The Barbarian at the Gate
By Richard H. Carson
Good morning! My name is Rich Carson and I am the barbarian at the gate. I was a planner before there was an APA [American Planning Association], but I joined it the year it was created. Today I am both a dues paying member and an elected official of the organization.
I have also worked for over 25 years as a planning manager in the twin planning Meccas of Oregon and Washington.
Despite all this, some planners consider my views to be heresy - and they consider me a "contrarian." Why? Because I openly discuss what I consider the irrelevance of the AICP designation in the print and the electronic media. My friend Bruce McClendon, the new APA president, describes me as the man who said, "The Emperor has no cloths."
So I must admit I find it ironic to be speaking here today. If I had become an AICP [American Institute of Certified Planners] member, you wouldn't have invited me. Because I question it, you did. But I understand why you invited me. We planners are an introspective bunch. We question everything - including our own motives. We are truly professional existentialists.
But just because I don't believe in you, that doesn't mean you shouldn't believe in me. Let me explain. As a planner, I believe my vision is a compelling one. You might even agree with some of it. But does my contrarian view of certification invalidate my planning vision? Of course not. So what is this contrarian view? Let's start with an observation. The American Planning Association recently announced the top six "most significant planning pioneers" in Planning Magazine.
- Kevin Lynch, an architect,
- Daniel Burnham, an architect,
- Lewis Mumford, a writer,
- Fredrick Law Olsted, a landscape architect,
- Ian McHarg, a landscape architect, and
- Alfred Bateman, a lawyer.
These folks never got an AICP designation - and neither has the majority of the APA membership.
In my opinion, AICP was an attempt by planners to get the same recognition that these other professions had achieved. American history chronicled the great public achievements of the day - like constructing bridges, parks, canals, subways and buildings. And planners wanted their rightful place in history.
Planners pushed hard for state certification. However, while every state registers architects and engineers, only a few went along with certifying planners. And for good reason. Architects and engineers build structures that can fail and kill people. However, planners build communities and it takes 20 years to find out we messed up. No one ever died from a bad land use plan - or at least no planner was every convicted. By the way, we also license more food handlers than planners, but many people had died from a bad hamburger.
I believe it is better to be an untested "visionary," than it is to be someone who merely passes a test. Do we really need some standardized, legalized proof of our stature in the professional universe? I don't.
My own experience over the last 25 years is that many, if not most, of the major planning agencies are managed by people who are not AICP. Lawyers and political cronies get a good share of the jobs - because they are usually political appointments. Planners also get these jobs if they know something about politics, the law, modern management practices -- and planning. But it's not because they passed some test and use four letters behind their name.
If you aspire to be a top manager, then consider this - the organizational model has changed. The old model was that every city and county had a separate planning director, building official, engineer and fire marshal. In the new model, these folks are combined in a single community development department. The new model is multi-disciplined, the development review process is a team and the silo approach is eliminated. It also changes the management structure. The planning director becomes a planning manager who reports to a community development director like me.
As planners, we aren't registered or certified by law like the building official, the engineer or the fire marshal. We don't know the Uniform Building Code, the Fire Code or engineering calculations. But we are the most likely to become the director because we are generalists and not specialists. We are better trained in consensus building versus the chain-of-command.
This is the good news. But if you insist on putting AICP behind your name, then you become one of "them" - you're special. You are saying you can't transcend your own discipline. People who become community development directors, or for that matter city managers or county administrators, learn to suppress their disciplinary roots and biases. Experientially they transcend their training and learn what the other disciplines are about. Educationally they decide to forgo a Masters in Planning, and instead get an MPA - or a Masters in Public Administration.
If it makes you good about yourself and your profession by taking the test, then that's good. But it's not for me, and maybe not for other APA members.
I will take solace in the continuing nature of my beliefs. In my 20s, I was a hippie with long hair and an earring. I protested the Vietnam War, but went and served. At 53 I am still a planner, but not AICP. The aging hippie in me remembers that Grace Slick said, "It is a fresh wind that blows empire," but the aging planner in me says, "Keep an open mind."
I have to tell you that the only reason I am here is because I am also a writer and I wrote an article. Many planners agreed with it and many didn't. I personally think this profession has much more serious issues to deal with than AICP. But I will write about those too. Thank you.
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 Planning Editors Internet List. He was also an elected board member for the APA Oregon Chapter when he gave the speech.