Playing With Politics

A Blog on Law, Politics, Planning, Development, and Other Vices

Planning Confidential: What They Don’t Teach in School Can Hurt You

Posted by Roobs on May 27, 2013


I originally wanted to go to law school but I changed my mind during my junior year at Berkeley.  I chose to go into urban planning instead, since it fit in more with my personal and professional interests.  My two years in UCLA’s urban planning program were fun, educational (obviously), and stressful.  I got to study really great topics in planning and even design a neighborhood around a potential high-speed rail station in Burbank (neat!)  But now that I am a year removed from graduation; I look back and think that there are things that planning school just doesn’t do well in preparing future planners.  I  believe there are a few things we can change to fix that.

My humble beginnings

I was in Los Angeles when I received the admissions call from UCLA.  I was in the backseat of a car traveling with a friend and campaign staffer during the 2010 cycle (I used to do political work).  I was working with them on Kamala Harris’ campaign for California Attorney General.  We were traveling through Downtown Los Angeles on our way to City Hall, where Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa was announcing his endorsement for Kamala (over his own City Attorney, Rocky Delgadillo.  Drama.)  I didn’t recognize the number and almost didn’t pick up, but in an attempt to look busy in front of the staffer, I decided to answer the call.

“This is Reuben”, I answered.

It turned out it was one of the graduate advisors at UCLA.  She was calling to inform and congratulate me that I had been accepted into the UCLA Master in Urban & Regional Planning program (given the awkward acronym of “MURP”).   The car had just arrived at City Hall while she was still offering me an enthusiastic congratulation.  We were late to the ensuing press conference so when we arrived they needed to bolt out of the car.  The advisor continued to give me this great speech about being accepted but I really just didn’t have time to listen.  I interrupted her.

“Thanks.  I do accept.  But I need to go right now.  The Mayor of Los Angeles just arrived and we’re late.”  I hung up.

Luckily, they still took me after that.

With no previous formal planning experience and only a legal and political background, this was how I go into the planning program at UCLA.

Planning school is like law school


Deck Shiffler –
“In law school, they don’t teach you what you need to know.  It’s all theories and lofty notions and big, fat ethics books.”

Rudy Baylor – “What’s wrong with ethics?

Deck – “Nothing, I guess.  I believe a lawyer should fight for his client, refrain from stealing money, and try not to lie. You know the basics.”

Rudy – “That was blatant ambulance chasing”

Deck “Right, but who cares?  There a lot of lawyers out there.  It’s a marketplace.  It’s a competition.  What they don’t teach in school can get you hurt.”

 From the 1997 film: The Rainmaker

Law school doesn’t teach you how to be a lawyer.  That was something my father, a lawyer, used to say to me often.  What law school does, and does very well, is teach you how to think like a lawyer.  Planning school is pretty much the same thing.  After two years of a planning education, I and many of my fellow graduates can tell you one thing: planning school did not at all teach us how to practice planning.  Instead, it taught us great planning theories, methods, and even some ethics.  It taught us or simply reaffirmed how to prepare research reports and simulate a planning report.  We can tell someone why congestion pricing is good, why form-based codes are better than traditional zoning, and why density usually includes tall buildings and why that’s ok.  But that’s about it.

A planning education doesn’t really prepare you to go out in the field and interact with belligerent development hecklers or an austerity driven city council that is months shy from taking the city into bankruptcy.  It doesn’t teach you the permit software used by cities or how to be the city planner at a planning counter – the bread a butter of the planning profession.  Planning school doesn’t teach you how to deal with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), write an Environmental Impact Report (EIR), or speak an odd language known as civil engineering.  There was no class entitled: “CEQA, Alcohol, and You”.   This can be a problem.

Planning education assumes too much

The underlying problem with planning education is that it seems to be set up on the premise that its applicants have studied and worked in the planning field during college; acting more as an institution of skill refinement than as one of skill creation.  It forgets that the field of planning is, still, rather obscure.  Most planners are like me: they’ve always wanted to be in planning but they never knew it because no one ever told them (or knew) what that was.  Not too many kids say they want to be urban planners when they grow up and take classes and jobs on that particular track.  Just look at how I got into planning school: I had a law and political background the moment I was accepted.  So if you were like me and were making the change because you realized later that planning was what you wanted to do; the joke is on you.  The best example from my personal experience is with the Urban Design & Development concentration at UCLA.

The Urban Design & Development concentration (aka: D&D) at UCLA is a rude tease; the equivalent of getting blue-balled by your sexual partner.   For those who have no design or architectural background, D&D offers crash courses in how to draw plan view drawings and elevations by hand and using AutoCAD, and a crash course in Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator.  But then you are required to jump into more in-depth courses, like site planning, where those skills need to advance pretty quickly.  Much of the skills I have now using AutoCAD, Google SketchUp, and Adobe CS came from my own free time playing around with the programs at home.

Now, the faculty is aware that not all of their students are going to produce professional quality graphics, which they are willing to overlook as long as the underlying points in the graphics are correct.  I can understand this but it is a problem in of itself.  If you can’t produce a professional quality graphic by the time you graduate and are looking for a job; good luck finding a design firm willing to wait for you to get to that point and still pay you, especially in the current job market.

