Diversity and the Planning Profession

By Leonardo Vazquez, PP/AICP

A friend of mine, a terrific planner in the private sector, gets called in on jobs from public sector clients and private sector colleagues who want him to join their team. He is one of the few senior-level planners of African-American heritage in the New York area, and while I would like to believe he is hired mostly for his skills, I sense that most clients and partners think of him first as black, and second as a good planner.

Though experienced in community planning, zoning and urban design, he often gets called on for outreach in minority communities. Clients who have worked with him will call him back for jobs regardless of the neighborhood’s characteristics, but most colleagues in the private sector call him to be “the black guy” on the team.

My friend’s experience highlights the lack of diversity in the planning profession today: African-Americans and Latinos are heavily underrepresented in the planning field (especially in the private sector); few minorities are in senior-level positions in their organizations; and many planners see only the marketing benefits of increasing diversity.

Though the lack of diversity in the profession is well-known, it has not been well-documented. In 2001, with an award to the American Planning Association (APA) New York Metro Chapter from the national organization, Juan Miguel Kanai and I looked at the planning profession in the chapter area. In Lagging Behind: Ethnic Diversity in the Planning Profession in the APA New York Metro Chapter Area, we compared the profession across the public, private and non-profit sectors; between New York City and its suburbs; and between 2000 and 1990. Our study covered more than 600 planners in all five boroughs of New York City, Long Island and several counties in the Hudson Valley. The full report is available on the APA New York Metro Chapter website atwww.nyplanning.org.

We were more disappointed with our findings than surprised. African-Americans and Latinos were the most underrepresented races/ethnicities in the planning profession. African-Americans made up nearly 19 percent of the general population, but only 10 percent of planners. Latinos made up 22 percent of the general population, but only 6 percent of planners. Whites, on the other hand, were overrepresented, making up 49 percent of the general population, but 73 percent of planners. One surprising finding was that Asian-Americans were fairly represented, making up 8 percent of the general population and 9 percent of the planning profession.

We learned that the planning profession appears to be getting less representative. In 1990, according to census figures, African-Americans made up 12 percent of the profession, and Latinos 8 percent (compared to 10 and 6 percent, respectively, in 2000). While our survey may have looked at a slightly different population (planners who live in New Jersey, included in the survey, would not be counted in the census figures), we would still expect a growing percentage of African-American and Latino planners, especially given the increase in the Latino population.

Our findings also showed that the private sector is far less representative than the public sector with respect to diversity in the planning profession. While planners of color made up 28 percent of public sector planners, they comprised only 18 percent of private sector planners. Among private sector planners, African-Americans and Latinos were especially underrepresented, together accounting for just 7 percent. Asian-Americans, on the other hand, accounted for 9 percent of private sector planners. This is especially disturbing since governments are relying more and more on private sector consulting firms for what had been the work of public sector planning staff. Consider that Newark and Jersey City, the two largest cities in New Jersey, had their master plans completed by consulting firms. As community development corporations and place-based non-profits get bigger and more sophisticated, they too are turning to consultants to develop plans.

From private sector employers we learned that a number of minority planners had either left the planning profession or went to public sector agencies instead of moving up within the private sector. Employers cited reasons that included the fact that smaller firms do not have the resources to provide training and development opportunities, and that minority planners may have felt “more comfortable” in the public sector. This contributes to another finding–the lack of senior-level planners in the private sector. Only 8 percent of planners of color in the private sector had senior-level responsibilities, compared to 20 percent in the public sector.

Compared to the private or public sectors, the non-profit sector appears to be more diverse, with minorities making up 39 percent of planners. Eva Hanhardt, director of the Planning Center at the Municipal Art Society of New York and a planner familiar with community-based organizations, told me that the non-profit sector may be even more diverse than our finding, since there are a number of professionals engaged in planning services who do not call themselves planners. Still, because the non-profit sector makes up a small portion of the whole planning profession, adding these professionals to the mix would still not substantially change the results.

Geography appeared to be an important factor. Though the profession in New York City was more diverse than in suburban areas, the profession in Long Island and the Hudson Valley was more representative of the local population. Here again, however, Latinos were the most underrepresented group, by 9 percent.

In explaining the makeup of the planning profession, the why is trickier than the what. Clearly, one of the reasons for lack of diversity is the lack of minority students in planning schools. According to the latest Guide to Planning Education by the Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning, white students comprised 70 percent of students in planning schools that produce graduates who work in the New York area (this includes schools in New York State, New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania). While you might expect immigrant ethnic groups to be underrepresented in the profession, why are Asian-Americans fairly represented and Latinos so underrepresented? Even in planning schools, 7 percent of students were Asian-Americans, only 6 percent Latino. If these trends continue, Latinos will continue to be more underrepresented in the profession.

Valuing Diversity: More Than Just a Marketing Ploy

Diversity, like community, is something that no reasonable person can be against. Employers tend to embrace it for its marketing and outreach benefits. While public sector employers can show their responsiveness to the community by putting a planner of color in a frontline position, private sector employers find it valuable to have a minority planner at the table in interviews. The idea at work here is that members of the community will be more responsive to planners who resemble them, and given two planners of equal ability, this is often the case. Unfortunately, this limited notion of diversity tends to keep planners of color in frontline positions in minority neighborhoods while other planners are in positions of influence over development and public policy.

