What Planners Do

by Doug Norman . 0 Comments

On The American Planning Association’s list of introductory planning texts is Charles Hoch’s 1994 What Planners Do: Power, Politics, and Persuasion. The first chapter tackles the problem professional authority. Planners are trained in specialized theoretical knowledge while the challenges they face are practical ones. Add to that the tension between the public good and individual freedom, the planner is in a tricky spot especially when it comes to conflicts between broad consensus and focused expertise. After presenting two planners–one who favors design expertise and one who favors community input–he notes that American planners “rarely take sides… but rather they search for ways to straddle the dilemma between professional freedom and social justice” (7).

Hoch then sets out to explore the roots of this paradox by offering a definition of professional planning. Professional planners deal with problems that capital neglects if not exacerbates. The lack of institutional authority, political power, and progressive ethos puts the profession at odds with our intensely (if inconsistently) individualistic capitalist society. He rejects the inherently hierarchical strategic (relying on military metaphors) and functional (relying developmental metaphors) concepts of planning. Hoch embraces “democratic plans that sanction individual purposes based on public deliberation that involves those who will bear the consequences” (11). The conceptual metaphors matter because they guide how planners approach their work.

What can individuals do to change things in the face of such concentrated economic and political power? What sorts of institutions could we use to render the future less uncertain without sacrificing our limited autonomy? These are the questions planners try to answer…

Given the trenchant free-market worship and neoconservative/neoliberal drift of the times, planners take on their “moral journey” of their much needed work for a “largely unsympathetic clientele” (12-13). This resonates with my experience as an academic professional in higher education. Part of Hoch’s mission then is to provide a more concrete articulation of the value planners bring to the table, namely a set of tools to solve the public problems that are the byproduct of the private sector growth and development.

I’ll discuss the following chapter, “The Quest for Institutional Authority,” in my next post with the aim of moving away from summary and toward my own reflections and questions.


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