7 Questions Every Planner Must Ask

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You may think you need to know the answers all the time, but in reality, knowing the right questions to ask is more important. There is so much information and knowledge in the world right now, that in order to filter it to get the information you need, you must ask the right questions. Here are 7 questions that are critical for urban planners.

Successful people ask better questions, and as a result, they get better answers.

-Tony Robbins

Who are we Serving?

This question is straight forward to begin to understand who you are serving and who the stakeholders are in the planning process. Your belief in who you are serving is critical in planning because it shapes who you will engage with in the public process. If you believe you’re serving motorists on a transportation project, you will ignore the needs of pedestrians and bicyclists. This question can be followed by who am I missing?

What’s the Community’s Story/History?

Understanding a community’s past experiences and their history is essential in understanding their perception of life and bias. Better understanding your community will lead to better outcomes to serve them. This question is particularly important when you have a different background and experiences compared to the community. For example, I grew up in a middle-income privileged family. I am half Hispanic and half White and if I work in a poor, African American community, I will have different experiences and perceptions about government.

What are my Biases and Perceptions about this Community and project?

This question has us look inward and become aware of what our belief of the community or project. For example, do I think this community is crime-ridden and too poor function on its own? Or that it’s a lower-income community that has survived many past bad planning decisions? The two different mindsets will lead to drastic differences in how you treat the residents and the decisions you make.

How do my Biases and Perceptions conflict with those of the Community?

Once you’re aware of the community’s story/history and your own biases and perceptions, take it a step further to see how they may conflict. This will bring you clarity as to why conflict arises during a public engagement process by understanding how you think differently than the community or stakeholders you are working with. This clarity sets you up to mitigate those conflicts and turn them into productive conversations.

That’s an interesting thought/argument, what process did you go through to reach that conclusion?

Planners work with diverse groups of people: engineers, architects, elected officials, citizens, etc, and therefore, work with different opinions and ways of thinking. This diversity can create great outcomes if conflict of those opinions and ways of thinking are managed effectively. This question sparks curiosity and seeks to understand where the other person is coming from, rather than argue why they are wrong. They may have different information or knowledge than you do. It’s important your attitude reflects curiosity and not to prove the other person wrong because otherwise, they will become defensive and uncooperative.

What are we missing?

Planners deal with challenging and complex problems. Affordable housing, homelessness, poor transportation infrastructure, and many more. We often choose a solution to a problem when we don’t have a firm understanding of the problem itself. We rely on handbooks, guidelines, and case studies to fit our problems in a box. This rarely results in excellent results. So ask “What am I missing?” when you are stuck, and unsure how to solve a problem, and ask it when you develop a solution too quickly, without really understanding the problem.

Why does this problem exist? (repeat 5 times)

Sakichi Toyoda, the founder of Toyota, developed the “5 Why” technique that asks “why” 5 times to find the root of a problem, to avoid only fixing symptoms. “This elementary and often effective approach to problem-solving promotes deep thinking through questioning, and can be adapted quickly and applied to most problems.”

Wrap up

Don’t let your ego think you need to know the answers all the time. This leads to mistrust, poor relationships, and bad plans. Ask questions to find the answers and for self-reflection. Start with these:

1.Who are we serving?

2. What’s the community’s story/history?

3. What are my biases and perceptions about this community and project?

4. How do my biases and perceptions conflict with those of the community?

5. That’s an interesting thought/argument, what process did you go through to reach that conclusion?

6. What are we missing?

7. Why does this problem exist? (repeat 5 times)

Developing Goals for Growth

It’s that time of year when people are buying gym memberships and running early in the morning because of their New Years resolutions. By February, the gym is back to its normal numbers of people and people are again wondering why they couldn’t follow their resolutions. How can urban planners develop the right resolutions to actually make an impact to their communities? First, change the vocabulary and develop goals, not resolutions.

Goals are one of the most important tools for people to improve their cities to be more equitable, environmentally friendly, economically viable, etc. Without goals, people can work endlessly without working towards something of meaning or significance. In the end, when things get tough and/or tedious, the hard work dwindles, frustration takes over, and people spend their time waiting for Friday. Goals give direction and have a powerful affect on productivity and fulfillment. So how can you create goals that lead to success?

Start with purpose. Why are you in the business in improving your city, community, or region? Use Toyoda’s technique and ask yourself why 5 times. This will help determine why you are an urban planner or why you want to improve communities, or why you want to help people. Give it a try.

Without goals, people can work endlessly without working towards something of meaning or significance.

Align goals to your values. Does this goal mean something to you? Is it in tune with what matters most to you? The goal may not initially seem like it is, however try to make a connection with your goal. For example, my goal is to save $17K by July. Initially this may sounds bland and not motivating, however I connected this goal to be financially wealthy so I can preserve land for people to enjoy nature and build a camp to connect kids to nature. It now has much more meaning to me personally and emotionally and I’m much more committed to achieving it.

