Interview with Mitchell Silver – President of the American Planning Association
In my effort to interview some of the intellectual leaders in today’s built environment conversations, I caught up with Mitchell Silver, current President of the American Planning Association to get his thoughts on some of the current trends within urban planning today and what we might expect for the future. His outlook really provides a perspective on the pressing issues for the profession as well insight into where focus needs to shift. Understanding Silver’s perspective allows us to cut through some of the standing rumors and conjecture in order to get straight to the heart of what’s important for the built environment.
Josh: First of all can you tell us a little bit about the broad purpose of the American Planning Association and what it hopes to accomplish?
MS: The American Planning Association (APA) provides leadership in the development of vital communities by advocating excellence in community planning and providing the tools and ideas to meet the challenges of growth and change. In terms of what else we want to accomplish, and this is my specific role as President, is to guide the development of a 2-year strategic plan with the Board of Directors. One personal goal is to communicate to planners, elected officials and citizens that planning is relevant. I think planners went down a path where we basically became facilitators as well as code and planning administrators. We want to shift gears to be more forward thinking and that is why I’m saying that we really want to communicate the value of planning and why it is so relevant. We also want to instill a renewed sense of purpose to allow planners to understand why we do what we do and emphasize what is at stake. We also want to look at our Code of Ethics because our Code really gives us a strong sense of purpose about what we’re supposed to do as far as protecting the public interest. Our profession is about place and people. That is what we want to accomplish, creating great places for people. One of my taglines, which I use where ever I go is I want our profession, APA, to start to “lead, inspire, and innovate” to address the emerging trends and issues. That is what we expect to accomplish. We have five goals in our strategic plan, I’ll name three of them and I’ll shorten them for brevity sake:
- Lead domestically, collaborate globally
- Work toward a more just and sustainable future (stop equity washing)
- Inspire the next generation and grow planning knowledge
In our strategic plan we’ve aligned a series of strategies to reach those goals. We have other goals, but those are the goals that are very externally focused.
Josh: In a nutshell, why do you feel that there is a need for professional planners, why is it not something that other disciplines (i.e. architects, engineers, etc.) can perform as part of their job roles?
MS: As I stated, the planning profession is really focused on people and place as well as planning for today and tomorrow. We look at the built environment and we look at the various systems in terms of how they are all interconnected and interrelated. To my knowledge there is no other profession that even focuses on that. We are land managers. We’re placemakers. We also look at the economy of the place. We provide that unique mesh that helps drive how a place grows, shrinks or stays the same. Our profession is uniquely tailored to deal with place and people where we can connect the systems and we can connect the environment. We help promote orderly change and growth over time. We can certainly collaborate with other professions but no one is really that involved in how all those different systems – infrastructure, water, buildings and facilities relate to one another and fit together. Planners maintain a community’s quality of life and manage growth and change.
I would also add that part of our job is to explain the long-term consequences of present actions when you make decisions for land use, infrastructure or for buildings. We also talk about or should talk about the consequences of taking no action because there are consequences for ignoring or not addressing a problem. We take a comprehensive look at the connection between the economy, the environment, and people… that is something that is also unique to our profession. We really see ourselves as guardians of the future, based upon our Code of Ethics. We look long-term to make sure we protect the public interest and that we ensure that the environment, systems and people are all protected and connected.
Josh: What do you see as the most pressing demand for planners as we progress into the 21st century? In other words, what key issue will planners be most focused on? Will it be looking at suburban sprawl? Will climate change dominate the conversation?
MS: I would put Economic development and job creation first on the list. Demographic shifts is another issue I would expect planners to start to focus on. I would put climate change and sustainable development patterns on that list as well. . There are many others that we can talk about such as public heath, but if I had to summarize the critical ones, at least for the near future it would be economic development, demographic shifts, and sustainable development patterns.
If we look long-term, I would have to certainly put climate change and severe weather on that list. We’re beginning to see a lot of fluctuations with the weather patterns, which have implications for hazard mitigation and resiliency for how we’re going to plan and build. Water is another huge element. We’re now seeing what’s happening in the Midwest with droughts. This is going to be a century of more extreme droughts. As a nation, we’re going to have to figure out how we’re going to address water capacity issues throughout the country especially as the U.S. population will reach 570 million people by 22nd century. How places grow in the 21st century will depend on the level of conservation and the availability of water
Josh: The APA recently released its report “Planning in America: Perceptions and Priorities”, can you tell us a little bit about the reports most striking findings and how we might put it to use?
