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Thread: Planners reporting other planners

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    Cyburbian UrbaneSprawler's avatar
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    Planners reporting other planners

    In my neck of the woods, engineers who questioned the structural design of a school are now being investigated by the state board for failing to notify the board of their concerns. Engineers who sounded alarms about Meeker school face complaints

    As an engineer, I was just wondering about whether the planning profession has had situations of notifying the APA of planning concerns. Certainly this happens on matters of ethics, but what I'm more curious to know about is whether someone's made a case of reporting concerns about someone else's planning vision, design, etc.? Presumably professional planners are required to report other planners who fail to meet the standards of the practice; what examples are there outside of ethics?

    Has an AICP Jane Jacobs-type planner ever reported another AICP planner for being a Robert Moses type planner? Has a member of CNU ever reported to CNU about a planner who didn't go the full Duany?

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    OH....IO Hink's avatar
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    There are ethics investigations, so I would assume that the answer is yes. I don't think it is as news worthy when planners turn on planners. I also think that our profession is so nuanced, that ethics violations are either not noticed, or blatant.
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    Cyburbian Cardinal's avatar
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    It is a good question. I can think of a couple examples from my experience:

    1) During a comprehensive planning process the owners of land almost a mile from the edge of the city, near a future bypass interchange, argued that all of their land should be zoned commercial - over 300 acres outside a city of 15,000 people. There is no way in my lifetime that the city would have need for that much commercial acreage. On top of that, its location would dilute the vitality of the city's other commercial districts if it ever did begin to develop. The owners brought in a planning consultant from Illinois who stated in the meeting that designating this area commercial would be smart growth. When I questioned whether it would also be smart growth to grow incrementally from existing developed areas to prevent leap-frogging, he said that was a decision for the city to make. Either this jackass had no understanding of smart growth (and no right to be called a planner) or he was lying through his teeth. He was AICP, so I could have filed an ethics complaint and sent a copy of the videotaped meeting, but did not.

    2) Last year Angelou Economics, an economic development consulting firm, was caught lifting significant content from an earlier plan to insert into one it was then preparing. To many of us who compete with Angelou, this was no surprise. We have seen enough of their work to know that there are only a few things they change from one plan/study to the next. There are a couple other consultants who operate the same way. They have big advertising budgets, co-opt national professional organizations to "endorse" them by providing sponsorhips, brag of a long list of communities they worked with, and hope that nobody digs too deeply to see that much of what they put out is not original work. As I said, other consultants know who these firms are and we talk of it among ourselves. But who do we go to if we wanted to "report" them?
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    Unfrozen Caveman Planner mendelman's avatar
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    I agree with Hink. I only see ethics violations as being the most likely.

    But the ethics of a comp plan, etc are pretty subjective - if the creation of the plan followed all local, state and federal laws for open meetings, legislative actions, discrimination, etc. There are "good" and "bad" plans, but I would hardly think that becomes an ethics problem.
    I'm sorry. Is my bias showing?

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    Cyburbian UrbaneSprawler's avatar
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    Ethical violations aren't hard to come by in any profession. I just had to laugh last week when I saw a planning and development company list on their website as one of their pluses: "Creating loop holes to achieve project success"

    It's examples like Cardinal's first one though that intrigue me as it's not an ethics question, at least as I see it. What would happen if that example was reported to APA?

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    Cyburbian ColoGI's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by UrbaneSprawler View post
    In my neck of the woods, engineers who questioned the structural design of a school are now being investigated by the state board for failing to notify the board of their concerns. Engineers who sounded alarms about Meeker school face complaints... ever reported to CNU about a planner who didn't go the full Duany?
    Quote Originally posted by Hink View post
    I also think that our profession is so nuanced, that ethics violations are either not noticed, or blatant.
    Nor do buildings risk falling on the heads of children when we zone too much single-fam, run a charrette without dots, or write a document that argues smart growth is the answer for x community.

    Quote Originally posted by UrbaneSprawler View post
    It's examples like Cardinal's first one though that intrigue me as it's not an ethics question, at least as I see it. What would happen if that example was reported to APA?
    You'd make a lot of firms charge more, surely.

    Nonetheless, I do like 'the full Duany". I hope I can steal it.

    I've been watching the Meeker story unfold as well. When you cut funding and inspections become fewer and farther between, this is exactly what you expect. It is human nature to try and get away with everything you can. It is, IME, the default. It is a breath of fresh air when you find good firms and you want to keep them around. Also, lots of engineers and other such professions left the state long ago to look for work.
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    Cyburbian mike gurnee's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by UrbaneSprawler View post
    It's examples like Cardinal's first one though that intrigue me as it's not an ethics question, at least as I see it. What would happen if that example was reported to APA?
    APA would not touch it. They would contend that no ethical violations were involved.

