The Yonkers case and its implications for the teaching and practice of planning

An ethics response

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

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Case review

Marcia Marker Feld, “The Yonkers case and its implications for the teaching and practice of planning”:

“Planners in a US municipality participated in the decision to locate public housing in a way that reinforced spatial patterns judged discriminatory by the courts. Did the planners act unethically? If so, why? (In answering this last question, use some of the principles outlined by [Elizabeth] Howe in her chapters on ethical principles.) What would you have done if you had been in the plannersʹ place?”


The core of Elizabeth Howe’s analysis (Acting on ethics in planning, 1994) on planner ethics and morals — from the deontological how to the consequentialist what of planning application — hangs on the assumption that an individual who starts a planning career is endowed with a strong sense of ethics to begin with.

Part of those ethics — as Howe remarked in citing Kant’s principle of humanity (on an absolute morality extension of the Golden Rule) — are dependent on a conditional that one can only affirm their humanness by treating others in ways which both the ends of how they treat others is as vital as the means of that treatment, if not more so. If these do not equate, then one’s humanity is lost. Another Kantian concept, the categorical imperative, speaks more directly to this notion of civility: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.” Howe puts it more bluntly: “It is not necessary to know if the consequences of breaking a law or of being unfair are bad — they are considered to be wrong in and of themselves” (Howe 31).

This is the deontological how that must inform not only urban planners, but also any role for which one is directly held accountable by others — be it public or private, professional or personal. This foundation of ethics can be taught in abstract terms, but it is the individual who must grok — that is, “to understand (something) intuitively or by empathy” (New Oxford American Dictionary) — what that means relative to their own world view and then reconcile those ethics with their own moral experiences. This goes beyond the mandate of any teacher. It also goes beyond what a planning professor can teach students.

The consequentialist argument, meanwhile, is supposed by a notion of “the greatest good for the greatest number of people” (Howe 31). The problem with this executive mandate is that “the greatest number of people” is inevitably exclusive and subjective, since “greatest” is not “all”; some will be left out. Consequentialism is not framed in terms of mitigating whatever negative effects a decision might impact citizens, but in maximizing the greatest amount of good across the people. That decision defines who will be included and excluded (whether negligently or out of malice). The consequentialist approach is found in both the abstract (legal theory) and the literal (planning policy with a specific scope). The consequentialist decision making process is, however, heavily informed by one’s deontological foundation. If a decision-making body’s collective morals are compromised, conditional, or utterly absent, then there is little that anyone can do to effect a successful counter-argument or make a compelling case, since what is said ultimately falls upon deaf or disinterested ears.

This is effectively what was occurring in Yonkers. A cabal of politicians and their appointees, under the employ of the public corporation of the municipality, executed decisions which may have been decided on consequentialist grounds, but those consequentialist decisions were compromised by a poor deontological grasp of universal right and wrong. Their conception of what was “right” stopped at an ethnic boundary. In other senses, this concept of “right” is that which selectively stops at a national border, at one’s sex, in religious schisms, or behind bedroom doors. These are the fodder of our high court debates.

For the Yonkers group, the problems were manifold: their internal governance structure was nepotistic and insular. Those in municipal positions — whether elected, hired, or appointed — demonstrated a complicity of oppression over another ethnic group. This tends to form a bubble of rationalization that what one has created — here, an unequal division of society — is right and just, since their political creation effects a situation where they neither see, hear, nor speak of their own evil. In historically notable capacity, this is also the cornerstone of how apartheid, internment, de jure segregation, and even genocide find their footing.

In the U.S., the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the 14th Amendment were the final legal authorities over how the city of Yonkers (and New York state) had improperly enacted public housing development, schooling segregation, and overall planning policy to effect inequitable ends. “The greatest number of people,” to the power brokers implicated in the 1985 court opinion, was defined as “non-minority” — whether explicit or de facto.

So to inquire whether the Yonkers planners behaved unethically is not the first question one should be asking. We know, ex post facto, that they were unethical, because their plans were complicit in excluding a segment of the Yonkers citizenry from equal participation or enabling political leverage. Planners (like Davidoff) who in no way were associated with this activity successfully distinguished the ethical failings of these tactics. For the Yonkers planners to argue that their loyalty to the mayor and council was ethical is disingenuous when the deontological morals of the situation were straightforward — just not in a manner to which they subscribed.

Here is where it gets more problematic: even if those planners did find the mayor, council and advisory boards — the MHA, YURA, CDA, or DOD — reprehensible on a personal level, their decision to maintain a blind loyalty and complicity for keeping things the way they were goes back to their motive for doing so. Was it to assure they could keep their job? Was it to seal their reputation as “dependable” civil servants should they have chosen to move on in their career? These were not made clear in the Feld article, but ultimately it does not matter.

That said, I do take to task Feld’s argument that one of the planners’ failures was “not using their professional expertise to influence site selection . . . declin[ing] to utilize their technical skills and potential influence to recommend sites that were both physically acceptable and socially just” (Feld 174). This is naïve, maybe obtuse. It presumes that the planners’ personal ethics and grasp of humanity (in the Kantian sense) was predicated on an inclusive morality as we might hope it would be. That said, their own prejudices, whatever they were, would have been in place by the time they entered planning school, and their deontological world view would already have compromised this. Whether they learnt it from peers or family is irrelevant; their willingness to hold onto those moral values, as questionable as they were, is what ultimately implicated their participation in the city’s discriminatory practices.

While it may not be in the planning professor’s mandate — in a teacher-apprentice model of pedagogy — to change the way their apprentices reconcile the meaning of humanity and basic morality, it nevertheless should be their responsibility to suss out those prejudices in their planning candidates so to identify the fundamental flaws which could manifest in consequentialist decisions after they are licensed to practise. At the minimum, those issues would need to be confronted during training; at worst, a letter urging against the candidate’s membership application to the institution of planning might be necessary on the basis that that candidate’s deontological morality may maliciously harm the public, if not the profession’s broader reputation. If there is a place to advance a case in which planning should be a licensed profession, then this situation would probably be the strongest one could make in that favour.

As to the last question, I do not think it requires additional heavy analysis from Howe to determine what I would have done had I been a Yonkers planner during that time: I would not have been there in the first place. As a woman, I doubt I would have been let in the door as a serious professional in the 1970s, much less a visibly queer woman. Then again, I might be wrong. Of course, to answer this question means that I should avoid such anachronisms and revisionist rationalizations.

Setting this aside, I would have notified the mayor and council that, in light of federal U.S. law on segregation (i.e., Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Equal Protection Amendment), they were setting themselves up for a legal drubbing if they continued with a divisive, segregationist policy approach. I would draw an ethical line by putting forth the optimum planning recommendations I had prepared for an equitable outcome, knowing fully well that they would promptly be rejected. Then after a verbal dressing down by the mayor, council, and the city manager, I would head over to the copy room, pick up an empty box, return to my office to start packing away my personal effects, and then peck out a new résumé on the Selectric whilst waiting for personnel pink slip to arrive to my desk.


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