What to do with Professional Authority and Local Knowledge in Planning?

Many moments stand out in my memory of Vancouver TransitCamp, the unconference on public transit I helped convene back in 2007. One of those moments was when I got to talking to an acquaintance of mine who works as a planner. The precise trajectory of the conversation eludes me now, but I have a clear picture in my mind of him asking, “Where does it end?” referring to the interaction of the public weighing in on issues regarding public transit. It was something he spent most if not all of his professional life dealing with as a transportation planner.  Back then, only scratching planning on the barest of levels, I did not know how to respond, or for that matter just what precisely it was he was asking. My knee jerk reaction then was, “Should it end?”

As I read Judith Innes and David Booher’s chapter in Planning With Complexity, and start to reflect on the experience of Transit Camp with what I’ve been learning since becoming a student of planning, the outlines of what my friend was really asking with his question are becoming more apparent.  There’s a sub-section in the chapter on Using Local Knowledge simply titled  Anxieties, and it describes why planners, urban designers and public agency staff find it difficult to incorporate local knowledge into public decision making. Innes and Booher identify three anxieties:

  • epistemological anxiety: anxiety about who gets to create knowledge, why and on what grounds. Drawing on the writing of Daniel Yankelovich, this form of anxiety is rooted in how closely knowledge can be bound up in issues of status, professional process and identity, and what the acceptance of local knowledge complicates that, and strikes at the heart of deep-seated feelings about the value and role of dominant culture. “In contemporary Western societies the positivist way of knowing with its emphasis on objective measurable variables and instrumental rationality remains dominant, despite the challenges that have been made to it.”
  • anxiety about difference: the fact that people with different cultural backgrounds, who look different, speak differently and who value different things may want their views acknowledged or given equal weight or hearing.
  • anxiety over uncertainty: the fact that things don’t always happen as planned, and that because things are complex and always changing, there can never be certainty. “This anxiety over uncertainty typically leads to a demand for control, as if control techniques could eliminate or reduce uncertainty. Policy professionals, regulators, and public administrators seek control through standardized bureaucratic procedures, carefully limited agendas, use of specialized discourses, carefully defined problems frames, and invitations for participation to individuals whose contributions are predictable. […] These practices have implications that run counter to the creation of a resilient society.”

What I’ve been reading also resonates with fears I’ve heard expressed in a number of venues. For example, when I attended a workshop on co-design, there was some question of how drawings created in collaboration with community members would figure into the actual design process, and whether they would restrain the designers’ freedom to imagine new flows and spaces through being visually prescriptive.

I’ve also heard it expressed that city governments are expected by citizens to act more like customer service and less like professionals and decision-makers working towards an objectively greater public good. While there is some justification for governments to do this (in their service-providing capacity, for instance), this fear is often described through analogy to doctors: that professionals know what’s best even if people don’t, and that one doesn’t go to a doctor for customer service, but for an objective truth about what’s good for someone. Aside from the fact that doctors are most certainly subject to a similar crises in authority, it assumes that people who disagree with decision-makers are in opposition purely and only out of self-interest and only want to be told what they want to hear, and to bully staff into submission to get what they want. I don’t doubt that there is a sizable contingent for whom this is true; indeed, the people who I’ve talked to on this have seen much of this up close and personally, serving in official capacities.

There was some of this echoed in this passage (still about local knowledge) as well (emphasis mine):

Many public agencies see their role as finding out what the public’s goals are so they can use them to prepare plans in the classic rational planning style. Citizens, especially the marginalized, are not apt to think in terms of goals but rather of daily life. Technical planners are so embedded in their own discourses that they typically do not recognize what citizens have to offer. One of the few ways planning and policy making can tap into the lifeworld, rather than relying solely on the world constructed by professional discourses and colonized by technology (such as the survey method with its closed ended questions) and by powerful state and private interests, is to hear these citizen voices and respect their knowledge and experience.

To bring this back to that issue close to my heart, public transit, I attended an enlightening talk by Jarrett Walker (who writes a great blog at Human Transit), where he talked about the differences, strengths and challenges embedded in two varying approaches to transportation planning: an emotional, visionary and (often) people-centric or emotional approach, and a cold, rational, geometric approach. While he was advocating for a balance of the two, his talk focused in on critiquing an over-enthusiasm to the former that disregarded those unsexy fundamentals of transit geometry. (I suspect there’s a lot of people arguing for the opposite and he perhaps felt no need to add himself to the chorus of people bemoaning the ills of overly rational agencies. Walker himself did describe his experiences at places like TriMet where such mindsets dominated.)

Those unsexy constraints, again, need not have carte-blanche on the design or implementation of a system. The key word to all of this, in my view, is the word integrated. I don’t think anyone has argued (or if they are, I haven’t read them yet, so I am open to correction) that local knowledge is to supercede professional knowledge. As I learned in another section, even scientific knowledge isn’t always a perfect fit, given that science asks questions that may not obviously flow into policy direction. This indicates to me that the process of making the decision is paramount. (Happily, I am taking a class on decision-making in the spring.) That said, from what I can hear the processes that were done really well took an extraordinarily long time.

This brings us back to the process being all. Someone once told me that because you cannot satisfy all the people all the time, the people that are most dissatisfied with outcomes will critique the process, because it is so often defenseless due to skill, time or budget constraints. Not all critiques or calls for improving public engagement are sore loser noises, but it is difficult to tell the difference, and the details of a specific case is typically difficult to separate from the general approach.

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