Planners should not be just paper pushers and processors!


In the planning profession, there is an inherent risk of urban planners becoming solely mundane paper pushers and permit processors. That is due to several factors, including:

  • The variety of requests being processed – rezonings, special use permits, variances, plats, planned unit developments, site plans, environmental permits, etc.
  • The regulatory processes established by laws and codes.
  • Politics within the office and the community at-large.
  • Internal office policies and procedures.
  • That much of planning is based on data gathering.

If planners are not careful, they could be spending their entire career moving paper from the inbox to the outbox and accomplishing little else. Before you know it, your career has reached its twilight and you have very little to show for many years of hard work. Is that really what any of us went to planning school for? Granted, some planning roles are weighted toward such activities, but that should be the exception rather than the rule.

For planners (and communities) to truly excel and thrive, our profession must shift from a state of paperwork overload and back toward being visionaries. Without foresight and vision, communities run the risk of becoming a narrowly focused interpretation of what the future should hold and not an image shaped by the input of all stakeholders. When the prototype becomes the accepted norm we all lose to the forces of bland sameness leaving us with communities that look-alike and which are without any perceptible unique local, regional, and communal attributes. The potential positives are simply discarded into the circular file of apathy.

No one is saying that paperwork is not a necessary evil. But, as with everything, too much is unhealthy. So, unless your departmental goal is to increase the profits of timber companies and paper mills or to employ more loggers and lumberjacks, please consider initiating any and all efforts which help free your planning staff from the burden of undue and unnecessary paperwork. Let them be free to again explore the glorious aspects of this oh-so-great and meaningful profession, without annoying encumbrances. Given the time and opportunity, your staff, your department, and your community will blossom from taking such a bold and courageous step.

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This entry was posted in Administration, cities, civics, civility, Communications, government, land use, logistics, planning, politics, urban planning, zoning and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Planners should not be just paper pushers and processors!

  1. I agree. I no longer call myself a “town planner”. I am a “civic planner”. “Civic” means that it is about people and places. I chair a voluntary community partnership. I am a director of a limited company formed by a local improvement group. I am a self-employed architect and civic planner in the private sector. I chair a government advisory group. I am a tax paying citizen. I am a pensioner, I am all of these.

    My most recent advice as we change planning systems in Northern Ireland has been to get younger planners out of their offices and about in places on a continuing basis to provide small amounts of professional assistance to community partnerships to make, implement and amend their own local plans. I encourage visionary design planners to assemble the ambitions, needs and offers of these very local plans into a delightful area plan, working with regulatory planners whose ambitions are legitimately more compliance-related than visionary. I encourage these activities to influence the continuing revision of the regional strategy as a result of real involvement at the level where it matters – every place.

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    • problogic says:

      I really like the title of Civic Planner! Also think your idea of getting younger planners out of the office it s terrific one. Well done. BTW – part of my family came to the US from Strabane in County Tyrone. Thanks, Arthur

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  2. David says:

    A timely article that highlights what I have recently experienced as a small town planning director. I spend more time pushing permits and chasing sign code violations (all necessary tasks) than planning for the future. This was driven by failed leadership of the elected council and appointed manager.

    The term “civic planner” is an appropriate role planners should embrace, to identify and educate their respective communities about the myriad of issues they face. Change is constant and the community-citizens, businesses and elected officials all need to be partners and engaged to address these issues. Meaningful community engagement is then another key role for civic planners.

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