Planning Practice and Profession

Last week (October 20th) I have attended the Southern New England American Planning Association conference (SNEAPA 2016). It is a yearly event which gathers planners and practitioners from Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut. The two-day event got me to reflect on certain aspects of the profession and also about its practice when comparing the United States and Brazil.

I have long heard the discussion in Brazil about the consequences of having Architecture and Planning schools mashed into one degree (both in undergraduate and graduate schools). On one hand, this leads to planning professionals with a strong technical background in design, deemed very important in developing and implementing ideas. On the other hand, there is a shallow understanding of the broader social-economic-ecological impacts of land use and development. However, what I believe the be the largest impact is that the lack of specific planning graduates/professionals leads to a lack of creation of specific planning jobs and departments. The mindset of having planning institutions is ubiquitous in the United States, but in Fortaleza, for instance, a city with about 2,8 million inhabitants, the planning department is fairly recent, compartmentalized in several secretaries (housing, transportation, general planning) and volatile (extinguished and re-established based on political will). The supposed planning professionals who should operate those agencies may also take jobs in architecture, design or even engineering – as the availability of urban design and planning jobs is uncertain. 

Any planning gathering confirms that planning is a hedge pot profession – discussion topics include sustainability, economic development and revitalization, social strategies, design, integrating technologies and community engagement (all which could be addressed by a specialized field of study). This is a challenge for new professionals who must strive to become specialized and worthy but still marketable with a wide array of skills. 

I was surprised to find out that over 500 planning professionals were attending the conference – largely because SNEAPA sessions award them credits to renew their AICP certification (American Institute of Certified Planners). But what really drew my attention in this event was the content of the presentations. Such event formed by such a large number of practitioners (from the public and private sectors) did not feature the large amounts of innovation often found in other conferences. This was evident in presentations on how to do community engagement (more on the lines of community informing), sustainability (still based on LEED certificate measurements and green technology) and visualization tools for planning (good old Sketchup and Adobe suites). 

I write this post as an ode to my professional decision of spending most of my career inside an academic environment. This experience made obvious there is a delay of knowledge transfer from research institutions to practice. However, this is a frustration we must learn to deal with in such an applied profession in which most research must be tested on the ground and depends on practitioners to be scaled up. Any attempt of taking theory into practice will be met with resistance from ongoing stable policies and from people who are convinced that “in this backyard” certain theories do not apply. Just one more thing to keep in mind.


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