MS: The one that surprised me the most is that a majority of poll respondents — 79 percent — agreed that their community could benefit from a plan. The desire for increased local planning for economic growth runs across the political spectrum with support among two-thirds of Republicans and Independents and three-quarters of Democrats. But it also got support geographically as well as across race and ethnicity. For me, the takeaway for planners is that what we do matters. I think this is a very important message to planners. We need to understand the results of the poll and communicate differently. The second point which was somewhat of a surprise is that 67 percent of respondents believe that engaging citizens through local planning is essential to rebuilding local economies, creating jobs, and improving people’s lives. Again an important takeaway is that the public, if planners take the right priorities, sees a value in engaging in and supporting planning.
The third point, which was another surprise, is that about two-thirds of respondents (66 percent) say both market forces and community planning are necessary for economic improvement and job creation. Just 14 percent believe that market forces alone will do the job. Another takeaway is that we need both the public and private sector to help us create a strong economic environment and spur job creation.
There was one other point, the five top priorities that the public said that planners should be focusing their attention on:
- Job creation: 70 percent
- Safety: 69 percent
- Schools: 67 percent
- Protecting neighborhoods: 64 percent
- Water quality: 62 percent
Issues like land use, transportation, walkability… that actually polled at the bottom of the list. In the short term, planners have to make sure we meet the needs of our communities and not just talk about land use, transportation and walkability unless we can somehow connect them to these five important goals that the public is looking to us to address
According to Americans polled, planners were also in the top tier of professions that the public looks to in helping to solve problems. Surprisingly, planners polled ahead of elected officials. Planners were in the top group with neighborhood leaders, business leaders… I try to explain to planners that the public sees you in a role of helping them, but you see yourselves very differently. Planners need to accept their role in terms of helping the public tackle community issues.
Josh: I would agree that as a profession we tend to get way too focused on issues like land use and transportation due to the historic role that those elements have played for planners. For me personally as a younger planner and someone who is still a “rookie” in the field, I’ve definitely watched the profession evolve from that of a technical focus to a profession that is expected to have more critical interaction with people and communities.
MS: If you heard me talk, I always say that I know that in order to create better job opportunities we need better transportation access and other systems. Planners must improve their communication skills. Planners must learn how to frame issues in plain English. Planners often speak in two different languages – English and jargon.
Josh: I have to say that as a planner, I hear a lot of negative sentiment about planning (Agenda 21, etc.). It seems that from looking at the report that negative sentiment is simply over shouting legitimate public perceptions. Can you say anything about what’s causing it? Who is behind these polarizing issues and why is it so dominant in our reflections on these conversations?
MS: First, I think you’re correct. APA’s poll found that only 6% of respondents actually opposed Agenda 21 and clearly the vast majority of Americans don’t even know what it is. I think what is happening is that there is a very small and vocal minority that is sharing a point of view. America has always had groups that that oppose planning or one that perceives itself as pro-property rights. Planners also support property rights. It’s just a viewpoint where we can’t seem to agree on or see eye-to-eye, but there’s always been groups like the John Birch Society, that have a negative perception of planning and planners. The recent opposition to Agenda 21 or sustainable development practices is just another 21st century version of what’s been going on for the last 50 years or more. They’re small, they’re vocal, and social media has given them a different platform. The tactics they’re using is really to disrupt conversations to get attention because today controversy gets attention.
I think that over the last four years there’s a lot more receptivity to conspiracy theories and due to the polarization of politics in our country. The environment is riper for conspiracy theories. Almost every other month, I hear about another conspiracy. Unfortunately, that is the nature of the political climate that we are in right now until we can reach a level of civil discourse. It has nothing to do with facts, it’s all about perceptions. If you repeat these theories enough times they become real and unfortunately that is the environment we’re in and I don’t know when it’s going to end.
Josh: I’ll just throw in there that I really enjoyed the American Planning Association’s Communications Boot Camp that they just recently put on. I think that it’s great that the APA has taken a proactive response to dealing with these issues.
MS: The Boot Camp is what came to mind when you asked about how to overcome the conspiracy theory phenomenon. I was confronted by someone in a public meeting in July and I basically said, “I disagree, next question.” Now he was polite and did not shout me down, but I took the microphone so he couldn’t continue his making his inaccurate statements because it was not fair to the 300 residents who came to hear me speak on a specific topic. APA developed the Boot Camp as one way to educate or members on how to handle difficult public meetings. APA also suggested ways to talk about the environment, economy and equity without using the word “sustainability” because it means different things to different people. I believe in the environment, the economy, and equity which are the three pillars of sustainability, but I personally don’t use the word “sustainability”. I don’t mind saying “sustaining places” but I think we can still have a conversation about having a sustainable future and employing sustainable development practices without using the word “sustainability”. The word is unfortunately a distraction to some and there’s emotional baggage associated with it. A way to overcome that distraction is to pursue the same principles; you just don’t have to say the word “sustainability”. Ensuring we have “clean water” and “clean air” is sustainable. I don’t have to say we want “sustainable water” or “sustainable air” – we can just say what we mean “clean water” and “clean air” and avoid the jargon. We need to communicate differently in order to address some of the issues we’re hearing about Agenda 21. Planners must acknowledge that there is a very small minority of Americans that believe Agenda 21 is a plot to take away property rights and force people to live in dense urban settlements, which is simply not true. We just have to deal with it.
