New Orleans, Louisiana

In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs describes illustrations of the city as being “all about us;” she urges us to supplement diagrams and depictions with experiences of “real cities;” she implores us to “listen, linger and think about what you see.” Her response to the grim reality of urban planning in the 1960s persists as The Manifesto of this discipline. It is a compelling and calculated request to alter the orientation of the discipline away from the technical maps, grids, and alternatives that typically direct planning efforts instead toward the personal experiences, responses and interests we share in the environment surrounding us all.

This distinction is important because, still, 50 years later, the tension between the technical and human aspect of planning is palpable and we find ourselves struggling to balance the two.

Oaxaca, Mexico

In January the second year cohort began Workshop (MURP 2011 – a what, what!).  Workshop is the culmination of the last two years of academic work and is our first opportunity to synthesize the knowledge we’ve acquired during our studies.  A series of presentations were given, each to introduce us to important aspects of project management.  And while most were enduringly useful, one proved steadfastly thought provoking, in an ‘I’m not sure you should have said that publicly’ kind of way.

A local leader, when asked about his experience with local planning, quipped that the only thing wrong with planning is the public.  I paused, I uncomfortably darted my eyes like most people do when they find them self in an uncomfortable situation, and then I laughed, we all laughed – awkwardly.  It was an uncharacteristically honest statement to hear in Portland.  The truth emerged mordantly: the problem with planning… is people.

In “Making Plans that Matter,” Raymond Burby laments that the challenge of planning is the public, but he insists the public is also the key to a successful plan.  These two extremes… I feel like I’ve been in a state of pause thinking about them for three months.  I ask myself often, “what are you doing here?”  What is the aim of planning if not a better environment for people?  How badly has planning failed if the biggest problem with this public service is the public it purports to serve?

Vancouver, B.C.

I am not so naive to think public involvement is easy because I know public engagement is the most difficult aspect of planning, but I understand, like Burby, that the public is its most integral element.  Yes, public engagement is difficult; there is neither a hard and fast rule for engagement nor empirically sound evidence in favor of public involvement, but I forge ahead because I believe in the process and its outcome.  I believe it results in plans better than even the best work of the best planner.

Jane Jacobs knew this, she knew people were important to planning, and she too was afraid.  She acknowledged that planning is making order of chaos, and that’s not an easy thing to do, but she rescinded the notion that the problems with our urban environs should be solved with the removal of “blight.”  Instead, she made a simple request, that we respect the chaos of the city and work within its disorder.  Jane Jacobs knew planning could do better and she simply asked for us to plan for the city as it is.  People and environment exist in symbiosis; planning fails not because it is conceptually flawed, but because it too often relies on technically derived solutions rather than human ones.

Florence, Italy

As a community development specialist, I think often about this balance.  Unlike the land use, transportation and environmental planners I study alongside, I rely on my ability to connect with people much more than my analytical abilities.  Rather than assess, evaluate, and determine, I must first listen.  I must convert the concerns of people into issues receptive to a strategy.  It is not unusual for people approach me and look me in the eye to explain why they need sidewalks, why they need their neighborhood grocery store, and why they cannot afford to lose their home.  Not only must I listen and convey empathy, but I must carry their concerns with me as I draft plans.  This is the chaos, the chaos of life, and how a community development planner reconciles thought with action.  This is the reality of the planner who finds herself awake at 3:48 a.m. hoping she can equitably serve and inclusively involve so that she might help make the city better for the people she serves.

Portland, Oregon

When I think about plans, I think about the balance they must reflect.  Plans are not great because they offer technical solutions, plans are great because they have the potential to respond to the concerns vocalized by the public with technically feasible prescriptions.  The planner is both engineer and architect; analytically minded, but capable of emotional connection.  The planner composes a city for people so they might have the opportunity to listen, linger, and think about what they see.

No, the public is not the problem with planning, the public is the possibility of planning and cities that are all about us.

– julia crain

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