Planning education really does assume too much – that we’ve all wanted to be planners since birth and have prepared thusly, which is dangerous for those entering the job market.  The question becomes how we can solve this and improve the planning education process.  I believe there are three options that can accomplish this.

Planning education should be three years 

Like Dick Schiffler in the movie, The Rainmaker, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with learning ethics (I guess).  More broadly, there isn’t anything wrong with learning all the great planning theories that a planning graduate education provides.  There is great value in being able to look at a planning problem in a way that planning education really allows you to do, compare to if you had never had that education.  But there is not enough time in a typical two-year graduate program to ensure students have knowledge of both theory and practical skills to meet current market demand.

An academic quarter is about 10 weeks.  You have 10 weeks to learn both theory and skill while meeting maybe twice per week for an hour or so.  That just won’t cut it for those of us trying to learn something new.  If we add a third year to the program, it does two things.  First, yes, it does make it more expensive.  But more importantly,  it allows additional time to learn the skills more comprehensively and at a level expected of professional planners before entering the job market.

At two years, there just isn’t enough time to meet the accreditation requirements of the American Planning Association and teach theories and skills at a proper level that can produce great planners.  By adding a third year, the planning education can better accommodate both the experienced and non-experienced planners by offering more, and more in-depth classes.  But there are some other alternatives that help the overall field in their own right.

Planners should have a “residency requirement” or be required to “pass the bar”

The planning field likes to think of itself as a “professional” career, which I am ok with.  As a professional career, it requires a “professional” degree.  Again, I’m ok with that even though it requires me to pay several extra thousand in “professional degree fees” at UCLA, which annoys the hell out of me.  But the problem with the professional degree is that the planning field has yet to catch up.  The planning field does not require a degree for professional entry.  This goes in the face of what a professional degree is.

A professional degree is a degree in which you are required to attain before licensure to practice in your field.  But in planning, you can easily be an assistant or associate planner at a city government, or simply a planner at a firm with a few years of experience and no master’s degree.  Compare that to a law degree or a medical degree.  You can be a paralegal or a nurse without a JD or MD.  But you can’t be a lawyer or a doctor.

The planning field already has the AICP Exam, which makes you a “certified planner”.  There is some debate that continues over the usefulness of this certification, which goes to the above paragraph.  The AICP exam is voluntary, and not a requirement to practice, though some jobs prefer it.  But you don’t need to be a “certified planner” to have a successful career.  So as I look on how planning education could be improved, I am brought back to the legal and medical field for examples of professional careers that have education down pretty well.  They do, after all, have a few centuries on us.

Passing the Bar

The AICP exam is fine in its own right, as it tests planners on important topics.  But it’s biggest pitfall is that it is entirely voluntary.  As a professional field, we should require planners to pass the AICP exam right after graduation in order to practice as a professional planner; just like the bar exam for law school graduates.  Without it, planners are limited to working as “Planning Assistants” or some similar title.  They work as the paralegal of the planning field – performing similar functions but are not considered “professional planners”.

Further, it’s already required that AICP planners must continue their education in planning in order to maintain their AICP certification, much like lawyers and their CLE credits.  But by requiring planners to pass the AICP exam before practicing helps ensure that ALL planners are maintaining some contemporary knowledge of the planning profession as they progress.  Not only is this good for planning education, it is good for the field overall.

Residency Requirement

Because it can be difficult for a planning program to teach universal skills to planners (For example, CEQA is only in California and not every city uses the same permit software), another option, in place of the third year requirement (sort of), could be to require students to go through a “residency requirement” similar to medical students.

Planning students at most schools are required to complete an internship in order to graduate.  This is a good requirement but not as good as the residency requirement in medical school.  Students would be required to spend a year or so as a pseudo professional planner.  Essentially, you are more than an intern and are functioning as a real planner, just without the title.  The planning program can make arrangements with local cities, agencies, and firms where students, in their final third year, must complete a set time as a “resident planner” in order to practice planning.  This better provides the real-world experience of a practicing professional planner than the current internship requirements, and better helps planners find employment after graduation than an internship.  Because, let’s be honest, the title of “intern” can hurt you.  Primarily with city government since union rules prohibit giving internships any type of preference in hiring, even though they may have spent a year or more doing good work.

The future of planning education

In closing, I think the future of planning education in this country should be assessed and re-assessed.  If we want to consider ourselves as a professional field, requiring professional degrees and all, then we should act like it.  I am also very much aware of the multiple career paths one can take with an urban planning education that doesn’t always look like a traditional urban planning career.  But that is no different than saying I can do a lot of things with a law degree that don’t include being a lawyer.  So teaching future planners how to think like planners is and always will be essential.  But what is also essential is ensuring planners know how to practice in the modern planning field.  I believe my recommendations help towards that goal.

This is the 3rd post in the series: Planning Confidential: Everything you thought about planning is true.  Click the link for an index of other Planning Confidential posts.

Roobs is an urban planner in Los Angeles.  He received his Master’s in Urban & Regional Planning from UCLA with concentrations in Urban Design & Transportation.  He received his Bachelors from UC Berkeley in Legal Studies and Sociology.


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