On planning ethics

A discussion

Prepared 9 December 2010 for Prof. Raphaël Fischler (URBP612, McGill University).

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Reading review

Howe, Elizabeth. 1994. Acting on ethics of city planning.

“Planning practice always involves multiple interests and values; it constantly forces planners and others to make difficult choices, some of which involve thorny ethical questions. Elizabeth Howe, a planning professor at the University of Wisconsin‐Madison, discusses what these questions are and how they are being addressed in the philosophical and professional literature. She distinguishes procedural (or deontological) questions, which are about how we do things, from substantive (or consequentialist) questions, which are about what impacts our actions have. How does the theoretical framework presented here inform your understanding of some of the issues discussed earlier in the course? (Among these issues are the right of planners to speak for others, the allegiance planners owe to elected officials vs. to the public at large, and the use of informal means to affect decisions.)”


The imperative on planners to exercise ethical behaviour was a mantra Paul Bedford, retired chief planner of Toronto, emphasized constantly in his seminar, “Role of the planner: making a difference.” As an introductory planning course, I learnt more from his motivational lectures and weekly guests (from virtually every aspect of the planning process) than in all the time since. This wealth is probably a reflection of his 30-plus years planning experience, pragmatism, and wisdom.

While it is instructive to have this reading by Elizabeth Howe — it really is a shame I couldn’t be there for the seminar discussion in November ’09 — there are nevertheless concerns I wish to raise. First is timing: this is the kind of discussion which should be happening before the first studio in planning education. I’d go further to say that planning ethics should be its own required course on par with planning law.

The mechanics of planning are just that. I will not deign to say that a monkey could be trained as a planner, but mechanics, absent a spirited discussion on less concrete philosophical questions, is basically technical college calibre training: philosophical discourse is why planning is taught at university. The more provocative issues of what is kosher and what is treyf are matters which planning students shall face time and again whilst in the field.

Unlike staged processes of building site analyses; drawing up concept plans; or drafting planning policy documents — all quite predictable and routine in their algorithms — it is the volatile human element of activist self-importance, avarice of power, concealed motives, political string-pulling, and the like which distinguishes each project as unique (and what will be remembered after the final product is handed to the client). The ethics of planning is a discussion which should be happening promptly once a planning education begins. Planning students should also know what kinds of disappointments and stresses emerge from being a civil servant (and being treated like a political racquetball for self-serving interests).

For myself and another colleague in my cohort (it should be fairly obvious who), we were briefed on planning ethics before coming to McGill. I was grateful for Bedford’s sober discussions on political stiff-arming which occurs with changes in government (or when a councillor opposes a project which even their constituents support); ethical dilemmas; and the extreme challenges of operating impartially despite temptations faced with some planning interventions.

Bedford’s frank discussions were not meant to dissuade us from planning, but they were a function of full disclosure on his behalf of having been there and done that. His hindsight informed my decision not to be a traditional planner (which I stated when I applied for the urban design specialization). Any illusions I had before his seminar about planning — that is, being one way to make my city better — were dissolved when I heard how little agency one may exercise as a planning civil servant. This is contrary to Bedford’s thesis on “making a difference”. The substantive change agent he spoke of was, if anyone, the chief planner — not the junior planners (whose role is to facilitate public hearings on proposed land use changes with developers, the agent with de facto power in a planning intervention, looking on).

This brings up another pragmatic point: the pool of available planning jobs. How many are public sector entry positions at a time when economies are flagging, and municipalities are freezing, if not culling operating budgets? What remains are private sector demands for planners — whose employers’ interests are less likely to be preoccupied with questions of impartiality, substantive social/public good, and more about how to satisfy task objectives for a profitable development.

For some planning school candidates, perhaps this is OK for them, since it will bring food to their table and help raise families. For someone like me — whose sense of ethics are deeply tempered much the way I-structural beams are hardened — this is something that my conscience cannot abide. In the years since being thrust into an ethical mess of a deontological nature (which landed me at a supreme court hearing before seven justices deciding on my very humanity), for me to skimp on my ethical values — even if I’m paying for it now with soul and privacy — is a burden I cannot live with, regardless the circumstances. If this means I must remain impoverished materially, then so be it. At least I’m long familiar with that experience.

This might sound like I’m rambling incoherently. I’m not. What I am saying is that a discourse on planning ethics deserves a front and centre place for any vocation purporting to define itself as a profession worthy of certification, licensing, or moral upstanding — such as taking a Hippocratic oath, oath to the bar, accepting the burden of the engineer’s ring, or some vow of comparable gravity. In the planning profession, we have none of this.


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