The Road Not Taken
Planning New England, September 2000; Kentucky Planner, Fall 2000; Florida Planning, September 2000; Planning Northwest, December 2000; Planetizen, February 2001, Oregon Planner's Journal, April/May 2001; Utah Planner July 2000, Planners Tabloid, September 2000; paper presented AICP Symposium, New Orleans, Louisiana, March 13, 2001)
By Richard H. Carson
So you want to be a planner! So did I. I started working the permit counter as a young planner and never looked back. But I am here to tell you that you have a few decisions to make about your future. Do you want to be a private consultant or work in the government? Which government? You can work for a city, county, region, state or the feds. There are also non-profits for the more altruistic planner. Then there are different types of planners. Do you want to be a city planner, a natural resource planner or a transportation planner. Maybe you like historic preservation. Do you want to become more? Maybe you want to manage planners someday. Do you want to be a planning director? If you do, then ask yourself, "Who manages the chief planner?" Do you want to be that person? If you want to be a planner, then the career choices you will make are incredibly complex. Hey, it's just like planning.
This article is about you making professional choices about your future in planning. The poet laureate Robert Frost wrote, "Two roads diverged in a wood, and I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference." I know this road well and I have traveled it often. I have walked along the road less traveled to become the chief planner several times.
I wrote this article because I recently stirred up a few planners when I posted a response on the planning website at Cyburbia. A college student asked about "the likelihood of getting a decent planning job straight out of undergraduate studies?" I answered him as honestly as I could:
"As a planning manager and professional for 25 years, I have some advice on advanced degrees: 1) If you are going to work in consulting, then you need an advanced planning degree. Consultants market expertise. 2) If you are going to work in government, then consider an MPA, or at least an MBA. In government you will advance because of your management and political skills, not because you are the best planner. That is why the AICP designation is such a joke. It actually works against you as you advance. It limits your ability to manage other professionals (i.e., engineers, building officials, scientists) because you are stereotyped."
An Old Way of Thinking
Saying that "the AICP designation is such a joke" sent a lot of planners into orbit and I got a lot of emotional e-mail. It made me spend sometime asking myself what I was thinking. I was trying to tell planners not to limit their professional horizons because the professional market place is changing. Many planners asked me how I could degrade their achievement of becoming a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners (AICP). My answer is simple. Do you want to achieve something for your community or for yourself? Do you want to be professionally recognized because you simply passed some test? Personally and professionally, I want to be remembered as a person who cared about my community and profession.
The fact is that the history of the AICP is relatively recent. It was an attempt by planners to get the same historical recognition that many other professions had already achieved. The history of the late 1800s and early 1900s chronicles a long list of great public achievements in terms of constructing bridges, parks, canals, subways and buildings. Every profession wants its contributions recognized and in an era of increased specialization planners wanted to be recognized.
American history recognizes the engineer Major Pierre L'Enfant for designing Washington, D.C. in the late 1700s. Then there was the landscape architect, Fredrick Law Olmstead, who designed New York's Central Park in 1858. However, I personally think it was the media attention given to the architect Frank Lloyd Wright's life and work, followed by Ayn Rand's book "The Fountainhead" (1943), and finally the movie of the same name starring Gary Cooper (1949) that drove the planners into a fury of professional envy. So planners pushed hard to get registered. However, only a handful of states ever went along with this idea. In America we may test and license food handlers and hairdressers, we sometimes register guns, but we always register engineers and architects. And for a good reason. The reason planners failed to get registered has to do with public safety. Architects and engineers build structures that can fail and kill people. Planners build communities, but in today's world it takes 20 years to find out if we screwed up. People rarely die from a bad plan.
What right do I to make such judgements? Well, certainly I have a historical one. I joined the American Institute of Planners (AIP) in 1978. Sound familiar? It was the predecessor of the modern APA and AICP. My own empirical experience over the last 25 years has been that the larger planning agencies are managed by people who are not AICP. Lawyers seem to get a good share of the jobs, as do political hacks (the friends of politicians). This occurs because these positions are in reality political appointments. Uncertified planners, like me, occasionally get these jobs because we know something about politics, planning, the law and modern management.
