Thinking about the Park Planning Profession


parkThe American Planning Association (APA) defines planning as “a dynamic profession that works to improve the welfare of people and their communities by creating more convenient, equitable, healthful, efficient, and attractive places for present and future generations.”  I certainly agree that planning should be people-focused and that equity should be a key goal of planning.  As a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners (AICP), I subscribe to the Institute’s Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct.  Section A.1.f of the Code is especially relevant to the goal of a more just city and my role in helping to realize it: “We shall seek social justice by working to expand choice and opportunity for all persons, recognizing a special responsibility to plan for the needs of the disadvantaged and to promote racial and economic integration.  We shall urge the alteration of policies, institutions, and decisions that oppose such needs.”

However, many park planners are not members of APA and do not have training in urban and regional planning.  Instead, park planners generally have backgrounds in landscape architecture.  According to the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), landscape architecture “encompasses the analysis, planning, design, management, and stewardship of the natural and built environments.”  Unlike the definition of planning offered earlier, it is obvious that landscape architecture is more place-focused, i.e. its emphasis is on “the natural and built environments.”  While I agree that place matters, I believe that park planners must balance the desire to create beautiful parks with the goal of understanding and meeting the needs of the disenfranchised, including minority groups, lower-income households, women, and children.  In addition, the notion of equity is not mentioned in ASLA’s definition.  My intention here is certainly not to criticize or discredit practitioners of landscape architecture.  After all, I work with many landscape architects and recognize their tremendous contributions to society.  I do, however, believe that park planners must regain a focus on people and more explicitly address inequities and the needs of underserved communities.

Many park planners have been obsessed with the idea of sustainability.  However, many of them do not seem to realize that sustainability is not just about the environment and long-term cost savings (economy); it is also about equity and engagement. Thus it is logical to ask: what can park planners do to advance equity and engagement?  Park planners should first be aware that sustainable development “is not only about the environment but [is also] about changing patterns of economic, technological, urban, and social development” (Olson, 1995, p. 32).  Sustainable development is a far more comprehensive vision than some credit it for.  In fact, sustainable development actually requires an ecological worldview, a key element of collaborative governance.  According to University of Southern California professor Peter Robertson (2007), the ecological worldview emphasizes “the interconnectedness, self-organizing capacity, and coevolutionary dynamics of all natural systems” (p. 2).  To achieve a social vision as broad as a just city, planners must have an ecological worldview because existing paradigms are simply inadequate and unable to help us understand and solve increasingly complex problems.

In the case of parks and recreation, park planners must have a comprehensive view of how recreational needs are met.  It would be naïve to think that public agencies are the sole providers of recreational facilities and services.  In reality, schools, private health clubs, and other organizations are meeting recreational needs to varying degrees.  Park planners should therefore actively learn from and collaborate with other public, non-profit, and for-profit organizations to effectively meet the recreational needs of communities.  For example, we could meet with representatives of 24 Hour Fitness to better understand their strategy of developing health clubs in underserved neighborhoods and discuss the possibilities of future partnerships.  Public/private partnerships should not be limited to those between economic development agencies and private developers.  Park planners must also consider such partnerships as one strategy to meet the needs of park-poor communities.

In addition to cross-sector collaboration, park planners should also be involved in cross-generation collaboration.  As University of North Carolina professor Philip Berke (2002) points out, the central goal of sustainable development is intergenerational equity, implying fairness to future generations (p. 29).  Recognizing the need to involve young people in planning, the APA has created for planners, parents, and teachers an online resource center that includes descriptions of curriculums, lesson plans, programs, activities, websites, books, events etc.  These resources are intended to be used to inspire youth to become proactive members of their communities.  Sophie Watson (2006), Professor of Sociology at the Open University (UK), provides proof in her writing that children must be involved in planning processes, especially since we are at a time when there is a “climate of fear of and withdrawal from outdoor public space” and when “children’s views as to the kinds of public spaces that work for them are largely ignored” (p. 156).  To facilitate the pursuit of a just city, park planners must collaborate and partner with educators and parents to involve children and youth in park planning and decision-making processes.

