Do You Plan With Caution or Courage — or Both?

Planners are cautious professionals.

Because we're not directly accountable to the electorate, we take decisions from clients and elected officials. Many of us practice under the provisions of the AICP Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct, which counsels that we serve values that might indicate a need for courage. Yet a common sentiment is caution.

Navigating Between Personal Views and Professional Obligations

I have an artist friend who has little regard for caution. He continually seeks his true self, his true voice. He resists outside advice and compromise. When we get together, I sometimes resent his freedom to engage his muse.

Of course, a life devoted to art does not promise recognition or influence. The artist's leverage is much less direct than the planner's. Many labors in their freedom, unnoticed.

Planners are not artists. Planners cannot and should not impose their personal views on the planning process. But as individuals with human agency, we have views, sometimes strong views, on what constitutes the good. The skill of practice is navigating the space between our personal views and our clients.

We can navigate this space by assessing political and stakeholder interests and then seeking an acceptable middle ground. But is there a cost to this? Does it undermine our professional reputation for providing independent advice? Do we ignore controversial solutions that stretch the envelope?

Do we speak up when we anticipate that a planning decision may cause harm or fail to address a critical issue? Have we bitten our tongue so often that it no longer works properly?

I'm not suggesting that planners should be reckless or throw caution to the wind. Since our work cannot be ignored like the artists can, we are responsible for avoiding harm and doing good. We must respect our role in democracy.

So how can a planner with personal views about "the good" prosper in an environment of constraints and compromise?

Thriving Amid Personal and Professional Tensions

First, we should recognize the pain generated by the gap between our aspirations for communities and what is politically possible. It isn't wise to deny or succumb to the pain of an unfulfilled vision — it's better to find a way to metabolize the disappointment. Planners need individual and collective practices to recover from disappointment. If we stuff it away, our health and effectiveness suffer, and bitterness and cynicism can grow.

Second, the navigation of the personal and the political is improved by a nuanced understanding of change. A planner's proposal that meets rejection on one day may lead to a breakthrough later on. Planning shapes community identity and political interest formation over the long term.

Third, a courageous heart can carry us far. It is easy to give up or to give in to righteous anger. The harder, more courageous thing is to stand in the predicament of practice: to feel a higher calling and at the same time be unable to completely achieve it.

Here I quote poet Leonard Cohen, who said about his song, "The Traitor":

"[I]t was about the feeling that we have of betraying some mission that we were mandated to fulfill, and being unable to fulfill it, and then coming to the understanding that the real mandate was not to fulfill it, and that the deeper courage was to stand guiltless in the predicament in which you find yourself."

We don't need to do this alone — our professional colleagues are sounding boards and supportive friends. Caution or courage? Each of us has to decide.

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: Getty Images photo.

About the Author
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.

February 11, 2019

By Richard Willson, FAICP