Planning Identity: The Field, Profession, and Practice of Planning

The issue of abstract and the relevance of planning theory to professional practice is often a challenge for planning practitioners. As a practitioner myself, theoretical relevancy is an issue I deal with on a day-to-day basis (Fainstein, S. and J. DeFillippis, 2016). While this week’s readings touch on the issue of professional identity as noted by Myers, D. and T. Banerjee (2005), I do not think that planners are either undervalued or underappreciated. As such, I think that the idea of focusing on a marketing approach and to advocate the need for the right brand identity is out of point.

By many measures, I think the issue of planning identity is one that deals with product or services provided. Engineers and architect often lead complex planning projects, while planners watch and comment from the sideline. If planners are to be appropriately recognized, then, they have to lead as project managers and must produce quality products or services that are worth recognizing. In context, the nature of planning services, and the organizational environment where planning often takes place matters. I would argue that although knowledge of the concept of planning and core competency in both academia and practice is very important for the planning profession, it is not critically relevant as a measure of outcome for who is or not a good planning practitioner.

As Myers and Banerjee (2005) articulated “planning often occurs without the guidance of professional planners and academics” p.121. In fact, everything being equal, I would argue that very few hiring managers cannot narrow the core competencies that distinguish a masters degree in urban planning from a masters in public administration. By any measure, I think planning is an inherently political and community-driven process. As such, the very assumption used by Myers and Banerjee to argue that a core planning competency is comprehensive knowledge of land use processes is laughable at best. Planning as a disciple has moved past the stage of comprehensive plans, master plans, and/or capital improvement programs.

Rightfully so, the planning professional should be “besieged by the simultaneous euphoria and malaise” (Myers, D. and T. Banerjee, 2005 p.121) that the profession faces in the 21st century. As Myers and Banerjee noted, “urbanization is not a uniquely planning phenomena.” But offer many opportunities for planning. However, these emerging opportunities are being missed by the planning profession. For instance, in new and emerging domains, such as safety and security planning, emergency operation, urban analytics, informatics, smart cities, unmanned vehicles (“drones”), autonomous vehicle and self-driving cars etc., that are inherently planning in nature, are void of any compelling planning narratives. In some of these emerging fields, planners are only marginally involved in original research and in articulating conceptual frameworks and methods of practices. Even when involved, planners are often limited in storytelling, narrating or interpreting the work of science and social sciences researcher that may have little or no direct relevance to planning as a profession.

In the same light, while some other professions are expanding their narratives to scale and capture the essence (i.e. adaptability, applicability, scalability) of emerging domains, planning schools with often, a limited orientation to applied research, are only having peripheral discussions about emerging domains that may define, the future state of the planning profession. The notion that the planning identify is challenged by porous boundaries and professional identity may have some merits. But, people can often tell the differences between a banker, a broker, and/or a financier. Then, think about how these functions are interrelated with very porous boundaries.

Social and political activism and advocacy have probably done more in defining the planning profession and creating important planning narratives, than planning schools and the American Planning Association in developing a tangible, marketable narrative for THE planning profession. Think about the work of social activists in arguing for or against gentrification, smart growth proponents, bike advocacy, new urbanism, urban health, workability and livability, mixed-use development, etc. These are just some prevailing and dominant concepts and approaches in planning, all beginning with strong grassroots efforts, in social and environmental activism.

The legitimacy of planning schools and the background of faculty experience are muted points. This is because the nature of practice is constantly changing and evolving, most often, by external factors and players. The planning profession must reach out beyond its current “general purpose government’ functionalities. Private industry offers the most relevant areas for professional experimentation and observation. Perhaps, a more sustainable approach to the planning profession is looking beyond local government jobs, to seek new jobs and professional practice opportunities across the broader network of industries in the economy as a whole.