I’m a (yawn) Planner

I hate to say it, but planning is so… well… boring.

“Duller than the dinner party bore” (Gareth Dunlop, http://www.fathom.pro/blog/2010/03/duller-than-the-dinner-party-bore/)

This isn’t to say planners themselves are boring people — though I’ve known a few who could put a meth-fueled gorilla to sleep with their talk of tax-increment financing and the fine points of inter-agency coordination.

Just one tired gorilla (Magic and Marvels blog, 2013 - http://magicandmarvels.wordpress.com/2013/04/11/justonetiredgorilla/)

Just one tired gorilla (Magic and Marvels blog, 2013 – http://magicandmarvels.wordpress.com/2013/04/11/justonetiredgorilla/)

No, planning seems to have wrapped around it a cloak of social invisibility. Maybe this is due to a lack of perceived cool-ness by the glitterati, or an unwillingness among practitioners to engage in a bit of socially relevant boat-rocking — but regardless, the profession has all the avant garde qualities of a meatloaf dinner at grandma’s.

Why can’t we be like architects?

Architecture, as a profession, is a bit different. Architects carry a certain social cache — people lie about being architects.

George Castanza as Art Vandelay, Architect (Seinfield,

George Castanza as Art Vandelay, Architect (Seinfield, “The Race”, 1994)

I don’t know anyone who lies about being a planner.

Yet Architecture, perhaps because of its cool-ness, has a personality problem. There’s a huge discrepancy between what actually goes on in an architecture firm, and what society thinks is going on. The public thinks most architects design beautiful buildings, have impeccable taste, live in gorgeous homes, travel to exotic locations, and make tremendous amounts of money (or, if they’re “poor” it’s because they’re choosing to suffer for their art). The reality is a quite a bit less glamorous; with careers choked with project schedules, pay applications, specification editing, and a myriad of management issues that leave most architects wishing they had switched majors when they were in undergraduate school.

But… there is a certain amount of success that comes with perseverance, and those architects who do succeed feel a kind of cultural pressure to justify their success by sponsoring and supporting more socially relevant work. So we see efforts like Sam “Sambo” Mockbee’s Rural Studio at Auburn University’s School of Architecture. The Rural Studio dedicates itself to providing architecture students a hands-on working experience as they design and build community-oriented projects in several poor counties in rural Alabama.

Also, there’s the DesignBuildBLUFF  program at the University of Utah’s College of Architecture. DesignBuildBLUFF provides an opportunity for architecture students to design and build sustainable architecture on a Navajo reservation; with an eye towards graduating more compassionate architects.

And then there’s Cameron Sinclair’s mothership of compassion, Architecture for Humanity. Architecture for Humanity serves as a type of clearing house that connects professional architects, designers, and contractors with communities in need; taking the position that “design is the ultimate renewable resource.

What we in the planning profession tend to lack are comparable outlets for our creative energies. Where are the university-based community-oriented efforts? Where are the connections to our under-served populations?

Is Tactical Urbanism cool?

Maybe this is why Tactical Urbanism is so popular in planning programs these days. Is it an effort to make planning as relevant as the planning students, and social activists, feel it should to be?

And maybe… just maybe… worth lying about at a dinner party?

To be clear, there are precious few academics pushing the subject of what Jaime Lerner calls Urban Acupuncture — and even fewer professional planners (lest they risk violating their AICP Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct)

B2. We shall not accept an assignment from a client or employer when the services to be performed involve conduct that we know to be illegal or in violation of these rules.

B25. We shall neither deliberately, nor with reckless indifference, commit any wrongful act, whether or not specified in the Rules of Conduct, that reflects adversely on our professional fitness.

(AICP, Our Rules of Conduct)

But, for many reasons, it’s hard to draw equivalencies at the level of the profession between fully-supported academic programs like the Rural Studio and grassroots efforts like Tactical Urbanism. And, unfortunately for most planning students, such efforts are rarely led or initiated by professional planners.

But here’s the point — do most of us really need lessons on being a decent human being?

Isn’t planning, with all its homely charm, simply the act of being decent to each other?

Guy Guy Greg - Public Planner (http://knowyourmeme.com/photos/288059-good-guy-greg)

Guy Guy Greg – Public Planner (http://knowyourmeme.com/photos/288059-good-guy-greg)

So yeah, I’m rockin’ the boring.

Let me regale you with my ideas on tax revenue expenditures, on the finer points of public open space strategies, and the pernicious problems of urban sprawl.

Let’s go seed bomb an abandoned lot, paint an “illegal” bike lane, and share our stories about how we protested outside a public hearing.

Or while we’re working on the next bit of hacktivism with Code for America, building an app that’ll help kids catch their school bus or make it easier for folks to find the closest healthy food store, let’s discuss better ways to craft a long-range regional transportation plan. Maybe, we’ll push for broad municipal participatory budgeting, or work on a new mixed-use neighborhood plan.

How you doin'... I'm a Planner.

How you doin’… I’m a Planner.

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6 thoughts on “I’m a (yawn) Planner

  1. BTW the term “social cache” that Architects are said to have should be corrected to “social cachet” – there’s also a diacritical mark above the “e” but I’m too lazy to create the correct spelling in Word & paste it here … this confusion of “cache” and “cachet” is a common error among anglophones. C’est la vie.
    I should have gotten an M.A. in Regional Planning but was even then too much of a leader in the field, and a lousy hypocrite. Still am. To me, “planning” requires a “blank slate” on the ground. Most of what is called planning now, to me, looks like basically being a sop to developers, the ones with the money. Planning infill projects isn’t what I’d call Planning, not what I want that degree for. Still very important. I have all kinds of qualms about the kind of planning now that takes a large piece of built environment, say a section of a city, and tries to tweak parts, especially transportation, to improve things. There are so many pieces that can’t be demolished. This is partly why I hunger for an opportunity to do real Planning for a town which has been mostly demolished by a tornado. Planning from the ground up. Barring a miracle of me being given the benefit of the doubt, it would have to happen very close to my home; I should have had this job for Greensburg, Kansas in 2007, but the city leaders acted like ignorant fools in their choices and still are.

  2. Dean, do not forget when George Constanza was interviewing students for the Susan Foundation Grant, he took to the kid who said he wanted to be an architect. Then a few days later, George insisted that architect wasn’t good enough for him, that he should be (what??) a CITY PLANNER!

    • Boring?!? Yeah. I see that, but I believe it’s more about just being gutless. To be “proponents & agents” of change, most planners (esp. in the public sector) are scared, unimaginative and defensive. IMHO.

      • I think one of the more profound issues, referred to in the article, is the confusion over the proper interpretation of the AICP Code of Ethics. This tends to leave planners at a crossroads over allegiance to their client/employer or to the larger community — with a default position always favoring the client (or elected official). I only know of one city development director who appealed a decision of his P&Z Commission — and ultimately had to appeal the City Council denial of his appeal to a court (essentially suing his employer). This was tough stance to take, given that he was an at-will employee.

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