Perhaps the first question that has to be answered in a book about planning is simply “why do we need planning?” The need for planning comes down to two words, interconnectedness and complexity. If there were few of us and the technologies by which we lived were relatively simple, there would be little need for the planning described in this book. We could each go our own way and would gain little from common planning efforts. However, the fact is that we are numerous enough and our technologies complicated enough that this is not the case.
Consider a simple illustration of interconnectedness, the use of a few acres of urban land. The amount and character of development on that land will determine the amount of traffic it generates. Developing it with single-family houses will produce a different traffic flow than developing it with apartments, which will generate a different traffic flow than developing it with a neighborhood shopping center. Thus a land development decision is a traffic decision as well. That, potentially, affects everyone in the area. How much of the site is paved, and even what material is used for paving, affects how fast rainwater runs off from the property. Runoff may affect flooding and stream flow conditions miles downstream from the property. The types and quantities of commercial or residential activity on the property may affect air quality, noise levels, water quality, and the visual and social qualities of the area.
Decisions about the residential uses of land will affect housing prices, rents, and vacancies—in short, who lives in the community.
Those decisions, in turn, will have effects on the economy of the community and the demands that are placed on the community for educational, social, and other services.
The land-use decisions made by a community shape its very character—what it is like to walk through, what it is like to drive through, what kinds of jobs and businesses exist in it, how well the natural environment survives, and whether the community is an attractive one or an ugly one. In some cases such decisions may directly affect human life and health; for example, whether traffic patterns are safe or hazardous.
Land-use decisions affect the fiscal health of the community. Every property that is developed burdens the community with obligations such as education, police and fire protection, recreational services, and social services. Conversely, every development contributes, directly or indirectly, to municipal revenues through property taxes, sales taxes, or charges and fees. Thus the pattern of land development will affect how heavily the community must tax its residents and the level of public services the community can provide.
The land in question may be privately owned, in which case public control is exercised through a regulatory process. It may be owned publicly, in which case direct public investment will determine its use. But in either case there is a distinct public interest in what happens on the land. It is the fact of interconnectedness that helps justify public planning efforts.
Complexity is the condition that justifies planning as a separate profession and as a separate activity of government. If all of the sorts of relationships suggested were simple, they could be dealt with simply and informally. If the community were tiny, perhaps direct negotiations between private parties would suffice. If the community were somewhat larger, perhaps the relationships could easily be dealt with along with the general flow of municipal business. But the complexity of a modern community renders such simple and direct approaches inadequate.
The complexity of the community also means that many things that in a simpler place could be done privately must be done publicly. In a sparsely populated area water supply and waste disposal could be handled on-site by the individual household. No common decision making would be necessary. In a large metropolitan area, these functions may involve systems that span many communities and involve billions of dollars of capital investment. Comparable comments could be made about transportation, education, public safety, recreation, and the like.
Thus in the thousands of communities in the United States, planning is a formalized and distinct process of government. In relatively small communities, the planning function may be lodged in an unpaid, part-time planning board with the technical work done by a planning consultant. In larger communities, the planning function is generally located within a planning department. Depending on community size, that department may have a staff ranging from one person to several hundred individuals.
In a very small department, the planner (or planners) may be a jack-of-all-trades handling land-use questions one day, capital budgeting another day, and economic development a third day. In a larger agency, there may be considerable specialization of labor. One section of the agency may specialize in zoning issues, another in master planning, a third in planning-related research, another in environmental issues, and so on.
What might a community seek to achieve through planning? In a growing community, planners might be concerned with shaping the pattern of growth to achieve a sensible and attractive land-use pattern. That concern means avoiding both oppressively dense development and overly scattered, fragmentary development. It means encouraging a pattern of development that gives residents ready access to recreational, cultural, school, shopping, and other facilities. It means having a street pattern that is convenient to use and through which traffic flows without excessive congestion. It means separating incompatible land uses and activities, for example, high-intensity commercial activity from residential areas. In a modern planned community, it might mean providing a system of pathways so that pedestrian and bicycle traffic is separated from automobile traffic.
The community’s planners will also be concerned with the location of public facilities like schools and social service centers, both for the convenience of the people served and for reinforcing the development of a desirable land-use pattern. If the community anticipates or desires significant industrial or commercial development, its planners will be concerned with seeing that sufficient, conveniently located blocks of land are available and that they are served with adequate roads, water, and sewer facilities.
In an older community that is not growing and that does not anticipate growth, planners may be concerned primarily with preserving or improving that which now exists. Thus planners may focus on measures to preserve the quality of the housing stock. In many communities planners will also be concerned with housing cost questions, specifically, how to provide housing for the community’s lower-income residents. In many older communities, planners devote much effort to preserving historic buildings and other landmarks. If the community is concerned (as many are) about the health of its downtown, planners may be involved in implementing street improvements and other changes designed to help downtown businesses compete successfully with establishments in outlying areas.
In a community that faces a serious unemployment problem or that sees its property tax base as being inadequate, economic development may be a major task of the planners. Much of their effort may be devoted to creating conditions that encourage existing industry to remain and expand, and new firms to locate within the community.
