TRANSFORMATIVE PLANNING FOR COMMUNITY DEVELOPMENT, Part Two: Professional Education and Transformative Community Development

Student Maribel Meza addressing the assembly, San Miguel Analco. Photo by Marie Kennedy.

[In part one of this article, the meaning of transformative community planning for community development was explored, highlighting the importance of vesting decision-making in the people most affected by the problems being addressed. In brief, it is participatory planning that empowers the community to act in its own interests.]



How we educate planners has a lot to do with whether they can and will work in a way that supports transformative community development. Too often in the United States, but also in several other countries where I have worked, planners are educated to plan for people, not with people. Planning students are taught how to wield the most up-to-date technical tools, but frequently they are not taught how to work with people in a way that puts the power to make decisions into the hands of the people most affected by the problems being confronted.

To highlight the connection between planning education and transformative community development, I will give two brief vignettes—one from teaching at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) and one from work with the Grupo para el Desarollo Integral de la Capital in Havana Cuba. Then I will describe in more detail a project I co-facilitated with graduate students in the Colegio de Tlaxcala in Mexico.


In the first class of my course in Community Research and Organizing, in which students would be placed with community and worker organizations, I emphasized the importance of making decisions with those most affected being in the “driver’s seat”, rather than for people based on what the planner thinks is best for them. One student stood up and said, “Why am I paying all this money to get an education if I can’t make the decisions about what is best for people?” Before I could respond, he walked out of my class. Luckily, he was the only one who did so.


The difficulties of the technocratic approach to community development were particularly highlighted in attempts to introduce participatory planning in Cuba. In the late 1980s, an extraordinary group of architects and sociologists established the Grupo para el Desarollo Integral de la Capital, which established neighborhood comprehensive planning workshops in 12 Havana neighborhoods. The goal was to better integrate physical and social planning and vest planning decisions in the people of the neighborhood, breaking with the centralized planning of the past. Problems associated with how professionals were trained to be technocratic “experts” arose from the very beginning. Mario Coyula, one of the founders of the workshops lamented that, “now some of the decisions are no longer being made by the central government, but they’re being made by the staffs of the workshops, not by the people living in the neighborhood.” These professionals—architects, engineers, sociologists and community organizers—had been trained to “fix” things for people. At Coyula’s request, Mel King, an important African America leader in Boston, and I facilitated a two week participatory planning seminar in Havana for the staff of the workshops. We arrived in the depths of the economic problems following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Professionals, who had been accustomed to working with adequate resources, could no longer “fix” everything. We started the seminar saying, “You’re going to love this approach, because it’s going to get you off the hook. You can’t fix everything and this approach acknowledges that. It’s about sharing responsibility for decision-making, getting the people most affected by the decisions being made involved in problem-solving and in taking responsibility for prioritizing the resources you do have.” Regla Barbon (mentioned in Part One), who would later become the head of the Atares workshop, was a participant in that early seminar. In her later work, she far outstripped anything we imagined to be possible, developing innovative ways of involving and empowering residents of her community. The next time we facilitated a seminar in Havana, we had Regla co-lead it with us.


One final example, treated in somewhat more detail, highlights challenges we might face in our practice and teaching of transformative community planning and suggests some workarounds when circumstances are not ideal. Although this community is in Mexico, the situation wasn’t that different from many we face here—a divided community, no organized community-based group to take the lead, a failing economic base, a failing education system, few social services, and a large proportion of adult men gone from the community, in this case as undocumented workers to the U.S.

In 2007, along with my husband Chris Tilly and a Mexican colleague, Mercedes Arce, I coordinated a participatory planning course through which doctoral students at the Colegio de Tlaxcala worked in a strategic planning process with the residents of San Miguel Analco, a small, low-income, rural community of about 1400 residents in the state of Tlaxcala, Mexico.

We sought to demonstrate that: 1) participatory planning is an effective tool for community development; and 2) structured “hands-on” projects are essential in linking theory and practice in professional education.

Right from the beginning, the Analco project differed in several problematic respects from most of my previous projects with students and community groups. The community, which had historic divisions within it, hadn’t defined the project, nor even asked for our help. The students, who were starting work on their dissertations, had little time for a “hands-on” project and had no a priori interest or experience in participatory planning. Both the Colegio administration and the students saw graduate education as strictly theory-based.

Finally, the project was to be compressed into one semester instead of the two-semester framework that I strongly prefer. Not an ideal situation. On the other hand, this was a resource-rich course—3 professors for only 8 students and my Fulbright grant to pay for expenses.

We mostly followed a series of steps that I developed working with students in field projects at the University of Massachusetts Boston.

1) The first step involves outside planners getting in touch with their own impressions of the community, so they can set aside their preconceptions and prejudices in order to be open to actively listening to community residents; 2) gathering background information, both current and historical, so as to have a rough idea of the “facts” of the community, how it developed to be what it is today and what, without intervention, the trend for the future is; 3) identifying and interviewing key informants, in order to get a fix on what influential members of the community see as community needs and resources and how they envision the future; 4) facilitating focus groups, designed so as to “hear all the voices,” that is, to have discussions with youth separate from adults, women separate from men, day laborers separate from land owners, etc.; 5) gathering the whole community together, with an idea of building consensus on goals for the future and identifying community volunteers who will move the process forward; 6) working with a planning team made of community members to develop strategies and action plans; 7) carrying out the action plans; 8) designing and implementing a participatory evaluation.

This is a somewhat idealized version of the process of our Analco project. In practice, various stages were overlapping, we weren’t able to get all the key informant interviews or focus groups that we planned, and we never undertook a thorough evaluation. Perhaps most critically, given the lack of pre-existing community organization in Analco, divisions within the community, and reliance on patronage relationships, we were not able to turn over leadership of the planning team to community members until after we had brought the community together in a community-wide assembly a couple of months into the project.