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    Cyburbian UrbaneSprawler's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by ColoGI View post
    Nonetheless, I do like 'the full Duany". I hope I can steal it.

    I've been watching the Meeker story unfold as well. When you cut funding and inspections become fewer and farther between, this is exactly what you expect. It is human nature to try and get away with everything you can. It is, IME, the default. It is a breath of fresh air when you find good firms and you want to keep them around. Also, lots of engineers and other such professions left the state long ago to look for work.
    Steal away as I stole it from a presenter who used it as last year's Rocky Mountain Land Use Institute who said it in a presentation regarding hybrid zoning. The only issue with it are visual implications one might have.

    To add to the equation on the Meeker story though, perhaps there would be less in the way with issues in general had the schools been required to go through local planning and building code review. I'm not a fan of the advisory role local jurisdictions have on these.

  9. #9
    Cyburbian
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    Unless its an outright ethics violation or poor use/fabrication of evidence/facts/projections, it seems like it would be hard to call a planner on something like Cardinal's first example.

    IMO, I think state laws are a bulwark against abuse of planning. For example, a growth management state may require a comp plan to provide enough land within the GMA for 20 years' of growth. In this example, one professional could directly question another's statistics or conclusions. Or a land use plan may require a fiscal impact analysis - again something that can be questioned by professionals. Washington State even has the land use court where one side can challenge the assumptions in a land use plan.

    Even if there is no substantive requirement for plans, including certain types of analyses - such as a fiscal impact analysis - give something that can be questioned. For example, I saw a situation similar to what Cardinal mentions, but in this case the city massaged fiscal impact projections to make it seem like the designation of commercial zoning and incentives made sense. Whether its poor ethics or simply wrong assumptions, this gives an opportunity for one planner to question another's work. Ultimately, this could help ensure that the city is making informed decisions - you CAN zone that commercial, but a) there's not enough demand for commercial space, and b) the traffic and fiscal impacts will be x, y, or z.

    It seems harder to question more nebulous concepts like whether something is "smart growth"? In my state, land use planning is more or less a free-for-all where an analysis of what the community "wants" is the primary driver ... unless there is a requirement in state law that cities consider x, y, or z in designating land. As an example, I can think of a requirement in Oregon that a transportation plan consider all modes and be based on a realistic fiscal model - giving some guidance on what needs to go into a plan.

    Poor state laws can open the door for abuse. I recall one URA attorney explaining in a public presentation that while a large area of farmland wasn't "real blight", it was "legal blight" under state law and the Council could declare it a URA.
    Last edited by docwatson; 13 Feb 2012 at 12:47 PM.

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    Cyburbian ColoGI's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by UrbaneSprawler View post
    To add to the equation on the Meeker story though, perhaps there would be less in the way with issues in general had the schools been required to go through local planning and building code review. I'm not a fan of the advisory role local jurisdictions have on these.
    That's a good point - building plan review likely would have caught it, and surely a site inspector would have noticed something as well; interested to see what other site inspections find. I suspect there are some down in La Plata County looking to review the power of commissions as well...
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    Cyburbian UrbaneSprawler's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by mike gurnee View post
    APA would not touch it. They would contend that no ethical violations were involved.
    Quote Originally posted by docwatson View post
    Unless its an outright ethics violation or poor use/fabrication of evidence/facts/projections, it seems like it would be hard to call a planner on something like Cardinal's first example.
    Appreciate the input, especially docwatson, your take on it all. I find the subject interesting given my viewing of the question through a different lense, not being a planner by name.

    It could perhaps be viewed that the work of a planner professional does not result in decisions that impact the safety of the public, as opposed to say a structural engineer. Yet, I still think that beyond ethics, all professions, including planning, can have competency questioned.

    Perhaps these aren't good examples, but I have a couple. I see work of transportation planners preparing long term street plans for redevelopment where half the new roads are proposed to go through existing buildings, and then our group is left wondering how to enforce developing their vision of a future street network that seemingly has no consideration with existing realities and constrains. I've seen transportation planners demonstrate that their traffic modelling for subareas combined with existing zoning call for collector level streets at quarter mile spacing, where everywhere else we've been operating fine at half mile spacing. (Fortunately logic appears years later and several collector streets were eliminated from the subarea plan).

