Planning December 2015


Planning's Role in Social Justice

By Garet Prior, AICP

Garet Prior, AICPGrowing unrest over the U.S. criminal justice system's furthering of cyclical poverty and the growing awareness of racially disparate police violence through the #BlackLivesMatter movement has led some to call that system the "new Jim Crow." The unequal access to quality education — and a slew of other serious issues — further rev up the decades-old debate over the practice of rational planning and equitable outcomes. In this time of change, planners today must reconsider our role and recognize our ethical responsibility to advocate for social justice.

History teaches us the necessity of taking intentional steps to define our role in public service, or else we allow the entrenched powers to direct our purpose, thus making us a tool in continuing the status quo.

During the feverous pitch of the last Civil Rights Movement, in 1965, planning professor Paul Davidoff — who coined the term "advocacy planning" — instructed that "Planning action cannot be prescribed from a position of value neutrality." Norman Krumholtz illustrated this concept as planning director for Cleveland in 1975 when he set the department's overriding goal as "providing a wide range of choices for those Cleveland residents who have few, if any, choices."

Today, we need to look no further than the AICP Code of Ethics Principle A1F for the best articulation of what planning's response should be: "We shall seek social justice by working to expand choice and opportunity for all persons, recognizing a special responsibility to plan for the needs of the disadvantaged and to promote racial and economic integration. We shall urge the alteration of policies, institutions, and decisions that oppose such needs" (emphasis added).

If we are in a true pursuit of equitable outcomes for racially and economically disadvantaged groups, then history informs us that advocacy — more than an urge — will be required.

To fulfill this ethical call to advocacy, we need to better understand how change occurs. We should begin with a process of self-identification to be aware of our values, beliefs, and biases. In working with others, we need to understand that trust is necessary and will only be acquired through time. We need to get out of the office and form intentional relationships with underserved populations. Large planning departments should also allow staff the time and responsibility to work on multiple activities (from long-range planning to development review to zoning) in collaboration with one constituency, which will further build and reinforce those relationships.

Education also plays a crucial role. At its peak, planning advocacy leverages education to organize and empower underserved groups to impact decisions. Through professional development or university education, we should offer planners training in community organizing, negotiation, lobbying, and other capacity-building skills that will enable us to give effective aid to communities in need. And as we begin to champion for these groups in communities and to elected officials, we should abide by the "iron rule" for community organizing: Never do for others what they can do for themselves.

As tensions around social inequities mount, now more than ever planners need to fulfill our ethical values by taking intentional action to advocate for equitable justice solutions. Inaction will only aid in continuing these broken systems because, as Martin Luther King Jr. stated, "History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people."

Garet Prior, AICP, is the senior planner for Ashland, Virginia, with a background in public education and economic development. He cofounded the Young Planners Group for APA Virginia and has learned endurance as a lifelong Cleveland sports fan.

Image: Courtesy Garet Prior.