Thursday, July 2, 2009

What Is the Planner's Job?

By Greg

I attended a community planning meeting last night in the North Philadelphia neighborhood of Tioga. The several dozen residents in this disinvested area surrounded by Temple University’s health system buildings, congregated in a local church and listened as the planners discussed the latest ideas for improving their community.

Tioga is one of a handful of communities in Philadelphia that has seen lots of planning and little action. Some of the residents have watched and participated in over 50 years of planning. Yet vacant homes and lots dot every block. Trash blows in the streets. There is crime, drugs, and lack of basic services.

The meeting ran nearly an hour late. The residents had lots to say. Some community members expressed distrust of the planners. Others wanted to see a certain issue addressed. Some were afraid that the plan would bring gentrification, rising taxes, and displacement. Others were afraid of the opposite: that nothing at all would come of this plan, just as with decades of prior plans.

The planners attempted to answer the residents’ questions, while moving through their market analysis and urban design ideas. However, many in the crowd seemed unsatisfied. When it came to issues like realizing the concepts in the plan or protecting residents from gentrification, the planners had little to contribute. Their answer was largely that this was the job of City Council. The plan was just a set of concepts, the planners explained to the crowd. Transforming the plan to reality relied on City Council introducing legislation, active community groups taking initiative, and private developers investing.

The planners were answering honestly, but this meeting (and dozens of others like it that I have attended) exhibited an important question. By passing off implementation to policy makers, are planners really satisfying the needs of communities? Does the planner perhaps have a new responsibility in today’s world?

Planners in Philadelphia and nationally have dramatically reshaped their roles over the past forty or so years. Today planning necessarily is a balance of offering expert design ideas, while not standing in the way of the community’s ability to have a voice and shape its own destiny. This democratization of the planning profession was once groundbreaking; now it is commonplace. The new question is: what is the planner’s role once the plan is complete?

Often planners see the plan as the end of the journey. They step away, and leave it up to policy makers to implement the plan. The problem is, too often the policy makers don’t really understand how to go about it. Of course the planners in Tioga cannot really be blamed. We have processes, agencies, roles, funding constraints, and hierarchy that set the boundaries of how far the planners can and should go.

But perhaps this paradigm could change. What if the plan were the beginning of a process, rather than the end? What if part of the planner’s job were to connect the plan concepts with the appropriate policy makers, and to help those policy makers follow through? What if high-level city officials gave the planners a stronger role in the process of spending city money and enacting policies?

Is the planning profession ready for this paradigm shift to planner as facilitator of plan implementation? Are other city officials? Will the city power structure allow it or embrace it? How will communities react? These are the questions I will discuss in the next few posts. Stay tuned.


Ariel said...

I am interested in hearing what you have to say, but I also have a few concerns.

While I agree with you that planning without implementation is with out value and I like your added interpretation that it is actually in many ways unjust (particularly to poor communities), I fear that the actual connection between planning and implementation is not one that planners necessarily have power over. It isn't that its something that cant be built towards (it can, after all so many planning review powers have now been created through sheer force of planner will) But rather the power of implementation is one that is jealously guarded by other interests.

frank adam said...

Great Post! Urban planning is so important to sustainable city living.

BC Planning said...

Good post,

This is a very legitimate question to ask. I am a community planner in Baltimore and I can tell you that a lot of times planners are put into positions or forced to orgnaize plans that have no easy answers and can not be solved through simple recommendations of a community plan.

Bigger social issues have to be tackled with full community and government support. And to be honest, community support can be lacking sometimes or at least unfocused. And I certainly understand why people may not be able to participate especially in working class and poverty striken neighborhoods were people are working hard to put food on the table and feel they do not have time for a community meeting.

Without large community support, a planner's efforts will most likely go in vain. But let's not just stop at drumming up support for planners, let's look at the community's support on all levels to see if that community is really invested in the change they want to see. For example, I have communities where no one goes to PTA meetings or school functions. The school provided free catered meals just to get parents to come in and talk about their kid's educations and still the majority of parents failed to show up. In these conditions, how am I as a planner going to be able to drum up support from the community when they dont even have an interest in the school.

I dont know if this is the case for the Tioga neighborhood. I am a little bit familiar with the neighborhood since I am a Temple grad. I dont know how much the neighborhood has changed since I have been there but I hope the community continues to come out in support of any meeting bringing change and voiceing their concerns. While the commuunity plan may be the end of the process, if the community stays vocal, they can actually fight to implement those changes which would be a continuation of the community's goals and not the percieved end of all their hard work.