Understand and speak,
practice human courage.
That’s what a longtime colleague said to me when I shared my vision for change. It was his friendly way of reminding me that a personal planning vision is only the beginning. The path to achieving the vision matters. It is one of discovery, personal and professional growth, and meaningful work. This book is a guide to put vision in action.
I see planning’s mission as bringing repair to the world. Our concerns run the gamut, from fair administration of zoning rules to tackling global issues such as climate change or inequality. We recognize the interconnectedness of natural and human systems, and we seek to increase livability, reduce suffering, and regenerate the natural environment. Future-oriented, our commitment is to the public good.
As with many idealistic fields, planning practice is a worthwhile challenge. The world is not waiting for us to change it. Entrenched interests, ideological differences, prejudices, and ignorance may rule the day. Moreover, because change doesn’t happen all at once, planning reform is a process, not a project
with an end date. There’s no future plateau where everything is settled. Planning has long time frames for implementation, ethical dilemmas, warring stakeholders, and red tape. Facing these obstacles unprepared can be deflating, or worse, disillusioning. It’s a tragedy for the profession when a planner gives up out of frustration or cynicism. In the pages that follow, I explain a planning style called principled adaptability
that cultivates creativity and resiliency. It leads planners to seize opportunities, practice effectively, and find meaning in their work.
The planner’s journey has two aspects. The first aspect is the work itself. The following chapters offer methods for making good choices about experiences, jobs, and professional effectiveness. An intention to “do good” plays out in a dynamic environment with many influences and reactions. Planners do not control the enterprise, but we have influence. Change is a dynamic process. A short-run effort may produce a later win that can’t be anticipated, such as when a community organizing effort produces a new community leader. Furthermore, the world evolves as planning work unfolds. Planners need a long-term view of their impact.
The second aspect of the planner’s journey is growing as a person of character. I use this term to refer to a bundle of personal attributes that determine how we respond to situations and circumstances. Planners need reliability, grit, courage, empathy, integrity, honesty, clarity about values, and good work habits. For example, developing empathy makes planners better listeners who are able to understand community narratives. Planning’s demand for ethical reasoning also enlarges the individual. What is the good? Do the ends justify the means? How does context influence what is right? Developing listening and ethical reasoning abilities engages the whole person, not just the planner’s professional identity, and has benefits beyond professional work.
The primary audience for the book is those starting out in planning and allied idealistic professions, although there are insights for all planners. In my experience, each generation of planners brings different strengths and weaknesses to the profession. My thinking is guided by the qualities I see among those starting in the field, which gives me cause for optimism. As with every generation, new planners seek meaningful work in the public interest. But rather than instinctively seeking a ‘Planner 1’ position in a local jurisdiction, they think broadly and creatively about the settings for their work. These new
planners understand the regulatory function of planning, but they are also entrepreneurial in seeking a broader range of ways to make change. Livability, equity, and sustainability drive their vision.
This new generation of planners is skilled in networking and collaborating in a diverse workplace across race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, ability, and class. They engage networks in new ways to solve problems, find jobs, and support one another. Many are as likely to write an app as they are a plan, using advanced research and analysis capabilities. Resilient out of necessity, they face the economic challenges of a recovering job market and student loan debt. Some are the first in their family to attend college; others return to planning school with family responsibilities.
summarizes research on the characteristics of the generation that is entering the planning profession. Despite media accounts of differences among generational groupings, properly controlled studies show that they are more alike than they are different. This book, therefore, is written for all planners, regardless of age.
The overarching theme of the book is engaging idealism and realism in planning practice. This stems from the utopian roots of planning (idealism) and the fact that our work is embedded in political, economic, and natural systems (realism).
has two common meanings: (1) to live by a high standard of behavior and (2) to form and pursue noble principles.1
Both meanings apply to planners—standards of behavior are defined in the American Institute of Certified Planners (AICP) Code of Ethics, as are aspirational principles such as justice, sustainability, a long-term perspective, and recognizing the interrelatedness of things. In short, we are a reform-oriented profession.2
Planning’s idealistic origins lie in reform movements related to healthy and safe housing, social justice, and blight removal, as well as utopian thinking. Those planners imagined a better future and wanted to make change. When I survey my students, most self-identify as idealists. Planning’s critique of the status quo, its sense of possibility, and its desire for change are the roots of planners’ passion. Idealism provides the orientation, purpose, and inspiration. It is what gets the planner out of bed in the morning. Of course, idealists could spend too much time living in their heads, imagining what could be rather than seeing what is, or being naïve about their worth.
Having said that, some planners are more naturally attuned to a practical approach to solving immediate problems. We might call them realists. Realism
is commonly taken to mean the attitude or practice of accepting a situation as it is and being prepared to deal with it accordingly.3
Planning demands realism because we hope that our ideas are implemented. Planning work isn’t just imagining better cities, but rather seeking to improve real ones. That means realism about history, economics, the physical and social sciences, social relationships, power relationships, and feasibility of implementation. Realism can check an impractical or naïve vision born of idealism.
Planning’s role in the democratic state reinforces the need for realism. For the most part, we are advisors to decision-makers, not the decision-maker. Planners rarely have the opportunity to do “clean sheet” planning with broad implementation power. Moreover, the objects of our work have a physical reality, as found in buildings, infrastructure, and environment conditions, and a human reality, as seen in social relations, communities, and conflict. Realism demands that we see things as they are.
