By Jose Richard Aviles
When I introduce myself as a social worker and an urban planner, the response I usually get is something like, "Oh, that's an interesting match!"
But they're actually the perfect pairing. When I studied social work, my courses and clinical experience motivated me to ask, "What are the conditions that led people to me as a therapist in the first place?" I realized that the summation of individual trauma is often community trauma, and that's how I became interested in treating the city as my client.
As planners, we are called upon to address injustices and the traumas they create in our communities. The practice and pedagogy of social work offers three valuable concepts to help us in that effort:
1. STRENGTHS PERSPECTIVE: One of the underlying principles of social work, this framework is a means of centering a client's personal, communal, and environmental strengths in their journey to healing. Applied to planning, a strength-based perspective relies on a community's assets, like the voices of current leaders and residents. Too often, the goal of planning is to "change" a community, but that is a practice of erasure. Take my hometown of South-Central Los Angeles. It's been described by outsiders as "violent" and "undesirable," but it's a community driven by its people and its resiliency, a place full of voices that were never heard.
2. COUNTERTRANSFERENCE: A therapist can bring harmful biases into a relationship with a client. Similarly, planners' biases and training as technocrats can impact the planner-community relationship. Countertransference reminds us that the only true experts are our clients and communities. Lived experiences should be leveraged and seen as truth, even when planners can't connect with them. Remember: we are of service, not to be serviced.
When community members don't approve a planner's suggestion, the planner might become frustrated, thinking about their education, expertise, and the amount of work they've done. But countertransference reminds us these things are irrelevant if those affected by our interventions are in disagreement. We must listen and go back to the drawing board, no matter how long it takes.
"Lived experiences should be leveraged and seen as truth, even when planners can't connect with them."
—Jose Richard Aviles
3. CASE MANAGEMENT: The basic phases of working with a client in social work are assessment, treatment, tracking, and termination. We can easily translate those to planning: predesign, design, construction, and evaluation.
Planners usually engage the community during predesign work, with the intention of gaining buy-in, after which the community often ceases to be involved, leaving needs unmet. This model encourages planners to continue engaging throughout the entire process. The construction phase tends to be the longest, most painful part of a project for the community — what would it look like for planners to build an engagement strategy for that phase?
The most important phase of case management, and the phase where planners could learn from the most, is in termination. That is when social workers ensure that their client is left content with their sessions after their time together is finished. After a project is complete, planners should still be engaging with community members to ensure that the desired results have been reached and residents are content.
I'm not interested in the accolades of flesh, but rather the healing of soil. At the core of social work practice is the dignity of people and the importance of self-creation. By incorporating these ideals into planning, we can facilitate the design of cities that not only reconcile the trauma of past racist urban policies, but also provide access to a dignified quality of life for all people.
Viewpoint is Planning's op-ed column. The views expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of the magazine or the American Planning Association. Please send column ideas to Lindsay R. Nieman, Planning's associate editor, at firstname.lastname@example.org.