Do we really want to register visionaries? We didn't have a political test for elected officials like JFK or FDR. Ask yourself, what if Albert Einstein had failed his IQ test. What if Picasso had failed his mental exam? What if Jane Jacobs had to take the AICP test? Did national columnist Neal Peirce? Our society would be so much less without these people.
We should never test the visionaries and critics of our generations. And this points to a hard question. Who are we and why are we taking tests? The answer is that we take them to prove we are worthy of the society we wish to join. The planning club. My friends, it is a worthy goal, but a shallow victory. I like the motto "register guns and not planners" better. If we register planners, then we are throwing away hundreds and thousands of visionaries.
A New Professional Paradigm
One of the changes to the planning profession that has occurred is also organizational. In the old model, every city or county had a separate planning director, a building official and a chief engineer. Each ran his or her own group and represented a completely independent step in the development review process. In the modern world of continuous improvement and quality teams, a new model has emerged. More local governments are moving to create a Community Development Department that integrates all three disciplines into a single team that works on applications as a group. Although you still need the expertise of the specific disciplines, you change the management responsibilities. The leaders of these three disciplines are being replaced by a new model and a new kind of leader a Community Development Department director. This person needs to understand the entire continuum of the process and the unique contributions of the individual disciplines. As planners, we must now aspire to be more than the planning director. In the new hierarchy, there are more planning managers and less planning directors. We need to look towards overseeing a department that embraces planning, engineering, building, code enforcement and sometimes even the fire marshal.
This presents us with a unique dilemma. As planners, we aren't expected to have a PE (for professional engineer) behind our name. We aren't trained in using the UBC (Uniform Building Code). So if we put AICP behind our names, then we are reminding our multi-disciplined teammates that we are planners and they are not! You may get some short-term satisfaction from doing this, but it will work against you becoming their boss someday. I agree with the bandit in the movie Treasure of the Sierra Madre, "We don't need no stinking badges."
I find it curious and serious that the planning curriculum of academia does not require that students read such classics as the "Art of War" by the Chinese general Sun Tzu or "The Prince" by Renaissance statesman Niccolo Machiavelli. You see the art of planning is about policy making, politics and power. You don't have to be a politician to play political hardball. I have always wanted to teach a planning class in strategy and tactics because planners are so bad at it. How can we achieve anything if we don't know the damn rules of the game. We act like religious missionaries in a foreign country. We go around telling people that our truth will set them free, but we are clueless about the political reality. In any culture there are ways to achieve cultural change, but you have to know the local rules before you can do anything.
What I am telling you is to be careful not to stereotype yourself. Keep your professional options open. I belong to a variety of associations. I am a member of the American Planning Association (APA), Urban Land Institute (ULI) and the International City/County Managers Association (ICMA). I don't aspire to retire as a "Fellow" of any of them, but I have contributed to all of them. And in turn they have all helped me to be who I am professionally. Sometimes I am a heretic and a contrarian, but I have the heart of a planner. It's just that I want to be more than a planner. I want to be a builder of community.
Richard H. Carson is a practicing planner of some 30 years. He currently manages 120 employees as director of the Clark County Department of Community Development in Vancouver, Washington. He is a past director of planning for Metro (the Portland, Oregon regional government that represents 1 million people). He is also a past editor of the Oregon Planners' Journal and currently maintains the APA national website's Internet List of Planning Editors. He is also an elected board member for the APA Oregon Chapter.
Postscript: The American Planning Association recently announced the top six "most significant planning pioneers" in the May 2000 issue of Planning Magazine. The winners were Daniel Burnham (architect), Lewis Mumford (writer and editor), Fredrick Law Olmsted, Sr. (landscape architect), Ian McHarg (landscape architect), Kevin Lynch (architect) and Alfred Bateman (lawyer). These folks never took an AICP test. Remember, the majority (57%) of the membership of APA do not belong to AICP.