Would the “Real” Planners Please Stand Up?: Four Views on Naming, Framing and Identity in Planning Education

By Gerda R. Wekerle

The idea for this dialogue was formed at the ACSP luncheon last year in Atlanta. Two colleagues, one senior-level and well-established, the other newly hired to a planning program after a long and successful career in another field, recounted stories of their experiences feeling marginalized and particularly, of being told by colleagues or students that they would never amount to “real” planners. Both of these colleagues were women. A few days later, as I was driving home from work, my mind kept turning over these stories and some of my own experiences, and the phrase “Would the real planners please stand up” popped into my head.

So here we are, four faculty members who teach planning in two Canadian planning programs. We have each constructed our own stories around this theme of planning, identity and legitimacy and hope that this dialogue will open up discussions and the sharing of your stories.

Professional Identities and Boundary Maintenance

By Gerda R. Wekerle

In the past, when people asked whether I was a planner, I hedged. “Sort of,” I said. “I teach planning or planners; I write about planning; I even do some planning. But I have three degrees in sociology, not planning.” Last summer, I took two exams and subsequently received a document in the mail pronouncing me a “registered professional planner.” That piece of paper formalized my official status as a planner, but my identities remain multiple. I’m also still a sociologist, geographer and women’s studies scholar, and I see the world and frame my approach to teaching through these multiple lenses and allegiances. Yet getting that planning certificate has changed my status in some people’s eyes. A colleague at a planning conference congratulated me on passing the accreditation exams–the only sociologist, he claims, who has ever done so. “You’ve written piles of stuff over the years,” he said, “but now you’re a real….” “Stop right there. Don’t say it,” I said.

Over the past thirty years that I have taught planning and planning students, a recurrent theme has been who is a “real” planner. Perhaps this question occurs more in interdisciplinary programs than in planning departments, where ipso facto everyone there is assumed to be a planner. But in the Faculty of Environmental Studies at York University, the boundaries between registered professional planners and others have been sharply drawn, although they have become somewhat more fluid over the past few years. I have concluded, despite the claims that planning as a profession has very permeable boundaries, that planners, or at least planning educators, often see their roles in terms of boundary maintenance for the profession at large. Planning education may even lag behind planning practice, making restrictive assumptions as to who will or will not make a “good” planner.

Deeply embedded in admissions procedures are assumptions about what it takes to become a planner, and the kinds of qualities, temperaments and experiences that planning programs seek in students. Many planning programs have a checklist to rank student applications. Typically, admissions committees give higher rankings to students with degrees in geography, engineering, architecture or business, and to students who took math or statistics, or more recently GIS, based on the assumption that they will do better at planning than a student who graduated as a filmmaker, for instance. Committees may never even consider applicants with degrees in fine arts, humanities or communications.

These kinds of selection criteria affect the classroom mix, the range of student experiences and the openness of students to alternative ways of knowing and problem-solving. But we usually do not test these assumptions against our experiences in the classroom, where students with more non-conventional backgrounds often make strong contributions to class discussions, group projects or community collaborations.

I want to outline a different model. Graduate students studying planning at York are admitted to an interdisciplinary Faculty of Environmental Studies. We do not have a separate scoring sheet for planning applications, although students may indicate that planning is their primary interest. After the first term, all students engage in a personal planning exercise. They write a plan of study, indicating their learning objectives and how they propose to achieve them. Some students discover planning at this point; others decide that planning is not for them. While many of our students do have backgrounds in geography, urban studies and architecture, many others come with undergraduate degrees in international development, women’s studies, political science, sociology, fine arts, communications, film studies, biology, adult education, nursing and other disciplines. This creates a rich mix of students who approach planning problem-solving from many different perspectives. Students with backgrounds in the arts, humanities and social sciences do not fare worse than students from more traditional planning-related disciplines; many of them are our very best students.

Increasingly, students combine planning with emergent fields that push the boundaries of what we perceive the field to be and challenge us by demanding courses in emergent areas–green business entrepreneurship, planning for urban agriculture, bicycle planning or community arts and planning. Students also reframe the notion of what constitutes planning skills–not just research methods and GIS but also mediation, cultural production, video and multimedia. In recent years we have had the experience that students with unconventional combinations of skills are snapped up by planning firms. Further, when we examine the careers of graduates over several decades, we find that many have applied their planning education to diverse planning applications and fields outside planning. For example, a graduate who focused initially on social housing is now an executive planning officer for a provincial Agriculture Financial Services Corporation. A student of housing policy is now director of a federal Department of Indian and Northern Affairs. A student who specialized in environmental planning and impact assessment is now director of real estate for a major bank. And a student who studied transportation planning is now an environmental educator. These career trajectories suggest to me that it is impossible to predict ahead of time which students with what kinds of undergraduate education will flourish in planning, or what particular sets of skills will prove valuable throughout the different stages of a planning career.

Still, I have experienced greater openness in student admissions than in faculty hiring, where assumptions about what constitutes a “real” planner come to the fore. Who is inside or outside the project is defined by decisions concerning who is involved in writing the job description; who is on the hiring committee; and particularly what fields and experiences are valued over others when choosing among equally qualified candidates. Inevitably, someone argues for the need to hire “real” planners, but there is seldom a discussion of what this means, in practice. If you have to ask, you obviously are not one.

When I deconstruct this label “real” planner, it is often attached to a planner engaged in some form of land use planning, a technical area such as GIS or a field linked to economic growth, such as real estate development. Discussions comparing candidates for a planning position often place a high value on experience in the private sector as a planning consultant or in the public sector; planners who have worked predominantly in the non-profit sector may not be valued as highly.

If I look at these discussions through a sociology-of-work lens, I ask whether the differential values attached to specific practice arenas or specialties might not serve to preserve the roles of established planning educators with certain backgrounds as gatekeepers to their own workplace and to the profession as a whole. Maintaining tight boundaries may also serve to limit competition for students from planning educators with alternative views and practices.

Why should this concern us? With its focus on intervention and making change, planning is fundamentally a political act. Planning education is a site of practice. When I consider who is not considered a “real” planner, I often find a combination of personal identities and research foci which are assigned a lower value, e.g. a woman candidate with a specialty in social planning, gender planning or lesbian, gay and racial identities; an African-Canadian planner who focuses on environmental justice issues and approaches planning from a political standpoint. When these candidates are declared less legitimate, less “real” as planners, such judgments place their identities and their approaches outside the boundaries of planning as a field.

Yet students and graduates of planning programs are applying planning in new ways, ways that make the discourse about “real” planners seem old-fashioned and reactionary. One response to rapid change is to establish and maintain territory by tightening the requirements and making certification mandatory and more rigorous. This does not work very well for planning, which has borrowed liberally from the theories and methodologies of other disciplines and professions. In the past, planning programs welcomed geographers, sociologists, anthropologists, architects and economists to teach. Since the 1960s, programs have hired sociologists, anthropologists, psychologists and cultural studies scholars to enrich the curriculum and contribute to planning pedagogy. But the contributions of these planning “others” must be valued both at the point of hiring and afterwards. Within planning programs, we need to fully utilize all our faculty talents and to celebrate multiple paths for planning practice and ways of knowing if we are to model for students pathways that push the boundaries of the profession outwards.

Gerda R. Wekerle is a professor in the Faculty of Environmental Studies, and a member of the graduate programs in Women’s Studies, Sociology and Geography, York University, Toronto, Canada. She is also a member of the Canadian Institute of Planners (CIP) and a Registered Professional Planner (RPP).

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