A Tale of Two Organizations


I’m a member of two professional organizations that have just finished searches for new leadership. Last month, the Congress for the New Urbanism announced that Lynn Richards will be the organization’s next president. Yesterday, the American Planning Association announced that James Drinan will be their new executive director.

I’m a member of both of these organizations and want them to succeed. I’m also confident that both of these individuals are competent leaders with a track record of success who will do their best in their new position. I want to give everyone the benefit of the doubt and the presumption of future success.

That being said, one of these announcements really excites me and the other affirms nagging concerns that I have. Here is an excerpt from the announcement for each. See if you can guess which is which.

From the CNU announcement:

“Lynn is dynamic and motivating,” said incoming Board Chair Doug Farr. “I’m excited to work with her to build CNU’s core asset—our fearless and creative members. Together, we will inspire designers, planners, and community advocates everywhere to build places people love.”

“I’m thrilled to be joining CNU, “ says Richards. “We want to see more great places built. We want to build neighborhoods where more people can walk and bike. We want to create more vibrant and prosperous places that celebrate great design and development approaches. To do this, we need to road-test innovative designs and policies, leverage the collective strength of our chapters together with allied state, regional and local organizations, and expand our partnerships.”

From the APA announcement:

"On behalf of the APA Board, it is my pleasure to announce the selection of Jim Drinan," stated William Anderson, FAICP, and APA President. "The Board sought input from leadership across APA as well as staff regarding the type of executive needed to take APA into the future. In Jim, the Board found an organizational leader with a strong collaborative spirit and proven success in association development and management. Additionally, he has extensive legal and governmental experience, much of which has been with professional and government health organizations. Jim has demonstrated success over his career in advocating for public policy, providing excellent membership services, supporting professional development, cultivating partnerships, and effectively building and managing nonprofit foundations.

"The AICP Commission joins the APA Board in welcoming Jim Drinan as the new Executive Director, said Lee Brown, FAICP, AICP President. "We look forward to the opportunity to work with Jim and the entire APA and AICP staff in our continuing effort to elevate the value of our professional credential. His experience with building certification credentials in other professions will provide new insights."

"I am honored at the opportunity to contribute to the continued advancement of the planning profession. The team of elected leaders and staff will help members build better urban, suburban, and rural communities, as we all strive to address the challenges and opportunities of urban and regional planning," says Jim. We have a great story to tell: planning tomorrow's communities, conserving and sustaining resources, and helping our fellow citizens create better neighborhoods, cities, and regions. We will continue to advance APA as a global resource for education, advocacy, and solutions for a more resilient planet."

Now granted, I’m an ideas person and a little bit of a revolutionary (as far down that path as a Minnesotan can actually go, I suppose) so the qualities I look for in the leader of an organization are more along the lines of “inspire” than “manage”. I’ve got my right hand here at Strong Towns – our Executive Director, Jim Kumon, the most competent organizational mind I’ve ever encountered – and that perhaps gives me the freedom to not sweat some of the day-to-day details. I’m not on the APA or the CNU board and wasn't part of these interviews. I’m reacting to what I’m reading as a member.

The CNU appointment makes me really excited. Lynn Richards seems like a person with great technical expertise to go along with proven leadership ability. She seems charismatic, driven and passionate about the mission of CNU. I see her being a great leader and an effective advocate for an organization that is on the front lines of a transforming America.

The APA appointment leaves me underwhelmed. Jim Drinan certainly comes across as a competent and effective manager, but not someone well-versed in the complexity of urban planning issues, particularly in a time where things are shifting so dramatically. Perhaps he will surround himself with people who are fluent in the issues like many great leaders do, but I don’t see a lot of that fluency at APA. For an organization that too often is just about protecting their own – “…our continuing effort to elevate the value of our professional credential.” – this pick feels like more of the same.

We need the planning profession to not only be relevant but we need planners to be leaders in our communities. The current planning paradigm is stuck in 1950’s thinking. It is old, stodgy and defensive. It not only clings to dogmatic beliefs about zoning, projections and centralized planning but fails in the most important duty of any credentialed profession: to systematically challenge itself to improve.

APA comes across as less concerned about great planners and great places than in ensuring continued employment for their dues-paying members (and collecting said dues). In that regard, they closely resemble the American Society of Civil Engineers, an organization I hold in particular disdain.

I’m going to stay optimistic and hope that the signals APA is sending out with this selection are unintentional and that a vigorous, energized and relevant future for the planning profession, under the leadership of their new executive director, is just around the corner.