Expanding California's Leadership in Diversifying the Planning Profession

A version of this article first appeared in APA California's Northern News, October 2018.

For the past two years or so, the topic of diversity has taken center stage nationally at levels not seen since the civil rights movement. Its meaning and impacts on economic, political and social structures seem to be debated on a daily basis. Fueling such debate is our nation's tumultuous history bound by centuries of demographic shifts, territorial expansion, advances in technology, cultural diffusion, and policymaking.

It is not uncommon today to find tech giants like Apple and Google as well as everyday corporate brands like Starbucks, Target, and Johnson & Johnson dedicating time and resources to foster cultures of diversity and inclusion within the workplace and out into their service areas.

Similarly, for the first time in its history, the American Planning Association recently adopted a Diversity and Inclusion Strategy which includes a detailed definition of what diversity means to APA:

"Diversity is an inclusive concept which encompasses, but is not limited to, ethnicity, class, gender, age, sexuality, ability, educational attainment, spiritual beliefs, creed, culture, tribal affiliation, nationality, immigration status, political beliefs, and veteran status. With greater diversity, we can be more creative, effective, and just, and bring more varied perspectives, experiences, backgrounds, talents, and interests to the practice of planning and to the communities we serve. We recognize that achieving diversity and inclusion is an evolutionary process that requires an ongoing renewal of our commitment."

Reaching this milestone did not happen by accident. This achievement builds upon the advocacy of trailblazing planners from every corner of the nation, who for decades have expressed the need for our profession to focus on the issues affecting those feeling — and living — marginalized. While this article does not address every diversity trait suggested in APA's definition, gender and race data provide a window into understanding diversity trends.

This article briefly explores some issues associated with diversity in the profession — including findings from Dr. Linda Dalton's research on the subject — with a particular focus on the role of California planners and their professional organizations (APA California, the California Planning Roundtable, and the California Planning Foundation) in moving forward the profession's efforts to address diversity, inclusion, and equity.

APA Diversity Snapshot

First, we need to acknowledge that nationally, APA has made significant progress in advancing women, but has lagged in expanding participation by African American, Asian American, Latinos, and other minority groups, as shown in the figure below.

Graph representing demographic data of APA members through the years. Source: 2016 APA Salary Survey.

Some of the patterns in the 40-year period can be explained by age and experience. In 2016 less than 30 percent of APA planners with 20 or more years of experience were women, and 7 percent were minorities. Planners entering the field recently are more diverse at 45 percent women and 15 percent minority.

However, when we look at the academic 'pipeline' into the profession, there is a critical gap between the diversity of students in planning schools versus their participation in APA.

About 30 percent of recent planning students are racial minorities whereas (as noted above) 15 percent of planners with less than 5 years of experience are racial or ethnic minorities (student data from the Planning Accreditation Board).**

The patterns vary significantly across the U.S. In four states (Alaska, Hawaii, Idaho, and Montana) half or more of the planners were women in 2016; whereas in nine states less than one-third were women (Kansas, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Utah, and West Virginia). Generally, the southern and western regions employ more planners of color in comparison with New England and the mid-Atlantic and north central regions of the country.

We also know from Dr. Dalton's research that women and minority planners were more likely to see their work as nontraditional than men/white planners. And planners who considered their work to be nontraditional were less likely to find APA relevant to their careers.

Further, the nature of professional practice for women and planners of color differs distinctly from white men even among those who belong to APA. For example, white planners were more likely to be involved in land use without community development, while the reverse was true for planners of color. White planners also engaged in environmental planning more often than planners of color.

In sum, we cannot just expect the planning profession to become more diverse by "aging out" mature planners as they retire. What accounts for the success of women in planning — and is any of it applicable to planners of color? We need to know what happens to planning students of color after they leave the university — where they work, what their career paths are like, what professional organizations support them, and where they succeed (and where they do not). We need to consider how planning is portrayed and perceived outside the immediate profession, especially by professionals and leaders of historically under-represented groups/communities.


At 45.6 percent, the involvement of women in planning in California is greater than the national average for APA members in 2016. Ten other states employ higher proportions of women, but the sheer number of women in planning in California exceeded their combined total in 2016.

California leads the nation in the ethnic diversity of the profession: APA California members represent 13 percent of all APA members, but 27 percent of racial and ethnic minority planners nationwide. While Hawaii employs a higher percentage of planners of color (at 34 percent), California has many more planners. The following figure shows the share of planners of color in states with "majority minority" populations.

Graph representing the percentage of planners of color in states with majority minority populations. Source: 2016 APA Salary Survey.

Demographics certainly help explain this relative success, yet California out-performs other "majority-minority" states except Hawaii. And Proposition 209 (1996) prohibits California's public institutions from affirmative action.

Leadership on Diversity from California Planners

Aside from the demographic trends, the diversity transformation in the planning profession at the state and national levels has been fueled by the active engagement of various California planners. In many respects, such evolving engagement can be traced back to the devastating civil unrest in Watts in 1965. According to APA California Historian Steve Preston, communities of color formed organizations — the Watts Community Labor Action Committee, United Neighborhoods Organization, TELACU, Spanish-Speaking Unity Council, community design centers, and L. A.'s Barrio Planners to name a few — to represent their communities. Pioneers include Dr. Ed Blakely, Alvin James, Yukio Kawaratani, Dr. Leo Estrada, Frank Villalobos, and others.

