3 Days in the Life of an Environmental Program Manager
A Reflection on the Identity Crisis in Planning and the link between Planning Theory and Practice
Research Paper (undergraduate) 2013 24 Pages
This is a piece of writing that reflects on one of the current debates in the field of planning—the subject and profession of planning. I narrate how my three-day experience with a biologist working with community groups, corporate organizations and local governments to create and maintain dynamic urban green spaces in communities within the south-western Canadian province of British Columbia exposed my intellectual naivety about the very profession I am aspiring to become. My critical assessment of the contributions of the environmentalist, who is without formal training in community development or social planning, to community-building and social mobilization through his environmental and climate change mitigation programs, as well as the manner in which he deals with the daily challenges he encounters, shows how appropriate a professional planning identity, if so cherished by him, would be legitimate and justifiable. Focusing on the questions of what planning is and what planners do, I judge this assertion by scrutinizing the activities, communication acts, knowledge and skill-base of the biologist, from both practical and theoretical lenses. My findings and analysis display planning’s elusive notion of being a knowledge power house; show how change is effected at the grassroots; shed insight on the link between planning theory and practice; and offer some useful insights for those considering a profession in community development and social planning. Yet, I also note that while planning is increasingly becoming expansive, threatening its traditional identity and rendering it somewhat vague, its relevance and uniqueness remains unquestionable in our current world bedeviled by a complex maze of challenges of an unpre-cedented scale.
Key Words: Planning, planning theory, community development, environment, profession
Compared with traditional occupations such as farming, medicine and law, which are closely connected with the early development of human civilizations, planning is a relatively young profession. Contemporary planning is said to have begun in the 1900s as concerns over appalling social conditions, including cram-
med housing, disease spread, bad sanitation, pollution, social vices and ribbon development, in major European and American settlements in
the aftermath of the industrial and agricultural revolutions turned into visible social move-ments. This resulted in the crafting of plans and legislative instruments based on the ideas of thinkers such as Ebenezer Howard (of Great Britain) and Daniel Burhamm (of the USA) to promote the virtues of civic and moral order, as well as beauty, efficiency, beauty and har-mony—values pioneered by the Garden City and City Beautiful movements which they resp-ectively founded or joined (Hodge, 2005).
But this redemptive perspective of planning history, often described by its detractors as the “official story”, is criticized for the enlight-enment-driven interest (of material progress through scientific rationality) of its proponents; for the discriminatory and marginalizing effects of its practices; and for the cerebral and "white male-privileged" viewpoint of planning’s past, to the utter disregard for other forms and accounts of planning, particularly by the victims of modernist planning, including women and minority communities, in mainstream planning historiography (Sandercook, 1998). Related to this is the contention about the subject of planning theory—the intellectual roots and ideological foundations that shape the pro-fession in its contemporary form and practice.
In spite of these internal wranglings, however, planning has grown to become a major profession in our world today, giving birth to many sub-fields and obtruding almost every facet of society and field of human endeavor: from the way we run government, to the way we grow the economy; from the way we manage environmental challenges, to the way we deal with exclusion; from the way promote equity, to the way we battle exploitation; from the way we encourage change, to the way we maintain standard practices; from the way we interpret knowledge to the way we influence outcomes; and from the way understand pro-blems to the way we communicate solutions, making it challenging to provide a singular definition of what planning is and who planners are. Unsurprisingly, therefore, planners every- where have difficulty explaining who they are, what they do, where they come from, and where they are going. Yet, as a relatively young profession grappling to establish a legitimate and enduring professional identify for itself, planning must find ways to approach these challenges.
In this paper, I reflect on the problem of identity in planning as featured in the current thinking and debate on the professional landscape. I do so by drawing on excerpts from an eight-hour period I spent over three days with the manager of Common Grounds Program at Evergreen Vancouver, an environmental non-profit organization, in the Fall of 2008. I realize that, judging from a practical point of view as well as the requisite intellectual capacity and skills, there are perhaps many more people engaged in various forms of planning work who have not necessarily sat under the tutelage of planning institutions than those recognized in official circles. These professionals, who come from diverse disciplinary backgrounds and poss-es varying degrees of educational attainment, apply a wide array of skills and knowledge, some of which are inborn, while others are ac-quired through formal training and experiential learning. Yet, their contribution to development is as significant as professionally trained plan-ners.
I prove this by examining the nature of the work done by the program manager in question; the types of knowledge he brings to bear in his profession; the forms of value, skills and talents he exhibits through his activities; the kinds of people, places and institutions he interacts with; the nature of problems he encounters; and the methods he employs in dealing with them. I then reflect on the mix of planning theories implicit in his actions and conduct. In the immediate section that follows, I narrate my three-day encounter with the environmentalist, including what led me to embark on the exercise and how my experience with him unfolded. The first episode is from a workshop he facilitated; the second and the third are from his regular work days at the office, but present different events. My thoughts on why I think my interviewee could rightfully be regarded as a planner, judging from my observations about his work and actions and their relationship to planning theory, is offered after the accounts in section three. The implications for the planning pro-fession of my observations from my encounter with the professional in question are high-lighted in section four.
2. Encounters with an Environmental Steward
Day 1: Thursday November 27, 2008
Administering a Complementary Political Interest
Walking swiftly, I look at my time, and it’s 3:27pm (local time) in Vancouver. I finally arrive at the premises of the Central Area Office of the Greater Vancouver Regional Government in central Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada, where a workshop is underway. I am not exactly sure of the purpose of this gathering: who is attending, what is being discussed, or how it is even going to benefit me. But on reaching the entrance to this beautiful-looking structure, flanked by a huge expanse of woods, I heave a sigh of relief, as I finally have the opportunity to meet for the first time the gentleman I am desperately looking for.