Be specific. It’s OK to start with a vague goal, but work to create a specific goal that defines the actions needed to achieve the vague goal. For example, my vague goal was to start a website that improves leadership in urban planners. This was a good start, however there wasn’t something specific for me to determine if I achieved that goal or not. Now, my goal is to write 52 posts for the year, or 1 post each week by Sunday night. This may not improve leadership if the posts are garbage, however it gets me started to put content on this site for you the reader to benefit from. Determine if your goals are habit goals or achievement goals. Michael Hyatt introduced me to the concept that some goals are habits (daily, weekly, quarterly, etc.), or some have an end result.

Make it fun. Research has shown (see below for info) that when people working on their goals feel a sense of enjoyment, although tough and difficult, they are more likely to achieve them. When making your goals specific, figure out an activity that you will enjoy doing that will bring your goals closer. For example, I enjoy reading, and to help achieve writing 1 post each week, I use the content from my reading into my posts. You can find a way to make your goal fun by using creativity and resourcefulness.

Make them measurable. When will you achieve your goal? How can you incorporate numbers to your goal? This helps determine if you actually achieved your goals and evaluate during your execution how close you are to achieving goal and if there is something you need to reevaluate. Without some sort of measurement, I find myself wondering if I’m achieving my goal or not.

So what are you goals for 2019? Leave them comments so I can tailor my website to provide content and resources for you!

You can find more info on goals and where I learned some of these tips on my goals page.

Happiness and Mobility

Amsterdam is arguably the biking capital of the world.Spend even just a day there and you’ll see firsthand the massive volume of Dutch bicyclists that constantly cover Amsterdam’s streets. Stay there long enough, and you might notice how happy the Dutch seem to be. (A quick google search of the World Happiness Report puts the Netherlands at the 6th happiest country and the U.S. at 18th). I think a key to their happiness is that the Dutch are presented with abundant mobility options. Yes,they can drive, but there is public transit, the cities are walkable, and the emphasis on bicycling and bike infrastructure is unparalleled. The Dutch don’t spend over an hour each commute night sitting in frustrating traffic, because they have other feasible transportation options. The urban planners in the Netherlands successfully connected networks of bike paths and public transit, created narrow streets to slower drivers, and wide, attractive sidewalks to encourage pedestrians.

In the U.S., public transit use and bicycle networks are far from the high Dutch standard. Instead, the average American relies on personal vehicles and sits in ridiculous amounts of traffic. When Americans arrive home after their daily commute, they tend not to decrease the time that they spend watching TV. Time at the gym, with family, and sleep all decrease, and so does happiness. Having better options besides cars- transit that allows for reading time, or walking and biking which provide exercise, are factors that contributes to happiness. Aside from needing urban planners to help make other transportation options a reality, the U.S. needs urban planning leaders. There is no right answer or way to improve multimodal choices and contribute to American happiness. The best leaders understand that, so they lead with curiosity and passion. Leaders also focus on professional growth, which includes networking. This combination can put urban planning leaders in touch with others that have experience with reducing car-centric transportation and assist with creativity and new ideas. Collaboration between leaders is an important step that will manifest as urban planning leaders make their way in the field. Urban planners must work together to improve cities by providing multimodal transportation options to everyone, and simultaneously increasing our happiness.

-Written by Marissa Brown 

Core Value-Alignment for Planners

Everyone has their own core values, even if they don’t know them yet. I’m not talking about societal values that are sometimes pushed onto others. I’m talking about the core values unique to every human being. Everyone’s unique values is what makes each human different and unique to our world. Although some people may seem to have the same value, that value will mean something different to them. For example, many people may share the same value of sustainability. Sustainability will mean something different to each person. Sustainability is defined in many ways and it could mean saving the natural resources on this planet, OR financial viability.

Successful planners understands each person has their own set of core values that drive their behavior and decisions. Even communities come together to set values they want to live by and make decisions from. When working on a project or plan, know these values by either reading the general plan, or talking to a local elected official. Values may not be explicit, so more research may be needed to identify them.

Align your project with the core values of the community. If you believe the project doesn’t, why not? Many agencies have certain policies or standards they must follow that could be perceived as misaligned with the communities core values. Often, your project will be aligned with a community’s core values, but it takes time to identify the connections. Once it is determined your project is aligned with the community’s values, communicate it with the public and use their core values as part of the conversation. It will help show the community you are thoughtful in addressing their needs.

Values also shape planning agencies decisions and behaviors. When public agencies don’t commit to a core set of values, internal organizational issues occur. People want to be personally aligned with their work and believe they are working on something that matters. I believe most of the problems in organizations today stem from not aligning their day to day actions with core values. Some of our most complex planning challenges and issues can be solved if planning agencies align their actions with core values.