A New Outlook on Urban Planning
Laney Barhaugh, Graduate student at the Humphrey Institute
After my first year as a planning student at the Humphrey, I was unsure if my interests had led me to the right degree. As one of the few students in my cohort focusing on Housing and Community Development, I felt that my interests— though still within the planning field — fell on the perimeter, teetering between being non-traditional planning and just non-planning. The meat of what I struggled with was how a planner serves a community in a way that not only uses the expertise that a planning degree brings, but also is guided by and responsive to community needs in a real, substantive way.
Of course, my planning classes did brush upon this topic every once and a while, talking about different participation methods and the trade-offs they bring. But what I was more concerned about was my individual behavior, my responsibility and connection to the people I may one day serve. To me, all the methods felt a little too objective. Which, to be fair, is sometimes necessary. However, both Dennis Donovan’s Community Organizing and Public Policy class and one of my planning classes in the fall of 2010 made me more confident in my program choice.
The Community Organizing Skills Workshop, which is by no means taught in a planning context, got me thinking about what public relationships are truly built on. It also gave me some very intuitive, practical tools for both initiating and cultivating those relationships. One of these skills was the relational meeting. The bread and butter of community organizing, a relational meeting is a public meeting with the goal of uncovering what a person’s passions are. What motivates them? What and who are they most likely to engage with? Where do they come from and how has that affected their interests and ideas?
This relational meeting, combined with a section on community organizing and social movements in my class on Neighborhood Revitalization, gave me a much firmer grasp of where organizing fits in a planning context and vice versa. The knowledge that community organizing is not this nebulous thing that people just fall into, but is actually a set of skills that anyone can learn, was the missing piece in the puzzle of my career interests. These skills can be used to engage citizens on any number of issues—planning problems included, as opposed to simply mobilizing them. People become engaged around their self interest. They will also, I suspect, serve me in good stead in a continually diversifying U.S. population.
This class has also changed the way I think about being not just a citizen, but a good citizen, in a democratic country. Though I have heard people talk about being an engaged citizen before, I never really thought about what that phrase means in terms of behavior beyond being a conscientious voter. What it boils down to, I think, is a different kind of awareness. Most of the time, our minds are filled with our day-to-day personal lives, our awareness is filled up with the details of living. This class opened up my awareness to my potential public life and public persona. To do democracy correctly—to be an engaged citizen—requires a clear understanding of one’s public and private life –having that public self to put on when you go out into the world.
Community organizing is about relating to people, learning where your similarities and differences lie, and learning how you can work together to affect change. This type of activity demands knowledge of the difference between private and public. Planning theory, though useful, leaves that piece out. The skills you gain in this class are extremely applicable to the messy problems of planning, and will help you wherever you go in life. I would highly recommend this class to anyone in the Humphrey Institute interested in Community Development, organizing, or just learning some practical life skills.