Reframing Anxiety

You may find, as I do, that planning practice generates anxiety.

In additional to concerns about job advancement and politics, planners wonder, “Am I pursuing the best solution in this situation?” and “Is my strategy correct?”

While the AICP Code of Ethics provides guidance for professional behavior with supervisors, elected officials, and the public, the effects of various planning actions are harder to grasp and subject to different points of view.

This lack of clarity creates anxiety for those planners who are inclined to reflect. Reading this post won’t eliminate that anxiety but may help you see it in a new way.

Here are some examples of planning practice anxiety:

Economic development planners think of the arts as a catalyst for economic development and community revitalization. But in some communities, art development is seen as part of a gentrifying force that creates displacement. Local residents protest art galleries.

Transportation planners favor transit-oriented development (TOD) to bring more housing close to high-capacity transit services. But if TOD leads to gentrification, it can undermine the intended increase in transit use because affluent new residents displace formerly transit-dependent residents.

In environmental planning, planners developing greenhouse gas mitigation strategies encounter dilemmas about whether to accept local environmental damage in developing renewable energy sources.

Of course, planners seek to minimize the harms in the examples noted, such as requiring affordable housing when approving a TOD. But it is not possible to eliminate tradeoffs, which makes a simplistic “problem solved” approach unwise.

The waters are murky. How much of one goal should be traded off to achieve another? What about unanticipated consequences? How does the favored solution accord with stakeholders and decision makers?

A previous post, Principled Adaptability Blends Realism and Idealism at Work, discussed principled adaptability as a way of understanding the ambiguity of practice. It argued that ethical reasoning is needed to practice in a way that avoids the extremes of “sell out” and “no-compromise” positions. Ethical reasoning helps us think clearly when there is no unambiguous correct answer. If we acknowledge the complexities of practice, then we must recognize anxiety.

Can anxiety be considered in a positive way?

Here, I draw from a new book by Gordon Marino called The Existentialist’s Survival Guide: How to Live Authentically in an Inauthentic Age (Harper One, 2018). The book interprets and explains existentialist ideas in a conversational and accessible way, especially those of Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard.

In discussing anxiety, Marino speaks to personal development, not professional practice, but I see a connection to planning. Rather than seeing anxiety as a negative condition that should be extinguished, he argues that it is an essential element of being human. Speaking of one’s personal life, he says, “We have dreams (possibility) about what we could be, and then there are the facts of our concrete situation … humans have the task of integrating these aspects of self.” (p. 52) Planners face a similar task of integration as they consider the dance of idealism and realism in their planning practice.

Anxiety about your planning practice means that you are a reflective planner, the best kind. Cultivating capacity to accept anxiety leads to deeper, more meaningful planning. Sensing that your answer isn’t perfect, you gain humility and fellowship with a great tradition of thinkers seeking to define the good.

Anxiety is a wake up call that something is up, alerting you of a fork in the road that requires careful consideration. Anxiety tells you that you have a choice to make – if there was no choice there would be no reason to worry.

I can’t say I like it when I feel anxious.

Anxiety can be overwhelming, and it is shallow if it focuses on something like your own status. Useful anxiety, concerning the outcome of your plans and recommendations, deepens you and reminds you of the importance of choices. Speaking at the personal level, Marino says “anxiety is not an affliction but the manifestation of our spiritual nature.”

For planning, useful anxiety signals that your planning work is on the crooked path toward universal planning values such as justice, community, beauty, and truth.

Read previous installments of this blog series, "A Guide for the Idealist," here. This blog series is amplified in Richard Willson's book, A Guide for the Idealist: How to Launch and Navigate Your Planning Career. The book includes perspectives, tools, advice, and personal anecdotes. It is available now at Routledge, Amazon, and most retailers.

Top image: Photo by Getty Images.


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 book, A Guide for the Idealist: How to Launch and Navigate Your Planning Career, amplifies the themes in this blog series. Willson is also the author of Parking Reform Made Easy (Island Press, 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.


July 24, 2018

By Richard Willson, FAICP