Making Strategic and Ethical Practice Choices

The path from an idealist planning vision to implementation is a crooked line. There are many forks, twists, and turns. The change process requires us to make continual, in-process decisions about how to proceed. Perhaps the most fundamental one is whether to compromise and if so, how much.

Such decisions involve both strategic and ethical considerations. In the rush of daily professional activity, of course, it is normal to rely on standard practices, either those of the organization or your own. But rote, by-the-book, professional styles miss many opportunities to advance the planning agenda.

As a planning educator, I seek to enhance planners' ability to recognize fork-in-the-road moments and to make decisions reflectively and deliberately. At NPC22, I led a reflection workshop, Equity Ethics from the Inside Out, using the AICP Code of Ethics, and was struck by how much the planners in attendance wanted and needed to talk with one another about the practice choices and dilemmas they faced, and how they resolve them. We need to compare our practices and learn from one another.

Online Simulation Enhances Planners' Strategic Decisions

To this end, I invite you to test-drive an online simulation of these choices - I call them practical judgments. The simulation is designed to enhance your ability to discern choices and make strategic and ethical practical judgments, whether they concern compromise, planning procedures, politics, or outcomes.

Currently, the simulation offers a framework for reflection and four cases. At the core of each case are multiple, plausible courses of action, a circumstance that I have found to be consistently true in my transportation planning practice and among most planners I know.

Following a review of the choices, the simulation prompts you to consider the likelihood of outcomes of each action and then make a reflective decision on what to do. Prompts then ask for the reasoning behind the choice.

Planners Decide in Simulation Scenarios

The four cases array a range of planning episodes in which planners are called to decide how to proceed:

  1. Choosing how to engage with a constituent over a minor non-compliance issue at a city's zoning counter.
  2. Deciding the nature of the work scope to propose to a developer who is seeking consulting assistance.
  3. Responding to an elected official's idea for a road diet when other ideas could work
  4. Dealing with political interference in evaluating grant proposals.

As mentioned, each case includes three possible practical judgments about how to proceed. Each one is plausible — there is no "winning" or "wrong" choice. A planner's choice relies on a complex set of considerations.

For example, it may depend on their ways of knowing and acting — for example, how are logic and emotion employed in the choice? Is there a preference for following precedent or inventing new approaches? Furthermore, two planners may interpret the context for the planning episode differently, as they assess institutional structure and political risks. And lastly, the planner's commitments and identities likely affect their ways of knowing, being, and acting.

The simulation is designed to be completed as an individual activity, although small groups can work through a scenario together, opening up opportunities for rich conversations that can explore participants' similar and different choices and approaches.

Top Image: Painting by Rick Willson, FAICP. Used with permission.

About the Author
Richard Willson, FAICP, is a professor in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at Cal Poly Pomona. The "A Guide for the Idealist" blog series is amplified in his books, A Guide for the Idealist: How to Launch and Navigate Your Planning Career (Routledge, 2018) and Reflection Planning Practice: Theory, Cases, and Methods (Routledge, 2021).

July 29, 2022

By Richard Willson, FAICP