Planners increasingly turned to questions of equity, although those early efforts often lacked the depth of understanding required to address racism and economic injustice. Only after the 1992 civil unrest in Los Angeles did a California chapter initiative lead APA to launch its Agenda for America's Communities, and a tradition of diversity summits continuing today.

In terms of gender diversity, early planning pioneers from the 1940s and 1950s including Mary Robinson Gilkey, Gloria S. McGregor, Minnie Ruth, Marilyn M. Pray, and Betty Croly, FAICP, were instrumental in shaping APA California. APA California has elected seven women as president: Gloria McGregor; Janet Ruggiero, FAICP; Reba Wright-Quastler, AICP; Collette Morse, AICP; Jeri Ram, AICP; Brooke Peterson, AICP, and the incoming President Julia Lave Johnston. The work of Carol Barrett, FAICP, regarding planning ethics and women in planning, has also supported diversity in the profession. And APA in 2018 posthumously recognized Margarita McCoy, FAICP, as a Planning Pioneer, in part for her role as an instrumental mentor for many California planners.

More contemporary members who have carried the torch and have combined gender and racial equity as the propeller for diversity and inclusion at APA include planners such as Jeannette Dinwiddie-Moore, FAICP, and David Salazar, AICP (co-authors of APA's California Membership Inclusion Plan); Linda Tatum, FAICP; Hing Wong, AICP (first Asian-American elected as APA California President); James Rojas (Latino Urbanism Pioneer); Bill Anderson, FAICP (APA Past-President who among other things appointed California Planners to serve on the national APA Diversity Task Force); and Connie Malloy, Anna Vidal and Miroo Desai, AICP (who were instrumental in organizing the eight Chapter sections to form a Diversity and Inclusion Committee and in coordinating the annual Diversity Summit at the State conference).

More recently, under the leadership of planner Miguel A. Vazquez, AICP, APA adopted its first diversity and inclusion strategy. The list of California planning leaders advancing an agenda of a more just and equitable planning practice continues to grow.

In short, our preliminary findings suggest that individual leadership, role models, mentors, and diversity sessions at state and section conferences and meetings have contributed to creating a more supportive culture for planners of color and women in California. Over several decades, their numbers have grown and sustained a movement that has landed in APA's court to examine and to take a stand and actions pertaining to diversity, inclusion, and equity in the planning profession and practice.

What more should California do?

Within California, there is significant variation by region (i.e., Core Based Statistical Area, or CBSA) for both women and planners of color. In 2016 more than half of APA members in the Bay Area (San Francisco and San Jose CBSAs) were women, while the percentage was lower inland and in Southern California. The disparity for planners of color is greater, ranging from about 16 percent in the Sacramento CBSA to nearly 42 percent in Riverside-San Bernardino in 2016.

Graph representing planners of color in different cities in California. Source: 2016 APA Salary Survey.

Our preliminary study suggests that the success factors we listed above have been ad hoc or fragmented rather than systematic or institutionalized. Therefore, we recommend the following:

  • Regular, visible coverage of all aspects of diversity in section newsletters and CalPlanner magazine, including profiles of prominent planners from all backgrounds;
  • Regular sessions regarding diversity in planning during "prime time" at state conferences — with assured CM credit for attending and participating in such sessions;
  • Encouragement of a diverse range of planners to assume leadership at the section and state levels;
  • Recognition of leadership contributions to diversity in section and state awards programs, including scholarships for planning students;
  • Formal mentoring for planners of color and planners from other minority groups, involving and connecting experienced planners with planning students and young professionals; and
  • Tracking planning students from California's many planning programs and reporting their career progression.

The United States of America is a diverse nation unlike any other in the world. Geographers would explain that, over the course of history, North America has changed as a result of cultural diffusion, advancements in technology, and a European race for hegemony. Today, the ripple effects of that experience manifest in our daily work.

Facing inequities — unjust and unfair practices — is by far the most challenging aspect of the planning profession. Sometimes it is hard to talk about it, and sometimes easy to forget. Bringing these issues to the forefront is essential, as they are in many respects the root causes of many planning dilemmas.

Diversity in the planning profession is a portal into the conversation.

A Note Regarding Data

APA, the Planning Accreditation Board, and other planning organizations could do a more thorough job of collecting data and following planning careers. To date, data is only available for traditional definitions of gender and for racial/ethnic background (often grouped as "white" or "non-white"), and not for other dimensions of diversity included in APA's broad definition.

Comparative data for trend analysis is very problematic. U.S. Census definitions continue to evolve; with the addition of multiple race options and with an increase in the number of respondents to surveys who decline to answer questions about race or ethnic heritage. Further, APA and PAB have handled counting Latinos differently, so their data are not directly comparable.

The discrepancies are sufficiently large to call for action while concurrently working toward more systematic and comparable data.

Top image: Getty Images illustration.

About the Authors
Miguel A. Vazquez, AICP, currently serves as the American Planning Association's Diversity Committee Chair and as Healthy Communities Planner for the Riverside University Healthy SystemPublic Health. He is an active member of the California Planning Roundtable.
Linda C. Dalton, PhD, FAICP, is professor emerita of City and Regional Planning at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, where she also served as chief planning officer. She is an emeritus member of the California Planning Roundtable and former board member of the California Planning Foundation.

January 29, 2019

By Miguel Vazquez, AICP, Linda Dalton, FAICP