What urban planners believe

What urban planners believe
Photo by Sean Benesh / Unsplash

Why write about what urban planners believe instead of what urban planners do?

Simply put, because what planners believe and what planners do are often at odds with one another.

Most urban planners in the United States work for one of the 89,000 local units of government, each with their own laws, histories, elected officials, constituencies, budgets, and forms of management. It’s a messy and spectacularly inefficient system grown out of classical liberalism, income inequality, racism, and a culture of insularity rooted in American individualism.

Nevertheless, municipal urban planners, as public servants, answer to the communities in which they serve. No matter where they work, and regardless of what a planner knows to be true or believes to be in the best interest of their community, decisions about a community’s planning matters are made by planning commissions, county boards, and city councils.

That’s not to say planners are always right, nor does that mean that they don’t have any influence. However, planning is an inherently advisory profession beholden to elected and appointed decision makers.

To complicate matters, community projects such as roads, bridges, sidewalks, bike lanes, public transit, parks, affordable housing, and economic development programs rely primarily on federal funding, property taxes, or system development charges approved by voters and earmarked for specific purposes. In other words, project funding decisions are not usually made in a vacuum by planners.

Why point this out? Because there’s a common misconception among the general population that’s perpetuated by the media that planners have primary responsibility for the urban issues that surround us.

From the lack of bike lanes, to the vape shop that opened across the street from your daughter’s school, to the traffic congestion on your way to work, no amount of planning recommendations trump community opposition, inadequate funding, or a lack of political will. Likewise, planners cannot compete with deep-pocketed business interests, lobbyists, or corrupt politicians.

Which gets me to my final point. The vast majority of planners, no matter their background, got into the profession because they’re idealists who wanted to make the world a better place. We go through the world analyzing every facet of the built and natural environments, looking for ways to improve it. We are never satisfied. It’s a curse.

Planners don’t go through years of higher education and accumulate mountains of debt just to earn mediocre salaries in a thankless career where we get shouted down regularly by citizens at countless night meetings we probably aren’t getting paid to attend. Believe it or not.

Most planners went into this line of work because we believe the cause of traffic often isn’t due to a lack of roads or lane miles, but instead prolonged and unabated inefficient use of land over decades and disinvestment in public transit.

Most planners believe every neighborhood should have sidewalks and bike lanes.

Most planners believe land use and transportation decisions should be equitable and not disproportionately impact low-income or marginalized communities.

Most planners believe we should protect our significant natural resources and have plentiful places to recreate.

Most planners believe in encouraging economic vibrancy, with prosperous downtowns and healthy neighborhood commercial corridors.

Most planners believe everyone deserves an affordable place to live and access to opportunity.

Planners do make mistakes. Sometimes tragic ones. However, the next time you see something you don’t like about your community or read a news article blaming planners for how something works (or doesn’t work), I invite you to put your critical thinking cap on and consider whether a planner truly had any hand in the situation. If you don’t know, don’t be afraid to ask questions. Planners are usually happy to answer citizen inquiries, especially if you’re not a jerk or a realtor (I kid).

If you can, attend a few of your city council or planning commission meetings when there’s something on the agenda that interests you. Too often the people who do attend and comment are grumpy upper income folks with too much time on their hands and we need more diverse voices.

Most communities are still offering hybrid meetings with remote public participation. If you’re not comfortable with testifying in person on a topic you’re passionate about, write your elected officials or the planner named on any public notice you get in the mail or see in a newspaper.

Finally, read your state and local measures, get out to vote, come out to community outreach sessions, and volunteer on committees of interest, if you’re able.

Planners can believe whatever they want, but ultimately a community’s built environment is just a reflection of its citizens’ priorities.