A Culture of Planning

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Photo by Joe Szurszewski (CC BY-NC 4.0). Copyright 2017 American Planning Association.

Local land use planning requires a host of willing, engaged, and insightful participants all working towards a shared vision for their community. Local staff, planning commissioners, elected officials, and the citizens at large each have a unique role to play. Collectively their interactions embody the enterprise that is planning. Each community has a similar yet unique way of doing things. The mix of attitudes, beliefs, customs, written and unwritten rules develop over time to create a community’s “planning culture”.

Professional planners tend to share a set of beliefs about the value of their work. A planner believes in ideas like “the long view” of things. Patience is often required for place making to be successful. Planners tend to see the world full of interconnected issues and interests. Community development demand inclusive strategies that serve a variety of interests. Planners are civic minded. Laws ensure due process for all. Planners often trade expediency for increased transparency and accountable procedures, so that everyone is treated equally under the law.

Not everyone in a community is a planner by trade though. Therefore, we should expect a kind of "cultural exchange" between planners and those that are planning-oriented but not formally trained. One common belief that seems to span all the participants in American-style planning is that, at its core, planning is an exercise in self-determination. Those that share a planning culture are largely responsible for defining strategies that can make them more attractive places to live, work, and play.

Some planning cultures are “healthier” than others, meaning that some cultures make the planning enterprise more efficient, productive, and able to avoid counterproductive behaviors like interpersonal conflict. To increase the health of a planning culture, the first step is to recognize and value it as an explicit objective.

Where possible, community leaders and planning directors should encourage a culture that stresses increasing involvement of all participants, strong internal communications among the participants, and an acceptance of a certain amount of risk-taking. These things are easier said than done however. It’s one thing to say risk-taking is more accepted, it's another to be comfortable with it. So, what can be done to build a healthier culture of planning?

Professional development and citizen education are useful for building a healthier culture of planning. Maybe not for the reason you think though. These types of activities often provide opportunities, outside the stresses of active planning situations to practice communication skills, and express “risky” ideas, in an environment of low social-risk (i.e. no judgements). Planning directors and local leaders should invest in their community by actively building a cultural value of planning.

By providing opportunities for staff and citizens to learn among their peers community leaders say, “we value your involvement”, “let’s talk about changes that can help us realize our vision”, and “we are willing to try new things”. Really, any activity can count as an “educational moment” if it helps leaders demonstrate that they value “involvement” (not just staff but citizens too), “communication” (even if its prone to conflict), and “risk-taking” (on emerging issues or work processes). Formal educational programs, like those provided by LUEP or APA Virginia, are valuable. Other, less formal, educational opportunities can be useful for assessing and developing your community's culture of planning too!

Here are some other ideas for growing your community’s planning culture:

  • Host a citizen's planning academy
  • Provide a robust and comprehensive orientation program for appointed officials (i.e. planning commissioners and board of zoning appeals members
  • Add a requirement to planning commission bylaws that they receive training within 2 years of appointment
  • Send staff to professional development trainings
  • Encourage staff to seek AICP or similar certifications
  • Budget for staff and local official trainings
  • Host planning office open houses for school groups and civic organizations
  • Community meetings ahead of a hearing
  • Participatory budgeting
  • Youth planning committee

What do you do to maintain a healthy culture of planning in your locality?

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