Opinion: Is it time to say goodbye to the experts?

Last week, the City of Vancouver announced the names of 48 individuals randomly selected to form a Citizens’ Assembly on the Grandview-Woodland Community Plan. They have each volunteered to devote a significant amount of personal time over the next eight months to listen, learn and deliberate on community planning issues affecting Grandview-Woodland.

As I read the announcement, I was reminded of a recent article in Planetizen, an online public-interest information exchange for the urban planning, design, and development community.

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The article was titled ‘The Fall of Planning Expertise’ and describes how we seem to have lost respect for "experts" — those who have knowledge and/or experience in a particular field — and replaced it with a kind of "expertise egalitarianism" whereby everyone's opinion is given equal weight.

For example, the advice and recommendations of planners are frequently overridden by neighbourhood residents who know very little about the range of topics that underline the profession, but feel they know better because they have lived in a community for so many years.

In the face of such conflicts, the author suggests planners should ask: Are the powers and politics now vested in "community participation" undermining the planning profession?

Planners receive a broad education and experience in a range of disciplines including urban design, regulatory processes, technical modeling, economic analysis, environmental issues, and how to engage with a community.

Armed with this knowledge, in many instances they are attacked for being arrogant and elitist for insisting they know something the ordinary citizen does not.

Increasingly, residents believe their personal opinions should trump not only the planner’s individual expertise, but the collective expertise of the planning profession.

Most planners acknowledge that the community has every right to participate in the planning process. However too often they hear objections to proposals from neighbourhood residents who simply do not like what is being proposed. Objectors believe that should be sufficient justification for the City to reject the proposal or neighbourhood plan.

The situation is exacerbated since there does not appear to be any agreement on who should be the final authority on decisions related to planning and development; the local residents or the planning profession.

In the case of rezonings and other complex development approvals, the city manager’s office, the mayor’s office, or council believe they should have the final say.

I initially studied architecture, not planning. When I told my professor I intended to study planning he told me it wasn’t necessary since “planning is simply good architecture side by side”.

After working as a planner for many decades, I disagree.

Good planning provides the necessary framework for orderly and sustainable growth. Unfortunately, one of the reasons we may be having so many debates in our neighbourhoods over individual development projects is due to the fact we often do not have overall neighbourhood plans; and if we do, we do not always stick to them.

Too many residents believe this is because certain developers, architects, and marketing firms have too much influence in our city. As a result, properties are rezoned in the absence of any supporting planning framework or justification.

I believe another problem is that too often planners forget what they learned in planning school. Instead of applying their professional judgement, they become pollsters.

Their reports to council set out how many letters were received in opposition to an application, compared to the number in support, without adequate commentary as to the validity of the letters from a professional planning perspective.

For these reasons, I am looking forward to the results of the Citizens' Assembly. I believe it could result in a better planning process compared to what we have now.

However, I am not overly optimistic, since notwithstanding the time and effort to be devoted by the 48 Assembly members, most will never know as much as the planners who earned a university degree, and worked in the field.

Furthermore, too often planning decisions are made not by planners, but rather by politicians who allow political considerations, along with words like sustainability and affordability, to trump good planning and urban design.

If you do not believe me, just ask some planners who have recently left the city.

Twitter.com/michaelgeller

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