While specialization was a very natural response to the needs for deep knowledge, it has left us with a significant unintended consequence - a lack of clear, actionable knowledge about integration, interconnectivity, and interdependency across subject areas in urban planning and management."
Roles of various sectors in urban planning and management
The urban planning and management field, on the public side, is comprised of local level governments such as municipalities and counties, state level organizations, and federal level organizations, the latter two often having decision-making authority over funding allocation amounts and goals on the local level. On the private side, there are a host of private companies that support government agencies with products and consulting services. There are also nonprofits and philanthropies with growing influence and decision-making authority over how urban and rural areas are developed. Nonprofits and philanthropies often provide social services or urban management guidance that would otherwise not be provided. The academic sector produces students and valuable knowledge products that help move the field forward. The organization type of focus for this article is the public sector, since the public sector is the primary decision-making authority for urban planning and management in general.
Urban planning and management and the historical rise of the specialist
Urban planning, historically, has been closely linked with the engineering and architectural fields. A single professional often provided the direction for how all the streets and water infrastructure would be laid out as well as providing the engineering specifications for how each component would be built. Up until the 1800’s, this would generally have been the case. The Industrial Revolution changed the way that space was commonly used, as many Western societies shifted from mostly agricultural to a mix of agricultural and industrial. Industry thrives on close proximity to goods and services and requires a ready local population for its work. People moved to cities more and more frequently, and soon urban planning professionals were faced with many of the challenges that continue to this day in cities. Overcrowding was probably the biggest issue at this time. Concerns grew over tenement housing in places like New York City and London. Sanitation facilities were basic and in short supply. The field of medicine did not know the origin of all infectious diseases, but there was an assumption that close proximity contributed to the spread of disease and illness. Some would say this was a peak period for understanding public health concerns.
Public health challenges, such as the spread of cholera, were linked to cities. A remarkably engaging portrayal of this is through the book The Ghost Map, by Stephen Johnson, chronicling the process of Dr. John Snow understanding the reasons why cholera was being spread rapidly through 1850's London. Of course, we know now, it was due to people who had contracted the disease relieving themselves indoors and then tossing the contents of the receptacle onto the ground below. This is how the disease came into contact with the drinking water at nearby wells dug into the ground, by seeping through the ground and into the drinking water supply to afflict the next victim.
Probably some of the first urban planning specialists worked in multi-family housing, dealing with these urban housing-centric struggles in the 1800's coinciding with the Industrial Revolution. They would have been working with the zoning department on the density of housing, with architects on the quality of housing, with elected officials on policies for improved living conditions, and with the people themselves to understand what was lacking, to name a few tasks. Through such arising needs, urban planning began to have specialists - those who know deeply about one key area with a great amount of depth and less about other areas.
“Probably some of the first urban planning specialists worked in multi-family housing, dealing with these urban housing-centric struggles in the 1800's coinciding with the Industrial Revolution.”
Specialists and silos in the field today
Today, specialists dominate the field. Most planners are focused in a key area, or have been focused in different areas during their careers. Jobs in major cities for planners tend to require an area of focus, such as economic development, land use, transportation, and others. In addition, these areas get much more deeply specialized. For transportation, there are public transit planners, bike/ped planners, roadway and traffic planners, and the list goes on. While specialization was a very natural response to the needs for deep knowledge, it has left us with a significant unintended consequence - a lack of clear, actionable knowledge about integration, interconnectivity, and interdependency across subject areas. Some planners might refer to themselves as a "jack of all trades," which is a valid path to take, but knowing a bit about a lot does not necessarily equate to knowing how to integrate well. Public agencies, such as municipalities, are most often segmented according to the division of labor - planners in the zoning and land use department, traffic engineers in the public works department, information technology (IT) staff in their department, and so on. They tend to be divided not only by topical area, but also function. There are those leaning more towards the planning and strategy side such as city planners and environmental sustainability professionals. There are also those leaning more towards the implementation and operations side such as public works professionals and IT staff. In addition, there are those working on general administration and staff needs such as talent management, legal/contracts, and payroll.
For staff broken down into such divisions, what happens exactly? Day to day, they have staff meetings and team meetings, sometimes within the division, and sometimes outside of it if they have what is understood to be a "cross-functional” role. Many people do not have a cross-functional role, and as a result, largely remain within the confines of their department.
There is a general awareness of the existence of "silos," or organizational fragmentation, in planning agencies and local government as well as interest in reducing them. Some take this to mean that divisions and departments in their current form should cease to exist, since they are a literal translation of the silos. I don't necessarily see it that way. I believe that divisions and departments can serve a valid purpose to do what was originally intended - support the division of labor. What should be questioned is the notion of "labor" for a modern planning agency and local government.
They rise above the day to day of fixing potholes and processing utility payments, important in their own right, and work towards broader, more expansive conceptions of what it means for a place to serve its public well."
Seeing the big picture and acting on it, regardless of silos
If you take a look at the articles How to Map for Outcomes and How to Map for Cross-Functional Areas, you’ll note that although professionals are often described as housing and transportation specialists, for example, their work feeds into higher level outcomes such as economic development, equity, environment, and health. What most professionals are contributing to, albeit indirectly in some cases, are higher-level quality of life needs. They rise above the day to day of fixing potholes and processing utility payments, important in their own right, and work towards broader, more expansive conceptions of what it means for a place to serve its public well. It is not only that the trash and recycling get picked up on the right day, it is also that each individual can pursue economic opportunities, have the same chance at success as everyone else, and breathe easy, knowing that the day to day and the big picture are both being pursued actively, earnestly, and with gusto.
This higher “quality of life” level struggles sometimes because it is, by nature, indirect in some cases, rendering it more abstract and certainly challenging to see with the naked eye. How does equity tie into the current work? How do the initiatives all contribute to economic development? These are the questions that need to be answered up front in order to make holistic progress. To get started, check out How to Map for Outcomes next.