Press "Enter" to skip to content

How Citizen Participation changed the Planning Profession

Essay by Kenneth D. Munsell

Planning – October 1999 – Colorado Central Magazine

TWO DAYS AGO, I turned on the television and happened upon a rural development conference. The state public affairs channel aired the meeting, and it involved panelists talking to state legislators about the problems and potentials of rural areas in Washington.

Experts in various fields gave their testimonies and talked about the structural economic development problems inherent in smallness: the inadequate numbers in the work force, the transportation networks, the lack of housing, and other dilemmas.

Some public officials also spoke about their problems, and one of them caught my attention. He looked young, probably around thirty, but he expressed the kind of frustration that usually builds up after a long and contentious career.

A county planner for a rural county, he tried to tell the panel about the things he deals with on a daily basis. He wanted everyone to understand the frustrations that went with his job, and to deal with the problems that caused him such strain. This obviously sincere man clearly felt overworked and unappreciated — a condition found all too often in high pressured jobs like planning.

According to him, the state’s growth management process — which mandates numerous planning initiatives aimed at rationalizing land use in Washington, but which has often led to citizen appeals and courts cases — has kept him from doing his job and serving the needs of the people in his county.

The planner’s argument took a while to sink in, especially since listeners could feel his frustration and see how badly he wanted to serve his constituents.

But this county planner’s talk went to the heart of the century’s major debate over planning philosophy. The core of his argument involves the role of “the people.” In this county planner’s view, the educated, knowledgeable planner needs freedom of action in order to best serve the people; therefore, he needs freedom from the people and their concerns.

There is another way to put this: Only when people accept his solutions to their problems, can he solve their problems. That’s why he spent so many years in college learning his profession.

Who knows best?

The trained expert or the untutored common people who will have to live with the solution?

I doubt that this overworked and frustrated planner ever thought about where the logic of his argument led. But, it is important to analyze that, because our future is tied up in this problem.

Because of a complex of reasons, the American people abdicated the planning process to professionals during most of this century. This is particularly interesting because of our continuing commitment to democracy from the grassroots to the national level in most other fields of endeavor. But we profited from this abdication.

Great projects were planned and then built, ranging from the systems of irrigation and hydroelectric dams on the Columbia, Snake, and Tennessee rivers to the interstate highway system, to the vast stretches of suburban development where most of us now shop, work and live. The experts told us to do all of these things, and we benefited. They shaped our future, and — with each success — they gained more prestige.

But later we found out that all of these things had significant costs, as well as benefits. The dams on the Columbia and Snake Rivers, for example, also destroyed the massive salmon runs that once cheaply fed millions of people world-wide. Some of those interstate highways destroyed the cores of the country’s major cities and encouraged suburban sprawl. Also, the massive amounts of land needed for those new, sprawling suburbs made the cost of building the infrastructure skyrocket.

Many people knew about these consequences all along, but the technocrats, secure in their expertise, never bothered to ask them. That would have interfered with the grand plans.

By the 1960s and 70s, people rebelled and began to question the experts’ decisions. A Central Washington University history professor, Tom Wellock, studied the opposition to nuclear power plants in California in the 1970s and observed the switch. The pro-nuclear side cited their experts and emphasized university positions, degrees, and awards as proof that they knew best. The antinuclear side rejected that in favor of appeals from rock and roll stars, housewives, and other non-experts for “common sense.” The non-expert side won the war, and everyone realized that the wants and needs of everyday people now counted for something.

THUS, THE NATURE of the country’s political discourse changed. The people climbed back into the planning process. Wellock believes that this was a turning point for citizen participation. From the mid-1970s onward, the planning process changed and became inclusive. Everyone jumped in — from individuals to a rainbow of interest groups. As Sly Stone once sang, “Everybody is a star.”

This brings us back to that county planner. He is a throwback to the tradition of the expert who knows what is best for us. And, because of that belief, he can’t understand that all of those interest groups who file the appeals and the court challenges are actually representatives of the people whom he so desperately wants to serve. Finally, and most tragically, he doesn’t understand that the challenges to his actions often occur because he was wrong — because his expertise marched him along a different path than his constituents.

This new world of constant debate among people and groups makes things extremely messy for professional planners. But the best planners do more than give lip service to the idea of real citizen participation, because out of that comes the compromises acceptable to the people.

Professional expertise is still sorely needed, but experts can no longer mandate solutions to problems. And they should not bemoan that fact.

Kenneth D. Munsell is the director of the Small Towns Institute, and editor of its journal, Small Town, which is published every other month. This appeared in the March-April, 1999 edition.

For more information about the Institute, which is “dedicated to collecting and disseminating information on new and innovative ideas concerning the issues and problems facing small towns and non-urban areas,” write to the Small Towns Institute, P.O. Box 517, Ellensburg WA 98926.