Transformative Community Planning: Empowerment Through Community Development

Prepared for the 1996 Planners Network Conference, “Renewing Hope, Restoring Vision: Progressive Planning in Our Communities.”

by Marie Kennedy


What is community development?

I’m going to share some thoughts about some of the elements of effective planning for community development–a planning practice that I sometimes call transformative community planning.

I see real community development as combining material development with the development of people. Real development, as I understand it, necessarily involves increasing a community’s capacity for taking control of its own development–building within the community critical thinking and planning abilities, as well as concrete skills, so that development projects and planning processes can be replicated by community members in the future. A good planning project should leave a community not just with more immediate “products”–e.g., housing–but also with an increased capacity to meet future needs.

Effective community development planning takes a comprehensive approach to meeting community needs–an approach that recognizes the interrelationship of economic, physical and social development. Community development is linked to empowerment and to valuing diversity of cultures. This is true whether you are talking about planning in materially underdeveloped communities in the United States or in the so-called developing world.

Manning Marable, an African-American scholar and commentator, in his 1992 book, Crisis of Color and Democracy, offers a concise definition of empowerment, one that I think is particularly apt for planners:

Empowerment is essentially a capacity to define clearly one’s interests, and to develop a strategy to achieve those interests. It’s the ability to create a plan or program to change one’s reality in order to obtain those objectives or interests. Power is not a “thing”, it’s a process. In other words, you shouldn’t say that a group has power, but that, through its conscious activity, a group can empower itself by increasing its ability to achieve its own interests.

And, Kari Polanyi Levitt, an economist working in the Caribbean, in a lecture a couple of years ago to the Association of Caribbean Economists, took on the individualism, selfishness and greed typical of what she calls the “market magic” paradigm, arguing that:

Any meaningful notion of “sustainable development” must begin with the recognition that the diversity of cultures which nourish human creativity is as precious an inheritance as the diversity of plant and animal life.

She goes on to say:

Development cannot be imposed from without. It is a creative social process and its central nervous system, the matrix which nourishes it, is located in the cultural sphere. Development is ultimately not a matter of money or physical capital, or foreign exchange, but of the capacity of a society to tap the root of popular creativity, to free up and empower people to exercise their intelligence and collective wisdom.

Role of the planner

Unfortunately, in most places, public policy and planning practice don’t reflect this understanding of community development. And, in my view, that’s why we have so little of it, especially in materially underdeveloped communities.

Most of my experience has been on the community level and it’s at this level that you will find most of the practitioners who are trying to work in a transformative way. However, what often blocks success for transformative planners at the community level are decisions taken by planners at the city, state, national or even international level. For transformative planning to work on the community level, planners at all levels, who are framing public problem definitions and policies, writing legislation, designing governmental programs, prioritizing funding targets for private foundations and governmental agencies, or preparing requests for proposals, have to share an understanding of what constitutes community development.

Measuring success

Measuring success primarily, or even exclusively, by the numbers–the number of houses built or the number of clients served or the number of jobs created, or even the number of people whose income has risen about the poverty level, the increased number of high school graduates, the number of rivers cleaned up–measures important outcomes, but outcomes insufficient for community development in the sense that I have defined it. If we measure success by the numbers alone, no matter how laudable our long range goals, we’re going to plan research, and design and lend our support to policies and programs that we think are going to be successful in terms of those numbers. Rational, right? Circular, too…. If we don’t include less measurable goals (or at least presently less measured goals) in our criteria for success–goals that have to do with empowerment as Marable defines it–we’re likely to meet our goals while our communities are increasingly underdeveloped.

If, on the other hand, we have a different version of what constitutes success:

  • a version that does include products of development, but which rests primarily on power and control being increasingly vested in community members;
  • success that is measured by the number of people who have, in the planning process, moved from being an object of planning to being a subject;
  • success measured in terms of increasing numbers of confident, competent, cooperative and purposeful community members;
  • success measured in terms of the ability of people involved in the planning process to replicate their achievements in other situations;
  • success measured in terms of movement towards realizing values of equity and inclusion;

then, we’re going to have very different sorts of policies, programs and practices. And, our roles as planners will also be very different. This latter type of practice is what I want to discuss with you today.


Advocacy planning

Now, I’d like to turn to some historical background. By acknowledging the roots of transformative community planning in advocacy planning, I hope to show how we can move beyond the achievements of advocacy planning–achievements which were pathbreaking in the ’60’s, but of which, in retrospect, we can see the limitations.

