Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Tales of a City Planner

Planner Fatigue

Have you ever met an old grizzly cop or an even fairly young but disillusioned cop who has been mentally and emotionally beaten down by the job that all they fail to see anything positive?

Well at times, I feel that city planning can lead to the same disillusionment. Almost any job that deals with the public, probably tests your faith and patience in the democratic political process…and people in general.

What is the source for this bitterness and cynicism? I believe the source for most planners is that many planning offices are reactionary and not proactive. This is a particular problem for young planners who come out of planning schools feeling like social activists and often become frustrated by the seemingly slow pace of government. Older planners have seen it all…and believe in nothing now. Just joking, but there are more than a few planning veterans who have turned from skeptics into cynics.

To be fair, I do know a fair share of planning vets who are also positive and are strong advocates of new planning theories that can improve the way we plan our environments. Strangely I find these planners never-ending hope to implement new planning theories to be slightly disillusioned as well. Maybe I’m a cynic too.

The problem with cynicism in planning is that you believe no new planning theory will work because everyone is stupid (yes, we think highly of ourselves). No, we do not think everyone is stupid but we do feel that there are a lot of people in the planning process who do not have the best of intentions that often effect plan implementation. In every plan you will have people ranging from other government agencies to the public that are meddling, self-serving, small minded, biased, looking for the quick fix, discriminatory and fearful. Working alongside these different factions can definitely turn you into a cynic.

The problem with being a cynic in planning is that you fail to see the full picture of what can be done. Any new planning theory that is being proposed is automatically torpedoed because we see all the problems of what could go wrong.

Here’s the deal, planning is a very intuitive profession. Planners figure out how to make things work in sometimes very unconventional ways. Since this is not a technical profession there endless amount of ways to solve and attack a problem. In fact, planning forces you to be creative because communities are never exact carbon copies of one another. We have to be creative in finding the best end result for each individual community. The end result maybe similar to another community but never the same. So the minute we become cynics we limit our creativity we fail to find the best solutions for communities.

So how do we help young planners or just planners in general avoid becoming cynics? My guess is through a bottle of Jack Daniels. I’m sure you have better solutions…all comments on this matter are welcome.

Thanks for reading!


Kirk Mantay said...

I think a key piece also is the toxic combination of "who" gets into planning as a young career architect, geographer, etc. vs. "what" you are allowed to do as planners. People who come into that field (aside from those who deram of being a government bureaucrat and running a department as a means to an end) are generally people who are creative and who are either process-or results-minded. They want to have a tangible impacts on development, communities. etc.

But let's think about the process - who actually has the LEAST impact on the final layout of a street, neighborhood, park, etc? The staff planner who is in charge of the project! Design and construction changes are regularly made by developers, councilmen, and interest groups who have separate agendas and who also may have no technical training or background whatsoever....they're just "in charge."

Organizations create cynics and other dead weight when they recruit self-starting young professionals and then put them in positions of bureacracy where they are never allowed to say so much as "yes, I'm OK with that" or "No, you cannot do that." Instead, it's..."Yeah, I'll have to ask somebody."

If agencies want someone just to occupy an enforcement or permit desk, they should hire someone with a good temperament and a GED, who has no real goals to "improve communities," and send him/her to community college to learn basic drafting, zoning, and planning principles. At least you'd have one less cynic.

Kirk Mantay said...

Forgive my spelling!

Kirk Mantay said...

So I guess I'm saying my solution would be for agencies & non-profits to hire good, creative, aggressive candidates ONLY for positions where their talents and leadership can be utilized by their employer.

The rest of the agency (folks pushing paper) should be filled with folks who think "this job is OK," and will not become cynical when they're repeatedly told, "your opinion does not matter."

But of course - that means that agencies couldn't brag to each other about how many PE's, RLA's, and AICPs they have in-house. Granted that none of those folks are doing work commensurate with their licenses....but we have them!

Toure Zeigler said...

Swamp Thing, I agree wholeheartedly with everything you just said. I agree with you solutions as well, "can I subscribe to your newsletter" (c) Will Ferrell.

One of the problems that I see a lot though is that places that hire staff who are just trained to do enforcement, eventually become overused and then given real responsibility. These Peggy Olsen characters are then in competition with new hires with degrees. In fact the Peggy Olsen character will probably make more money then the new talent which creates even more disillusionment and cyncism.

Ultimately what happens is though is that the Peggy Olsen character is happy to have a great job, the real talent continues to walk away and moves on.

wx geek said...

Those who enter the planning profession (regardless of what capacity) must understand the majority of their work will no doubt deal in the public realm. In fact, the planner HAS to understand the environment upon which they work BEFORE they devote themselves.

I am not saying expectations of the young planner should be dumbed down or diminished. They simply have to be realistic. In the politics of planning, either the client (enter name of planning jurisdiction here) or that jurisdiction itself have high percentages of its staff having tremendous skill, but do not have the 'budget' to pay them the equivalent of a more senior level planner. I think part of it is that older planners are holding on longer, and also, that value is placed upon institutional knowledge. For better or for worse, the longer you are in planning, the more information about the ever changing planning/development/zoning process is accumulated. Sooo...at least sometimes, age and treachery overcomes youth and skill in the 'power/authority' department!

The key for the aspiring planning who wants to be able to make an impact is to continue to keep their skills up however way they can. Even if they don't have decision making authority (at least not until the older planners retire!), they must operate as though they do. When the time comes for them to be tasked...they should be ready.

I see what Swamp Thing is saying when it comes to 'what' you are allowed to do as a planner. Ability to provide meaningful input into a project is stymied by the process. When agency compartmentalization and development process disrupts sound planning judgment, it's up to the planner to advocate for change....change to the system, process, or legislation. Easier said than done, but you have to change the culture of 'what' planners 'usually' do. I've been surprised before about 'what' planners can do when they have the courage to push the envelope. Just have to develop a reputation for doing so...within reason and tact, of course!

But…I know I sound naive here. Folks are thinking, ‘C’mon, how can you deal with dueling agencies that have been established for so long time’ or ‘how can you really think you have an impact on a particular development project’? Simply, community involvement and advocacy. I’ve seen first have how groups once opposed to certain projects, are then brought together through the public process and education. Doesn’t always work that way, but the planner has the unique position of educating the public on development matters. So as long as the Planning Office administration is okay with the planner being an advocate for a given project, there is tremendous power here.

Accept the limitations of your profession. Then, work furiously within areas where you can make an impact. Small victories are still victories.