The creation of a just city requires sensitivity to human social needs.  The primary way to be sensitive to social needs is by participating in “authentic dialogues” (Booher and Innes, 2006, p. 229).  An authentic dialogue is one that “allows all agents to speak openly and in an informed away about their interests and understandings and ensures that all are listened and taken seriously by the other” (p. 229).  I agree with professors Booher and Innes that without such dialogue, opportunities will be missed, important information about the problem will not surface, and creative solutions are much less likely to emerge.  In his book Planning in the Face of Power, Cornell University professor John Forester (1989) describes a community meeting in a small city in which the improvement of a neighborhood park was the topic of discussion.  This case study demonstrates the need to have authentic dialogues between planners and the local residents.  Through such dialogues, planners and residents can design park improvements, learn from one another, and make sense together.  Post-Katrina planning in New Orleans offers an example of what happens when authentic dialogues are absent.  In particular, the city’s Land Use Committee prepared a report proposing that certain neighborhoods be demolished and converted to floodable green spaces with little input from those communities (Irazábal and Neville, 2007, p. 139).  Not surprisingly, residents of the neighborhoods were outraged and became even more determined to bring their communities back.  As a park planner, I certainly understand the desire to turn low-lying, flood prone areas into parks.  However, I have also come to understand the importance of obtaining input from and working with community members, especially those who have been disenfranchised traditionally.

Two critical skills a park planner must have are the abilities to listen and learn.  To listen productively means “that one maintains one’s own perspective as background while focusing on the situation and opinions of another” (Booher and Innes, p. 231).  Forester argues that planners must be able to listen to others carefully and critically, and that careful listening requires sensitivity, self-possession, and judgment (p. 107).  While listening sounds simple, it is not always practiced.  Our ability to listen is tied to our ability to hope (p. 109).  Planners must also be eager to learn and be open to surprises.  According to Forester (1999), there is much for us to learn in negotiations, participatory groups, and ordinary meetings: “we learn not just with our ears but with our eyes, not just with our heads but with our hearts.  We come not only to hear new information we find relevant, but we come to see new issues that need our attention.  We come not only to revise our sense of strategies, but to develop new relationships with others too” (p. 129).  His insightful comments have challenged me to become a better listener and prompted me to re-evaluate the ways in which I participate in meetings as a planner.

Given time and space constraints, I am only able to offer a few thoughts on the park planning profession here.  In particular, I have argued that park planners must regain its focus on people, i.e. the park users we serve, and explicitly tackle issues of equity.  To do our part in creating a just city, park planners must also initiate and participate in cross-sector and cross-generation collaborations.  I have highlighted the importance of engaging the public and our partners through authentic dialogues.  In addition, I have identified skills that park planners must have and develop over time: the abilities to hope, listen carefully and critically, and learn from others.  It is clear that park planners have a significant role to play in creating a more just city.  I am committed to fulfilling my role and responsibilities as a planner and a citizen to better meet the needs of our communities, especially those that are under-served.

Berke, P. R. (2002). Does sustainable development offer a new direction for planning? Challenges for the twenty-first century.  Journal of Planning Literature, 17, 21-36.
Booher, D. E. & Innes, J. (2002). Network power in collaborative planning. Journal of Planning Education and Research, 21, 221-236.
Forester, J. (1999). The Deliberative Practitioner: Encouraging Participatory Planning Processes. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
Forester, J. (1989). Planning in the Face of Power. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Irazábal, C. & Neville, J. (2007). Neighborhoods in the Lead: Grassroots planning for social transformation in post-Katrina New Orleans? Planning Practice and Research, 22(2), 131-153.
Olson, R. L. (1995). Sustainability as a social vision. Journal of Social Issues, 51, 15-35.
Robertson, P. J. (2006). Ecological governance: Organizing principles for an emerging era. Unpublished manuscript.
Watson, S. (2006). Children’s Publics. In Watson, S. City Publics. London: Routledge.

Note: All photos by author.

Clement Lau

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