Advocacy planning developed within the context of the burgeoning popular movements of the ’60’s–foremost of which was the Civil Rights Movement and from which grew other movements. Of particular importance to advocacy planning were those primarily localized movements that focused on the urban crisis, and the student movement which demanded relevance in education to social issues, including those connected to the urban crisis. The ’60’s also saw the real cranking up of urban renewal which concentrated on renewing failing downtowns in order to save our cities (if not our people) and, somewhat later, developing some neighborhoods through gentrification while using other neighborhoods as the dumping grounds for the displaced.

Within this context, planners often came under attack by the community–and by students for that matter–because planners were often amongst the professionals that made the decisions that caused neighborhoods to be uprooted, that caused communities to be destroyed. Progressive planners and students began to look at which groups had access to professional assistance and which did not–it began to occur to us that in working for the interests that could afford to pay us–whether private or governmental–we were in essence advocating the interests of that group–in fact, we came to understand that all planning is advocacy for one set of interests or another. Pushed hard by students and by low-income community groups we had to recognize that even public planners didn’t operate in a neutral way, in spite of the avowed purpose of city, state and federal planning agencies to serve the supposedly neutral public interest. On the contrary, low-income communities in particular couldn’t depend on publicly-paid planners to represent their interests. Communities which were not part of the power bloc that elected and kept various politicians in office, communities which differed in terms of class, race, gender, whatever, from that power bloc, could pretty much depend on being embattled with public planning agencies.

Recognizing these contradictions, progressive planners across the country began to put their skills at the disposal of groups and interests which hadn’t previously had access to their services. Across the country advocacy planning groups sprang up like the San Francisco Design Center, the Architects’ Renewal Committee of Harlem, the Pratt Center and Boston’s Urban Planning Aid (where I worked for a time in the early ’70’s). In response to student demands for experience in grappling with real urban problems, these models were simultaneously extended into schools of planning and architecture.

The advocacy planning movement reached its peak in the late ’60’s, early ’70’s and had largely died out by the late ’70’s, at least in terms of being a movement. There are certainly aspects of the practice that have been institutionalized and people still practice as advocate planners, but without the sense of a movement.

In the movement we made some real contributions, the benefits of which are still felt. I would identify four:

  1. First, and most importantly, advocacy planning began to successfully challenge the notion of planning as a “neutral science,” as apolitical–removed from the political process. In my view, the break with this technocratic approach was incomplete, but this assessment doesn’t invalidate the importance of these first steps that advocacy planning took in the direction of recognizing planning as political.
  2. Secondly, advocacy planning made great strides in institutionalizing the notion of community participation in planning, at least planning in the public sphere. Today, nearly everyone in the US takes this for granted and in most publicly supported planning, at least lip service is paid to citizen participation in the planning process. But, this wasn’t always true, and it was something that had to be won. Although participation can be used in a negative way–as a smokescreen to obscure real power relations and agendas, the fact that we have a right to that citizen participation provides an important opening for struggle.
  3. Third, I would count the human legacy of advocacy planning as very important–many of us still active in community development work had our ideas and careers forged in the advocacy planning movement.
  4. And, fourth, the contribution to planning education. The approach to education that includes hands-on field projects with underserved groups is a direct legacy of advocacy planning. Advocacy planning is an important thread of today’s transformative community development planning–but, there were significant shortfalls in the vision offered by advocacy planning. Today’s debates on the US left about what planning practice should be are connected to these shortfalls.

Overall, we failed to effectively frame technical assistance in relationship to people’s movements in such a way as to build those movements. In my view, planning should feed organizing–it shouldn’t be planning at the expense of organizing, which was often the case in advocacy planning.

We didn’t sufficiently take into account how communities are situated in a larger societal and historic context. We didn’t often evaluate the direction of evolution of communities with which we worked, questioning, for example, whether a particular community was developing towards or away from realizing values of inclusion and liberation. Consequently, we didn’t effectively target our assistance to particular communities and issues.

We took groups too much at their own self-definition of goals; we didn’t work hard enough perhaps to expand the world view of oppressed people, to explicitly counter the ideological oppression which shapes the way in which people think. This populist/majoritarian approach caused us to choose short term victories over the slower process of building a broader vision of the good community. Particularly in working with white communities around their perceived interests, we ran the risk (and sometimes fell into the trap) of supporting essentially exclusionary and racist organizing. At best, the narrow vision of short term and expedient goals meant that groups with whom we worked frequently fell apart when limited goals were achieved.

