Warren Godfrey guest post: Don’t rely on the planning “experts”

This is the second guest post from Charlotte area engineer/planner Warren Godfrey. It builds on ideas about elegance in planning from his popular previous post cautioning against over-planning. Conversations with Warren have really broadened my thinking about sustainability in the built environment and I think you’ll see why when reading this.

Don’t rely on the planning “experts”, by Warren Godfrey

The time has come to do away with the cookie cutter, Anywhere, USA solutions. Doesn’t it get old going to a new town and seeing the same chain restaurants, strip malls, and seas of asphalt parking lots? Are those the places we want to define you and your community? Planning becomes pointless when solutions rely solely on the justification: “that’s the way _________ did it.”

The idea for NYC's award-winning "high line" came from the community
The idea for NYC’s award-winning “high line” came from the community, not hired planners

One thing planners can do is stop promising “solutions.” When professionals propose solutions, potential innovators are less likely to question their surroundings. The impression is that, for a fee, the “experts” will fix everything with a wave of their magic planning and engineering wands. Instead of promising solutions, planners should engage citizens in a collaborative effort to provide rational responses to challenges and opportunities in their community. Instead of holding public meetings to be able to check the task off of our list, we should actually try to leave a legacy and improve our cities, not just add to the tax base.

Here is how planners experience a typical project. After being awarded the project, the planner is encouraged to work as quickly as possible to maximize profit. One way to work quickly is by cutting and pasting “solutions” from previous work. The planner often has an incentive to come up with multi-step solutions that sell other services offered by their firm. In other words, don’t be surprised when our planning solutions include recommendations that require you to pay for our engineering services. These practices are good for short-term business, but these practices also mean planners are unlikely to come up with the elegant rational responses to best serve the clients.

When contrasted with the “experts” promising silver bullet solutions, communities working together have a much better chance of coming up with elegant rational responses. Amateur community innovators have unique local knowledge and, just as important, are not shackled by false confidence in the way planning has been done in the past. Sure, planners and engineers are needed to help, but only those able to think outside of the permitting/zoning-oriented box.

Us planners talk a good game and use buzz words like sustainability; live, work, play; vibrancy; and resilient places with a high quality of life for all – now it’s time to back up our talk with some action. Let’s strive to educate our clients and the general populous about what we are actually passionate about and actually help each other reach the essence of what those buzz words actually mean.

I’ll leave you with a quote from the book The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari, by Robin Sharma that has often been an inspiration to me:

“Failure is not having courage to try. Fear of failure is standing between most people and their dreams. Failure tests us and allows us to grow. It offers lessons and guides along the path of enlightenment. Every arrow that hits the bull’s eye is a result of 100 misses. Profit through loss. Don’t fear failure. Failure is your friend.”

Let’s miss the mark a couple of times and embrace our dream of a sustainable future.