Flipping open the door, I see a hanging with the caption “Evergreen-Trees for Tomorrow Work- shop”, and this gives my wondering mind an idea, blurred though, of what this meeting is about. Anyhow, I keenly follow the direction given me by the receptionist to the seminar room where the event is on-going. Gently turning the knob I see a small attentive aud-ience sitting around a conference table meticulously listening to a gentleman suppo-sedly speaking to them about an important issue, aided by a PowerPoint. Responding glee-fully to the welcome gesture from an on-looking participant, who spots me while slipping in, I take a seat and fervidly switch my mind from roving about all the troubles I had encountered while making my way to this rather thorny location, to focus on the subject of the meeting.
Unknown to me initially, Mr. Tim Part, who is the reason for my presence in the room, is the very person doing the presentation. Tim had invited me to attend the event after several we-eks, if not months, of telephone conversations, in which I had been talking to, and persuading, him about my intention to drop shadow on him for a Planner’s Day assignment. This assignment I make mention of is essentially a requirement for a planning history and theory course I am taking at one of north America’s oldest plann-ing schools, the University of British Columbia—an institution whose year of establishment parallels that of the emergence of the theo-retical foundations of the very profession it seeks to train students in.
Adopting a partly historical and partly thematic approach, the class had been looking at the main intellectual movements of the last two hundred years as they relate to the emergence of planning, and discussing how these ideas have contributed to shaping the profession in its form and practice today. Our examination of the different perspectives and accounts of the history of planning shows diverse and sometimes conflicting views about the subject of planning history and theory; nevertheless, it reveals their importance to practice.
To help students further deepen their appre-ciation of the complex, yet inescapable, relat-ionship between theory and practice in connection to this growing field, the course instructor (a planning theorist herself) asked students to spend a day with a planner working within the city or province where the university is located, to observe the nature of their daily work, while reflecting on the type of know- ledge, skills and theories imbedded in their actions and professional approach in their field of practice.
My host Tim Part is a biologist, not a planner, so you can rightly question my decision to shadow him and also appreciate his initial hesitation in endorsing my request, which you will soon get to know. But upon further persuasion and clarification of the academic intent of my assignment, Tim finally accepts my request and, in turn, invites me to attend this event, without giving me a hint that he is making the pre-sentation. And on this premise, I, with critical lens and ears, begin to look, listen and observe his every action and word carefully in order to make sense of what is going on.
Apparently, Mr. Part and his project team from Evergreen, the organization they work for, are conducting a public education and information workshop—the third of twenty-five such work-shops slated for a new program Evergreen has partnered the Government of the Canadian province of British Columbia to undertake within the next five years. This program, titled “Trees for Tomorrow”, is an environmental initiative meant to support the Province’s cli-mate change initiatives, whilst complementing the development of safe, healthy and green communities.
According to Mr. Part, the provincial govern-ment launched the $13 million scheme in 2008 to support communities in British Columbia (BC)—small and large, rural and urban—to address the environmental challenges they face while maximizing the values from their urban forests, through the planting of 4 million trees in public spaces, including schoolyards, hospital grounds, civic parks, campuses, and parking lots throughout BC over the next five years. The overarching goal of “Trees for Tomorrow”, Tim elaborates, is: “to reduce greenhouse gases in the atmosphere by at least 33 per cent below current levels by 2020”. He also explains that planting trees in urban areas will help lock away greenhouse gases that would otherwise contribute to climate change. According to him, this is a great opportunity for people to come together to make their communities greener, healthier, stronger and beautiful.
“Trees are indeed a critical part of our future, and Evergreen has been planting trees together with thousands of comm-unity groups, municipalities, students and home-owners across the province for almost two decades. We are very proud to be supporting the Province of British Columbia as it works to fulfill its vision to lead the world in sustainable environmental management”, Tim adds.
Proceeding, Mr. Part takes his time to unpack the key components of the scheme, beginning with the program objectives, project streams, funding arrangements, application processes, and eligibility requirements. Concerning the program’s objectives, he indicates that, in addition to the environmental aims, it also has some economic and social objectives that seek to enhance the wellbeing of the people of British Columbia, which he highlights as follows:
1. To significantly increase BC’s carbon sink through urban afforestation;
2. To expand urban forests, enabling local governments to meet their Climate Action Charter obligations;
3. To accelerate the forest regeneration of Mountain Pine Beetle affected urban areas; and
4. To contribute to achieving zero net defo-restation policy;
1. To facilitate major investments in local tree nurseries through purchase of inventory; and
2. To contribute to energy savings in comm-unities.
1. To transform spaces into areas where residents can be physically and socially active;
2. To promote the value of urban afforestation through education and extension; and
3. To optimize the strategic and continued involvement of youth and other community organizations.
Taking time to explain each set of objectives and the connection between them helps Tim’s audience to appreciate the linkages between the environment, economic growth and social development. For instance, through the purchase of seedlings from local nurseries, income and employment opportunities will be created for local residents; and through the activity of tree planting, members of a comm-unity—be it an institution or residential area—can interact, have fun and build relationships. Besides, the naturalized areas provide safe and healthy spaces for people in the community to gather, learn, relax and play, while deepening their connection with nature that acts as a balm for the human spirit. Environmentally, these green zones filter pollutants, moderate tem-peratures, provide food and shelter for wildlife, and at the same time release oxygen and nitrogen to suppress carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that causes climate change.
 This is a pseudonym I’m using in order to protect the personal identity of my interviewee.