Earlier this year, I received a letter from the American Planning Association (APA) informing me that my certification from the American Institute of Certified Planners (AICP) was no longer in effect. The reason stated was that I had failed to complete the required ethics credit for my continuing education. There was a reinstatement process outlined in the letter, including an ultimate deadline for meeting this requirement and becoming an AICP certified planner without having to retake the test.
The letter has sat on my desk for months. I came into the office this evening to find the letter so I could reference it, and someone has cleared it off my desk. I’m unable to locate it. My AICP pin that was sent to me years ago is sitting here on the ledge, however, in the box it came in with a dead bug on top of it. Its disposition is revealing.
I’m coming to the realization that I just don’t care about my AICP. I certainly have not lost any sleep over the letter from the APA. For months, I haven’t bothered to take even the most rudimentary action regarding it. This isn’t the kind of behavior one has regarding a certification they value.
Even more telling, I actually did complete the ethics course they are claiming I’m short; I just didn’t record it in the official log. Every December I spend a great deal of time baking Christmas cookies, listening to music and books along the way, depending on the mood. One of the things I do during this time is watch ninety minutes of law and ninety minutes of ethics lectures on YouTube to meet those credits. I did that a year ago, but I didn’t take the time to enter it in. If I’d really cared, I would have remembered.
I think part of the reason I don’t care is because the APA doesn’t seem to care. Nobody called me, an easy thing to do, and certainly doable with the resources they have. At Strong Towns, we take the time now and then to call every expired member of our movement and try to talk to them personally. I paid more to be in the AICP club in a year than our average member will pay in five. If they cared, they would call.
They may have emailed—my inbox overflows, so it’s possible I missed it—but I don’t think so. I’ve long ignored the constant solicitations I get from them so there is a chance my aggressive email filter has learned to simply trash what they send me.
The only reason I even remembered today is that, having just returned from a Strong Towns staff retreat, I checked the mail and found a renewal letter from the APA. Not a renewal for my AICP—that wasn’t included—but just a renewal for belonging to the APA, as if I would do that if it weren’t attached to the AICP certification. There is something ironic that a person like me, who has delivered lectures and workshops that have probably provided more AICP credits annually than any other individual in the past three years is no longer allowed to be considered an AICP planner.
I have some very intelligent friends—many you can find on Planetizen’s list of 100 most influential urbanists—who are outspoken about the exclusionary nature of professional certification. I’m sympathetic to that. Planning is a profession that needs more voices, not fewer. Broader expertise, not narrower. The APA’s advocacy to require AICP certification for some positions unnecessarily narrows the pool of applicants without providing any real benefit to cities.
And the fact that the lowest annual cost to maintain the AICP credential is going to be several hundred dollars per year (because you are also required to pay for an APA membership) privileges exclusivity. And that’s before the AICP member must come up with more than a thousand dollars if they want to attend the APA national conference, the one place they will be guaranteed of getting all those continuing education credits, including ethics, if they are to maintain their certification. I’ll note that, while they sent me a letter saying my AICP was invalid, they didn’t refund the hundreds of dollars I sent them for apparently nothing.
It’s no wonder that the AICP has tended to be—in my experience—an echo chamber of public employees (with governments paying their certification) and the planning consultants who want credibility with those governments (so they can enjoy exclusivity in selling their services).
I’m neither, and I’m starting to get the impression that I don’t belong. Or am not really wanted. I spend a fair amount of time with planners—a great number of them are AICP—and I know there is a lot of enthusiasm for Strong Towns within APA’s membership. Even so, certified planners—along with licensed engineers—present the greatest institutional obstacle to wide-scale adoption of a Strong Towns approach.
I presented the Curbside Chat in October to a room of about 500 elected officials and it was electric. There were so many good questions, tons of email signups and web hits afterward, a number of follow-up event requests, and I almost missed my plane because of the long line of people who wanted to chat afterwards. They were so thankful for explanations that made sense and for a path towards doing something different.
I gave the same presentation to a room of about 300 planners the same month. They listened and, according to comments in the evaluation form, they found it valuable, but it wasn’t electric. Not even close. Part of that is the nature of the different audiences—public officials at a conference tend to be about big ideas, professionals about details and the minutiae of their tasks—but that’s kind of my point.
If we’re going to sit around and wait for planners to lead this revolution, we’re going to be disappointed. Some will be there with us, but most are going to be late adopters.
The essence of Strong Towns is the realization that the hyper-specialization of the Suburban Experiment—the hubris of believing professional expertise in a single domain constitutes actionable insight in something as complex as a city—is bankrupting our cities. Our call for humility in the face of complexity is paired with an assertion that the real experts on a place are the people who live there.
Planners adore Jane Jacobs, but it is rare to find one that attempts to walk her path. Or, more importantly, would give credence to someone with her credentials today. And that’s my point: I don’t know why I keep my AICP credential anymore and, more importantly, why the world will be a better place if I do. Or if anyone does, for that matter.
I pondered over this same thing in 2013. And again in 2014. For the three following years, I just paid the money and was done with it. It was a pretty low lift. The thought of figuring out the reinstatement process, going through those steps, and then paying my fee on top of that… well, it just feels like more steps than my lack of enthusiasm for the AICP is going to overcome.
So, this might be goodbye to my AICP. I welcome your arguments for or against inaction on my behalf.