In fact, in Analco, we confronted deep skepticism on the part of both students and residents that anything good could come from a so-called participatory process. It seems that in Mexico, participation has a bad name, having been attached to gatherings organized by politicians in which, in order to garner votes, promises are made which are promptly forgotten after the election. Furthermore, to get folks to attend these meetings, the political party gives everyone a gift—a sack of cement, a blanket, or maybe just a t-shirt. We had nothing to give except our energy and skills. And we weren’t about to promise anything specific, just that we would carefully listen to the community and help them transform their ideas into action and that we would not impose our own preferences.

We constantly had to pull our students back from leaping too soon to specific solutions to problems and we had to divert the community from seeing petitioning the government as the only viable strategy. Instead, we helped folks focus on their visions of what a better community would be and on what resources there were within the community to achieve their vision, rather than focusing on problems and on getting the government to solve them.

This was not always, or even often, easy. Some focus groups were poorly attended—the one scheduled for day laborers attracted only one couple. When we went to the fields to try to get others to come, the first man we approached immediately asked, “What are you going to give me?” before declining to come. It was also difficult to get a discussion going in the focus groups—mostly, people responded to questions posed by the facilitator. Getting a sizable attendance at a community-wide assembly required basic organizing work—leafleting people as they left church, door-knocking at every house and sending a sound truck around on the day of the event and promising food to follow. But, in the end, it was worth it—the assembly, attended by more about half of the adults in the community, marked a turning point in the project and produced a committed task force of volunteers who worked to develop strategies and action plans and have continued to work on developing their community.

What made the difference? In my opinion, there were several factors to how we structured the assembly: 1) we provided childcare; 2) we focused on visions for the future rather than on problems; 3) we adapted our methods to accommodate those who could not read or write by expressing visions visually and having color-signified voting; 3) we concentrated on utilizing resources within the community to start moving toward realizing high priority goals; and 4) using fairly simple methods—different colored dots on nametags to assign people to workshops—we got people who hadn’t been talking to each other for years to start working together to prioritize goals. In fact the same three goals were prioritized in each of 5 workshops and residents found that they had overall consensus about what they wanted their community to be. As a consequence, people became enthusiastic about the possibilities for the future. I’m not sure what we would have done had we not had this rather wonderful outcome!

Reading the final report before discussing. Photo by Marie Kennedy.

So, what is the evidence for our two central propositions that 1) transformative planning enhances community development, and that 2) hands-on involvement with communities enhances professional education?

Results for community development

By focusing on resources within the community, the task force work on the three goals prioritized in the assembly led to immediate community development impacts. For the first goal—a healthy population—they were able to receive equipment and a part time doctor for the health center from DIF (Desarrollo Integral de la Familia), now that they had a functioning committee that could manage the program. For the second goal—adequate water and sanitation—a volunteer team borrowed a backhoe and cleaned out the septic that was overflowing into the agricultural fields. For the third goal—more opportunities for education—arrangements were made for students at a nearby teachers’ college to provide after-school mentoring to the telesecundaria students, who had been dropping out at an alarming rate.

As these plans were realized, an interesting thing happened—the community undertook additional projects. For example, the jornaleros who would never come to a focus group voluntarily cleaned all the streets of the town, and another group of volunteers painted the health center. The elected community leader told us: “We were stuck in a pothole. You helped us finally get out of it.” With the community in motion, suddenly, the government came through with a number of resources that had previously been promised, but never provided. These included a long-needed sewage treatment plant and help with various productive projects, such as greenhouses and an on-ramp to the highway to Puebla, the nearest big city, where many workers from Analco, no longer able to make a living from the land, had construction and domestic jobs.

Results for the students and the Colegio

Students expressed enthusiasm after the very first exercise, saying that this was the first opportunity they had had to reflect on their own practice and experiences related to theoretical concepts. Although they were initially skeptical about the value of residents participating in problem definition and goal setting, by the mid-semester course evaluation, all eight students felt that learning and applying participatory approaches to community development planning would be very useful in doctoral studies and in their profession. At the end of the class, one student spoke for the group in saying, “This class was a very good experience, because [in our graduate education] we’ve spent a lot of time on theory, but it’s very different to go out in the community and try to engage in practice”.

In the end, three of the students changed their dissertation topics in order to continue to work in Analco. And, the Colegio has made a participatory planning “hands-on” course a regular part of the curriculum for both the masters and doctoral programs. Finally, the state government has requested that Colegio de Tlaxcala students and faculty work with other relatively marginal communities on community development, utilizing the same participatory approach.


What I’ve learned in 50 years of working as a progressive planner is that every community has a combination of promise and peril. Every community has experiences and traditions of working collectively, of listening to what the most marginalized have to say, of imagining a better world. Every community also has external pressures to conform and compete within the status quo, and internal cynicism, self-interest and despair that often undermine efforts to work together.

The challenge is to build on the positive and to find creative ways to overcome the negative.

The challenge is to constantly expand people’s self confidence, their trust in each other, their ability to understand and strategize about their situation, and through this, their control over that situation.

Meeting this challenge is what I call transformative community planning.

Marie Kennedy is Professor Emerita of Community Planning from the University of Massachusetts Boston, former Visiting Professor in Urban Planning at the University of California Los Angeles, President of the Board of Venice Community Housing and a Contributing Editor of Progressive City. This article is an expanded version of a previous article in Progressive Planning Magazine and a talk that was given to the Mel King Institute.

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