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  • Jena Skinner, AICP

The Fear of Planning

I'm sure you've heard me tell you (if you like talking about planning) that private planners often do twice the work of government planners when it comes to influencing projects. If this sounds fishy, it's really not when you consider that planning involves a lot of marketing, persuasion, education, explaining, and sometimes some downright crazy negotiations.

When you are on the private side, you begin the approach of a project from a "balance" perspective: what does the comp plan say? What does the code say? What does the "community" say- even if it is contradictory from the comp plan (happens more than you think). You then "report" your findings to your client. Your client, in response, says, "well, I don't want to do that/this/etc." (fear by client: I need the project to pencil out). You then have to reapproach your findings with a guiding tone, encouraging them to consider some modifications/solutions/alternatives/etc. that make it financially solvent for your client, and palatable for you to get behind the project and defend and promote it (fear by planner: representing a project you don't wholeheartedly believe in). Afterall, developers have been given a bad rap because apparently, one bully developer makes them all the devil who doesn't deserve to earn a living. This bias is far too real, and it trickles down to project representatives by association quite unfairly (fear by planner: the developer's reputation will get me blacklisted or disrespected by association). So back to the re-approach...

Ok. You present data, stats, or whatever compelling info you have in your arsenal to get your client to accept that this jurisdiction is not like the last, and hopefully, the project begins to morph into something closer to what you would consider to be a justifiable planning strategy. Pfewf! You really didn't want to walk away for your income because a private entity has vision in a town that may/or may not resemble that remark (fear by planner: starving/paying mortgage).

Next: Hey government planners. Let's talk about our new project that we are so excited about! Them: This will never be supported. Me: That's funny. We've barely begun the conversation. That almost sounds like you are biased against new development. Them (in my head): No, we just feel uncomfortable with something new. The people will come unglued. Them (for real): The first impression of this project seems logistically difficult, and without a deeper review, it may be difficult to support. Me: Ok. Let's talk about what you fear.


Ah, the fear of planning. Fear is very powerful and causes interesting responses. "Too much traffic" (what's too much? How do you know how you be affected? What does that mean if it meets code? Fear by Public: this is going to have an impact in my life in some way and change my norm). Great. Now I have to defend code and speak up and remind everyone that this standard is supported by Staff and the State. I hate reminding them that these experts are ok with things, and this response is an unsubstantiated opinion, based in fear driving this. In fact, they are being arbitrary and are in contradiction to their own code (fear by planner: I need to call out this out in public and risk backlash). The problem is that fear is so powerful, good projects are often denied because of it (fear by politician: if I approve this, I may not get re-elected). It also makes private, professional planners to feel that all their schooling, education, study, and practice means nothing (fear by planner: I know what I am talking about and no one is respecting my experiences and knowledge. I feel like no one is listening). This power has made me want to quit being a planner, and that's sad. No one tells a plumber that their re-piping job is going to affect their water pressure too much if it's done that way. They trust that this plumber knows what he is doing because of his/her training, education, and experience, and they are adhering to code, so they will be ok.

Now, I am lucky, because I know a select few planners out there working in government who really want to help people, and who are open to speaking about projects, concerns, and potential fears of the public and want to help tackle these fears before they present. I was one of them for almost a decade. That being said, INTERNALLY, I had still had to fight off the negativity that was wrapped up strangely in a blanket of what may be considered the public interest (fear by planning commission/council/commission: we were appointed/elected to protect the constituents best interest, and while I don't know exactly what that is, I better be overly cautious so that they are protected for any potential repercussions that I can possibly think of). Basically, it was often presumed that the neighbors weren't going to like it, so Staff couldn't be excited about it either, even though they technically, do not directly represent the public, rather; they take what the public has input into, and then they examine the conformance of said project against the plan and code (fear by administration: is staff going against the public if they find conformance but the public doesn't agree). My guess is that it's subconsciously easier to assume this mentality because who wants to get yelled at by the grapevine, trickle-down opinions of elected officials-to administrators-to planning managers-to staff and then back again by public (fear by planning staff: getting fired for standing by good planning or supporting a good project in contridiction of the public). If you are not supported and trusted to act in the role you have been trained and hired for, you don't often take a strong position based in actual planning. But it doesn't have to be that way- it really doesn't.

The Ultimate Fear Buster: Mutual Respect. Let's all remember that all professional planners have years of training. We have a specialized skillset, and we have countless hours studying planning in some facet. Planners genuinely want to help communities (planners are passionate!). We are ALL in this together, and through open and honest conversations, we can get the work done that helps our communities be more resilient and vibrant. THERE IS NO US vs THEM, if everyone is willing to respect each other. Be a leader, not a follower. It's land use, not life or death.

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