    Shouldn't the planner who can't seemingly run the transportation model correctly and factor reality into the situation be called into question professionally just as much as the engineer whose design might be viewed as substandard? If a group of professionals can't question competency within their profession, only ethics, then I think to the public at large, it runs the risk of watering down the need for the profession, or at least the need to certify the profession.

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    Cyburbian Cardinal's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by UrbaneSprawler View post
    Appreciate the input, especially docwatson, your take on it all. I find the subject interesting given my viewing of the question through a different lense, not being a planner by name.

    It could perhaps be viewed that the work of a planner professional does not result in decisions that impact the safety of the public, as opposed to say a structural engineer. Yet, I still think that beyond ethics, all professions, including planning, can have competency questioned.

    Perhaps these aren't good examples, but I have a couple. I see work of transportation planners preparing long term street plans for redevelopment where half the new roads are proposed to go through existing buildings, and then our group is left wondering how to enforce developing their vision of a future street network that seemingly has no consideration with existing realities and constrains. I've seen transportation planners demonstrate that their traffic modelling for subareas combined with existing zoning call for collector level streets at quarter mile spacing, where everywhere else we've been operating fine at half mile spacing. (Fortunately logic appears years later and several collector streets were eliminated from the subarea plan).

    Shouldn't the planner who can't seemingly run the transportation model correctly and factor reality into the situation be called into question professionally just as much as the engineer whose design might be viewed as substandard? If a group of professionals can't question competency within their profession, only ethics, then I think to the public at large, it runs the risk of watering down the need for the profession, or at least the need to certify the profession.
    Yours is an interesting example. I think the issue with many transportation models is that they are based on a number of assumptions concerning both inputs and outputs. We know it is the nature of many transportation folks - maybe especially transportation engineers - to think that all roadways need to be able to accommodate cars traveling at 65 MPH at all times. The alternative would be to recognize that 25 MPH is a good speed on an urban roadway and that it is acceptable for it to move more slowly during peak times - but that is not the way they think. Build your model with those assumptions and it will show the need for every road to be built to collector standards. It isn't negligent or even wrong, it is simply not good planning.

    I am a bit surprised that people are not more critical of my example of the planner who called leapfrog growth and over-zoning commercial "smart growth". As an AICP planner I thought he should know the principles of smart growth, and be ethically obliged to honestly represent them to the community. I got the feeling he thought he was the big Chicago-area consultant coming into the small Wisconsin town and that 1) people would not know enough about smart growth to challenge him, and 2) we would all bow down in awe to his big-city credentials.
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  13. #13
    Cyburbian
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    It could perhaps be viewed that the work of a planner professional does not result in decisions that impact the safety of the public, as opposed to say a structural engineer. Yet, I still think that beyond ethics, all professions, including planning, can have competency questioned.

    Perhaps these aren't good examples, but I have a couple. I see work of transportation planners preparing long term street plans for redevelopment where half the new roads are proposed to go through existing buildings, and then our group is left wondering how to enforce developing their vision of a future street network that seemingly has no consideration with existing realities and constrains. I've seen transportation planners demonstrate that their traffic modelling for subareas combined with existing zoning call for collector level streets at quarter mile spacing, where everywhere else we've been operating fine at half mile spacing. (Fortunately logic appears years later and several collector streets were eliminated from the subarea plan)
    .

    I think while at the master plan level, we may not directly be addressing safety the way, say, the design of a particular intersection design may be more or less safe, the master plan addresses a host of other issues, from sustainability and walkability to public health and the redevelopment potential over time. This is why I like the idea pioneered by the ITE and CNU, that streets must be sensitive to their desired land use context. While collectors at half-mile intervals, that are not interconnected one to another beyond the superblocks formed by arterials, may "work" in one sense, they may not support overall goals like mixing housing types, supporting neighborhood-oriented retail, distributing traffic, or maintaining a high degree of connectivity for both auto traffic and pedestrians. Cyclists, too, prefer collectors with bike lanes to arterials (research showing only about 7-8% of people would use a bike lane on an arterial). Another issue I see coming up is the desire to accommodate electric vehicles that can't go more than 35 mph - something that can be accomplished with a good network of collectors. I think these are all reasons why Ft. Collins, for example, implemented a quarter mile grid of collectors for newly developing areas.

    Thus, engineering may tell us how to design the safest intersection where two 55 mph intersections meet at one-mile intervals, but planning may tell us if this is the street network we even want. I agree that planning and models need to be integrated - but isn't modeling what a lot of transportation planners do? Of course the model is integral in providing the data to make good decisions. The street network forms the bones of a community, along with its associated underground utilities, and is hard to change - thus the choices we make today may be important long into the future.