The realist recognizes that planning occurs in a complex system of political, economic, and physical checks and balances. In engaging competing interests, possible improvement is often incremental, not systemic. Realism might suggest that perfect is the enemy of the good in a particular instance, meaning that holding out for the ideal solution could impede incremental actions that would move things in the right direction. Realism prefers the messiness of the democratic process to one where an idealist is in charge. Realists also ask: how does the idealist know his or her vision is correct? They are concerned about accountability, unanticipated impacts, and human self-interest.
Planning practice requires an engagement
of idealism and realism. Effective planners deftly navigate this space—they can hold both concepts simultaneously and choose between them as circumstances warrant. For example, one of my mentors had a strong commitment to justice and fairness but was not naive about the dark side of human nature. She was able to hold idealism and realism simultaneously while resolving a specific issue. This is a form of pragmatism—using reason and logic to solve problems in specific instances, without being beholden to theory—but I think it is more than that.4
A pragmatic approach produces incremental gains that lead to more systematic change. It lets planners realize that they did some good at the end of each day. My mentor didn’t give up any of her idealism in dealing with the world as it is. A Guide for the Idealist
provides tools to engage idealism and realism, and explains the principled adaptability planning style as a way forward.
Planning theorist John Friedmann defines planning thusly: “planning… links scientific and technical knowledge to actions in the public domain.… Planning is not wholly concerned with either knowing or acting but rather serves as the link” (Friedmann, 1987, p. 38). This is planning’s strength and a reason why idealism and realism are engaged in practice. As mentioned, the public domain is a complex stew of politics, different visions, and uncertainty about the efficacy of solutions.
Being the link between knowledge and action rather than either a source of expertise or a political facilitator means that we have a complicated task in establishing professional legitimacy as compared to narrowly defined professions. Indeed, planning’s idealism/realism dimension differs significantly from its related professions. The three examples that follow illustrate the differences:
- Urban geographers generate knowledge about spatial relationships in cities and regions. Their spatial analyses inform research papers and government studies, so the quality of knowledge generated is paramount (realism). The work may be used to propose change, but geographers don’t carry the proposal through the political process. That’s what planners do.
- Civil engineers make change by applying technical knowledge to solve physical problems in the urban environment—roads, transit systems, water and sewer, power, etc. Quantitative determinations and standards show the best approach. Cost-effectiveness drives their work—designing infrastructure and other solutions that meet straightforward criteria of innovation, design quality, and cost (realism). Planners, on the other hand, address complex, messy questions about whether an infrastructure facility supports social aims.
- Architects make change by designing buildings. Functionality (realism) and beauty (idealism) motivates them. Although they have values about aesthetics and sustainability, private clients drive day-to-day work (realism). In contrast, planners ensure that buildings support the broader community from design, economic, and social standpoints.
Many professions have relatively clear-cut relationships with clients, but planning is a complex enterprise involving idealism and realism. The ability to hold two seemingly contradictory concepts without negating one or the other is a sign of intellectual maturity. Although the realism perspective naturally flows from the physical and social sciences, the source of an individual’s idealism is
not clear to me. Some planners are idealistic from the beginning, others do not feel particularly idealistic, and still others develop idealism later in their careers. The inspiring and effective planners I’ve known and studied reconcile idealism and realism, which makes them adaptive, resilient, and wise. Even though “idealist” is in the title of the book, I don’t claim that an idealist temperament is required of the nascent planner.
Throughout the book, boxes provide personal anecdotes that relate to each chapter. They provide relatable stories that amplify the points being discussed. These are the stories of my planning career and those of other planning practitioners, providing insights on career paths and experiences. Box 1.1
discusses how my idealism grew slowly over my career.
Box 1.1 I’m Not Feeling It
Do you feel idealistic? If not, is planning wrong for you? Not at all—take the long view on this issue. For me, idealism didn’t drive my decision to become a planner. I was a 17-year-old high school student who had decided against pursuing a music career as an oboist and needed to pick a new college major on short notice. I selected planning out of self-interest. Cities intrigued me. I enjoyed thinking about how patterns of land development, systems of infrastructure, and industry develop and function. As a child, my sister and I rode bikes around our neighborhood and made maps. Growing up in Windsor, Ontario, an automotive town located across the border from Detroit, Michigan, the economy was on display in the rail yards, river ferries, iron-ore lake freighters, and the factories and suppliers. The city was like a production machine.
My friend’s big brother was a planner for the city, so I knew that the planning profession existed, but I didn’t know much about the work of planners. Although planning interested me, I just wanted an interesting job that provided a middle-class lifestyle without working on an assembly line. My friend who chose that path boasted of “25 years and out,” a promise of retirement at age 43.
I had no change agenda. My initial career steps were opportunistic—I just wanted a planning job. Idealism emerged slowly as I moved from establishing myself as a professional, for my own gain, to understanding planning challenges and wanting to do something about them. Idealism required agency on my part—and it grew as my career developed. Other planners have told me that their idealism emerged only after they gained positions that offered a measure of freedom and autonomy, which occurred later in their careers. Over time, my sense of the gap between “what is” and “what could be” grew, as did my sense of “what should be.” My idealism was born in this realization and has grown over my career. If planning is your interest but not your vocation, give it some time. You might find yourself thinking differently in the future.
It is one thing for idealist planners to have a vision for their planning career, but without motivation we may have deep thoughts in coffee shops but little impact on the world. Like idealism, motivation is mysterious. Why is it different from person to person? Is a person born with it, or is it something that develops? Although both factors play a role, the good news is that motivation can be cultivated, and it can grow with age and experience. When planners find internal motivation, of course, they won’t have to force themselves to do anything. They’ll naturally want to do it.
Motivation differs from self-discipline. My self-discipline is so-so; my motivatio...