July 2014 – Educating Planners

I was recently asked to comment on how planners should be educated. I don’t consider myself an expert in this area but these are my thoughts.

Let me set the stage for these comments. I started as an architect, received by masters in planning from Berkeley, spend 25 years as a planning director in various communities in four states, and have hired 100’s (I never counted) of planners. Since 1982 I have consulted with over 170 planning organizations in 31 states, Canada and the Caribbean, have had over 10,000 planners in various courses and seminars, and now consider myself an expert in organizational development and management. This doesn’t make me smarter than anyone else, or more equipped to comment on planning education, but I did learn a lot about planners and planning along the way.

I was at Berkeley when it was considered perhaps the premier planning school in the U.S. with well-known faculty (all of whom have passed away) including Jack Dyckman (author, Capital Requirements for Urban Renewal and Development, died 1987),  Barcley Jones, (30 year professor at Cornell, died 1997), T. J. Jack Kent (co-founder and first chair, the Department of City and Regional Planning at Berkeley and author, the Urban General Plan, died 1998), Francis Violich (author, Cities of Latin America: Planning and Housing in the South, and  The Bridge to Dalmatia: A Search for the Meaning of Place, died 2005) and Mel Weber (author, Exploration into Urban Structure, an international transportation expert, died 2006).

The debate at the time was the direction for planning and planning education. Some wanted more emphasis on design which reflected the start of the profession and had a long history in the San Francisco Bay Area. Others wanted the new emphasis on social/economic issues. The latter won the day and has been the focus of planning education and planning practice until recent years when design is making a resurgence.

Our classes were heavy on theory and economics and less on practical skills and application. Dykman’s tests were so difficult that we would work on them in groups behind the scenes and some of the faculty we approached even had trouble responding. Jones, although having a heavy interest in historic preservation, was the leader, along with Dyckman, on economic theory.  Weber was focusing on transportation. Kent and Violich were trying to keep design and practical planning alive, (Kent was a City Council member in Berkeley) but they were losing.

At the end of the two-year program we had a choice of doing a thesis or taking a comprehensive exam. We all chose the exam. It was the most creative exam I have ever seen and should still be used in planning schools. We were given maps and a list of key events for the San Francisco Bay Area, date of the railroad, earthquake, bridges, etc. Then the dates were all shifted. Our task was to create the Bay Area as it would have looked with the changed dates and to support our thesis based on good economic development and urban development theory. Only half of the class passed.

Looking back, I didn’t pick up many practical skills in the master’s degree program, but I did get a broad education in theory which I believed served me well in my career. I believe this is the way it should be, skills can be learned on the job. However, in fairness, since I came out of an architecture program, I already had many of the skills that planning departments are looking for. My first job out of architecture school was actually that of a planner.

However, this would be bad news for new planning graduates.  Planning departments are not looking for theory; they want planners with skills who can immediately be productive. This could be in plan preparation, zoning, GIS, transportation, design, environment, global warming, etc. So, although my advice to planning schools and planners is to get a good broad background in theory, each planner should also latch onto one specialty skill that can be used to get them in the door and get a job while the other planning skills are being learned and a decision can be made about long-term future and interests. This could be to continue to pursue a specialty area or to pursue a less specialized approach. The trend is away from specialization and toward more holistic skills and knowledge. This is particularly true for those who want to eventually become planning directors.

The theory courses should be heavy on economics and urban development. Other topics should include history, urban design, environment, and even politics.

Most people, including planners, are hired for their skills. However, in addition to technical skills, most successful planners need good interpersonal skills, writing, presentations, public speaking and negotiation skills. These topics should be worked into planning education. The skills can be developed through team projects and rigorous critiqued presentations and similar activities.

Most people are fired for who they are. As such, organizations should mostly hire staff for who they are, and not for their skills. It will be hard to convince most planning departments and HR departments of this approach. I’m not certain what the course work would look like to develop people for “who they are.” But college is clearly an integral part of developing who you are.

Also, and closely related, for those planners that aspire to be a supervisor or manager, there should at least be some exposure to good theory in the area of supervision and management. In my consulting, I find that a high percent of planners who are supervisors and managers were good planners who were promoted to supervisors. Most have had little training or exposure to supervisor and management approaches. While it is difficult to devote much time to supervision and management in a planning curriculum, the topic should be worth at least one course. At the end of one course, the student should at least understand that there is an entire different world out there for planners who aspire to be supervisors and managers.

Let me summarize what I have been trying to say. Ideally, get your skills at the undergraduate level, maybe even a bachelor’s degree in planning. Then get the broad education in a good master’s degree program. This may look like the reverse of traditional thinking, but it worked for me. This could also depend on a person’s bachelor’s degree. If it is very broad, then go for the masters at a university stressing planning skills. If the bachelor’s degree had more skill courses, then look for a broad based, less skills, master’s degree program.

The Management Doctor


Reader Response

Long answer to a long question but I do appreciate the information and background you provided.  Although I agree that design plans an important role in planning, a broad based background, including an understanding and how to read the political climate of a community, along with public relations skills, are important. (consulting firms play an important component in design in Wisconsin Communities)  Economic Development is often under stressed in Planning Schools but plays a very important role in the life line of the community you are working in.  Ongoing education is THE must.

Marilyn Haroldson
Town of Merton