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<xTITLE>Urban Planning: The Key Is Collaboration</xTITLE>

Urban Planning: The Key Is Collaboration

by Larry Susskind
June 2009

From Larry Susskind's blog on the Consensus Building Approach

Larry Susskind
Urban planning is a profession. People all over the world are trained to be urban planners and they have been for a long time. They study a variety of things including patterns of urbanization, land use and the design of cities, techniques for financing economic development, community organizing and mobilizing strategies, approaches to ecosystem maintenance and restoration, and the history of plan making.  More than ever, planners are viewed as generalists with a specialty.  Generalists in that they need to know about all the possible ways of intervening --through a complex web of institutions -- to improve the quality of life in places and spaces.  Specialists in that the various sub-sectors in which they work (transportation systems, housing production, waste handling systems, social service provision, green building design, information management, job creation,  ecosystem management, etc.) require increasing depth of knowledge to be effective. Above all, planners must know how to reconcile conflicting claims in the face of limited resources.  It is not possible to take action in the public arena without political support. So, planners have to know how to generate an informed constituency ready, willing and able to push for change. 

If planners think they only work for whoever happens to be in power at the moment, they will quickly be pushed out as new leaders are voted in and old leaders are put out to pasture.  If planners claim to be above the political fray (working on behalf of some vague "public interest" that only they understand), they'll also be out of work quickly because they won't be able to secure the political mandate they need to be effective. If they try to argue that their role is to provide independent technical advice they'll quickly be outdone by other professionals with more in-depth technical training or greater expertise.  The only way planners can make a case for the indispensable role they play is to argue that they are uniquely skilled to broker interactions among those in positions of power, stakeholders who make up the constituencies of those who are elected and appointed, and the technical specialists who have a great deal of "know how" but very little "know why." Planners need to be "implementation specialists" who can make things happen.

Implementation specialists need three kinds of specialized knowledge.  They need to know how to frame problems in tractable ways.  The need to know how to facilitate joint problem solving. And, they need to know how to read and take action within complex institutional settings. If I try to lift a heavy object in the wrong way, I won't be able to move it, and I'll hurt myself in the process.  But, if I lift it properly I can move it anywhere I like.  Problem setting, or framing as it is sometimes called, requires in-depth knowledge of the systems or environments within which I'm operating.  Especially when there are lot of players involved (and they feel strongly about things), skilled facilitation is the key to generating informed agreement and meaningful commitments.  I've got to help people use their time wisely and deal with their differences in constructive ways. Charting a course of action in a complex setting and convincing others to follow suit requires knowing how to build trust, assume the temporary mantle of leadership and communicate effectively. All these competences can be taught, although the learning proceeds more quickly in coaching (inductive) rather than didactic (deductive) settings. 

Urban planning fails whenever designs, policies and programs are imposed on unwilling or unsuspecting stakeholders.  And, phony commitments to participation or consultation don't fooled anyone. Decide-announce-defend has been the mantra for far too long (and it still is) in a many  urban planning settings.  Serious consultation requires that problems be defined jointly, options be considered together (in light of information collected in concert), decisions be made transparently and accountably; and monitoring, adjustments and learning be truly collaborative.  Decision-making responsibility and political power may be asymmetrical, but it is nevertheless in the interest of those in positions of authority to find out what they can and should do that will win the broadest possible support. Planners can help. Urban planners needs to know how to build informed consensus, especially in situations where the wrong policies will put lives in jeopardy. 

The urban planning field is going through one of its periodic crises of confidence.  While the majority of the earth's population is now living in urban areas, planners wonder whether they have an important role to play.  Given the claims of other professions (like civil engineering, management, architecture and applied social science), planners wonder how they can compete. As it turns out, there is no other profession better equipped to build informed agreements on what ought to be done (to improve the quality of life in all kinds of places and spaces). There are no other professionals with a clearer sense of the kinds of changes that are important or how to build consensus regarding the most effective ways of realizing them. 


Lawrence Susskind was born in New York City in 1947. He graduated from Columbia University in 1968 with a B.A. in English Literature and Sociology. He received his Masters of City Planning from MIT in 1970 and his Ph.D. in Urban Planning from MIT in 1973. 

Professor Susskind joined the faculty of the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning in 1971. He served first as Associate Head and then as Head of that Department from 1974 through 1982. He was appointed full professor in 1986 and Ford Professor of Urban & Environmental Planning in 1995. As head of the Environmental Policy Group in the School of Architecture and Planning at MIT, he currently teaches four courses (Negotiation and Dispute Resolution in the Public Sector (11.255), International Environmental Negotiation (11.364) taught jointly with the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, Multi-party Negotiation (11.257) taught jointly with Harvard Law School, and Use of Joint Fact-Finding in Science-Intensive Policy Disputes (11.941)), oversees a research budget of approximately $250,000 annually, and supervises more than a dozen masters and doctoral dissertations a year.

From 1982-1985, Professor Susskind served as the first Executive Director of the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School -- an inter-university consortium for the improvement of theory and practice in the field of dispute resolution. He currently holds an appointment at Harvard as Vice-Chair for Instruction, and Director of the Public Disputes Program at Harvard Law School. Professor Susskind is responsible for an extensive series of action-research projects, the training of senior executives, and serves on the Editorial Board of Negotiation Journal and as head of the Clearinghouse at the Program on Negotiation. He has developed more than fifty simulations (distributed by the Clearinghouse at the Program on Negotiation) that are used to teach negotiation, dispute resolution, and consensus building throughout the world. 

Professor Susskind is one of the country's most experienced public and environmental dispute mediators and a leading figure in the dispute resolution field. He has mediated more than fifty complex disputes related to the siting of controversial facilities, the setting of public health and safety standards, the formulation and implementation of development plans and projects, and conflicts among racial and ethnic groups -- serving on occasion as a special court-appointed master.

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