We also failed to sufficiently expand our notion of what the field of planning includes–this meant a continuing focus on the product, often a physical product and tactics that related to that like producing alternative site plans or fixing up buildings…basically emphasizing the built product, not the movement. Often we didn’t change our planning methodologies at all from those we had been using in more traditional practice. We didn’t really retool for a new practice–we mostly just changed who got access to our services. The political act was in the choice of client, not in developing a different way of working with people–a new process of planning. This is an important area in which the break with the notion of planning as an objective, neutral science was incomplete.

This led us to have a confused notion of what participation in and control over planning decisions meant–did it mean that everybody was a planner? Or did it mean just a token participation at the fringes? We went in both directions, sometimes simultaneously. We didn’t figure out very well how to work in a way that created frameworks for meaningful decisionmaking while allowing organizers to be organizers, neighborhood residents to get on with their lives, and for us to be planners.

Our practice as advocate planners remained primarily representational, rather than participatory. Communities remained the object of planning and rarely did our practice assist their transformation into becoming simultaneously the subject and object of planning.


A comparison of two progressive approaches to planning and organizing

In our chapter “Transformative Populism and the Development of a Community of Color” in the book Dilemmas of Activism, I and my co-author, Chris Tilly, contrast two models of community organizing and planning in Roxbury, Boston’s primary black neighborhood. We term these two approaches “redistributive populism” and “transformative populism.”

In important ways, the redistributive approach, as we describe it, is an unevolved advocacy planning. This contrasts to the transformative approach which, while it evolves from advocacy planning, adds many other threads from, for example, national liberation struggles and participatory action research.

Redistributive planning, although concerned with economic justice, with redistributing wealth, doesn’t seek, in the main part, to support organizing focused on the redistribution of power and it doesn’t aim to cede control over planning decisions to oppressed people. The model assumes that the repository of knowledge is in the planners. It’s “we’ll figure out what’s best to do and do it for you” not “we’ll help you do it.”

Furthermore, although redistributive planners frequently have a critical analysis of the structural nature of social and urban problems, they will support organizing that focuses on issues “where the people are at” rather than trying to take up some of the hard questions such as race. In part this is because the “where the people are at” kind of issues translate more readily into products that are recognizable as legitimate results of a planning process.

Redistributive planning rests on the assumption that community development will proceed incrementally through solving one problem after another and eventually this will mean a qualitative social change. Redistributive planners will often verbalize the same long range and overall goals as transformative or community development planners, but they concentrate on products over process and on efficiency in reaching product-oriented goals over mobilization and empowerment.

Both redistributive and transformative planners would acknowledge that there is a political nature to all we do and that all of our work has implications for the distribution of power in society and that there is no such thing as value-free social science. However, while redistributive populism reserves this awareness to the planner/organizer, transformative populism requires that the raising of political consciousness is a necessary corollary to any successful planning process.

Links to participatory action research

Transformative planning joins participatory action research in the assumption that possession of knowledge is the critical basis of power and control. This is important, There’s a tension built in here for the transformative planner to work with.

How knowledge is produced is a great mystery to most folks. Knowledge has become a product bought and sold. In general, ordinary people aren’t considered knowledgeable, even about their own reality. The research industry has become more and more specialized and hidden behind a technocratic veil of supposed “scientific method,” which effectively excludes laypeople. Conditioned to believe they can’t adequately understand their own lives and cut out of participation in research and analysis which might enhance their understanding, ordinary people often simply stop trying. And, in truth, people do often lack the information, skills and experience to critically understand the roots of their powerlessness. Their lack of information and their preoccupation with daily survival interferes with their understanding of how power structures work and affect their lives. Therefore, the oppressed often share the oppressors’ viewpoint, blaming themselves for their own poverty and powerlessness–essentially what we know as “internalized oppression.”

So, here’s a central dilemma for the transformative planner–finding a balance between assuming that oppressed people fully understand their own oppression and the planner does not, or conversely, that the planner fully understands the truth (or has the research and analytical tools to get at the truth) about people’s oppression and that the people do not.

The process of achieving this balance isn’t mystical, but it does require an ongoing process of evaluation of the actual circumstances in each community planning project undertaken. And, it requires a real commitment to community development as I outlined at the beginning of this paper.

