Planning & Shaping Cities: Activism, Advocacy, Representation

Planning & Shaping Cities: Activism, Advocacy, Representation

“Planning & Shaping Cities” is a blog by AJ Fawver. Read all of AJ’s posts from the “Planning & Shaping Cities” blog here.


Activism, advocacy, representation are all components of our governmental system, and part of every academic program in political science, public administration, and planning.  

Here’s the thing – are we each doing everything we can to ensure these components are adequately represented once we cross the threshold from academia to practice?

It’s great to have a reality check occasionally to see where we stand, and that includes remembering the things we should be advocating for as we set about the work of planning and shaping cities.  

First, there’s the community.  

We talk often about this sense of community interests and public purpose.  How do we align our work with what that really is? As we all know, the notion of “public interest” is ambiguous, largely contextual, and difficult to define.  Are we truly placing the focus necessary to uphold our ethical obligations?

As we advocate for the community, how does this influence the way we examine requests and proposals?  It can be intimidating for planners newer to the profession to make a recommendation which may be controversial – but this doesn’t mean it is wrong.

To better develop an internal barometer that will serve us well in a career, framing an analysis with relevant facts and demonstrating an eye on the larger public interest is necessary.  Furthermore, it builds a case for the recommendation.

It also is not all about making recommendations.  The proactive initiative to streamline processes, tighten up regulatory wording, and provide information concisely is tied to advocating for our communities.  These efforts make any community members’ experience with the local government easier, and that ease has an ethical component to it as well.

Secondly, there’s the various groups that make up the community.  

Communities are increasingly diverse and balancing those interests – while a herculean task – are crucial to a planner’s success.  One piece of this includes the notion of equity. When providing counsel and guidance, one must always keep in mind if it improves equity for these groups, or if it (inadvertently or not) creates inequity.  

Examples of this include allowances for a variety of housing types, the utilization of conditions as opposed to a by-right approval, and accessibility for all people and transportation modes. Also, assessing plans and policies by considering the needs and interests of all community members is essential.  

Attention to bias – racial, gender, age, and socioeconomic, as examples – is an often-overlooked part of a planner’s responsibilities. Many have written about city design which does not work for one or all these groups, and in crafting policy, one must be careful to not create more issues. For example, transportation design that accommodates the needs of women, or zoning which targets or exacerbates inequity between neighborhoods.  

Sounds great, doesn’t it?  But how do we achieve this more nuanced pursuit of equity?  Well, here’s one idea for you to consider. Traditional engagement does not work, simply put.  

While we all publish notices in the paper and send letters to residents in the “affected” area as defined by our state statutes, this is rarely effective.  Calling it engagement is insulting. And, while the ever-present question of most planners is “how do we get people involved”, the answer might prove uncomfortable for the simple reason that it requires far more work than we might currently do.  It may necessitate additional resources and efforts. However, to truly do our work of capturing and finding ways to execute the public’s desires, we must actually communicate with said public.

Third, there’s the profession/field as a whole.  

Advocacy in this capacity is so neglected and too often seen as nothing more than a resume builder. This is really too bad, as there are so many opportunities to volunteer and promote the field. From urban design to transportation, from housing to redevelopment, there are so many subareas about which to learn and within which to lead.  

Strong leadership in the profession is essential to being at the table for key decisions at a regional, state, and national level. Newer professionals need to be provided the camaraderie and support to fully develop, and experienced professionals have many lessons to learn and knowledge to share.  

The choice to isolate oneself from others in the field ensures your professional growth will be stunted. In addition, you will certainly miss out on the chance to fully realize all of the tools you can bring to each community you work in. Stepping up and taking on a volunteer role is huge in terms of advancing the planning movement while building increasingly credibility for planners and their professional credentials.

Last, there’s the advocacy for innovation.  

An oft-forgotten part of the advocate’s role is staying up to date with what other cities are doing and how they are addressing various issues in their communities.  Our peers doing groundbreaking things should be recognized and celebrated. At the end of the day, many of our communities have the same types of problems, so any excellent examples of overcoming or directly addressing those problems are beneficial to us all.  

Likewise, technological advances are constantly emerging; this gives us the ability to advocate for these advances and solutions. Too often, when working to change or modify current practices, we are asked as practitioners to look at what “sister cities” are doing.  While that can be helpful, I believe what is more helpful is to look at what the cutting-edge cities are doing and find ways that we can bring that to our own community.

When this seems impossible, we must stay the course and consider different techniques – like partnering with other communities or counties – to drive down costs and rally together the support necessary to make it happen.

In the end, as Jane Jacobs wrote in The Death and Life of Great American Cities,

“…lively, diverse, intense cities contain the seeds of their own regeneration, with energy enough to carry over for problems and needs outside themselves.”  

That energy, friends, and the planting of those seeds, is part of our responsibility. Our cities are dependent upon it.