The Equity Factor

Urban Planning Faces Possible Diversity Setback

Some find proposed amendments to the Planning Accreditation Board’s standards alarming.

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The Planning Accreditation Board, the body that accredits colleges to award bachelor’s and master’s degrees in planning, released proposed changes to its standards in late September. Next week, a month-long discussion period will open on the new amendments. The changes, if accepted, would tone down current diversity language considerably.

Present standards mandate that programs have a student body that reflects regional demographics “in the aggregate,” as well as established recruitment and retention tactics. They also require universities to document their diversity strategies in progress. The new amendments would drop these points and instead ask that schools “pro-actively seek to expand opportunity for under-represented minorities … .”

Faculty diversity standards were similarly rehashed. And notably, a guideline advising that faculties boast “a range of specialized knowledge” and count alumni from a diverse assortment of universities is set to be scrapped.

These potential edits have shocked planners across the field. The current diversity standards hold instructions that can be translated into numerical benchmarks. Softening them to more pliable terms like “providing opportunities” have made some planners wonder if the new diversity standards will be toothless.

“What we were told in a presentation of these pages was that the PAB was making minor tweaks to clean up the standards, to fix glitches,” says Lisa Bates, a professor at Portland State University and co-chair of the Planners of Color Interest Group of the Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning, recalling when the draft was first shared with the group. “When we got the document I think we were all really surprised at how far beyond [the changes were.]”

Leonardo Vazquez, executive director of the National Consortium for Creative Placemaking and co-founder of the American Planning Association’s Latinos and Planning Division, found the proposed changes disappointing. “The new language regarding diversity — and I say this with some sadness because I think there are great people who work on these things — is, quite frankly, superficial,” he begins. “It seems to be more about being sensitive about diversity than about being smart.”

Planning has long held a reputation of being largely white and male. It remains a niche profession. Lamont Cobb, a transportation planner for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, points to lack of awareness as a chief challenge for attracting more minorities to the field. Aside from niche, planning jobs generally call for at least a master’s degree, if not a master’s along with AICP certification. Competing for a job in planning (or a spot in graduate programs that make prospective planners hirable) often demands a familiar set of criteria. Did you go to the right school? Do you have (often unpaid) internships on your resume? Jamaal Green, a Ph.D. candidate at Portland State University, calls questions like these the “seemingly benign institutional rules that helped to lock out students of color.”

Eighty-one percent of American planners, per the most recent Census data on the profession (2010), are white; four in 10 planners are women. According to a 2013 survey, 16 percent of APA members identify as racial minorities. Data on the racial composition of planning students though, paints an increasingly diverse portrait: American whites represented 54 percent of master’s students, according to the Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning. (Foreign-born students of all races were tallied separately and accounted for 14 percent.)

When Green enrolled at Portland State, the program was in the process of a multi-year review of its admissions protocols. The cohort’s demographics were changing, Green says, dramatically so.

“Part of that was due to PAB saying, ‘Hey, you guys have got to clean this stuff up,’” Green says. “You had a lot of professors who hadn’t really thought of institutionalized barriers for students of color until this larger review. That really shows that if you have actors within an institution that are trying to push this sort of thing, in addition to external goals and requirements to make a good effort, we can make some real progress in terms of the makeup of our student body and in terms of what people are getting trained on.”

Reading the proposed changes “hit close to home,” he says. “To [scale] that back, it really hurts professors of color, but also graduate students of color.”

According to Bates, the PAB has explained the edits as a legal concern, that attorneys had carefully looked over the standards to wipe it clean of any admissions procedures that could entangle the Board in litigation. Shonagh Merits, the executive director of the Planning Accreditation Board would not comment, and declined to be interviewed for this article.

Leonardo Vazquez finds the lack of standards on cultural competency, an outlook that spreads diversity-consciousness across a program’s curriculum, research and principles, particularly troubling. Bates does as well. She questions the legal need to walk back guidelines for students, but she finds not pushing forward on curriculum requirements inscrutable.

“The Supreme Court is not hearing cases right now over whether accreditation bodies can tell you what your content is,” she says.

The Planners of Color Interest Group of the ACSP has asked the PAB “to delay this part of the standard change until we have the opportunity to do a much more rigorous analysis,” she says. “They haven’t responded to our requests around specific action [for finding] better legal analysis … We’re basically organizing to ensure that comments are heard.”

The comment period is set to begin on November 16th, on the PAB’s webpages for the draft. The amendments are available for view there now.

This discussion arrives at a time when many Americans are wondering: What does diversity even mean anymore? A recent New York Times Magazine article exploring the term’s atrophy, quoted writer Jeff Chang as saying the word has become an “empty signifier for me now,” and “a code word for ‘all those other folks.’” The writer of the piece, Times contributor Anna Holmes furthered, “The problem with code words is that they’re lazy: They’re broad rather than specific, and can provide cover for inaction — the ‘‘I don’t know how to do this or what it means, so can someone else please do the work for me?’’ maneuver.”

This aligns with what Bates and Vazquez fear happening. Bates is concerned that without accreditation standards to back them, faculty might have a harder time lobbying for scholarships. Vazquez believes the amendments “kind of give a program an easy out. They could say, ‘Well, we did try to reach out to black and Hispanic students, and they just chose not to come to our school. So, you know, we tried.’”

One passage from the current standards that would deter a reaction like that, comes to mind. It’s marked to be excised:

The Program should strive to attract a student population, particularly from groups historically lacking access to, and under-represented in, higher education, as well as representative of the type of mixtures of ethnic, racial, and economic groups to be found in the settings where planners often practice.

These values are reiterated multiple times in the current standards, but in this sentence, they stand out, clear and neatly composed. They underscore the need to correct past exclusion, and an obligation to change the uncomfortably skewed demographics of planners in contrast to the makeup of cities. According to a Pew report published earlier this year, out of the 25 biggest counties in the U.S., 19 were majority-minority. The new standards don’t ignore regional demographics, but creating chances “for the study of planning and entry into the profession by persons representative of communities where graduates work” just doesn’t register as powerfully. It doesn’t illustrate as distinctly that race and income matter.

While diversity may be tough to define for some, Jacob Wagner, a professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and organizer at the Kansas City Regional Equity Network, doesn’t think it should be that hazy for planners. He points to the AICP Code of Ethics, which at one point reads: “We shall seek social justice by working to expand choice and opportunity for all persons, recognizing a special responsibility to plan for the needs of the disadvantaged and to promote racial and economic integration. We shall urge the alteration of policies, institutions, and decisions that oppose such needs.”

Wagner observes, “It’s a little bit strange to have the academy be completely out of step in its own accreditation with its own professional code of ethics.” Working to quell inequality, he continues, is a widespread goal nationally, across disciplines. “How are you going to do those types of major shifts without a well-informed planning academy, a diverse planning faculty and a diverse student body?”

“A lot of what we do in planning comes out of the last round of urban social disturbances from the 1960s,” he explains, “A lot of urban policy, housing policy, planning — there’s a whole historical framework that recognizes the history of structural disadvantage, institutional racism, and how mortgage markets, real estate practices, have created a society in which opportunity is racially bound.

“Obviously today, the idea of diversity is more complex … our sense of diversity has expanded. And that’s good. [But] we know what is out there in terms of social outcomes … We know what diversity is. We can’t make excuses that we don’t.”

The Equity Factor is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.

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Cassie Owens is a regular contributor to Next City. Her writing has also appeared at, Philadelphia City Paper and other publications.

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Tags: urban planning

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