Josh: Do you think people are discouraged from getting involved in planning and community participation in general because of the controversies and conspiracies that arise? What can the aspiring planner do to advocate for genuine public participation rather than shouting matches or reactive participation?
MS: First, I think planners have to broaden their facilitation skills. I hold training seminars for my staff on how to handle difficult meetings and difficult meeting participants. Training helps planners understand how to handle these challenging situations.
Second, in the scenario that I just mentioned, where the individual attempted to change the nature of the dialog, a majority of the people in the room did not like the direction the conversation was going and wanted to change it. The audience was looking at me, the facilitator, to take control. After one or two comments of that nature I could see the whole room was supportive of me as facilitator taking control of the meeting and keeping us focused on the issue at hand versus going off into tangents. So, I think we have to learn how to look at the audience participants and make sure the meeting stays on track. This is easier said than done.
The third method is to have other means to have community dialog – a public meeting is just one method. There are other online forums and techniques that you can engage stakeholders in to get a balanced perspective so you don’t just have that one loud, vocal group dominating the conversation, either online or face to face.
People still want to participate in the planning process. People want to be heard. We just have to sharpen our facilitation skills and be willing to change the format to ensure we get a good cross-section of opinions and not just from the people in the room. Shouting doesn’t discourage people because it’s not frequent occurrence. I think people still have a desire to have a say in their community. Most Americans are in the middle and want a civil conversation about the issues. Even though we have left and right attitudes, I believe a majority of people that come to a meeting are somewhere in the middle and they’re willing to compromise and they’re willing to seek solutions. As planners and facilitators of meetings we need to recognize this spirit and not dedicate all of our attention to the screamers and the naysayers. We have to be able to set up our public meeting in a manner that deters screamers and the naysayers. If you break the meeting up into small groups it’s very difficult for the screamers to have influence except at their small table. If you have a townhall-style meeting with 100 people, they’re looking for an audience and a platform.
Overall there are many different techniques to avoid the screaming matches and attention grabbers. The bottom line is that people want to be involved and that’s good for democracy.
Josh: As I’ve done other interviews, I’ve attempted to capture some of the key observations from other leaders or icons in the field of planning. I’ve gotten some feedback from Richard Florida and from James Howard Kunstler, but what do you think the future of our nation’s built environment is? Do you think that we’re really going to see a dramatic shift away from suburbia? There seems to be a lot of evidence that we’re shifting toward a totally different style of development that is more urbanized than what we’ve seen in the past. Do you think there is any truth to that statement?
MS: Let me first state that the terms “urban” and “urbanized” are probably the most misunderstood words in planning and sociology. If you have a single family home literally within five minutes from the downtown core, people say that is suburban. Is it or is it simply low density? Suburb is a form of urbanization. When we say the nation is 80 percent urbanized, that includes the suburbs. The United States is not 80 percent “city.” When you tell people urban, they tend to think of high density or the pop culture definition of urban. When you tell them suburban, they think of low density. We need to educate or find a better vocabulary for what urban and suburban means.
Having said that, over the next 50 years the United States will grow by 124 million people. We will have to find a place for 50 million new housing units. As that is built, I suspect that most of that will be in a higher density scenario – it could be three stories – but we’re clearly looking at a more high density development pattern in the right places and not everywhere. I don’t see suburbs disappearing or going away. I do think overtime you’ll see a lot of retrofitting in suburbs particularly in centers and along corridors. I don’t know if you’re going to see as much retrofit in subdivisions because home owners associations are even more restrictive than zoning codes. I don’t think subdivisions are going to disappear, but I do think who lives in them is going to change. I think the biggest challenge for subdivisions is the rise of single-person households so I think over time you will see some adaptive reuse in subdivisions because those homes won’t be absorbed by single-person households. Bottom-line, I don’t think subdivisions are going to go away. Over the next 50 years, more people with more cities, town and villages of all sizes. For now, Gen Y and some seniors are very excited about living in cities and living in more urbanized areas. However, it is more likely that trend will be reversed in the future when people will want to live in more low-density settings with more greenery. So the country will continue to urbanize and I just don’t see the suburbs going away.