    I think of Denver, where our well-interconnected dense pre-war street network continues to serve our city traffic well, even though most arterials are 35 or even 25 mph roads with adjacent redevelopment capacity and on-street parking. On the other hand, our highways and suburban arterial systems, supposedly designed with the best models, are constantly overloaded and crawl along during rush hour.

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    Cyburbian ColoGI's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Cardinal View post
    I am a bit surprised that people are not more critical of my example of the planner who called leapfrog growth and over-zoning commercial "smart growth". As an AICP planner I thought he should know the principles of smart growth, and be ethically obliged to honestly represent them to the community. I got the feeling he thought he was the big Chicago-area consultant coming into the small Wisconsin town and that 1) people would not know enough about smart growth to challenge him, and 2) we would all bow down in awe to his big-city credentials.
    Why the credential, IMHO, doesn't do much.

    Nonetheless, the "credential" doesn't have much to do with safety, but health and welfare can be directly affected by bad urban design. The street network can be poor and cost cities money in delays and pollution. Maybe there is a little safety wrt non-motorized, but overall it is about health and quality of life. My head is buried in LID at the moment and IMHO planner/designers can do a good job here in place of engineers, but again most of our influence is in QOL.
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    Cyburbian
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    I don't think that good faith academic, ideological or technical disagreement should be grounds for disbarrment. NUists reporting non-NUists is just stupid. A planner can, in theory, be both competent and professional, and work on nothing but single-use single family suburbia linked by highways.

    What those of us who are certified SHOULD get reported for is conduct that breaches the AICP code of ethics.. and I can think of plenty of examples where planners have

    For example,
    - people who consult on a project while serving as a reviewer of the same project with a regulator, without bothering to disclose the conflict
    - people who accept job offers from developers while they still have review authority with the city
    - people who work in consultancies who take information obtained on one project and use it on another, or another bid, to the detriment of their original client or to the stakeholders
    - people who have privileged information who intentionally hide or conceal it to the detriment of stakeholders or the public interest
    - etc etc etc

    I also think there can be a very fine line between advocacy planning (for a client) and the due diligence requirements of professional conduct in discovery... but that's a whole other issue.

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    Cyburbian UrbaneSprawler's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Cismontane View post
    A planner can, in theory, be both competent and professional, and work on nothing but single-use single family suburbia linked by highways.
    The corollary is certainly true as I knew an incompetent and unprofessional, militant-New Urbanist-planner.

    It's interesting to me, as it seems from what I've gathered in this thread that while ethics can certainly be called into question in the planning profession, competency apparently cannot. If that's truly the case, then shouldn't the AICP exam theoretically just be a bunch of ethics questions?

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    Cyburbian
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    Quote Originally posted by UrbaneSprawler View post
    It's interesting to me, as it seems from what I've gathered in this thread that while ethics can certainly be called into question in the planning profession, competency apparently cannot. If that's truly the case, then shouldn't the AICP exam theoretically just be a bunch of ethics questions?
    I think competency can certainly be called into question if the result of incompetency jeopardizes the public interest. I just can't think of many cases where it's happened (as opposed to the much more common ethical breaches) because there are usually enough checks and balances to catch it and if it isn't caught, then blame is usually so diffuse that it doesn't matter (yes, you can mess up a wetlands delineation but usually that's caught by the Army Corps and the state and whatnought.. if everybody messes up, then the blame could, in theory, be shared).

    I think this is generally true for planners, architects and engineers - there are very few if any disbarrments in those three professions due solely to technical incompetence. Usually, when a crane collapses or a building facade leaks, it's because the engineer or the architect willfully committed an ethical breach or intentional oversight in order to make a client happy, to get money or to keep his job, not due to a calculation or design error (they signed off or failed to be attentive to contractor bribes of a crane safety inspector or they turned the other way when a contractor skimped on sealant).

    Similarly, when a transport planner is sued for messing up a traffic demand projection that was then used to get financing to build a toll road (real example) and a bankruptcy results, it isn't usually because the transport planner was incompetent. It was because he unethically succumbed to a vast amount of client and political pressure to bias results to either get the business or ensure that the project was built and financed. ..or a land-use planner/zoning planner might have caught and signed off on a 0.05 FAR cess above the regulatory envelope because he knew that his boss was under pressure from the mayor to get the project approved without hitches. Technical errors might be what happened, but the cause of those errors is usually an ethical breach.

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