Friday, November 9, 2012

Why Shouldn't Planners Go To Jail?

Ed Blakely has a recent column out on planetizen where he says that planners should be jailed for their management of urban development. Now, this is a bit of a tongue in cheek statement. I was in the roundtable last week at ACSP in Cincinatti when I first heard him say this as a joke in a discussion regarding planning and the black community. His basic question is entirely legit: why aren't planners held responsible for their actions?

He's clearly not advocating for the jailing of planners if you read the column, thus my confusion at some of the tepid responses I saw on the Planning and the Black Community Division facebook page. Blakely calls for the type of planning and cities that big-time urbanist folks call for constantly. He wants cities that are environmentally sustainable, socially just, and culturally diverse and he makes an explicit claim regarding the central role of planners within these processes. He just makes the extra step in saying that planners should be held responsible to the visions and standards they constantly espouse and celebrate and yet never seem to actually meet.

We celebrate Smart Growth as sprawl continues relatively unabated (at least until we have a major national recession that kills our housing market). We call for integrated, equitable cities and yet the APA or mainstream planning groups do nothing to decry travesties like the recent case of St. Bernard Parish in Louisiana trying their damnedest to keep affordable housing out of their community because they won't want to be around black people with the assistance of planners and a virulently racist city council. We discuss problems of mass unemployment and continued poverty and yet we celebrate real-estate development urban playgrounds as "economic development" even as we displace the poor and marginalized from our central cities. Let me make this abundantly clear: planners are entirely complicit in these cases. I recognize the very real limits imposed upon public planners, in particular, but if we purport to offer strong normative visions of what cities should be and if we claim we have an ethical obligation to preserve our natural resources and to encourage greater social equity and inclusive economic development, then we should be held to those ethical standards. Otherwise, we just get a free pass and when the same old stuff happens we just chalk it up to planners not having "real" power and move on. If that's the tact we're going to take as a field, fine, but stop pretending like your normative visions count for anything and just be honest that we're little more than glorified rubber-stampers that can make awesome graphics and run a population projection every few years.

We need to do more as a field/profession to demand more from us. Otherwise we'll continue to see urban development go down the negative, wasteful patterns that they have for the past 60 years and we'll constantly be waiting for the next hurricane, gas crisis, or economic collapse to do the work we should've been doing in the face.


Anonymous said...

Ed Blakely is a quack, posing under the guise of a so-called "disaster recovery expert." His track record in post-Katrina New Orleans invalidates any kind of legitmate claims he may make. Is that a tepid enough response for you?

Surly Urbanist said...

It seems more heated than tepid...kudos for being the first troll on the thread. But to respond...maybe you should actually read the post or even Blakely's original piece before you decide to jump off in my threads. Thanks.

Steven said...

I would like to see planners held responsible enough to be jailed. Just as engineers are held legally responsible if their building fails and harms people, planners are essentially the social, economic, and spatial engineers of cities. Their failures to uphold laws, especially related to civil rights and pollution, should make them legally responsible. While engineering follows a pretty exact science and planners are in a world of squishy science, there are still exact measures that planners continue to fail on and do not follow best practices recognized to correct those failures.
Unfortunately, I see this not only being roadblocked by the general lack of power that planners have in land use decisions, but also in their lack of control over the markets. Land markets are the biggest hindrance to this as private developers have the choice of whether to build in suburbs or inner cities, land owners have the right to sell to whomever they wish, and when that activity occurs outside of an incorporated area, it becomes even more difficult to control.
There's another question that pops up when thinking about this issue as well. In order for planners to enforce best practices in making cities comply with civil rights and pollution laws, it would likely result in many city planning agencies having to supersede outcomes of public participation processes and effectively returning us to the age of Robert Moses. Whether viewed as a good or bad thing (there's a mixture of both), we just have to be cautious in how we moved ahead should we find the legal justification for such practices.

Surly Urbanist said...

Your points on markets are head on. There's an implicit challenge to our conception of property rights for those who advocate for strong planning. Many would argue we've already gone too far down the road of abridging those rights, but as long as we allow market forces to be the primary determinants of urban form, in combination with a politically fragmented landscape, then we'll continue to get segregated, sprawling cities.

On your second point, it would be planners' duties to tell the public if something they are seeking is illegal. This is what happens quite often if a court declares a law a referendum constitutional. All this would do is de-volve some of that authority to a lower area. So, instead of waiting for HUD to draw suit in violation of FHA, planners would be obligated to inform the public of the potential illegality of those actions and say that they will not facilitate it. That doesn't mean it won't happen, but it does mean that planners would not willingly participate in such projects. This doesn't have to kill public participation.

Paul Manson said...

While the jail idea is meant to be provocative it raises a couple of questions. For criminality to make sense planners would need to: 1) have intentions that tie to actions; 2) have agency to act on those intentions; 3) have a clear standard of care to test negligence against.

I think finding a definition for these three is a good exercise in general. And I think it would be problematic. In our form of government, the accountability rests with the elected officials. They can claim ignorance, but its not a great defense in elections. I am also more Lindblom-y in my outlook on the world, so I have a hard time believing that very deliberate visions are implemented by just planners. If it happens its in conjunction with others.

The third idea, standard of care, is worth playing with. It exists for engineers, doctors, lawyers and others. But in all of these cases, the profession has more control over its product. Planners are gate keepers, regulators, but rarely constructive agents with a substantive product that the standard could be tested against. Fun thought experiment nonetheless.

Surly Urbanist said...

Good points, all around. My argument is that planners need to make an attempt to wrestle with actually "professionalizing" the field. We have "standards" but planning offices aren't required to recognize them, and we certainly don't formally challenge shitty planners or shitty planning outcomes.

And the planner as gatekeeper is something that should be taken more seriously. I discuss this quite often with people and it's a well-worn track in planning theory courses...are we normative, visionary professionals or another form of beaurecrat who's primary purpose is to act as gatekeeper of clearly egregious projects. I'd be comfortable with either identity or a more nuanced recognition that we switch between the two and explore how we can better navigate with that understanding.

Given power differentials I think focusing on a standard of care would be absolutely vital. We see lawyers and doctors have their advice ignored all the time and people die or go to jail. But those professionals are obligated to give the advice and defend themselves if something bad happens. It would make sense to me to extend such a professional burden onto planners. It's not like we don't have metrics we could start with. Clean water and Clean Air act already gives us metrics and we have a history of holding cities to account for them. I don't know, it's tricky, but planners absolutely must formalize their profession if they wish to be taken seriously and to attempt to better guide practice around the country.

Anonymous said...

Cries of "racist" are not necessarily unfounded but are being applied so often that they have lost their effect. Please read the comments under the "St. Bernard Parish" article to which you link.