Planning April 2011


A New Message for Difficult Times

By Bruce Knight, FAICP

In the early days of the profession, planners grew accustomed to being attacked as "anti-property rights," "un-American," or even Communists. Over the years, planning has increasingly come to be viewed as an important mainstream tool for building better communities. Today, however, as the great recession grinds on, the planning movement is once again under attack as part of a general rise in antigovernment sentiment.

The cause is largely economic. Planning departments across the nation are facing serious cuts as local governments try to balance their budgets. In some locations, residents take out their frustrations by accusing city officials, including planners, of having "hidden agendas." In fact, the planning process is nonpartisan by nature. It is intended to help our citizens and elected officials achieve their goals, whatever they may be.

Why, then, is the planning movement losing ground? Why are planning department budgets being cut before other budgets, and why are serious efforts to improve our communities being tarnished by antigovernment sentiment?

Great Places presentation in Lawrence, Kansas, 2010. Bruce Knight, FAICP, with Mayor Mike Amyx and Thomas Dow, representing the APA Kansas chapterA few years ago, APA adopted a new communications plan that led to the development of the Planners Communication Toolkit, the creation of the Great Places in America program, and the designation of National Community Planning Month every October. All of these innovations were designed to help us communicate the value that planning brings to our communities. The Great Places program, in particular, has achieved widespread success (as measured by website hits and media attention) in conveying the positive outcomes of planning.

Over the next century, our nation and our communities will face enormous challenges — in climate change, infrastructure decline, demographic patterns, and economic globalization. The planning profession and the planning process itself are uniquely suited to help the nation make the changes necessary to meet these challenges and to create communities of lasting value. The trick is to hone our message and communicate it in a clear and effective way.

In addition, we must position our profession as a leader of a coalition of design professionals seeking to advance a livability agenda. All of us — planners, architects, landscape architects, engineers — have important contributions to make, but the planning profession's big-picture approach and long-term view are essential to guiding such an integrated design approach.

During my term as APA president, I have traveled all over the country to promote the value and relevance of planning. One message I have stressed repeatedly is that this is the time to invest in planning. I firmly believe that communities that do so will be ahead when we come out of the current recession. They will be in the best position to take advantage of new opportunities.

To reach this point, however, communication is key. I have often noted that people want progress, but fear change. Our job as planners is to help them to overcome that fear and to accept the progress that our communities need. We can encourage this shift in attitude. APA is preparing a new chapter to be added to the Planners Communication Toolkit; it will provide our members with new strategies for reaching a more skeptical audience. We also have scheduled a special session at this month's National Planning Conference: Effective Communications in Today's Political Environment. 

As planners, we are used to dealing with contentious issues, making use of such important skills as problem solving, consensus building, and process management. We bring to the table a passion for making places better and for helping those least able to help themselves. As we prepare to guide our communities to deal with the future, we need to improve our leadership skills and our ability to communicate the added value that planning brings to any project.

Police, fire, and public works departments all provide important community services. But they do not always have the skills that are needed to set forth a vision for the future and to develop a path to reach that destination. We need to make it clear that planning is a core service that is needed to ensure success in every community. But to get to that point, we need to tell our story loudly and clearly. APA will be there to help you in your efforts.

Bruce Knight is APA's outgoing president. He is the planning director of Champaign, Illinois.


Image: Great Places presentation in Lawrence, Kansas, 2010. Bruce Knight, FAICP, with Mayor Mike Amyx and Thomas Dow, representing the APA Kansas chapter. Photo Megan Gilliand.