Durable Growth, Education

Digging into the Urban Planner’s Oath

London street scene

London street scene

As a part of their commemoration of Jane Jacobs’ 100th birthday, the folks at StrongTowns developed a proposed oath for urban planners.  As they note, the current standards for urban planners are mostly about ethics, which are certainly important, but neither cover the morality of laying out development patterns that may last hundreds of years nor incorporate the planning ethos of Jane Jacobs and those who followed in her footsteps.

For those who don’t click on links, I’ve copied the oath below.  It’s worth your attention.


The Urban Planner’s Oath

I honor the wisdom of those who came before me.  With humility, I stand on that which they have built.

I serve those who live here today.  Their actions shape my actions.  My vision must dance with theirs.

We work for those who come tomorrow.  May we deserve their admiration and inspire the best within them.

In honor of this oath, in my role as an urban planner,

I will respect the collective wisdom embedded in thousands of years of urban development and will search within traditional frameworks for inspiration when addressing the challenges of today,

I will recognize the inherent complexity of urban spaces and resist the urge to impose on them a rigid order, the impact of which I am not capable of fully understanding,

I will not seek grand solutions to complex urban problems but instead probe uncertainty incrementally, learning from success and failure as part of each iteration,

I will seek out approaches that allow flexibility, provide for adaptation over time and incorporate feedback signals, both affirming and not,

I will seek to more deeply understand those I serve by experiencing life in a way as similar to theirs as possible,

I will not impose my vision but will seek to use my expertise to co-create the vision of those I serve,

I will advocate for approaches that are within our grasp and will not assume that future generations will be able to bear burdens which we cannot bear today,

When making improvements that I expect to outlive me, I will show preference for forms and styles that are timeless and universal, and

If a monument is to be built in honor of the things we have accomplished today, I will insist that it be built by a subsequent generation as only they are capable of fully discerning our worthiness of such an honor.


After one reading, there were a couple of points about which I was uncomfortable.  Upon subsequent rereading, I found phrases that partially answered my concerns, but I still felt unsatisfied.  I’ll explore my thinking below.  This can be my personal commentary on the Oath.

My first concern was education.  It’s poetic to speak of the visions of planners dancing with the visions of the public.  But if many in the public still believe in adding new roads to cure congestion, in tearing down buildings for parking lots, and in more low-density subdivisions, how is a responsible planner to dance with that?  I picture a multitude of crushed toes.  (I don’t intend by this comment to condemn all in the public.  I find that acceptance of urbanism is growing quickly, but large pockets of resistance nonetheless remain.)

The Oath seems to address this concern by calling for co-creating visions, which can be read as encouraging bi-directional education, but that doesn’t seem strong enough.  From experience I know that the worst time to engage in education is when a project is being scoped because by then opinions have already begun hardening.

Instead, there seems a need for planners to engage in a pro-active process of public education, something along the lines of “This was how we used to plan, this is why that model seems to have failed, and this is how we think we need to plan in the future.”  Of course, the communication can’t be one-way.  The public needs to engage with the information being offered and to offer their own lifestyle preferences, with both sides looking for workable compromises.  But for now, I’m only commenting on the Urban Planner’s Oath, not the Public Participant’s Oath.

By calling out this need for information exchange, I’m not implying that it doesn’t exist today.  There are many planners who regularly engage the public with their thoughts about the future.  My Twitter follow list is filled with them.  But most are in the private, non-profit or high-level government sectors, while the planners with whom much of the public interacts are the local public planners.

Too many times, I’ve watched as land use projects were approved despite being car-oriented, environmentally dubious, and financially unsustainable, only to have the local planner, who I knew to be a closet urbanist, shrug at me as if to say “What can I do?”

What can be done is to engage the public at a local, town hall level in a frank discussion of the planning practices that seem to best serve us.  If we’re not willing to educate the public and to constructively listen to their responses to our insights, we can’t blame our planning shortcomings on their lack of understanding.

My other tripping point was the expectation for how planners respond to social and/or technological change.  Pulling examples from the past, the evolution of direct democracy in Athens drove the need for more public places for discourse.  The construction of Roman aqueducts encouraged further city development to be located to take advantage of the plentiful and clean water.  And the bringing of the railroad to remote towns in the American plains changed the focus of downtown layouts.

In each case, the change was a break from the past, making past patterns less directly applicable.  And I don’t see where the Oath addresses the situation where the past becomes less of a model.  The Oath acknowledges “the inherent complexity of urban spaces” that can perhaps be construed as including paradigm shifts, but I may be trying too hard when I find that connection.

And with regard to finding new solutions in uncharted waters, the Oath includes a couple of phrases that may have applicability, “probe uncertainty incrementally” and “provide for adaptation over time and incorporate feedback signals”, but I don’t find a philosophy that feels comprehensive to me.

Looking into our more recent past for examples of the challenges for which I’m seeking a solution, the increasing role of the automobile in the years following World War II, coupled with the explosive growth of suburbs, led planners to embrace auto-centric planning with an enthusiasm and speed that many would now agree was unfortunate.

On the other hand, many early walkable urbanist codes painted a pretty picture of full rows of street frontage shops with residential above.  It quickly became evident that big box stores and electronic commerce made wouldn’t allow that many shops to thrive.  Yet, it took too long to change the codes, time during which walkable urban projects floundered because developers were being forced to build commercial space for which they knew there was little market.

In the first case, the planners responded too quickly.  In the other, too slowly.

There may not be a way to incorporate a coherent strategy for this challenge into the Urban Planner’s Oath.  But I wish there was and will continue to gnaw on the question.

Nothing above is intended to criticize the work by StrongTowns on the Urban Planner’s Oath.  I think it’s a remarkable document and can only praise StrongTowns for their effort.  But no document is ever perfect and I’ve tried to put my hands and words on the points that feel incomplete to me.

The thoughts of readers would be appreciated.

In the past few months, I’ve sat through public meetings on a pair of North Bay land-use projects that left me unsatisfied.  The projects, although needed and largely appropriate, didn’t quite meet the public need.  In neither case could I blame the developer/applicant.  Instead, the problem was us.  I’ll explain more when I next write.

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.

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