More on What Planners Do

by Doug Norman . 0 Comments

Although the modern planning profession is rooted in progressive reform, the more activist contingent exited the growing profession in the early twentieth century as the focus on social issues gave way to design and growth, because business and philanthropy powered most planning efforts, not government. This situation began to change after WWI. The 1920s saw a widespread adoption of zoning laws and planning commissions; with their non-electoral appointments and practical expertise, planners were regarded as politically independent and their work essentially scientific.

The Great Depression and New Deal programs introduced a different configuration by connecting planning efforts directly to the federal government: “Planning activity became an extension of the executive authority–a staff activity that focused on policy and institutional design, rather than a line activity organized to implement established goals.” These large-scale projects were conceived, directed, and implemented all within the government.

Even with challenges from states and property owners, this model of planning drove the development of cities into the post-WWII era. And it was in this era that local planning started to grow again. The federal agencies were providing the funds but the locals were making the decisions. The results: massive suburban sprawl between the 1950s and 1970s, white flight, and inner-city decay. Professional planners’ call for federal oversight spurred government support in the form of the Housing Act and federal planning grants. The planning profession grew by leaps and bounds, especially with local government. Eventually COGs would enter the picture to provide a regulatory conduit for federal planning dollars. These regional councils and the rational planning model flourished under the progressive aegis of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations.

The rational planning model claimed to link professional expertise and bureaucratic authority in the service of a democratically determined public interest. In the context of rapid growth and strong federal support for government planning, the rational model became the premiere rationale for professional planning practice. (Hoch 35)

The massive conservative backlash and economic downturn of the 1970s spelled the end publicly funded planning and the rational planning model’s hey day. Shrinking job opportunities and shifting professional ethos meant that planning would survive through accommodation and diversification. The result, as Hoch points out, was that planning activities continued “but usually without a commitment to comprehensiveness and the public good” (42). Lacking political and cultural capital, planners sought to professionalize by institutionalizing the rational model into a protocol.

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