In the rather sobering article on urban planning that Alex shared in a recent post, there was an intriguing comment about the nature of “community.” The commenter (Blake Chastain) really put into words the uneasy feeling I occasionally have about community-based planning.

“Communities are exclusionary; they may seek to be inclusive, but to some extent a community is determined as much by who is NOT included as it is by who is.”

Unless one is looking at the entire planet’s population as a community, communities are exclusionary. There is always a side to be chosen, and a winner and loser with every policy decision. Community-based planning traditionally strove to place the costs of those decisions on those best able to bear them, not overburden the poor, and to give everyone a voice in the decision-making process.

I am fully supportive of this type of community-based planning, particularly when working in areas with marginalized populations. But, it feels sometimes like the core values of this type of planning have been lost.

The notion of community-based planning which arose in the more idealistic 1960’s was largely about empowering the marginalized, eliminating poverty and reversing the top-down mentality often personified by Robert Moses. Now community-based planning seems to have been appropriated by rich communities when dealing with even richer or more powerful entities, or small businesses versus big businesses, or manufacturing versus retail businesses. This has made conversations more about rich versus super-rich and less about poor versus rich. Once again marginalizing the poor.

Considering the urgent need to address issues related to sustainability and resiliency, I rejoice anytime I see a plan that responds to a broad range of global, regional, and local issues: The modern community planner’s most important role is an educator of their communities on larger implications of decisions related to land use and community development, but also on the human impacts of those decisions. If a community chooses to fight against building that shelter or affordable housing, community planners should hold up the mirror to show how that decision helps to define their community and who they are, just as much as their insistence on quality architecture, sustainable development or resilient infrastructure. It also holds planners somewhat accountable to point out pervasive issues that others are ignoring.

While this role is not saving lives in emergency situations, I do believe it is vitally important, and in the long run may make a very big difference in society’s ability to adapt to increasingly weird weather, sea level rise, and economic changes, maybe even with some small amount of grace, possibly with fewer lives unnecessarily lost and hopefully with more lives lived fully and happily.

The idea of a community planner speaking truth to power (or better yet, getting a marginalized community to rally and do so) is very appealing, but the more heroic planner is the one who speaks truth to everyone and communicates effectively enough to help communities start making well-informed and humane decisions.

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  1. What’s next for urban planners? | PlaNYourCity - February 22, 2013

    […] discussed in two recent blogposts, Fringe Planning and Community, the planning profession is at a distinct crossroads. Our short history of little more than 150 […]


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