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July 05, 2021

Excellence Through Humanity: Planning’s Wobbly Paradigm Shift - Part One

Excellence Through Humanity: Planning’s Wobbly Paradigm Shift - Part One
April 2021
Rob Horne, RPP
School of Planning
University of Waterloo
The following is part one of a two-part series featuring an extended transcript of Rob Horne’s presentation, delivered virtually on April 8, 2021, as part of the University of Waterloo’s School of Planning inaugural planner-in-residence public lecture series. The University of Waterloo is one of six universities across Ontario that offer accredited planning programs so students can develop the knowledge and skills they require to become leaders in the planning field.

Before I begin, I wish to express my sincere thanks for the privilege of being the planner-in-residence for the 2020/2021 academic year. I first came to the University in 1980, fresh out of high school, and stayed for two degrees. Since then, I have had the opportunity to remain involved with the University in a number of capacities. A special thanks to Dr. Markus Moos, director of the School of Planning, for his humanity, creativity, and wise guidance, and to the rest of the academic leadership team. You should all be very proud of your contributions to our noble profession!
The views presented here are solely those of the author, and do not represent the views of the University of Waterloo. Finally, while it is recognized that changes are now being made to the Provincial planning appeal system on Ontario, Rob maintains the same concerns.

Where does one start in these unprecedented times? Amidst the tragedy of millions of deaths globally, including thousands of Canadian lives, we find ourselves navigating the uncharted waters of a modern-day global pandemic.
Incredibly, however, we find ourselves with more than one approved vaccine, and in record time. While we struggle to produce and administer the vaccines, we remain so fortunate to have a path to recovery.
Catastrophic times call for immediate shifts in our daily habits, and a re-establishment of what our broader priorities really are. They cause us to pause and reflect on home, work and especially health. There are countless collateral impacts, like disproportionate deaths in more vulnerable populations, but there are also dividends that could accrue, like greater participatory democracy and better community outcomes.
Today, I would like to share some of my reflections about the impacts of the pandemic on the planning profession itself. In short, I believe that the pandemic has precipitated a “wobbly” paradigm shift in planning, and in many other fields. This unbalanced paradigm shift creates opportunities to devise and catalyze good and lasting changes to our profession and to society, as long as we are consistent and persistent. My father used to call this “plain old grit.” I describe this paradigm shift as a move from endless iteration to meaningful systemic change, and to be clear, my definition of systemic change includes both structural (i.e. organizational) and cultural (i.e. attitudinal) transformation.
I would like to talk to you about four related themes that I believe inform this wobbly paradigm shift in planning. They are privilege, extreme polarization, professional erosion, and shared renewal.
Privilege and extreme polarization will be explored here, in part one of this blog series, and professional erosion and shared renewal will be explored in part two.
My first theme is privilege, and I offer it in two contexts.
First, planners enjoy the privilege of helping to shape the future of individual developments, communities and nations. Our profession is like no other; we consult with people, we collaborate to talk about options for the future, we develop shared visions and strategies, and we help make it happen. Our plans and professional advice will be seen in community landscapes for decades to come, like Stratford’s Tom Patterson Theatre proposal, which I had the privilege to be a part of. That is the very essence and importance of our privilege, and it is especially important in a time of systemic change.
The second context of privilege I offer is about longstanding societal inequities and exclusions. The incredible unrest we have all seen south of the border has many dimensions, but there is one we should all be paying close attention to. In North America (and in fact all over the world), there is a fear of personal power and wealth loss (and redistribution) among some. Others would say it simply boils down to defeating racism, and I cannot dispute that assertion. For the planning profession, and for the rest of society, we must admit that it is going to require a longer-term culture shift. We must also admit that only now are we talking about these important matters in a fulsome way and taking some action. I worry that the initial signs of dealing with diversity, equity and inclusion are token and symbolic in some cases, and not driven by “head and heart.” Time will tell, but planners can and should play major roles in resolving a variety of inequities and exclusions. For instance, let’s not forget our unresolved issues with First Nations.
My second theme is extreme polarization.
I use the term “extreme polarization” in an attempt to connote what I believe society is grappling with today. Witness the growing negativity and rampant conspiracy theories that are posted every day on social media. They appear to be founded on poisonous agendas that want us to think in absolutes. In other words, people are right or wrong; left or right wing; instigators or victims, winners or losers. What’s more, the truth is so often absent in the extremely polarized societal spin, the volume of data so large, and the repetitive messaging so unrelenting, that millions of citizens are readily misled. It is a stark contrast to the many “shades of gray” considerations that planners are weighing every day in support of good planning.
What does this mean for the planning profession? There are several dimensions. One is how we deal with social media, both a helpful and a very dangerous tool. It has become increasingly important for municipalities in particular to monitor social media and to ensure that, to the extent possible, facts and analysis are offered and misinformation is dealt with head on. It is not an easy go, and it requires significant resources. French President Emmanuel Macron was one global leader to seek to regulate hate speech, child influencers and fake news during elections on social media. While success in this type of regulation is a Herculean task, Macron has shone a light on this pervasive problem and has shown global leadership for systemic change in this area.
At a professional level, I would suggest that planning has negativity fences to mend as well. Over the years, I have seen unhealthy tensions between public and private sector planners grow. On our worst days, public sector planners are seen as paper pushers, and private sector planners are viewed as lobbyists. These are harsh words, but it concerns me greatly that the negativity may be increasing beyond healthy tension. Aren’t we all as professional planners supposed to be creative and collaborative community builders? Planners in all sectors have a great deal to learn from each other. Don’t get me wrong, either; I can point to many healthy relationships between public and private sector planners founded on facts, thoughtful analysis, and healthy professional interaction. It is, however, essential that we all support environmental health, economic prosperity and community vitality in a unified way. Have a look at the final report of the World Commission on Environment and Development (more commonly known as the Brundtland Commission), published in 1987. Its messages are still so relevant, and already at that time talked about the need to deal with social, environmental, and economic factors in an integrated and interdisciplinary manner.
The planning community needs to step up and solidify our wobbly paradigm shift. Systemic change can create great and lasting societal gains, and that is something that planners are well suited, qualified and experienced to support.
Above all, let’s strive for humanity, and not the abstract of perfection.

Stay tuned for part two of this blog series coming August 2. Let’s continue this conversation on Planners Connect. Write a discussion post and share your insights on our Planning Exchange Blog now!

References, Web Sources and Contributions
Berridge, Joe and Lord, Ian. Reforming the Ontario Municipal Board: Five Actions for Change. A report sponsored by the Regional Planning Commissioners of Ontario, 2016.
Drucker, Peter F. Numerous quotes from Dr. Drucker are available on many web sites.
Macron, Emmanuel. Numerous internet articles regarding social media regulation in France, in which President Macron is quoted. An interim report was tabled by France in May of 2019.
World Commission on Environment and Development, Our Common Future (New York: Oxford University Press), 1987.
Special thanks to Ontario Professional Planners Institute President, Justine Giancola, for our brief discussion about potential changes to future planning accreditation.
Special thanks as well to the students in my Plan 403 class who responded to the question “Why do you want to be a planner?”

The views expressed in this blog post are those of the author(s), and may not reflect the position of the Ontario Professional Planners Institute.

Post by Rob Horne, RPP

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