where the old culture of planning was top-down, the new culture is intensely interactive and participatory. Citizen participation is now mandated by federal regulations and is the order of the day, whether token or real. The lessons of the highway program and urban renewal programs of the l950s and l960s were not lost on the planners or the public, and groups affected by planning decisions are a lot more vocal than they used to be. This is especially true in such states as California where initiatives and referenda are extensively used. As a result, planners take their proposals out to the neighborhoods as draft documents and are prepared for resistance, discussion and negotiated modifications.

Fifth, in terms of design, the new culture of planning values the intimate and small-scale more than the monumental. Its prophets are much less likely to be Frank Lloyd Wright or LeCorbusier than Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zybek and Peter Calthorpe and its recommendations are less likely to be super blocks and towers in the park than the mixed land uses, short blocks, and front porches incorporated into neighborhood designs of what is known as Neo Traditionalism or New Urbanism. In the New Urbanism’s lexicon, zoning, segregated land uses and insensitive suburban development are responsible for virtually everything: traffic congestion, the decline of the central city, the loss of community and the aesthetically unappealing strip mall development of “roadside America”. Some exponents of the New Urbanism blame the insensitive designs of the recent past for much more. A NY Times article (May 6, l999) following the Littleton, Colorado school massacre (“How urban design is failing teenagers”) implied that teen age problems of alienation and anomie could be traced to insensitive suburban design.. In that event, the new culture of planning continues to echo the old culture’s belief in environmental determinism, with design principles affecting human behavior. Disney’s new town of Celebration, Florida carries the same message, while ignoring the distributional effects of costs and benefits.

In my judgement, there is much to commend in the new culture of planning. Planning is political, and a direct line of responsibility to the chief executive seems likely to improve both operational effectiveness and the quality of planning. But being close to political power may come at a cost. What will the mayor ask the planners to do? What happens to the long-term or the ideal vision? How will the planners retain their professionalism in the face of a thoroughly politicized world when the mayor asks them to provide support for some favored proposal which they know on analysis to be valueless? These questions can only be answered in specific circumstances, but they are real, nonetheless.

With respect to the new culture’s interest in the New Urbanism, I must confess that I am cautiously favorable. The New Urbanism’s small blocks, hidden garages, mixed land uses, bay windows and porches are at least in the service of a coherent neighborhood vision as opposed to the accumulation of developer’s shortcuts that have produced the real sprawling suburbs of the late twentieth century. No doubt, the New Urbanism will be oversold and likely will do little for distressed central cities or neighborhoods sunk in poverty, but the concept has already achieved a tremendous popular response, and I think it will make a significant difference in development patterns of the future.

Problems with the New Culture

I am less than enthusiastic about the trend toward scientific management adopted by some of the new planners. Citizens may not be customers to some of us, but we all applaud the idea of empowerment and accountability, and the idea of a citizen as a customer may improve the responsiveness of planning. All to the good. But the customer focus doesn’t fit all situations. In the world of business, customers provide revenue in exchange for goods and services. In public life, by contrast, most revenue is generated by taxation and allocated by legislation. So the idea that public clients are customers is metaphorical rather than literal.

Of course, governments do more than provide goods and services; they also enforce obligations and punish violators. Are jailed prisoners “customers” of the justice system? Are “customers” free to pay their taxes or “empowered” to choose not to pay or do government agencies like the IRS exist precisely to coerce (not empower) them into paying? And is the “customer always right” in planning? No clerk at WalMart is going to tell the fat guy to put down the two-gallon tub of ice cream and not buy it because it’s bad for his health, but city planners sometimes have to do just that — tell their customers that some things they might want to do like cut down the Redwoods, build on the wetlands and green spaces, overcrowd their apartment houses in the hopes of getting more rent or racially segregate people are not to be tolerated.

Other problems also intrude. The government-as-business movement (that really goes back to the Progressives and the city manager idea) contains a powerful criticism of faceless, unresponsive bureaucrats and invites public distrust of all governmental agencies. A blind application of business management principles may undermine the integrity of all public bureaucracies and perhaps even come to threaten democracy. Another serious criticism is that the “managed state” involves a process of cost transfer from central to local governments; from public to private sectors; and from public to private households. Business organizations are after all, run by “managers” who decide what core services to offer and which difficult, costly, high-risk customers to exclude. Incentives exist for managers to control their costs. The logic under these conditions tends to shift as many costs as possible from the state to private families. Organizations and managers may look more “efficient” in the process, but people who are wealthy, healthy and vocal may end up with lots more resources than people who are weak, quiet and poor.

