The Mailbox: What it takes to be a planner

I need to apologize to the many, many people that have emailed me and not yet received a satisfactory response. The work my colleagues and I are doing here at Strong Towns is, at this point, 100% volunteer. That means we have other jobs with other email addresses that need tending to in addition to our Strong Towns work. This may change at some point, but until it does, thank you for contacting us and my deepest apologies to those I've been late getting back to. I'm working at it.

One such email comes from Shawn in Virginia. He writes:

I have been following your Strong Towns project for most of the last year with great interest. How we build and plan for the future using limited resources is a subject about which I have become enthusiastic, especially as it intersects with transportation issues.

I am at a juncture in my life right now where I am examining my career direction. Most of my experience has been focused on data manipulation, visualization and analysis, so besides being interested in the big picture issues, I don't have any direct experience. I wonder if you would be available to give some pointers about what it takes to become a planner and what the job really entails.

- Shawn from Arlington, VA

I used to tell people that I was not a particularly good engineer. I questioned too many things (especially codes), did not have a mind that could remain focused on hours of plan review and generally was more passionate about the "why" than the "how". Today I think those traits actually make me an excellent engineer, just one that should not be doing plan review or other rote engineering tasks.

I'm kind of at the same point with my second career as a planner, and I often think I'm also not a very good planner. I understand coding inside and out, but I'm fed up with standard zoning and find the insanity of it actually makes me quite cranky. The same can be said about traditional planning, from the stenographer/planner that mindlessly takes public input to the dictator/planner with the framed photo of Robert Moses. I've been part of writing many great plans over the years. I've only seen great implementation of a tiny fraction of them. I'm an AICP, but I'll never be asked to keynote an APA convention (with good reason).

So I'm the engineer that has rejected traditional engineering, the planner that has rejected traditional planning. In other words, I may not be the person to ask this question of.

If you asked me what a planner does, I would say this: They attend a lot of meetings. Some administer codes. Some write plans using public input and facilitation techniques. A few turn those plans into codes or otherwise implement plans. You get to deal with the public, be involved with elected officials and politics and also work with developers on the latest projects in town. Obviously there are specialties in the planning profession, but I think that roughly covers what the traditional planner does. And if that sounds interesting, it's government work, so bonus, dude.

Incidently, that is not how I would describe what I do or what motivates me to be part of the planning profession. We need people that fit that job description, but it is not me or the people I surround myself with.

And now I'm going to veer into the second part of the question -- what it takes to be a planner -- before I get back to this original discussion of what a planner does. If you want to be a planner, go to planning school, learns your theory, study your codes, learn facilitation techniques, yada, yada, yada....

If you truly want what you do to matter, if you really want to make a difference, then I suggest something completely different.

First, you have to adopt the mindset of a kindergartner and constantly ask questions. Why do we do things this way? When did we start? What are the impacts? What influenced this decision? Why? Why? Why? I'm convinced that a great planner must take nothing for granted, must always question their own work and must be willing to live the life of tension ascribed to the philosopher-king in Plato's Republic.

Now that you're asking so many questions, you need answers. Start reading. Read at least book a week. Choose topics that relate to what you are struggling to figure out, but are not a textbook designed to answer the question. Seek out materials that make you think. Seek out alternative and competing lines of thought. Read more columnists you disagree with than affirm your thinking. Avoid the news and, when you do read the news, read foreign publications. (I prefer to read U.S. current events from the British publication The Economist, an interesting prism that will give you a completely different perspective than you get here.)

Start seeking out intelligent people who are dealing in related fields. I don't travel anywhere without a podcast or audio book. Five years ago I came across a speech given by Andres Duany - I listened to it at least 30 times and, by the end, could recite it word for word. I'm currently on that same kind of a kick with Nassim Taleb whose philosophy lectures on randomness I've had on continuous loop searching for deeper insight. Find thinkers that push your boundaries and listen to what they have to say.

Then you need to start organizing and assimilating this conveyor belt of knowledge you've created to feed yourself. My first recommendation: start writing. If you're unsure of yourself, keep a journal of your thoughts, observations and conclusions. If you are braver, start a blog. Tend to it regularly. Writing is like exercising your mind - the discipline of routine writing will not only synthesize your thoughts but make you a vastly more effective communicator.

My next recommendation: start talking to people. Some days it seems like we get nothing done at work because I work with the most fascinating, thoughtful people. Ideas are always popping, insights flowing and core beliefs being challenged. If you can't surround yourself with people like that, then go out and find them. Invite them to lunch or for coffee. Avoid talking partisan politics at all costs - make the discussion more substantive. If you do talk politics, argue both sides (just for the mental exercise).

Now you are on your way to being a planner. You now inherently understand that, regardless of how much you learn, you'll never scratch the surface. You can now start to see what doesn't work and understand why. You'll have the confidence to point that out, but also the humility to know that there most often is no clear and simple solution. But you'll be willing to try things, because that is what leadership is all about. You can now truly listen to people and assimilate not just their words but their motives and aspirations. You'll see there is little that is black and white and tons and tons that is gray. If you're lucky, you'll fall in love with the world and see it through a glorious lense of possibility. On dark days, though, you will also be tormented by the missed opportunities nobody else is seeing. That is the price you'll pay for insight.

But most importantly, you will develop the ability to communicate your ideas and conclusions, borne of deep thought and knowledge, and they will be uniquely your own. Now you're ready to be a real planner.

So what does a planner do? Most of them are bureaucrats that shuffle paper, roll out red tape, make plans with all the best intentions that nobody will actually implement and lament the numerous things - especially the public - that are out of their control. But a few will actually improve humanity, better the human condition and make their part of the world a more spectacular place.

If you choose to be the former, I'll respect you and work with you as a colleague. Perhaps we'll meet at a conference some day. We can talk about zoning battles and stupid council members or just hang out and sing karaoke at the hotel bar. We'll have a fun time.

But as you are aware, we're going through an immense change in this country, the size of which we have not experienced for many generations. Our great experiment in suburban living has eclipsed its second life cycle and shows all signs of imploding, with nasty results. If we are to emerge from this era stronger than we went in, it will take the combined hard work, skills and intelligence of many, many planners, engineers and everyday citizens. We have so much to do.

So, Shawn, if you do choose to be the former type of planner, that's okay, but if you choose the latter, please send me your RSS feed, link up with me on Facebook and put me on your speed dial because you're the type of person I really need to know.


Care to help us spread the word? We're just three guys working to save the country's towns and neighborhoods. Your donation of support would be much appreciated.