The Future of Planning

The Sustainable Cities Collective posted a great interview with Mitchell Silver, the President of the American Planning Association (APA). The APA is a pretty powerful group when it comes to directing the course of city planning in the U.S. They are a professional organization that represents and trains city planners: the people who help  cities design transportation networks, zone neighborhoods, plan for growth, and protect the environment. Silver was asked some interesting questions about the future of planning and of cities in the U.S.

Silver says that one of his major goals is to help make planners more proactive and collaborative. In many cases planners have started to play a facilitative role — meaning a city council or developer or community decides they want more commercial areas or 15% growth and the planners take care of the technical details and administration. Silver wants planners to help cities and communities think more strategically about their goals and to be leaders in this process. One of the new APA goals is to “work toward a more just and sustainable future (stop equity washing).” A good goal I’d say.

But Silver goes on to say that he thinks planners should not use the word “sustainability.” He thinks the word comes with too much emotional baggage, and is jargon rather than simple, common language. He says, “I don’t have to say we want ‘sustainable water’ or ‘sustainable air’ – we can just say what we mean ‘clean water’ and ‘clean air’ and avoid the jargon.” In many ways I agree with him — there’s still no easy way to measure sustainability (even to know it when you see it) and each group seems to have its own definition of what sustainability means. Still, I always wonder if we lose something when we stop using that word. It became popular for a reason — it adds something to the conversation. Is it better to drop it or to define it? I’m not completely sure.

One additional point Silver makes is that in a recent survey of Americans, the vast majority are supportive of urban planning. The support cuts across geographic, political, and socio-economic divisions. The question that remains is how to translate that support into productive participation and dialogue. TBD!

Roman ruins — bad planning?

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