Liveblog: Planning as a profession and the Canadian Institute of Planners

Today’s class is about the Canadian Institute of Planners and the significance of certification and the value of participating in the Canadian Institute of Planners generally. And I’m going to do a rare, rambling liveblog this because I think it is a central part of my interst in planning and I’m pretty passionate about helping planners strive to higher grounds for professional and personal effectiveness.

This is an interesting time to be talking about professional processes, because there are current taskforces undertaking a revision  the certification process to require a standardized written exam. This is a step to standardize across Canada what the word “planner” really means, allow for geographic interchangeability and some standard for minimum amounts of training. Many a prof speaking to us on this has said that, “Anyone can hang a shingle now and call themselves a planner,” so there is a sense of making planning a profession like medical doctors, dentistry, law, and (relevantly for project work) engineers and architects — essentially, a push to become a legislated profession. Ontario and Quebec also have other systems involving titles like, “Registered Professional Planners.”

A member has described a past failure to convince the public of what the value of planning is and how the profession is full of people who didn’t graduate from certified planning schools. One member of my class has described it a catch 22 — we want the diversity inherent to planning, and yet we want the prestige that comes with being a “professional,” the way lawyers and architects do. “Planning’s come to a place where what gives those groups status does not give us status.” Assessing the competency of individuals in this profession can be a very complex exercise, given the wide scope of tasks that planners participate in. Mediators are having the same debate, in some ways, because their work is nebulous, and would also like some degree of protection.

From my perspective, the nature of planning is extremely nebulous. The results of plans may take decades to manifest; planners often work collaboratively in groups which may be productive or dysfunctional, so the accountability associated with being certified is challenging; and the effects of planning processes are subject to a wide spectrum of opinion.

Our guest, a participant of the task forces on the ethics review at the CIP, was blunt. “Some people naively believe that if we’re legislated, we will get more respect. If planners want to get respect, they have to be bolder in their jobs, and clearer in their visions. Some planners become essentially administrative planners, don’t upset the city council. As a result, they will lose the respect of public and even their councils.”

In this piece on “How Long is Your City’s Tail?” John Geraci writes,

Most cities right now are models of closed, rigid systems, systems that rely on a few, top-performing agents to get civic tasks done and keep quality of life high for residents. Most of these agents are departments of the city itself, though some are outsourced. Either way, cities rely on one agent per issue, no more. To use Amazon.com as an analogy, cities today are like an Amazon that only allows the #1 best-selling book from each category into its system.

Students cite the benefits as recognition by co-workers as being a professional. David Hume also mused recently on the evolving space of public policy:

[…] the value of public policy isn’t the policy. It’s the ability to build relationships, trust and manage interests in such a way that leads networks of individuals, communities, businesses and NGOs towards a shared goal.

[…] In the future, [policy] wonkish expertise is going to be of lower value than the ability to leverage networks, cut deals, and align ideas, people and action behind the goals Ministers want to achieve. Policy analysts won’t be doing much analysis. Instead, they’ll be using collaborative tools like the web in tandem with well honed powers of communication, facilitation and imagination to do the work the public needs.

Planners are (increasingly or have always been?) in a similar space.

One of the adjunct professors stood up at the beginning of the first year orientation of our program, and said, “We’ve made some awful mistakes in downtown Vancouver.” Can you imagine an engineer saying the same thing in the first day of a first-year engineering class? This demonstrates how radically the shifts in planning have occurred, and yet how reflective we can be on our actions.

Is planning too entrenched in processes beyond our control to be properly certified? Things are made for fiscal or political reasons that may reflect on our ‘professionalism’. This is the challenge of the fact that we are not ‘doers’ — we do not physically build anything. We advise and plan around decisions, often made by city councils or developers who will use our advice how they please.

How about certifying certain processes around public engagement? Forcing people to the table can be damaging. Even if planners were to give their advice based on what they’ve determined with publics, councils disregard this stuff all the time, and even disregard what is said by lawyers and still do what they do. (This is trickier with engineers.)

Funny anecdote: our guest spoke of groups like management consultants who similarly deal with long-term consequences. He spoke derisively of IT consultants, who are comparatively less high-profile than planners — and it is really for this reason that certification and professionalism is in question.

Is this interest in becoming a legislated profession a form of buffeting or denial of the growing influence and sophistication of the tail on issues in cities and planning? I’ve continually thought of planners as being the stewards of a process of managing change.

Many members of the CIP are only there because their employers are paying for their membership. Our guest said that the lack of engagement from members is purely the CIP’s problem. My prof has experience working with the institute to establish a professional development requirement, and there was “tremendous resistance” to it. There have been people dismissed from the PIBC for failing to meet this requirement. Our guest remarked, “If we keep these people around, it discredits the profession. These were very distinguished members; in one case, a former president.”

It’s really down to the culture of the municipality, and the management style of the people working there, whether PD is prioritized. Until about 15 years ago, there were healthy budgets for this, but now they are much more starved, and PD is constantly on the backburner.

2 Comments

  1. LB

    Regarding the quote on policy analysts…. in my experience we’re already there – as a policy analyst about 10% of my time was spend analysing policy, the other 90 was doing outreach, communication, graphic design, facilitation, etc.

    Coming from engineering, I’ve always been a bit perplexed by the desire of planners to be certified professionals. Lets be frank, unlike other certified professionals, lives don’t depend on our work. And it would be virtually impossible to look at a terrible plan and place all the blame on one planner – planning is a nebulous, collaborative effort. I appreciate the desire to have standards, but trying to use a system like engineering just doesn’t seem like a good fit.

    Posted April 7, 2010 at 9:23 am | Permalink
  2. Lisa,

    Thanks for weighing in with your thoughts and experiences as an engineer.

    I agree that it’s complex with planners, but I also would push back on whether lives depend on our work. Perhaps in the majority of cases they don’t, in the traditional life-and-limb, death and dismemberment way (although I think I could argue that even with relative ease, given how many pedestrian fatalities from motor vehicles occur due to poorly designed interactions between modes). But if the decisions of a planner raise dangerously the chances of injury, poor mental health, social unrest, or significant increase in the impact of unhealthy choices due to systems that make physical activity highly unpleasant or unlikely, how much empirical evidence would be necessary for people to believe that lives DO depend on our work?

    I can anticipate one argument against this, which is that this perhaps overestimates the role of the environment into the domain of activities that really boil down to an individual’s choices around physical activity and nutrition. But as I do more work into children and sprawl, I think it’s important to be sensitive to who doesn’t have the choice whether to drive or walk/bike/transit? The answer is, children, old people, the differently abled and those who can’t drive for one reason or another. We “choose” for people in these categories to make them dependent on others with cars for transport or to put themselves at elevated risk by travelling by foot or pedal. In the case of children, they are never asked, as parents are often making the decision on their behalf.

    Kevin Drum reminds us, “Suburbs exist because people want them.” It always brings to mind two questions for me: 1) is it really what people truly, in their heart of hearts, want? Or is it an unquestioned ideal reinforced by the mass media that such a life is desirable and enviable, and fulfilling their basic human needs? 2) When they report their satisfaction, has anyone asked their children about how the tradeoffs impact them, their mental or physical health, their perception of time allocated and spent?

    I’m fairly of the opinion that lives depend on the decisions planners make; we just happen to be made invisible in the course of affecting that work for good or ill. I agree that a system’s like engineering may not be a good fit, but I think it has to do with the nebulous nature of the work, not because the work’s not vital.

    Posted April 13, 2010 at 4:25 am | Permalink

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