Saturday, 21 April 2012

Professional Planners Stamping Land Use Plans? That's Just Silly

As you may have noticed, I  blog primarily to share information I think others might find value in.  This time, however, I need to go on a bit of a rant about a subject that has gotten under my skin for many years.  Perhaps I'm being overly sensitive, perhaps not.  Feel free to enter the debate; I would like to hear a common sense defense that is anything other than elitist, egotistical and self-serving.

The Province has committed to a review of Alberta's Municipal Government Act, the primary legislation governing land use planning.  A week or so ago, there was a comment on Twitter advocating for the introduction into the Act, a requirement for land use plans to be 'signed off' by a registered professional planner.  My immediate response:  THAT'S JUST SILLY. 

In an effort to understand why someone would lobby for such an autocratic amendment, the discussion moved from Tweets to email.  As you may have guessed, I was not convinced.  Having plans signed off by a professional planner, as I understood it, has two primary focuses:  the first would be to provide for consistency in the content of planning documents throughout the Province; the second is to assure municipalities and other agencies that the plans met the requirements of the Act and were developed with a high standard of professionalism.  The example provided was that planning documents should be considered in the same light as engineering studies whereby professional engineers stamp their work to confirm the accuracy and completeness of the product. 

As I said earlier, THAT'S JUST SILLY.  Since we've likened planning to engineering, let's just compare them a little closer.   A quick google produced the following statement, which I believe accurately reflects these professional institutions:

Professional engineering is:
Affixing the seal on documents and drawings indicates the documents and drawings are final for the intended purpose and have been prepared by or under the supervision of a person licensed to practise professional engineering who is assuming responsibility for them. By sealing documents and drawings, licence holders acknowledge that they assume professional responsibility for the design, opinions, judgments or directions given in the documents and drawings. The seal is a "mark of reliance," indicating that a licence holder attests that other people can rely on the information provided in the documents and drawings.

The engineering profession is very objective, whereas the planning profession is much more subjective.  According to the Canadian Institute of Planners:

"Planning" means the scientific, aesthetic, and orderly disposition of land, resources, facilities and services with a view to securing the physical, economic and social efficiency, health and well-being of urban and rural communities.

An MCIP adheres to a Code of Professional Practice developed by the Institute delineating the planner's responsibility to the public interest, clients and employers and the profession.  http://www.cip-

If you just scratch the surface,  requiring a professional planner to sign off on land use plans  seems to have some merit.  However, there is a vast difference in the basic underpinning of each of these professions.  Engineering is not only founded in science, it is also grounded in science.  Planning, on the other hand, is really the synthesis of science, trends and public perception .  In the words of Thomas Adams, 'the best planners need many skills to make sure all considerations are met during a project.' 

Planning attemps to balance private interests with public interests through a creative process designed to capture a collective vision.  A land use plan is the culmination of information garnered through the use of numerous tools, including capacity building, computer modelling, design workshops and, of course, any existing science-based studies and documentation.  It takes information we know to be true, plus information we believe to be true, mixed with a wee bit of crystal ball gazing to make a truly good, implementable land use plan.

Beyond this significant variation between how the two professions are applied in the real world, there is another issue of liability.  Because engineering is science based, engineers have a responsibility to ensure the science behind a design is sound and properly applied.  If it isn't, an engineer might be considered negligent. Because land use planning is so much more subjective, guiding principles and policies are often loosely penned, which can result in broad interpretation and application.  As an example, what I might interpret very literally, might be interpreted by another as something completely different.   While we all might carry liability insurance, when is the last time a professional planner was effectively sued for negligence, not to mention, how would one go about proving negligence? 

If planning isn't a hard science, and a planner can't really be found negligent, what would the purpose of requiring a plan to be signed off?  The only other thing I can think of is, perhaps, whether a professional planner would like to ensure the policies contained in a land use plan meets the requirements of the MGA and all are implementable.  While most of the requirements of the MGA aren't rocket science, anyone who has dallied in the world of current planning for very long can site any number of plans, crafted by professional and non-professional planners alike, containing policies that conflict with other plans in the heirarchy or are simply not implementable. 
If there is an professional that should be signing off on land use plans, perhaps it's the engineer, particularly in instances where plans rely upon detailed engineering studies and reports.  In instances where a plan is so prescriptive that it identifies very specific land uses (not just types) perhaps the authority having jurisdiction over permitting (i.e., the lowly Development Officer) should be 'signing off'; they are, more often than not, interpreting and applying most plans and already have certain responsibilities under the Act to do so.

In my mind, land use planning is not a simple matter.  To me, good planning very much requires a collaborative approach and its success reliant on several factors.  In my opinion, here are the ingredients to development a great land use plan:

1.   1 developer with a development vision
2.   1 interested and engaged community with a similar neighbourhood vision
3.   1committed approving authority with a similar community vision
4.   1 very savvy engineer
The planner, by the way, is the cook in my recipe.  The product relies heavily on the quality of the first 3 ingredients and the skill the cook has in mixing.  A successful plan requires a developer with a vision that will benefit the greater good;  a community that supports the vision; and an approving authority that is committed to implementing the vision.  The engineering is the science that holds the 3 ingredients together to make it all work.  It is the planner (or the cook) who is responsible for the careful balance of ingredients. 

We've all written plans that we are very proud of; and others, not-so-much so for reasons that aren't always within our control.  Perhaps our client was more concerned with his dream rather than that of the community's; perhaps community perception altered the outcome; perhaps politics got in the way of good planning.  What can I say?  It happens to all of us.  Some planners are just going to be better than others, just as some cooks are better than others, and some plans are just better than others.

Whoever thinks there is a benefit to requiring land use plans to be signed off by a professional planner -- well, THAT'S JUST SILLY!
  1. any act of planning, designing, composing, evaluating, advising, reporting, directing or supervising (or the managing of any such act);
  2. that requires the application of engineering principles; and
  3. concerns the safeguarding of life, health, property, economic interests, the public welfare or the environment.
If what you do meets all three tests, you are practising professional engineering and must be licensed by the association.