Lets talk about the emotional abuse of planners

I broached topic a bit ago and got accused of self-mythologizing, but I am going to bring it up again because I frankly think it’s an understudied and under-discussed phenomena.

Despite the (valid) critiques about planning’s dark side and how it has served as consultant to power, planning itself is not a powerful profession except by virtue of its partnerships and visions. Planners and planning influence the world in their collaborations with the state, developers, or social groups. You work for a side in the spatial politics of the future and you work with various sources of political power.*

But nobody does a thing, whether a bike lane or a freeway expansion, just because Planner Jim or Imogene says we ought.

That means planners and planning make good scapegoats for the other professions and for people angry at state/capital/community action. Planners put up with this all the time, from engineers who pull out the science status card to developers who pull out the economics education card to architects who pull out the design education card. Oh, credentialing.

For everybody who has gotten mad at a planner who acted like an expert, splained on them, you can rest assured that these planners get talked down to at least once a day by professionals that enjoy more status and prestige not because any of them are really smarter but because they are more valuable to power than planners tend to be. Why? Because planners’ expertise tends to be less about knowledge claims or specific deliverables but instead in bridging, fostering, and creating platforms for many types of knowledge claims, ranging from individual preferences about how people want the future to unfold to how likely various aspects of the future might unfold. Done well, it is an expertise, but it’s not one that necessarily translates to prestige. It’s not because such deliberation isn’t objectively valuable but because much that is valuable tends to get de-valued. Think about caregiving.

In addition to what amounts to workplace bullying of individual planners by those in other professions, there is the individual abuse that planners take during public meetings from both elected officials and the public. The number of times I’ve had electeds use public meetings to score points off planners…I can’t even count. From dismissing whatever the planner has presented as “socialism” to suggesting in public and in front of the press (with no consequences) that a planner is on the take, I’ve pretty much seen it all.

Then the public, blaming planners for everything in sight because they are less intimidating targets than the electeds, who, chances are, are the driving force behind whatever project or idea it is that is pissing off members of the public. But, hey, show a powerpoint or circulate a memo showing the rendering for the project and it’s all your idea.

I myself had a death threat stuck to my car one night. Planners who work for cities doing public engagement often work late into the night, and there’s no jolly like finding out somebody took the time to write a note to threaten you when you are alone in a dead empty–what was that noise?–city parking garage at 1 am.

So yeah I got myself a teeny weeny tiny violin for Huck-Sanders because while I have never been booted from a restaurant, nobody ever comped me a cheese plate, and my colleagues and I have tolerated tons of abuse we earned way less that she has.

People care a lot about where they live, and thus lashing out at professionals who work in systems that enable things they deplore is utterly natural. Criticizing those you oppose politically is only right. I’m not saying it should never happen, and I am not a person who necessarily thinks that civility should be prized in situations where the state is causing harm.

But I do think the emotional toll that politics, both the politics of expertise and the politics of development, takes on planners as individuals should be recognized far more than it is. I train planners that fight from within community organizations. I also have trained planners that are fighting to change the city from within its institutions. I’m not wise enough to know where they should be as individual professionals. That’s their lookout.

I am wise enough to know that each will get a lot of shit, some deserved and a lot not, for trying to help cities become better, nicer, more resourced, more just….and just more.

We do many things wrong, planners do, and yet I am often proud of us anyway for believing enough to hang in there.

Edited to add: One of my brilliant FBoo friends pointed out that all the things that I discuss here are worse for planner of color, indigenous planners, planners with difference. We should do everything to stand by and support them.

2 thoughts on “Lets talk about the emotional abuse of planners

  1. As a long-time critic of conventional urban planning, I agree with you that individual planners are the subject of way too much abuse, rhetorical and otherwise. Too many people make disagreements on ideas and recommendations personal when the vast majority of urban planners are doing their job in a very professional way and with authentic commitment to making their communities better off. While conventional planning does have a “dark side,” I’ve rarely found it to be the issue with individual planners. Moreover, on some issues, such as eminent domain abuse, I’ve found far more support from professional planners than I have in the communities that should have been in the forefront of criticism of the undisciplined and politically manipulative government power. I don’t mind you bringing this up at all, and I think it’s worth further discussion. At the end of the day, we are all people trying to do our best, and everyone deserve the dignity of being treated with respect.

  2. “…planners that are fighting to change the city from within its institutions.” This sums up my entire career. I’m always known as the one with the dissenting opinions.

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