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Community planning for the 2020s and beyond

A crisis makes thoughtful people think. Not just about what’s happening in the world, but about their relationship to it.


More people are thinking about systemic racism and white privilege in the wake of the racial justice movement. Climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic has caused many to think about how seemingly small actions – walking more, wearing a face mask – can make life on earth more sustainable.

For those of us who want to help communities heal and recover faster and become more resilient, now is a good time to think. Not just about what issues we address, but how we address them.


Urban planners, landscape architects, and many government officials tend to work with two problem-solving approach: prescriptive and proscriptive.


In the prescriptive approach, we believe our expertise can help us design better places and better societies. We will enlighten people, like Prometheus bringing fire to the ancient humans.


Prescriptive professionals show us watercolor-style images of good-looking, thin, and Banana Republic-clad people (in socially acceptable levels of diversity) strolling in adorable streetscapes. The message: If you mandate very specific design and building guidelines, you will get that.


Prescriptive practice works best when you know what will happen in the future. Do you?

In the proscriptive approach, we believe that people tend to do bad things, so we program and regulate spaces, like Beowulf keeping Grendel from our doors.


Both views have their value. When people we are trying to help feel anxious or confused, it helps to show them pathways to better futures. But being prescriptive can make us arrogant. We believe our training and experience makes us smarter than people we work with. Being proscriptive helps us to protect against threats to our health, safety and welfare. But it can make us overly anxious. We’re so hyper-focused on looking for hungry wolves that every noise in the forest scares us.


Proscriptive community professionals believe that anything that is not specifically approved in a regulation is implicitly denied. Yes, they want original, innovative solutions – as long as they have been thoroughly tested somewhere else.


Proscriptive practice works best when you know exactly what threats you’re facing. Do you?


There is a different approach: adaptive. Compared to prescriptive and proscriptive approaches, the adaptive one is more humble and confident. Adaptive professionals value other people’s knowledge. They are more like climate scientists than weather forecasters. They can imagine, and help others imagine, possible futures. But they avoid making very specific predictions. Like proscriptive professionals, adaptive professionals understand that without some legal or ethical guardrails, some people, intentionally or unwittingly, can threaten the well-being of communities. But they are more open to new ideas. They don’t always say ‘yes’; more like ‘let’s see.’


Creative placemaking, and its cousin, tactical urbanism, are inherently adaptive. Effective creative placemakers know that the best way to grow more sustainable communities is to walk with and respond to the people there, rather than try to mystify or direct them. Creative placemakers and tactical urbanists know that some things will work, and other things won’t; that putting up a parklet and hiring some local musicians to play there is really not as risky as brain surgery (no matter what the city’s insurance agent says); and that you only truly fail when you don’t learn from your mistakes.


At this point, prescriptive and proscriptive professionals might cock their heads back, look down, and say “so creative placemakers are just glorified facilitators who do artsy stuff?” Not at all.


Creative placemakers collaborate and share to get as many people involved as possible, meeting them where they are – emotionally as well as physically – and building leaders as community stewards. Creative placemakers understand that people tend to nurture what they confidently create – so they engage local arts to help surface creativity and cultural activities to grow confidence.


Since they can’t predict the future, creative placemakers tend to work in loops, rather than straight lines. They monitor, assess and evaluate. When things don’t go as expected, they may go back to a previous point in a project. This helps move them forward. Their questions about the past and doubts about the present empower their faith in the future.


Adaptive practice should seem familiar to professionals who’ve studied ideas like wicked problems, reflective practice, communicative planning, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, or the works of Peter Senge, Daniel Goleman, Jim Collins, Peter Block or Margaret Wheatley.


Wanting to be more adaptive in your practice is a good start, but not enough. Our professional approach isn’t just a set of behaviors. It shapes our view of what we think is correct, who should influence us, and what we are willing to consider. It simplifies things – like a shopping list. But like a shopping list, it is limited and limiting.


Without evaluating our own approaches, we tend to fall into what James O’Toole in Leading Change calls the ‘tyranny of custom’: doing things the same way because that’s how we’ve always done them.


If we want to be more adaptive, we should also think about when it’s appropriate to be prescriptive and proscriptive. As an urban planner, I am trained to imagine possible futures, and how to reach them. When I can be reasonably sure about the near future, I can feel comfortable putting together a detailed set of strategies. I’m comfortable being more prescriptive about the things that I can most influence.


And someone who worked on planning efforts in New York after 9/11 and in New Jersey after Superstorm Sandy – and who, like many, was saddened by the Ghost fire in Oakland, I strongly believe that we should regulate our spaces to protect public health, safety and welfare. If I know what the threat can be, I can collaborate with others to create strategies to minimize those threats.


We can feel more comfortable being prescriptive and proscriptive when we know, not just believe. In times of uncertainty, we should be more adaptive. And really, is there ever a time without uncertainty?


Image: "Flexible Flamingo - Nearly an 8" Jeff S. PhotoArt at HDCanvas.ca https://www.flickr.com/photos/67184449@N05/10339426835


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