Durable Growth, Government

Job satisfaction limited for city planners

Urban setting in Petaluma

Urban setting in Petaluma

In late May I attended CNU 21, the 21st annual conference of the Congress of the New Urbanism.  During my time in Salt Lake City, I spoke several times with a senior planner who was recently hired by a mid-sized suburban city.  During one of our conversations, I congratulated him on the far-sightedness of his town in encouraging him to attend CNU 21.

He informed me that my assumption was wrong.  Urbanism is a passion for him and attending CNU 21 was a personal goal.  But he had been forced to negotiate his attendance at CNU 21 during his hiring.  He convinced the city to cover the registration fee and to allow him to attend on city time rather than using vacation for the week.  But he still had to pay for travel, lodging, and meals out of his own pocket.

And then he told me the rest of the story.  He holds a CNU- A, an accreditation which certifies that he’s familiar with the best current work in land-use planning.  When he applied for the position with the city, he included the CNU-A on his resume.

But that information gave pause to the city hiring team.  They questioned whether he would be neutral in handling his planning duties or whether his education would bias his work.  To gain employment, he had to promise not to be an urbanist, or at least not an obvious one.

His story, plus a CNU 21 session on the same subject, highlighted a point about which I hadn’t previously thought.  Many municipal planners have focused on their career paths for years, some even starting during their high school years.  (My planner acquaintance discovered that he lacked the aptitude for his first choice during high school, so changed his direction to urban design and secured a four-year degree in the subject at a top university.)

Through that emphasis, future planners become familiar with the best theories on how land use should be done in the 21st century.  And those theories are urbanism.

(Side note: Some cynics will now interject “Ah-hah, urbanism is only a current theory.  Other theories, such as drivable suburban, may be equally valid, but are disdained because they are currently out of favor.”  Regular readers know my response, but I’ll summarize for newcomers.

Urbanism is how people arranged their communities from the beginning of civilization until early in the 20th century.  And then some countries, particularly the U.S., began to follow a hypothesis that included “garden suburbs”, “towers in the park”, and motorized personal mobility.  The experiment based on that hypothesis ripened into what we now call “drivable suburban”.

We set aside organic knowledge that was gained over centuries in favor of a hypothesis that was based on beliefs about how people should behave, not how they actually did behave.

As Jeff Speck points out, the failure of the drivable suburban experiment was highlighted by Jane Jacobs in the early 1960s. By 1980, all serious students of planning agreed with her, and that consensus remains in place today.  Nonetheless, drivable suburban continues as the dominant planning mode because the general public hasn’t yet grasped that the experiment flopped.

Urbanism isn’t one of several alternative theories.  It is the only theory that has ever been shown to work.  Using scientific nomenclature, drivable suburban was a hypothesis that failed the experimental step and therefore didn’t become a theory.

Urbanism is the theory that people have followed throughout history, except for the 20th century.  That truth may be difficult to grasp because we are surrounded by the detritus of the failed drivable suburban experiment, but that doesn’t make it any less true.)

So, new planners emerge from their long study of the centuries of community-building.  They’re flush with their acquired knowledge about planning and eager to apply their knowledge to the betterment of the human race.  It’s a noble goal.

Except that for those who end up in municipal planning departments, the goal is stymied almost before they reach their desk.  Their job isn’t to help lead the citizenry to the best planning solutions.  Their job is to facilitate and to document planning decisions that are often made by those with less planning knowledge.

Whether it’s in the writing of general plans and zoning codes, for which citizen committees and city councils usually take the lead, or in the review of land-use applications, which are structured by developers and lenders trying to meet the perceived needs of the general public, city planners often have the most knowledge about the land uses that would best serve the community.  But they’re reduced to the role of scriveners.

It’s as if surgeons had to solicit a local vote on how to do kidney surgery or structural engineers had to ask the city council how much reinforcement to put into a foundation.

From many years as a consulting engineer, I know that paychecks and retirement planning are good, but that true job satisfaction comes from applying one’s knowledge and passion to improve a community.  That satisfaction is often denied to city planners.

This isn’t to say that public input has no value.  Indeed, if we gave all power to planners, they would soon run amok.  After all, power does corrupt.  But any rational approach to the use of planning knowledge would involve city planners helping to shape public opinion rather than being the silent chroniclers of it.

Better models are available.  The city of El Paso, Texas, takes an aggressive approach to spreading knowledge about urbanism.  All top-level city employees, over 200 of them, are required to study for and to take the CNU-A exam.

Imagine living in a community where the knowledge of urbanism is spread throughout city hall, whether a citizen is talking with the finance director or the fire chief.  It ensures that an understanding of urbanism is disseminated throughout the community.  And it provides an environment in which city planners can be more forthcoming about their skills.

And it has made a difference in El Paso, where a vibrant urbanism culture filled with compact housing and transit options is quickly evolving.

I believe that a community is best served when the skills and experiences of all citizens are utilized to the greatest extent possible.  We can better meet that objective with city planning departments.  I’m sure my planner acquaintance would agree.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. – Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Written by Dave Alden

Dave Alden

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. A University of California graduate, he has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and two dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at http://northbaydesignkit.blogspot.com.

3 comments to Job satisfaction limited for city planners

  • Easy

    It’s interesting that the planners or yesteryear screwed over the planners of today.
    It was the implicit trust & power of planners that led to the urban renewal, suburban sprawl, freeway-driven paradigm.
    Now much of the general public is acclimated to that, can’t imagine things any other way, and is vested in the continuation of that lifestyle.
    And not enough people trust the judgement of planners anymore to let them reverse it.

    • Easy, thanks for the comment. You’re right that the planners of the 40s, 50s,and 60s did no favors to the planners of today. And the problem isn’t just that they were wrong, but that their mistake was in abandoning a proven paradigm in favor of an unproven hypothesis. There are time when a bold step must be taken, but careful consideration should be given to the step. After World War II, the abandonment of urbanism was taken rashly and to our ultimate loss.

      But there is also another factor. Americans tend to put great trust in new fields and then to withdraw that trust when cynicism sets in. It’s possible that land planning would be distrusted today even without the folly of drivable suburbia.

  • Jonathan Mark

    Thanks for the article, Dave. I’m a 28 year old guy looking to get into a grad program for city planning. I was inspired by the potential of mass transit while living in Japan, and would love to develop the idea in the US. But after reading your article, I have to ask myself–What the heck am I getting myself into? Any words of encouragement for new planners? Thanks a million.