2011 National Planning Conference: Opening Keynote Address

Michael J. Sandel

Planning: The Noble Profession

By Kimberley Hodgson
APA Research Associate

Political philosopher and professor Michael J. Sandel challenged planners at APA's National Planning Conference in Boston to create cities that are hospitable to civic virtue and democratic citizenship.

Sandel, the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of Government at Harvard University, took his audience on a philosophical journey to better understand the role of planning in creating places that foster interactions between people of all classes, races, and ethnicities. (Visit the website of Sandel's Harvard course, Justice.)

"I believe that planning is a noble calling," Sandel said, drawing on philosophy and its connections to present day life to reinforce the idea that planners do more than regulate development. They provide a vision. As an outsider looking in on the planning professions, Sandel challenged the audience to ask themselves: What are cities for? What is their purpose? And, what is the role of planning?

To illustrate his point, Sandel proposed this scenario: "Suppose you are the driver of a trolley car and it's hurtling down the track at 60 mph. The brakes don't work, and there are five workers at the end of track.  ... You know that if you crash into them they will die. ... There is a side track with one worker, and you have the option of diverting the train. What would you do?"

The majority of participants raised their hands for diverting the train, taking one life and saving five.

He then asked the audience to consider a different scenario:

"Suppose you are an onlooker overlooking the trolley car from a bridge up above. At the end of the track there are five workers, and again the breaks don't work. This time there is no side track. You feel helpless until you notice there is a very heavy man standing on the bridge with you. It occurs to you that you could push him onto the track and block the trolley car and save the five workers. But he would die and five would live."

Not many in the audience indicated that they would push the man.

The first scenario, Sandel said, speaks to the prominent utilitarian philosophy, or maximizing utility — in this case sacrificing one person for the greatest number of people. The second scenario illustrates that morality is more than trying to quantify the costs and benefits of a situation. It is also about the rights of individuals.

In another example, Sandel deconstructed and showed the flaws in the utilitarian philosophy. Would people be willing to live in perfect world, without any social issues, if it meant sacrificing the happiness of one small child?

The questions led Sandel to his main message for planners: There is another important way to address justice and morality — through the teachings of Aristotle, who believed that justice, the right thing to do, is not just adding up preferences or seeking the greatest happiness. Neither is it about respecting individual rights.

"Justice is the way we should govern ourselves ... what policies ... what laws will make us better citizens and cultivate civic virtue," he said. "We need to shape, cultivate and improve preferences and opportunities that are introduced to public life."

Inequity, particularly the growing gap between the rich and poor and the privatization of our society, which reinforces this gap, undermines public life. Sandel argued that if people take a utilitarian point of view then the gap widens. The rich and poor live separate lives. The affluent send their children to wealthy private or suburban schools, they attend private health clubs, they live in upscale residential communities. They secede from public places.

We are seeing a "skyboxification" of society, Sandel suggested. Where there is a hard separation between haves and havenots and the wealthy and poor never interact at the ball game, but are separated by a glass, climate controlled box — the skybox.

Why should we worry about this?

"Because public services deteriorate when this happens," Sandel suggested. "And there is a deep civic loss. Public institutions (such as libraries, museums and parks) cease to be places where people from different walk of life encounter each other." And, there are no longer any opportunities for "informal schools of citizenship and virtue."

Planners can support justice and morality by creating cities that foster interaction and renew our public spaces and provide greater opportunities for a common civic life. Planners can shape civic discourse to help citizens ask important and difficult questions about city life. Through this process, planners can empower citizens to fully understand the importance of community and public life.

"Planning, on the broad canvas of different philosophies of democracy and justice, draws people out of gated communities, draws people out of a privatized way of life, and ultimately nurtures, develops and cultivates democratic citizens," Sandel concluded.

"Planning is a noble profession, a profession that is connected to the democratic profession. Political philosophy can help us articulate and vision cities that are hospitable to civic virtue and democratic citizenship."

In introductory remarks, APA President Bruce Knight, FAICP, challenged planners to change the perception of the planning profession.

"Why is planning under attack as an anti-American activity [in our current economic context]?" Knight asked. Because we are viewed as regulators.

"We need to tell our story clearly, strategically and consistently," Knight said. "The most effective place to fight this battle is in our home community. We need to move from being perceived as regulators to innovators of change. We need to establish planning as a core service."

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