Professionalism and institutionalization: an argument challenging professional planning

A discussion

Prepared 1 November 2010 for Prof. Raphaël Fischler (URBP612, McGill University).

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Reading review

Marshall, Nancy. 2007. Planning as a profession. In Thompson, Susan and Maginn, Paul (Eds.), Planning Australia: an overview of urban and regional planning, 49–66. Melbourne: Cambridge University Press.

“Marshall, a Canadian planning consultant who now teaches in Australia, provides a brief introduction to the theory of professions and an analysis of how well urban planning rates as one. In what way and to what extent is urban planning a profession? What role does the code of ethics play in the definition of a profession?”


The problems with Nancy Marshall’s piece are manifold, and I risk saying this fully well knowing that it isn’t good strategy to rock an apple cart if you want to avoid bruised product.

On its face, Marshall advocates a necessity for organized professionalism as a cornerstone of the planning profession. She goes on to deconstruct the difference between a “profession” and an “occupation”, noting that while the latter may be consumed by one or possibly more components (per a 1950s Greenwood essay, when Technical Rationality wasn’t being questioned or challenged), a profession assumes five components simultaneously: knowledge and theory; community sanction; authority; a code of ethics; and socialization and culture.

As a sceptical reader, the problem I found with this argument stems from my own life experiences in the “professional” realm (scare-quoted, because per Marshall, the work I completed — and work completed by my colleagues — in my first career was not “professional” in the sense she supports). For her, these were merely “occupations”, as they did not involve, inter alia, “systematic theory” — something she argues is virtually absent in the “non-professional”.

What this theory and history course has borne, up to this point, is that the “systematic theories” which would constitute planning as a bona fide profession, by and large, are either untried (or under-tried) hypotheses which then are tested without precedent, sometimes with deleterious effects (such as applying a “lite” Garden City theory to social housing projects in the twentieth century, or wholly embracing architectural modernism as a partial remedy for social inequity). Or, they are heavily borrowed principles from other fields of research and occupation, such as from engineering, and importable because they concern rational, quantitative analysis methods which could work for any number of fields (such as software engineering).

Throughout this evolution of the planning profession, it has seemed as if there are always a few ardent supporters willing to bat for the cause that as a profession, planning is vaunted to a role of a legally-protected society with the benefits of monopoly and exclusivity, much like “essential professions” of law and medicine (the so-called “major” professions, as noted by Schön). In none of these cases reviewed by this course does it appear the authors (Jane Jacobs perhaps the notable exception) address their own inherent biases for having coloured their own world view beyond noting that their bias is part and parcel for upholding the tradition of the profession.

This is something I find to be self-serving and even disingenuous as a conflict-of-interest, especially as it consequentially affects the public interest. Not only does this commoditize a knowledge base (one possibly suspect in of itself, given how many running planning theories are nothing more than best educated guesses built from observation, intuition, and a common sensical confidence), but it also, as Marshall noted, makes it harder to “distinguish honourable and dishonourable members of a profession.” Hence, as she noted, a “code of ethics” came into force and protected the professions from the whims of an open market and self-policing. But throughout her thesis, she is doing little more than supporting an artificial hierarchy which, once in place, preserves the order of this exclusivity rather than advances how such a hierarchy demonstrably improves the certified individuals and the vocation’s standards of care to its very fullest. As a professional member, why would she argue a case to challenge this?

