Dear Bear, Please Forgive Me

I had one of the most Fatherly of Father’s Day in the short history of the holiday. I awoke to breakfast in bed, stayed in bed to watch Sportscenter with the boys, stayed in bed to write the body of this post, went to the golf course and simulated the back nine at Augusta on the driving range (-11 with a hole-in-one at 12), had lunch at the deli with the family, spent 1/3 of the afternoon playing basketball with the oldest, spent 1/3 of the afternoon building a Lego city with the youngest, brewed some homemade root beer (ingredients: sassafras root, brown sugar, water, yeast), regripped my golf clubs (simultaneously harder and easier than I anticipated), drank German beer, drank French Champagne, grilled pork, watched World Cup soccer, and watched the last game of the NBA finals. Definitely not ready for Monday, but here we are.

Earlier this week I had the honor and privilege to return to my graduate school alma matter, Auburn University. Through some form of oversight, I was asked to participate in a task force to talk about the future of the planning program. It was a slightly awkward proposition as the five other task force members were very sharp people from all across the country. I can only surmise that I was included because of my good looks and/or college football knowledge. Our task over the course of three days was to consider the future of the planning program in light of changing conditions.

The college of Architecture, Design and Construction, along with the rest of the University, is a facing a new performance–based funding model. This model is in many ways similar to the City of Chattanooga’s budgeting for outcomes. Programs have two ways to prove their worth; they must be efficient (make money), or exceptional (self-explanatory). As with the case of our city budget, I question the details of (if not philosophy behind) the application of that model. This is, however, a topic for another day. Like it or not, the model isn’t going to change. The issue for the planning program is that it is currently neither efficient nor exemplary. In fact, it costs almost ten times more to educate a graduate planner than an undergraduate architect.

The other shift is one that is playing out in both practice and education. The profession is being stretched between those who believe in the value of design-based planning, and those who stress the value of data-driven, policy planning. In the “real world”, we find that the practitioners understand the importance of design. Planning firms and agencies are increasingly hiring architects and landscape architects to fill planning positions. The Planning Accreditation Board embraces the policy side of the equation, favoring policy specialization. The result is that accredited planning programs are often difficult to accommodate in design schools. (Randall Arendt wrote this excellent article on the issue.)

The question of design v. policy is the symptomatic of the dysfunction of the field. The overwhelming majority of planning work manifests itself in physical form. Zoning codes and subdivision regulations are not policy- they are design guidelines. Housing policies eventually result in houses. Planning for public health results in changes to the physical environmental.  We make projections and forecasts to plan for growth or contraction. The end result of all of the exercises is the design of a place. The fact that some planners do not acknowledge that design is a fundamental part of their work is shameful, if not incompetent. Not every planner needs to be a design genius, but at the very least they need to recognize that the policies they implement result in the physical form of the city.

The issue for the CADC to consider is whether it is more important to a) educate planners that are prepared for the real world, or b) to have an accredited planning program. We outlined a number of potential scenarios for the Dean. I rather suspect that some elements may be taken from each of them to craft a hybrid solution. In any event, this is what we heard from the stakeholders: Planning is important, planning is important is Alabama, Auburn is uniquely positioned to take a leadership role in planning in the state, and that the Dean should proceed boldly in realigning the program to capitalize on the strengths of the college and to meet the needs of the planners of the future. Be on the lookout for great things to come from the plains.

Dear Bear Bryant, please forgive me.

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