Last week I received a notice from the American Planning Association that I needed to complete my Certification Maintenance (CM) by the end of the year in order to maintain my American Institute of Certified Planners (AICP) certification. I checked and while I have 20 more credits than are necessary, I am lacking the three required ethics and law credits. I thought about it for a minute and then realized something:

I don't care enough to go get them.

Now, when I posted that personal revelation on Facebook I heard from The Final Edit (my wife) and she let me know that I would be getting those final three credits. Still, it didn't change my lack of enthusiasm for something that a decade ago I intentionally pursued. Why?

The first answer is the easiest: I don't really identify with the modern planning profession. The tools of the modern planner -- use-based zoning codes, planned unit developments, comprehensive plans, projections, superficial public input -- are the relics of process-driven era. Every planner working for a municipality today can name more than one absolutely idiotic thing that came about in their city because of adherence to the established rules. In my early planning days, I tried to build a better system. Call me cynical, but I've simply concluded that it's the wrong approach, even if it could be reformed.

The second answer is the APA itself. What do they do besides constantly trying to sell me books I can buy cheaper on Amazon? Now I realize they do a lot of things -- again, a lot of process things -- but what are they doing to address the things that I care about, the issues that are urgently relevant to our time?

Where is the APA on the finance of our places? What are they saying about the public's return on investment? Where are they talking about building the wealth of a community incrementally over time? Heck, where is there even a debate going on in APA on any of these issues, let alone the planning profession's role in the bankruptcy of America's cities? I'm looking for leadership and I'm getting a bunch of over-hyped planning fads watered down with "best practices" addressing last generation's problems.

The third answer is the annual APA national conference, which I admittedly stopped attending three years ago after going to about seven in a row. One can only take so many presentations by consultants telling you about their fantastic, mixed-use, green, LEED-certified, transit-oriented, bio-diverse project and all the public input they heroically spearheaded tolerated to make it happen. Towards the end there I found myself looking for speakers I thought might be interesting -- not topics -- and feeling free, since I was paying a near-criminal sum to attend the conference, to walk out of anything that didn't provide any new ideas (not very Minnesota nice, but I got over it).

Ten minutes before our session started, the room was filling up. They would be sitting in the aisles by the time it started.In fact, I should provide a slight correction to that last answer. I did attend the APA conference two years ago in Los Angeles, but only for one session (Mitch Silver's) that I was asked to speak at along with Joe Minicozzi. At the risk of sounding like I'm bitter, I should tell that story. After I submitted five different speaking proposals and had all but one rejected (a frivolous pecha kucha for an evening party event), an embarrassed President of the APA, Mitch Silver, invited me to speak during his session. I love Mitch (more on that in a minute) and would do anything for him, including flying to California and paying $350 (the non-negotiable one-day attendance fee which APA insisted I pay) just to honor his offer.

In retrospect, maybe paying $350 to APA for the privilege of sharing 20 minutes of the Strong Towns message with an audience clearly starving to hear it (we were standing room only) has added a little bitterness to my disillusionment with an organization I find to be completely out of touch with the urgent problems of the profession.

The fourth answer -- and I'm going way back now -- is the AICP test itself. Seriously, taking the Professional Engineering (PE) exam just about killed me. Months of studying and then a brutal exam day that totally wiped me out. I don't do a lot of engineering today, but I'd never dream of giving up my PE. The AICP test, on the other hand, was almost laughable. Not only did I barely study (which is no reflection on my intellect), but I actually found myself intentionally answering a sizeable number of the multiple choice (yes, I said "multiple choice") questions incorrectly because I knew the "right" answer for passing the exam was actually the wrong answer in real life. Ponder that for a while.

Also, keep in mind that maintaining my AICP costs me three times as much as the PE does. I guess that is the difference between maintaining a club where prestige is awarded to those that earn their way in and another club where the exclusivity is obtained by the high annual cost of self promotion.

The fifth and final answer is that I found CNU. The Congress for the New Urbanism is not a perfect organization either, but that is a feature its members embrace. I've never encountered so many people who love a spirited debate over how to improve their own shortcomings than the members of the CNU. They are kindred spirits; change agents pushing for reform, a breath of fresh air in a realm dominated by guardians of the status quo. Once they found me and invited me in, I've found my tolerance level for APA dramatically reduced.

I can't end this without mentioning the other reason (my wife being the first) why I made it this far with my AICP intact: Mitch Silver. The fact that an organization like APA can pick a reform-minded, hard-pressing leader like Mitch as their (temporary) leader gives me some hope. Actually, a lot of hope. I would climb hills while bullets rained down on me if Mitch asked me to, he's that kind of guy.

When I posted my personal reflection on Facebook last week, the best feedback I got was from fellow AICP planner Erika Ragsdale, who said:

I do think the letters behind your name play a role in the Strong Towns message. A reminder to listeners that you too came from the system you’re working to change.

Next month I will sit through a webinar on ethics (oh the irony) and another on law, then I will update my CM log and send in my money so I can keep my AICP another year. Is it worth it?


Welcome to all of you who are just discovering Strong Towns. In addition to the blog, podcast and TV channel here, join us on the Strong Towns Network for some additional discussion on this post and more.

And if you'd like more of my work, check out my book, Thoughts on Building Strong Towns (Volume 1). It is a primer on the Strong Towns movement and an essential read for those wanting to get up to speed quickly.