Balancing the roles of the planner and the community

A successful transformative planner must carefully listen and respect what people know; help people acknowledge what they already know; and help them back up this “common sense” and put it in a form that communicates convincingly to others. An example of combining the “common sense” of neighborhood residents with the critical analysis that planners can bring can be found in the investigations around redlining in Boston in the late ’80’s. Roxbury residents knew for decades that although they could put their money in banks, the banks wouldn’t lend it back to them; they also had a feeling that this was particularly true in neighborhoods of color. Planners were able to do a number of studies that produced evidence of the exact nature and extent of redlining by both class and race. The first study was a relatively simple one carried out on the community level through the Greater Roxbury Neighborhood Authority by two MIT graduate planning students. Their findings were provocative enough to push the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston and the Boston Redevelopment Authority to conduct other studies, which the community was able to use to put pressure on banks to change. The planner’s role in this type of process is critical, but so is the role of the indigenous population–their “common sense” about the situation and their ability to mobilize for change. If the community hadn’t mobilized, the studies either wouldn’t have been done or wouldn’t have focused on the impact of race, or once done, would have simply remained on the shelf.

Correcting for biases, preconceptions and confusing preferences for correctness

Successful transformative planning also means planners who are willing to acknowledge that into each planning situation we bring with us our own attitudes and biases–biases that flow from our own class background and location, our own gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and so forth. And, along with acknowledging the baggage we bring with us, we must recognize that our preferences for certain planning and development outcomes are typically based, at least in part, on these biases and that they’re not always (or even often) about being “right”, it’s not about the “right way”–our preferences are just that, they’re our preferences.

Historically, planners have cloaked their preferences–typically those of white, middle-class men–in lots of big words and scientific method and called them “right.” That accounts for a lot of the most disastrous planning projects of the past and it continues today. If you’ve studied the early days of urban renewal, you’ve probably read some of the sociological, psychological and planning studies of the West End of Boston–the second massive clearance urban renewal project in Boston–generally conceded to be a disaster–an area seen as a slum by the planners, but seen as a thriving multi-ethnic community by residents. Who gets to say an area is a slum? (I should note that while the planners who did this were liberals, progressives aren’t immune to this type of narrow vision either.)

Several years ago, over a period of a year, I was in a discussion group every week or so with a group of homeless or previously homeless women. I learned a great deal that is critical of well-intentioned shelter policies. Many have a hard time understanding why, even in winter, some homeless people opt to stay on the street rather than going to a shelter. The homeless women are organizing themselves against the shelters–shelters which were developed by the most well-intentioned, even progressive, people, I’m sure. They also had critical things to say about the attitudes towards homeless that were reflected in rehousing policies–policies that implied that homeless people have no community, have no legitimate preferences in housing accommodations, that they should be grateful for whatever they can get. This comes from planners, however, progressive, focusing only on the housing unit and not on the sense of community and self-dignity of the homeless themselves. For example, a now discredited policy of the City of Cambridge was to rehouse Cambridge homeless several cities away in Lynn where there were cheaper and more units available. If a homeless person didn’t accept this relocation (and many didn’t), they were bumped to the bottom of the list–after all, they had been offered housing.


Successful transformative planning means wielding our planning tools in a way that frames real alternatives; that elaborates the trade-offs in making one or another choice–that puts real control in people’s hands. It does not mean making everybody a professional planner–a possessor of the particular set of skills that planners have developed through professional education and practice. It does mean using our skills so that people can make informed decisions for themselves. And, it means including in the trade-offs the consequences of different decisions in terms of overarching community values–it means challenging people on exclusionary, narrow-minded thinking; having enough respect for people to challenge them. It means framing alternatives that include organizing strategies, political strategies, education strategies, as well as the more traditional planning outcomes–programs, buildings, businesses and so forth.

Successful transformative planning means extending our definition of the planning process to include a capacity building and education/outreach phase on the front end and an evaluation period on the back end. And, it means fighting for funding for this extended process.

In short, it means working with communities in a way that’s sensitive, supportive, inquiring and carefully analytical, challenging but not directive or patronizing. Although this may sound like “mom and apple pie,” it’s all too rare in practice.

This paper has been presented in various versions in lectures at Cornell University (September 1993), the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (May 1993), and the Grupo Para el Desarollo Integral de la Capital, Havana, Cuba (July 1992). Published versions are forthcoming in New Solutions (summer 1996) and Indigenous Planning Times (fall 1996).

Marie Kennedy teaches community planning at the University of Massachusetts in Boston.