Planners prosper when they reflect on their practice. Reflection helps us navigate the space between idealism and realism, supporting the search for effective and ethical practices. It works both after the fact and in the moment. See Reflection Reset: Pathways for Effective Practice, Using Reflection to Navigate Idealism and Realism, and Reflection for Radicals. Yet reflection alone can make formidable challenges such as structural racism, climate change, or corruption seem beyond one's effort. It can lead to paralysis, hopelessness, or cynicism. Instead, pair reflection with action and release as discussed in this post.
Acting may involve making a bold, decisive move. This form of action is often privileged, and certainly, much progress has been achieved in this manner. Planning is predisposed to change, as planning theorist John Friedmann noted in defining planning as linking knowledge and action in the public domain. The new generation of planners I teach at Cal Poly Pomona are certainly change-makers.
Conceiving acting as a conclusive move is limiting, however, because change is a complex process that happens over time. As we expand the notion of planning action, consider its many forms: creating evidence, engaging imagination, solving problems, organizing people, drafting plans, negotiating agreements, educating residents, or implementing programs.
There are still more forms of action that are harder to recognize. Is observing a form of action? Is listening a form of action? Is waiting for a strategic opportunity a form of action? Is compromising a form of action? Is forgiving a form of action? These all require a decision just as do bold moves. In some settings, these subtle forms of action are exactly what is needed.
The concept of release may be unintuitive for planners. After all, our job is to implement plans, solve problems, and make the world a better place. Those elements are core to my practice, but I have seen the power of releasing my grip on expectations of outcomes. After all, we do not plan alone but in complex social, political, administrative, and environmental systems. The fact that one planner cannot singlehandedly solve a problem is not discouraging. We can act with faith that our contribution will combine with those of others, immediately or in the future.
My research and professional practice concerns parking reform. Reform has taken decades — many communities still require too much parking, as if they care more about homeless cars than homeless people. My efforts have not been sufficient on their own, but they supported those who came before me; other planners are now carrying them forward. The parking reform movement will yield benefits that I cannot foresee.
Not releasing an expectation for direct, immediate outcomes can make you sick, psychologically and physically.
Planners seek results, but we don't control the enterprise. As Lew Hopkins, FAICP has argued, plans and planning processes act in multiple ways, some of them subtle, long-term, and hard to identify. Doing one's best without a guarantee of the outcome is the tactic of the engaged, effective planner. It is a noble and virtuous path, one that pays innumerable rewards over time. Reflect | act | release. And repeat that process as many times as your career allows.
Read previous installments of this blog series, "A Guide for the Idealist." This blog series is amplified in Richard Willson's books, Reflective Planning Practice: Theory, Cases and Methods, and A Guide for the Idealist: How to Launch and Navigate Your Planning Career. The books include frameworks, case studies, reflective methods, advice, and personal anecdotes. They are available now at Routledge, Amazon, and most retailers.
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About the Author
Richard Willson, FAICP
Richard Willson, FAICP, is a professor in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at Cal Poly Pomona. He has also served as department chair, interim dean, and independent planning consultant. Willson's research addresses planning practice and parking policy. His books, Reflective Planning Practice (2021) and A Guide for the Idealist: How to Launch and Navigate Your Planning Career (2018), amplify the themes in this blog series. Willson is also the author of Parking Reform Made Easy (2013) and Parking Management for Smart Growth (2015). Willson holds a PhD in urban planning from the University of California, Los Angeles, a Master of Planning from the University of Southern California, and a Bachelor of Environmental Studies from the University of Waterloo.