In recent years much planning effort has focused on environmental issues: how to guide and manage development to minimize environmental damage. For example, a planner may be concerned with evaluating the relative environmental merits and financial costs of landfill disposal versus incineration for a municipality’s solid wastes and then with helping select the best site. As concern with climate change has grown, planners in many communities have become concerned with minimizing the total use of nonrenewable energy in transportation and buildings.
Planners employed by regional planning organizations may be concerned with improving the regionwide road network, with acquiring or developing land for a regionwide park and open-space system, or with improving regionwide sewage disposal and water systems. They will also be concerned with encouraging coordination between the planning efforts of the various municipalities in the region to avoid duplication of capital facilities and interference effects (for example, community A siting its landfill operation at a point where it borders a residential area in community B).
This is far from a complete listing. It is simply meant to give some feeling for the range of planning issues.
Planners come from a variety of backgrounds. The single most common educational background is formal training in planning, most often a Master’s degree, either a Master of City Planning (MCP) or a Master of Urban and Regional Planning (MURP). But the field, and particularly larger agencies and consultants, absorbs people with many other backgrounds. Agencies that are large enough to have a separate research operation are likely to hire people with training in economics or statistics. Agencies that handle transportation planning are likely to hire people with training in civil engineering and, particularly, transportation engineering. Large agencies often do a substantial amount of data handling and are likely to have on staff a few people with backgrounds in programming and data processing. Agencies that handle significant amounts of environmental planning are likely to hire people with backgrounds in biology, chemistry, environmental science, and remote sensing. Planning inevitably involves mapping and spatially organized data, so that geographers and cartographers find their way into the profession. Planning involves many issues of law, particularly in regard to land use and environmental considerations. Thus many attorneys and people with joint training in law and planning have entered the field. In fact, several universities have joint four-year law and planning degree programs.
The majority of planners are employed by government. Of these, the largest share are employed by local governments; that is, by cities, towns, counties, and other substate jurisdictions. Smaller numbers are employed by state governments, by intergovernment organizations like councils of
governments (COGs), and by a variety of authorities and special-purpose agencies. Some planners are employed by the federal government, particularly in departments like Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which fund and regulate planning-related activities of local governments. Most planners employed by government are civil servants, but a certain number are political appointees chosen outside the civil service process. Over the years many planners have found their way into municipal administration, where the sort of “big picture” view that planning tends to develop seems to be useful.
A substantial minority of all planners are employed within the private sector. Many work for planning consultants and serve both government and a variety of private clients. A certain number of planners are employed directly by private organizations like land developers and corporations with substantial real property holdings. Some planners work for particular groups that need the planners’ skills to make their own case in the public forum. These may be neighborhood or community groups, environmental organizations, and citizens’ groups of various types.
The most important national organization of planners in the United States is the American Planning Association (APA). In addition to the national organization there are state chapters and many hundreds of local chapters. The national organization publishes two magazines. The Journal of the American Planning Association (JAPA), which comes out quarterly, is the more scholarly of the two. It provides articles on current research and theoretical issues in planning. The APA also publishes Planning, which comes out 11 times a year. It is the trade magazine of the profession in the United States. If you want to keep up with what is happening in planning—names, places, programs, controversies, court cases, and the like—it is the best available source. In addition to these two periodicals, the APA, through its Planning Advisory Service (PAS), publishes numerous technical, how-to-do-it reports for the practicing planner.
The work of the planner takes place within a complex legal framework and it is strongly affected by public funding, since one of the biggest, if not the biggest, shapers of the pattern of development is public capital investment. The APA thus lobbies Congress and, at times, state legislatures on a wide variety of matters, some instances of which are discussed later in this book. It is, more than any other organization, the voice of planners in Congress and the state legislatures. Because the law is not only what is passed by legislative bodies but also the precedents established in litigation, the APA takes positions on court cases and from time to time files amicus curea (friend of the court) briefs in cases involving land-use controls, environmental regulations, eminent domain, and related matters.
A second national organization is the American Institute of Certified Planners (AICP). This organization certifies planners. The planner who satisfies the organization’s professional experience requirements and passes a written exam is certified and can put the letters AICP after his or her name. Some planning jobs require AICP certification, and the certification may carry a certain weight with the user of planning services. For example, a municipality that purchases the services of a planning consultant may be reassured that the consultant is AICP certified.
Planning is both anticipatory and reactive. At times planning will be devoted to anticipating and developing responses to problems that have not yet presented themselves. At other times planning will be devoted to responding to problems that are here and demand solutions. In either case, planning is about trying to serve that elusive and controversial—but very important—item known as “the public interest.” It can be a profoundly satisfying field when one feels that one has succeeded in making a contribution to the public good. Because much of planning is concerned with the physical environment, the planner can often have the satisfaction of seeing the results of his or her efforts on the ground.
However, the field can also be frustrating, as planners are basically advisors. Sometimes they are heeded and sometimes they are not. And sometimes...