Saturday, April 16, 2005


Stand Up

Over the past week there has been heavy conversation taking place on both national and local new urban planning list serves regarding the question, “What’s with the planners?” The original question, which was posed early last week, was an attempt to further understand the lack of support that new urbanism is receiving from the municipal planning side of the profession. However, over the course of the week the conversation evolved into a larger examination of the planning profession as a whole. Most theories and ideas related to the current state of the field, in simplified terms, have touched upon two major themes:

1) The structure of the public planning sector
2) Education

I do not feel the need to fully expound on the well known and ridiculous challenges that municipal planners face in their town and city governments. Nor do I feel qualified to speak about changing planning curriculums, as I have yet to experience a single graduate course. However, I would like to share my thoughts on passion.

It is my feeling that many planners are simply uninterested in the lifelong process of studying and learning about the planning profession. Informal education is essential to planners who are 5, 10, or 25 years out of school. The problem with many planners, I believe, is that this type of education must be self-directed, and can only come by committing oneself to truly learning about changing theories, trends, and ideas. I have worked with planners in Maine, Vermont, and now Massachusetts, who are so robotic and entrenched in status quo bureaucratic thought, that thinking outside their steel reinforced box of muncipal planning codes is not even an option for them. These are the types of people who love to complain about new urbanism. Yet, they don't ever take the time to understand what it is. If someone with a firm understanding of new urbanism (or simply what makes good urbanism) wants to tear it apart, fine, because I can learn from that. But making snap judgements without taking the time to understand what new urbanism is, shows lack of interest for the profession.

It’s also my impression that many planners enter school as idealistic, forward thinking people with a desire to create change. As a young professional who is looking to go back to planning school, this is where I stand. Yet, if planners are not disillusioned by the time they leave their graduate program (many recent grads that I have spoken to for advice have had less than stellar things to say about their respective planning schools), they will eventually morph into embattled professionals that spend passionless days reacting to new development with antiquated and ineffective regulations, which is not planning. Unsurprisingly, this has created a profession without true municipal leaders, and a profession that has unintentionally harmed the human environment, rather than enhanced it. Many recent posts on the previously mentioned list serves have explained this phenomenon by positing that a planner without a true urbanist as a city manager or mayor, will be handed a one way ticket to unemploymentville if they challenge the status quo. Though this provides some explanation for my preference for the private sector, I believe the problem runs deeper than that. Planners must start showing more leadership by educating themselves, and educating those who help shape development in their respective communities.

As someone who is disheartened by those who lose passion for the profession, it is my goal to never stop learning from, or about the art of placemaking. In fact, I think my best chance at helping to solve America’s collective placemaking amnesia is to constantly educate, and re-educate myself about architecture, economics, urban design, politics, history, and culture. Staying on top of these disciplines and the wealth of connections between them, will only help me change and adapt to our ever-changing culture. Furthermore, I will always stand up and be vocal.

To me, one of the biggest values of the new urbanism is that it has created a lasting and meaningful dialogue on the many problems associated with post-World War II planning methods. What other methodology has made such progress? Moreover, new urbanism has recreated lasting solutions that employ time honored principles of truly successful urban planning methods. New urbanism is also a movement that is full of people who like myself, are self-taught, passionate people. People who believe that there should be no more complacency within the profession! People who believe in change! We hold meetings and have discussions about the harmful nature of past and present planning methods. We hold conferences. We tell family and we tell friends. Most importantly, we believe in teaching and being taught. We stand up.

In the context of history new urbanism is still an immature movement. Yet, with the passion for placemaking that new urbanists have, its should be no surprise that after only 15 years of real work we are already asking “what’s with the planners?” "Why don't they get this stuff?" Well, I believe that the answer to the question is the utter lack of intellectual curiosity. Most municipal planners have not taken the time to truly understand the principles of the movement, or to stand up and demand better methods for community building. New urbanism has its shortcomings and imperfections, but it has done so much for getting us back to creating the type of places that have social and cultural worth.


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