Self-loathing planners?

I unwittingly caused a kerfuffle among my colleagues in an odd way. It’s sort of one of those he-said, she-said things, but the basic bones of it go something like this:

a) Our leadership has never encouraged us to hire anybody who isn’t a quantitative social scientist. We are a policy school, full of economists. Perhaps too full. The emphasis has been on urban social science in research, not planning.

b) By word of mouth, one of our faculty notes that our Dean expressed annoyance that our big rival, UCLA, was hired to do some urban visualization work around my beloved home.

This story (b) gets told amongst my colleagues in hushed tones as though it is our failure. I started the controversy rolling by pointing out we have never, not once, positioned ourselves to be the people who are going to be doing any urban visualization anywhere, either in our own neighborhood or anybody else’s.

I also pointed out that the people hired to do the visualization weren’t planners. They are architects and computer scientists. USC has departments in both. So who didn’t compete here? Planning faculty is supposed to be all things in all situations?

The whole episode reminds me of what I refer to the as the self-loathing planner phenomenon.

The field’s lack of definition tends to make it difficult even for its practitioners to understand. People don’t understand the field, so when it comes time to assign blame, they can point their fingers at the planners. And planning efforts are usually so multi-party that it’s possible to assign credit everywhere but the planner.

And architects love credit. So they’ll take all they can get. Why? Most architects understand they are marketed professionals.

So who is to blame for urban renewal? Oh, it’s those planners. Who is to blame for car culture? Those planners! Who is to blame for exclusionary zoning? Again, planners! It doesn’t matter that over the years architects and engineers and real estate developers and individual home owners and other urban elites have had their faces in the trough of those things. Clearly, it’s those damn planners to blame!

Why planners put up with this is beyond me. Instead, they take on the blame. Paul Knox and I argued that planners tend to be so hungry for proof of their efficacy that they willingly accept blame for past urban failures because, even if they wielded that power incorrectly, it’s a reassurance that they did, in fact, have power to affect change–at least at one point in time. I find that silly; democratic power and political power are fluid, and just because you play a facilitating role instead of top-down role doesn’t mean you are powerless.

Unless you accept definitions of yourself and your successes and failures from other people.

2 thoughts on “Self-loathing planners?

  1. There’s an excellent and by no means pessimistic piece on this topic by Ann Markusen, a planner and economist now retired from the University of Minnesota, in Lloyd Rodwin and Bishwapriay Sanyal (eds.),”The Profession of City Planning: Changes, Images and Challenges: 1950-2000″ (Center for Urban Policy Research, Rutgers University). Her piece is “Planning as Craft and as Philosophy,” and she spends much of it contrasting the planner’s and economist’s views of the world and of their tasks, not at all to planning’s detriment.

  2. Come to think of it, I wrote a piece on this is the summer 1988 Journal of the American Planning Association that came to conclusions similar to Ann’s. It’s on my website and did very well. Btw, Ann used to be at Rutgers.

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