The Planner as a Technician and Activist

The planner is at once a technician and an activist. These modes exist in constant tension within every planner, the balance between the two shifting depending on the degree to which the planner’s position permits him to express both modes. This writeup will focus on the role of the planner operating within a traditional municipal planning body and how a planner can skillfully balance both tendencies.

But first, what’s a planner for (broadly)

The planner receives information from and provides information to the community he works in. With the information he receives, the planner assesses trends, problems and opportunities. He provides the results of his assessment to the community. On this basis, the community may choose to pursue action, a choice relayed back to the planner whose role it is to help the community take action, and on and on the dialogue goes. The planner further serves the community by making the information he collects and generates accessible to everyone while encouraging members to exchange thoughts with one another and providing forums to do so.

The planner as a technician

The municipal planner also serves another master: the leader of the municipal body, often an elected citizen or body of citizens. It is the planner’s role to assist newly-elected leaders to accomplish what they said they would when they ran for office. This involves knowing the techniques of planning well enough to employ them for the official’s use.

Elected officials are not looking for planners with agendas; the officials were elected to implement theirs. In the words of a Portland Metro area mayor, “if you want to refuse to do something, be prepared to polish off your résumé.” Elected officials are looking for planners to provide them feedback on feasibility, to clarify complex language, to exchange information with the public, and to speak up when the official might be getting herself into trouble, either with the community or the law, both of which the planner must be very familiar.

The planner as an activist

In opposition to functioning subordinate to a political administration behaving as though there is nothing beyond the next two to six years (because often, for them there is not), planners must look out far beyond the term of the current electeds to protect the longterm interests of the community. Planners are uniquely situated to perform this task, being employees with no political expiration date, who consistently interact with all parts of the community served, who are aware of the flexibility afforded by planning codes, and who are attuned to persistent social, economic, and environmental issues.


Planners should take every opportunity to make the municipality government work for its community, even and especially when community members, present and future, are not being well served by the policies pedaled by electeds. The planner operates in an ethical grey area whether he choses to be an activist or not: by choosing to function as a cog in a machine, he is letting the status quo persist, often meaning issues of equity and sustainability go unaddressed; if he chooses to act, then some of what he sees as wrongs might be righted.

The skillful municipal planner keeps his job while also advancing the causes of his community members, despite a revolving cast of political characters. But even community members can be short-sighted, requiring the planner to sometimes act unilaterally, using his own knowledge and reasoning to account for voices not heard and for people not in the room (future generations, the environment, kids, elderly, the impacted but unaware). There are no guidelines for these situations. Planners should learn to inhabit and be comfortable in this grey area, where what is Good and True are ever-changing, and where the promotion and search for what are Good and True never cease.


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