This serves our communities and our profession poorly. In planning school we learned about the rational planner, who could take a comprehensive, objective look at a place, then apply scientific analysis to come up with great plans. We then quickly learned that the rational planner never did and never could exist; while our analyses may be scientific, the kinds of questions we ask, the data we are willing to consider and the range of solutions we would entertain are constrained and skewed by our biases, perspectives and histories. These are so ingrained psychologically that no matter how reflective we are, we cannot see ourselves clearly in the mirror. The true value of increasing diversity is to bring a new breadth of perspectives to bear on finding more creative and sustainable answers to pressing problems. But to make sure those perspectives are heard, we need to have more diversity at the senior levels of planning schools, planning agencies and private planning firms.


How To Increase Diversity In the Planning Profession

Increasing diversity in the planning profession will take a long time and will need to involve planning schools, employers and the professional organizations that serve planners. The biggest factor will be having senior-level people who understand and are committed to achieving this goal.

The American Planning Association, which has been struggling to attract and retain minorities, is working to increase diversity. It funded our diversity study, and has made social equity one of the key goals of its organizational development plan.

In our study, we made eleven recommendations under four major goals. I should note that Mitchell Silver, now a member of the board of the national APA, and Tina Chiu, vice president of committees for the New York Chapter, worked on refining the recommendations, which include:

  • Create mentoring programs for seasoned planners to help younger planners;
  • Develop joint programming between APA and other organizations that have larger percentages of minority professionals;
  • Provide entrepreneurship and business training for minority planners to help them to become, and succeed as, managers and leaders;
  • Allow minority planners within organizations to influence staff development and project assignments;
  • Increase the number of senior-level planners in the private sector;
  • Increase the number of scholarships to minorities interested in planning schools;
  • Create a “unified effort among planning schools and employers” to diversify the profession;
  • Make the profession better known in minority communities, which will attract more young people to the profession;
  • Make minority planners more visible; when young people see more people like them in leadership positions, they will be more likely to join the profession.
  • Conduct more research into diversity issues, including a comparison of regions and a more detailed investigation of the experiences of various planners.

Diversifying the Private Sector: The Problem with Minority Business Set-Aside Programs

For more than two decades, federal, state, county and some city agencies have been trying to increase opportunities for minority-owned and women-owned businesses. Through Minority Business Enterprise (MBE) programs, jurisdictions encourage contractors to include such businesses on their project teams. While such programs have certainly provided opportunities that otherwise might not have existed for minorities and women who are not keyed into the usual networks that result in business partnerships, there are a few problems with this approach.

Minority-owned is defined as having at least 51 percent ownership by a member of an underrepresented group. In even medium-sized firms, where ownership may be distributed among as few as four people, it would be difficult to get a 51 percent ownership rate by minorities. Another problem is that the MBE requirement produces a small set of boutique firms that everyone goes to when they need an MBE. Like my friend, the same people get called on for certain projects, making it difficult for other minority planners to get work. With the “go-to” firms out there, white employers have little incentive to attract, retain or promote minority planners. You could be a huge firm with one or two black junior planners, but show up at an interview with your MBE teammate at the table, and you look progressive.

You could make the same argument for white planners, but there is a difference. Some of the minority planners that we spoke to for the study complained about not getting the same quality of assignments or opportunities as their white counterparts. We didn’t have a large sample of planners, but their comments squared with what I have heard informally from other planners over the years. They also resembled some of the comments reported by Charles Hoch of the University of Illinois at Chicago in his book,What Planners Do: Power Politics and Persuasion. And if we agree that the profession should be more diverse, then we should provide even more quality opportunities for minority planners.

To truly get the benefits of ethnic diversity in the planning profession, we have to integrate diverse perspectives at all levels. As long as minority planners are stuck at junior or middle levels or channel themselves to boutique firms, we’ll have more numbers, but not necessarily more value. Planning work tends to be task-related. Especially in the private sector, where profit margins tend to be narrow, there is little office time for the deep conversations and reflection that leads to changes of heart and new ways of thinking; this usually happens among peers and within networks. The principal of a large transportation planning firm is more likely to have drinks with his fellow partners than with his junior or mid-level planners. Even if he does break bread with his own staff, people who depend on the principal to give them choice assignments (not to mention signing the checks that pay their bills) are going to talk to him differently than someone who is not so dependent on him.

We need a way to diversify planning firms at all levels, and the push needs to come from clients. The MBE requirement is one way to go. Here’s another, which could be used with the MBE: diversity rankings.

A diversity ranking is a score a firm receives for the depth and breadth of diversity within its organization. Different points are assigned for diversity at different levels (e.g. four points for diversity at partner level; one for junior planner). Firms would get additional points for employing a mix of minority planners. An independent review organization would determine scores for each organization. To provide additional incentive to planning firms, the organization could publish and distribute an annual description of firms that achieve a certain minimum diversity score.

We should all work to increase racial and ethnic diversity in the planning profession, not just to make ourselves feel good or help reach out to different communities, but also to keep our profession relevant and strong over this century. Planners are more valuable as communicators, facilitators and persuaders than they are as analysts and technicians. Most people treat planning like running a restaurant; everybody thinks they can do it, and are surprised when half of them fail. For place-building, members of the public and officials tend to think of architects, civil engineers or even developers before planners. This means that to be relevant, we need to bring something to the table that cannot be found in a market study or environmental impact statement.

Leonardo Vazquez, PP/AICP, chairs the Planners for Ethnic and Cultural Diversity Committee of the American Planning Association New York Metro Chapter. He is also an adjunct instructor at New School University’s Robert J. Milano Graduate School in New York, where he teaches city planning and community development. He is also a senior associate of Camiros, Ltd. and manages its east coast office from Maplewood, NJ.

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