How to Make It Safe to Plan Ethically

By Daniel Lauber, AICP President 1992–1994, 2003–2005, APA President 1985–1986

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Ever since its conception in 1979, the AICP Commission has boasted about its Code of Professional Conduct. But even its most recent rewriting leaves it as a passive, reactive code that pretty much provides for someone to file a complaint against someone else for violating the code. All too often it has been used as a political tool, including the filing of charges  candidates for the AICP Commission for the contents of their position statements and other political speech.

The AICP Code of Professional Conduct was not created to be a political tool. It was supposed to provide guidance for how we plan.

Unfortunately, there are a great many jurisdictions in which it really isn’t safe perform the sort of ethical, inclusionary, smart planning APA/AICP and its predecessors ASPO and AIP have long advocated. The planner who seeks to zoning provisions or decisions that are not exclusionary puts her job at risk. Planners have lost their jobs for trying to get their cities’ comprehensive plans to comply with the inclusionary and nondiscriminatory requirements imposed by their federal funding (under CDBG and old Section 171). Many other planners are afraid to even bring up potentially–controversial issues like affordable or subsidized housing, group homes or halfway houses for people with disabilities, affirmatively marketing housing in PUDs or subdivisions to minorities traditionally excluded from the community, job–linked housing, and much more — because they know they can lose their jobs over these issues.

A great many planners are even afraid to insist that their planning commissions and zoning boards follow proper procedures like following constitutional due process requirements and determining findings of fact before they vote on a special use permit, variance, parcel zoning amendment, subdivision, or planned unit development proposal. Instead we suck in our guts and go along with the perversion of proper planning and zoning practices that are so common throughout the nation.

Shouldn’t This Be One of APA/AICP’s Very Top Priorities?
Well, why not? APA’s Planning Advisory Service Reports that constitute the “bible” of planning practice consistently endorse this sort of inclusionary, ethical, smart planning and zoning. The Policy Guides that the Chapter Delegate Assembly and the APA Board produce also consistently endorse this type of planning and zoning. Unless I’m missing something, APA/AICP has done just about nothing to change the climate in which we plan so we can implement the sort of planning APA/AICP, ASPO, and AIP have recommended for over 40 years.

But APA/AICP doesn’t put its money where its mouth is.

Instead of spending hundreds of thousands of our dues dollars on such dubious conceits as “branding,” studying governance to make APA/AICP more like other professional associations that are governed by a closed power elite far removed from the average professional, and paying for an excessive number of unnecessary Board and Commission meetings, why doesn’t APA/AICP put some money into creating a climate in which we can practice the inclusionary, ethical, smart planning and zoning the organization claims to champion?

For example, when I was APA President back in 1985–86, several APA Directors and I got the APA Board to approve — albeit reluctantly — creating a Planners Support Committee to find ways to help planners who wish to plan the way APA/AICP proposes, but face threats to their jobs for planning that way. With the Herculean efforts of planning Professor Charles Hoch (University of Illinois at Chicago), the committee got off to a good start, conducted some valuable studies, held sessions at the national APA conference — all without any funding from the APA Board or AICP Commission.

When I was elected President of AICP in 1992, I was stunned to find that the Committee had done very little since my term on the APA Board ended. So, a few of us worked to get all of $5,000 budgeted to support the Committee’s efforts (although no qualified staff members were assigned to help it and the budget amount was approved begrudgingly). Since then, funding for the Committee has disappeared and it became a do–nothing group in which some very unqualified individuals have been counseling threatened planners. This almost changed during my second term as AICP President. We secured $40,000 in funding, half from AICP and half (in staff time only) from APA. Frustratingly, some individuals in APA leadership successfully stonewalled creation of the charge to the Planners Support Teams, appointment of the teams, and implementation of the teams. While the money was budgeted, it was never spent.

It’s time to fully fund and staff the Planners Support Committee so it can start the process of building a climate in which it is safe to practice ethical, inclusionary, smart planning and zoning. We’re not going to change the climate overnight. But it’s time to get started. It is hard to think of anything more central to APA/AICP’s mission.

I do not pretend to have all the answers. But I’d like to offer a few preliminary ideas of what APA/AICP should be doing to start building a political climate more receptive to APA/AICP–style planning and zoning. These are very preliminary and I really do want to hear from you what you think about them and what ideas you can bring to the table. It’s only collaborating the views of a broad group of planners that we’ll ever produce an effective approach.

Preliminary Ideas:

bulletPreventing Trouble: Develop and publish a handbook that explains how to present potentially controversial, job–threatening issues and proposals (such as affordable or subsidized housing, group homes, multifamily housing, etc.) in a manner that diffuses public and political opposition. The brief example below illustrates one potential bit of advice. You probably have more you can tell us about.

EXAMPLE: When we were writing what eventually became the APA award–winning Comprehensive Plan 1979 for Oak Park, Illinois, some members of the plan commission (a real estate broker and a condo converting attorney) vehemently opposed even addressing the housing needs of low– and moderate–income households — even though our CDBG funding required it and the village was 1/3 low– and moderate–income. We diffused the situation by explaining to the local reporters who low– and moderate–income people are. The reporter, who know nothing about planning, wrote a lead article in the local paper that started out talking about the ability of teachers, village employees, our children, and retired people to live in Oak Park. The article never called these people low– and moderate–income. Instead it personalized them and spoke of their actual incomes. By changing the terminology and showing that we were talking about the housing needs of people already living in Oak Park, we were able to diffuse the issue and keep our jobs (this in a town that has actually abolished a planning position to “fire” an employee for advocating ethical, inclusionary planning practices).


Preventing Trouble: There’s an education association that maintains a list its members can see of school districts that have infringed on the ability of teachers to teach (book censorship, etc.). Maybe APA/AICP should put together a list, accessible to members only, of jurisdictions that have fired planners for performing their jobs in an ethical, inclusionary manner, jurisdictions that practice exclusionary planning and zoning, and jurisdictions that use improper procedures in zoning hearing. A village like River Forest, Illinois, should be on such a list thanks to the exclusionary zoning amendments it adopted last fall prohibit any increase in the number of multifamily dwelling units. So, if a developer wants to build five new units of multifamily housing, she has to tear down five existing units. It looks like we’ll have to seek judicial action to overturn these amendments. Click here for all the details. These are very preliminary ideas. Obviously great care must be taken to get the facts straight and be fair.


Preventing Trouble: Despite a lot of political rhetoric, APA/AICP has never built up the capacity of chapters and sections to develop strong public relations. They just don’t know how to deal with the media. APA/AICP should work to get print and broadcast media to come to planners for comment on planning issues — at the local level where most planning issues appear and where they get the most media coverage. APA/AICP itself needs to beef up its media team with more experienced, qualified individuals who can get the job done. Again, it will take many years to change our relationship with the media, but we darned well better start soon.


Responding to Trouble: APA/AICP should establish a mechanism to provide practical support for planners who find themselves embroiled in job–threatening controversy (or expect to be). One mechanism is to provide counseling on how to mitigate the controversy from a qualified professional. We know that the scaled–back Planners Support Task Force has had at least one incompetent planners available to counsel threatened planners. This planner has lost job after job due to his poor planning performance, but he keeps picturing himself as a martyr. Careful screening of counselors is essential.


Share your ideas:  Like I wrote, these are rough, preliminary ideas. We need your ideas too! Please click here to send me an email with your ideas of how APA/AICP can build a climate in which we can practice the sort of ethical, inclusionary, and smart planning APA/AICP has long championed.

Thanks very much for taking the time to read so much. I hope to hear from you soon.

Daniel Lauber, AICP

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