Planning expertise and epistemic justice

I went on a Twitter rant this weekend about dudes who, when disparaging my idea, start off by saying “this lady thinks…” instead of giving me my due, which is…I’m a professor of urban planning. These are not casual opinions I got just from reading the Sierra Club website. I got a lot of likes and whatnot, but one challenge came from the notion that I seemed to be wedded to my spot in the knowledge hierarchy as a professor and not really suspending hierarchies in favor of treating everybody as a person capable of knowledge in my critique of the way misogyny uses knowledge to dominate.

The answer is: yes…and no. Both-and.

I didn’t pursue it because by the time it came up, I was tired of social media and was on my way to the LA Opera. But it reminded me of a post I’ve been meaning to write here anyway about epistemic justice and planning expertise. Yes, I do value my expertise, and no, I don’t think that asking for a little respect for my accomplishments and credentials means that I expect people to defer to my ideas or opinions. It just means that people recognize the work I’ve put in and the accomplishments I’ve attained in a “hey, good on ya” way and the willingness to believe that I might have *some* knowledge about the subject instead of an empty vessel needing somebody to ‘splain things and fill me with Glorious Man-Knowledge.

The fact that my interlocutor can’t conceive of my claim to expertise as anything other than a rigid status hierarchy says more about how people expect knowledge and expertise to work than my investment in it.

Planning students, in their planning theory class, are often confronted with a bewildering set of contradictions: they are paying gobs of cash to be in a planning program where, in the first semester, planning theory seems to spend a lot of time critiquing bad-old rational planning paradigms of the past, where the planner was a godlike expert (the part of the narrative I never bought), and arguing for new, post-modern, post-colonial paradigms in which community members are the experts and planners are not the experts.

This is not right, of course, but I think it’s what a lot of students take away from the discussion, and they wind up asking the legitimate question of: well what the hell am I paying to learn here, and why the hell does anybody pay a planner if they aren’t experts on anything? That is, what happens to the power of the profession if it doesn’t have a monopoly on special-deal knowledge that people must pay for to obtain? Don’t these po-co epistemologies lower the status of the profession?

Yes, but at the same time, not really. Why not? Because de-centering does not really mean discarding. Those are different things, and there’s plenty to do as de-centered expert even if you don’t get to stomp around bossing or having your ego gratified.

The same line I pulled out on Paul Krugman applies: because cities are f**king complicated, that’s why, and you really can’t have too much knowledge or too many perspectives.

You don’t defer to or act on everybody’s opinion or idea, but you’re losing out if you don’t listen and analyze each point as it comes up because people are experts and people know things.What planners know is different. People know their places intimately; they also have strong ideas about their preferences. Here’s one anecdote that my students are STILL quoting weeks after Tamika Butler related it:

There was a street segment where a lot of pedestrians were getting hit. So the the city improved the intersection did All The Things…and it made no difference in the number of people getting hit. So finally, they asked people on the sidewalks, who noted that the only shade to use while waiting for the bus was on the opposite side of the street, and people darted across the street to catch the bus, which is, honestly, one of the most dangerous things we can have people doing.

If we had asked, we could have put in some shade and saved a lot of money. That’s one, valid way to interpret the story–that seems to be how Tamika interpreted it.

For me, though, when you combine both sets of knowledge, you get a much nicer place in general. Go with the planners’ ideas, you just get a nicer intersection, which is, in itself, a good thing even if it isn’t the strategy for the specific problem at hand. Go with the residents’ perceptions, and you fix the specific problem, but you maybe miss out on getting them some additional nice things at the intersection even though nobody thought to ask for them. Part of planning expertise is to diffuse and spread nice things in urban environments, things that people don’t necessarily know to ask for/demand.

See? You get more when both types of knowledge become applied. Expertise and knowledge treated this way become more like a jazz collaboration or a dance where people take turns leading, building off what others contribute, leaving some ideas, picking up and developing others, all in tandem.

Little kids are experts, too. They know where the bully lives; they know why some fountains are cool and fun and others are boring, just to cite two examples.

It’s only if you think of knowledge=control=domination that this model takes something from you as an expert. Otherwise, experts can do what they always did, when they did their jobs well: use their years of study and focus on a content area to resource decision-making, contribute possibilities for directions and choices, and help think through the likely consequences of various choices.

How to treat an expert? Well, honestly, it’s subversive in the patriarchy for a woman to be an expert, and it’s even more subversive for people of color to be experts. I am pretty relaxed about being called “Dr” or “Professor”, and I started out that way. But I was also older than most assistant professors were. At Virginia Tech I noticed that Casey Dawkins was always Dr. Dawkins and Heike Mayer was, more often than not, called “Miss Mayer.” When that’s the default, you goddamn right I’m *always* going to call Heike “Dr. Mayer” in front of students.

For years, Dr. Ilene Payne, an African American woman, ran the Eisenhower program, and she was Dr. Ilene Payne, always. Always. And damn rightly so, too.

Because the road women and people of color take to obtaining these credentials and existing in institutions is hard, usually humiliating, rotten, horrible, and invalidating, and the institution of higher education is similarly humiliating, rotten, horrible and invalidating to us on a daily basis, we deserve to have our credentials treated with the same respect–at the very least–that is the default for the white dudes. Nobody forwards Richard Florida’s tweets with “This dude thinks a thing” when people are going to rag on him. He still gets to be himself. I’m not asking people not to rag on me (although, it’s perfectly possible to disagree without going immediately to sarcastic flouncing). I am asking not be erased as a person.

I don’t think that’s asking a lot.

When absolutely positively no black professor is mistaken for the janitor or hassled by security, we can stop with Dr./Professor title, but not before. Using the title and having the title is very, very different for different people, and pretending that isn’t the case by rejecting all titles or credentials as markers of expertise doesn’t do diddly to eradicate that in everyday life.

Epistemic justice, for me, centers on the idea that since knowledge and information have big consequences for individuals and communities, they should be engaged in the framing and formulation of that knowledge. That doesn’t mean science is invalid or anything of the kind, or that we all pretend gravity doesn’t work (the way people who don’t understand critiques of science/Sokal Hoax lovers think it works.) It just means that individuals and community groups’ questions and problems take priority, and they are making crucial decisions about what knowledge they need, how they are going to get it, and what they are going to use it for. Is that *really* so corrosive of science as an endeavor…or just corrosive to the modernist, individualistic, great-man models that serve the human ego?

One thought on “Planning expertise and epistemic justice

  1. This is great–particularly the point about experts being able to answer questions that haven’t been posed. Or, what i think is great in Jarrett Walker’s work, laying out the trade offs but not saying what the right answer is. I’m curious how your thinking extends to something I’ve wrestled with a lot as an new resident “expert” planner/developer in neighborhood revitalization/gentrification work. What should you do when the desires of some existing residents (more drive-thru’s, parking, no bike lanes, retaining urban highways) etc. conflict with expert orientations around “good urbanism?”

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