Compare and contrast to what I would regard as professions of necessity. I say “necessity” because the malpractice from any of these professions may directly result in loss of human life or livelihood:

  • medicine, whose negligence to proven methods of care can result in fatalities (at the micro and macro scale);
  • law, whose malpractice of representation can destroy livelihoods and businesses (and yet, under a code of ethics ironically, might defend culpable parties who simply argue their case more effectively than an aggrieved opponent);
  • physical engineering (where a poor decision may result in the structural failure of a system, device, or feature that citizens and consumers use, producing loss of life);
  • public accountant, where the wanton mishandling of ledgers can bring down business and individuals’ livelihoods literally overnight;
  • law enforcement, discrete from law practice, in that it confronts a very different oeuvre of citizens in a particular, often chaotic context in need of order;
  • and even, perhaps as an exaggeration to stress this point and the problematics with Marshall’s thesis, chefs, whose knowledge informs how certain foods and spices work together more effectively than others. More importantly, in handling: handling food poorly so could end up sickening or even killing a myriad of people. The chef’s “authority is recognized” by critics and followers, and respected by colleagues (in the form of reviews and word of mouth). A chef’s “broad community sanction and approval for this autonomy” would prevent anyone from simply stepping in and taking over (as the title “chef” only comes following extensive apprenticeship); a code of ethics (often negotiating between diner, reviewer, farm/ranch from where materials are sourced, etc.); and a professional culture (vetted by the aforementioned mastery of craft borne from the socialization of mentors and interactions with geographies where certain food niches are procured).

The chef example isn’t meant to trivialize the particular skill sets or training of the so-called “minor professions” like urban planning, but this point means to underscore that the five “soft” criteria of professionalization may be applied in ways otherwise not intended by her argument. Thus, it’s also not terribly hard of a stretch to grasp why the vague black box of planning to the outsider, and planners generally, is met with such frequent, even vociferous public scepticism (some perhaps remembering when the unquestioned heyday of “planning” was inextricably linked with “mass-demolition and ‘revitalization’” of sometimes beloved communities, or just “home”) — especially when the monopoly of that certification is protected by law.

My own experiences, however, are informed by “professional” work in two “professional” sectors: marketing communication and information technology. The former, while citing a code of ethics, is flexible depending on what is being promoted and supported by constantly updated theories on which methods are most effective to achieve desired ends. In Canada, for example, advertising and communications for pharmaceuticals must adhere to stringent PAAB guidelines which, while a de facto code of ethics, is not contingent on individual membership or vetting. For the latter, precision, accuracy, and intense, open-market pressure to improve platforms and features drives innovation and quality control of information technology. By this measure, I could more readily ascribe planning having more in common with advertising, while information technology sharing a stronger relationship with medicine or engineering.

Again, Marshall’s case doesn’t allow for the professionalization of a vocation which not only demands the open-market rigours of information technology, but also would frown on how many of its key developers, engineers, and testers arrived to the profession without traditional, formalized training. Rather, they arrived after to a plethora of peer support and mentorship (through often less-orthodox means). And yet, because the ends must work effectively, securely, and safely, a code of ethics to do no harm is enforced through results, not necessarily through certification. This is where “white-hat” security ethics are introduced: the “white-hat” expert will be tasked to find security flaws in a system. When a flaw is found, the ethics of the white-hat IT professional is to report it and suggest how to fix the flaw. The “black-hat” counterpart, meanwhile, is beholden to no such ethical bounds and may exploit a found security hole to exact nefarious ends. There is also a tradition of black-hat experts moving toward white-hat ethical standards as that IT professional recognizes the economic and even social ramifications of leaving a security hole unresolved.

So my scepticism about the planning’s role being so reserved for membership, as it now, has not been assuaged by Marshall’s essay. If anything, her position only reinforces what concerns me. To read this case and to walk away from it means to draw some ad hoc conclusions that the main difference between, say, a certified planner and a land developer is that one absolutely requires certification. Both could theoretically have the best interest of the general public in mind (whether true or not). Distilled, developers and planners do speak the same “language”.

To walk away from this discussion with an experiential hindsight I possess is to feel like I’m merely trying to gain membership to an exclusive club where, once in, I’m reassured that there lies something special with that membership. In the end, I find that CIP-type membership is more preoccupied with annual dues and a “no news is good news” tack for its membership’s professional activity or performance.

No, this does not give me confidence in the professionalizing of planning.


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