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Planners must strengthen the ties that bind


Can planning address the biggest issues of our time? Yes, says American Planning Association president Cynthia Bowen

The APA wrapped up its national planning conference on May 9, 2017. What was evident was that, no matter where planners were from, we are faced with trying to figure out what to do during these times of political, social and economic uncertainty. 

Around the United States, a trio of crises demand our attention. First, too many people have too little opportunity. Second, there is an erosion of trust, of faith in the institutions that bind communities together and less trust in the role of public servants, experts – even in data and facts. Third, there’s a weakening of a true sense of community. 

These challenges are counter to planning’s core values of open and inclusive communities, broad public engagement, policies protecting the public interest and, indeed, civic life generally. 

In today’s political climate, planners must reaffirm their commitment to planning and dig in to fight the good fight.

It’s these types of challenges that force us to find new ways to do our jobs, and different ways to communicate what we do.

“We need to reframe why planning is important and what it can do”

We need to reframe why planning is important and what it can do. There are times when we need to step back and change our approach to a situation or change our expectations. 

After all, we shouldn’t expect to change someone’s political point of view because that isn’t going to happen. Instead, we need to change the lens through which they see their world. It is up to us to tell the planning story. Planners excel at seeing the world from multiple points of view, and at communicating the same points many different ways depending on the audience. 

Planning has a special obligation to confront these challenges. Many of the really big drivers of today’s uncertainty – persistent inequality, climate change, migration, rapid urbanisation, slow economic growth, faster technological change, and limited policies for inclusive growth are rooted in a lack of connection to qualities of place and community. 

How we continue to develop and redevelop our cities, neighbourhoods, towns, and infrastructure has a direct bearing on how we solve those problems. As community budgets and federal resources get tighter, we can help our communities use the dollars they have more wisely by bold, well thought-out planning to address each of these problems. We can look at ways to make our communities more efficient by helping them identify critical infrastructure to invest in that promotes development, diversify land uses to create core mixed-use nodes, creating public spaces that people are connected to and identify with, and ensuring that our communities are more resilient and more prosperous.

Cynthia Bowen is president of the American Planning Association and director of planning at Rundell Ernstberger Associates, a US planning and urban design firm.

Cynthia will be appearing as a panellist at a Women in Planning discussion of planning around the world on 19 June.

Photo | iStock


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