Most seriously, the new culture of planning, with its focus on scientific management and the bottom line, but without a long-term vision of a better city or a better society, confronts planning with the question of the role of planners in the face of market failures, when such failures produce unemployment, poverty, racial segregation and environmental ruin. The new culture of planning seems hardly able to resolve such fundamental problems, but the problems exist and, in some respects, have gotten worse over time. For example, books like Goldsmith and Blakely’s Separate Societies and Massey and Denton’s American Apartheid show us how racial segregation and concentrated poverty have worsened over time. How will the new culture of planning deal with the fact that vast economic disparities now exist between our central cities and their surrounding suburbs; that poverty and joblessness is intensely concentrated within central cities; that children who grow up in persistently poor environments have virtually no chance to escape into the economic mainstream of America? I believe the new culture of planning will do little for these deep and fundamental problems of poverty and race. For these reasons, I believe a third culture of planning must be created.

A Third Way

A third way of planning must recover its reformist roots and vision of a better, long-range future for our cities and regions. Without such a vision, the current “new” version of planning is not much more than an exercise in business administration, strengthening the already powerful hand of business and politics as usual. Instead, planning should be used as a tool for allocating resources and developing the environment to eliminate the great inequalities of wealth and power in our society, rather than to maintain and justify the status quo [see PN’s Statement of Principles]. Further, the third culture of planning should be used to assure that the basic requirements of life — adequate food, clothing, shelter, medical care, jobs and a healthful environment for all Americans — should exist. The overarching objective of this new culture of planning should be to produce the “just” city, that is, a democratic city with a free, consensual mode of political decision-making; an entrepreneurial capacity able to provide welfare but create wealth as well; and an egalitarian distribution of wealth and services. In this third culture, planners should continue to embrace a close relationship with the political process and a respect for business, but without losing sight of equity and the broad public interest in the elements mentioned above.

How might we help achieve this third culture of planning? It is unlikely that any professional organization will lend itself easily as a source of cultural redefinition for at least three reasons: first, they usually limit themselves to highly general role statements because they represent so many different practitioners; second, because they are usually dominated by their older, more conservative members; and third, because the roles of any profession are determined less by their organizations than by the people who hire the professionals. Still, APA and AICP have been slowly moving in a more progressive direction for the past fifteen years. APA has indicated its support for social equity by endorsing its progressive Agenda for America’s Communities in l992, by publishing through APA Planners Press the book Planning and Community Equity (l994), by establishing awards that honor such equity planners as Paul Davidoff and Cushing Dolbeare, and by insisting that at least twenty percent of all panels at APA annual conferences have social equity themes.

This momentum can be continued by requiring that all AICP members contribute a number of hours of pro-bono service in low-income neighborhoods as a condition of continued certification; that the AICP certification test contain a good share of equity planning questions; that special efforts be made to recruit minorities on all boards and committees; and that university programs that stress participatory research in low-income neighborhoods be recognized. For example, AICP honored Professor Ken Reardon and the University of Illinois for their outreach planning program in East St. Louis and named as a planning landmark Planners For Equal Opportunity, founded by Paul Davidoff and others in the 1960s. It is slow going, but the professional organizations are responding.

What can Planners Network members do? First, join APA and AICP and run for office to change both organizations in your direction. There are 30,000 planners in APA. Many of them agree with PN’s ideas. Let’s try to change the minds of the others. Secondly, write PN pieces for Planning magazine and for the AICP Casebook. Third, support community-based planning. And finally, give your ideas to the AICP Task Force on Social Responsibility.

Our work is cut out for us. The status quo brings us rising poverty, continued racial and economic segregation and environmental ruin. If we–professional organizations, professional schools, and planning practitioners–-believe that change in the direction of more equity is possible and that our work may contribute to that change, there is much that all of us can do.


Norman Krumholz is Professor at Cleveland State University and President of the American Institute of Certified Planners.

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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.