Josh: It’s interesting that you make that clarification with suburban and urban. I’ve been reading information from some of the key players within the New Urbanism movement and it seems that they’re highlighting that it’s no longer an urban/suburban dichotomy but that it’s more a gradient where you can have a one-story single family house and still fit within the paradigm of New Urbanism.
MS: I agree. I’m hoping I played a role in elevating the conversation, but it possible the new urbanists reached the same conclusion on their own. I raised the issue went I spoke a CNU 20 in May. I also shared my observations with Emily Badger, a freelance reporter, with Atlantic Cities and she asked me, “What trends are you hearing in your travels?” I told her about the reaction (which she’s since done an article on) I got when I start talking about urban. Some people would tell me they wanted to leave because “urban” did not address their small town concerns. Since then, I’ve started to include information about how urbanized areas and urban clusters are defined by the Census Bureau in many of my presentations.
There’s one other point that I wanted to talk about that I also share in my presentations and that is the future of the suburb, the post-1980s subdivision. If you know the quality of construction there’s a big difference in pre-war construction and post-war construction quality in terms of how homes were built and post-war construction of how subdivisions were built (particularly in the 1980s). In general, pre-war construction was custom built by craftsman with quality material. They were was built solid as a rock. After 1980, post-war construction shifted to pre-fab, mass produced, and built quickly to meet the market demand. I don’t know the resiliency of the post-1980s subdivisions. What will happen to those homes over time? The quality of construction changed dramatically. In fact after 20 years, you’re finding that these homes are not as resilient as pre-war homes . My hope is that when we look into the future, this will force the market to build smaller homes, more energy efficient homes and that we’ll exchange size for quality and I’m hoping for small homes, with better material that are more energy efficient. The big question mark is what is going to happen to these 1980s and 1990s subdivisions once they hit 50 and you start to see them wearing out. That is a big question because do you want to spend $50,000 on a product that is depreciating in value because you’ll never get your money back. It’s kind of a ticking time bomb that no one is paying attention to and I’m trying to raise the alarm bells and question what we should do about it. This is an emerging issue.
Josh: That is a really interesting point because where I live some of the most popular housing for young professionals are those pre-war neighborhoods where the original housing stock remains intact. People are finding it easier to retrofit those houses and make them more energy efficient as opposed to post-1980s construction which can’t be as easily adapted.
MS: Right, like I have a 1990s home now. We’re looking to sell and the siding is already a looming $6000 replacement cost. It has other issues such as floors warping. The point is that I’m not alone. The quality of these mass-produced homes is very different. Americans wanted nice new shiny inexpensive homes and the homebuilders filled that market demand. So my question is what do we do as these houses age. They’re already seeing their age and they’re only a couple of decades old. It looks nice when it’s new, but there is a quality difference between that pre and post-war construction.
We can’t avoid this ticking time bomb because clearly people want to sell their homes. As people age and want to move into areas that offer them the amenities will they have the option to move or are they stuck there because we may not recoup the $30,000 to $50,000 just to maintain the home? In most suburbs the price is depreciating while urban products are appreciating. That is a big unknown right now but it’s something that I’m beginning to pay attention to.
Josh: What are your thoughts on tactical urbanism? Obviously you ran into it in some respects with Matt Tomasulo’s work and the Walk Raleigh project, do you think it provides a new standard of driving conversations of place? Is it too rogue?
MS: It is in my opinion a trend that is going to evolve over time. What I like about it is the purity of the movement and that for the first time we are witnessing civic engagement and participation from a demographic group that had really not been active in planning for a long time. I have not seen this level of civic participation since the 1960s, so I encourage the guerrilla tactics so to speak because the motive is right on target and if we are committed to improve our environment then initially in this form.. I think over time, the whole DIY or tactical urbanism movement is going to evolve into something else. It’s already changing the conversation… it’s a gut check for traditionalists. I had to ask myself, ”did Matt break the rules or were our codes out of date?” If you look at what took place, it really forces you to think about the way in which you code your city, the way in which you plan your city and recognize that we have to be more flexible and streamline to adapt to change. I like the movement for that reason. Like I said, we haven’t seen this level of participation from that demographic group in almost 40 or 50 years. It’s something I believe we should embrace. Where ever I’ve seen it, it’s really changing the conversation. It’s forcing people to rethink the way they do things. I think the term will be around for another few years, but it will certainly evolve into something a lot more permanent over time.