Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Urban planning: The key is collaboration

Urban planning is a profession. People all over the world are trained to be urban planners and they have been for a long time. They study a variety of things including patterns of urbanization, land use and the design of cities, techniques for financing economic development, community organizing and mobilizing strategies, approaches to ecosystem maintenance and restoration, and the history of plan making.  More than ever, planners are viewed as generalists with a specialty.  Generalists in that they need to know about all the possible ways of intervening --through a complex web of institutions -- to improve the quality of life in places and spaces.  Specialists in that the various sub-sectors in which they work (transportation systems, housing production, waste handling systems, social service provision, green building design, information management, job creation,  ecosystem management, etc.) require increasing depth of knowledge to be effective. Above all, planners must know how to reconcile conflicting claims in the face of limited resources.  It is not possible to take action in the public arena without political support. So, planners have to know how to generate an informed constituency ready, willing and able to push for change.

If planners think they only work for whoever happens to be in power at the moment, they will quickly be pushed out as new leaders are voted in and old leaders are put out to pasture.  If planners claim to be above the political fray (working on behalf of some vague "public interest" that only they understand), they'll also be out of work quickly because they won't be able to secure the political mandate they need to be effective. If they try to argue that their role is to provide independent technical advice they'll quickly be outdone by other professionals with more in-depth technical training or greater expertise.  The only way planners can make a case for the indispensable role they play is to argue that they are uniquely skilled to broker interactions among those in positions of power, stakeholders who make up the constituencies of those who are elected and appointed, and the technical specialists who have a great deal of "know how" but very little "know why." Planners need to be "implementation specialists" who can make things happen.

Implementation specialists need three kinds of specialized knowledge.  They need to know how to frame problems in tractable ways.  The need to know how to facilitate joint problem solving. And, they need to know how to read and take action within complex institutional settings. If I try to lift a heavy object in the wrong way, I won't be able to move it, and I'll hurt myself in the process.  But, if I lift it properly I can move it anywhere I like.  Problem setting, or framing as it is sometimes called, requires in-depth knowledge of the systems or environments within which I'm operating.  Especially when there are lot of players involved (and they feel strongly about things), skilled facilitation is the key to generating informed agreement and meaningful commitments.  I've got to help people use their time wisely and deal with their differences in constructive ways. Charting a course of action in a complex setting and convincing others to follow suit requires knowing how to build trust, assume the temporary mantle of leadership and communicate effectively. All these competences can be taught, although the learning proceeds more quickly in coaching (inductive) rather than didactic (deductive) settings. 

Urban planning fails whenever designs, policies and programs are imposed on unwilling or unsuspecting stakeholders.  And, phony commitments to participation or consultation don't fooled anyone. Decide-announce-defend has been the mantra for far too long (and it still is) in a many  urban planning settings.  Serious consultation requires that problems be defined jointly, options be considered together (in light of information collected in concert), decisions be made transparently and accountably; and monitoring, adjustments and learning be truly collaborative.  Decision-making responsibility and political power may be asymmetric, but it is nevertheless in the interest of those in positions of authority to find out what they can and should do that will win the broadest possible support. Planners can help. Urban planners needs to know how to build informed consensus, especially in situations where the wrong policies will put lives in jeopardy. 

The urban planning field is going through one of its periodic crises of confidence.  While the majority of the earth's population is now living in urban areas, planners wonder whether they have an important role to play.  Given the claims of other professions (like civil engineering, management, architecture and applied social science), planners wonder how they can compete. As it turns out, there is no other profession better equipped to build informed agreements on what ought to be done (to improve the quality of life in all kinds of places and spaces). There are no other professionals with a clearer sense of the kinds of changes that are important or how to build consensus regarding the most effective ways of realizing them. 


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