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Role of Planning Professionals Qualitative Research Essay

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Updated: Oct 15th, 2019


The purpose of this essay is to discuss the role of a planning professional in the creation of a social and spatially just city. A planning professional is described as an individual who works in the field of urban planning and development. The main role of a planning professional is to optimize the effectiveness of the urban community’s land resources, land availability and infrastructure as they perform their duties.

The duties of a planning professional include formulating plans that will be used in developing and managing urban areas that are undergoing some form of development. Other tasks that the professionals perform include analyzing the compatibility of the land use to economic, environmental and social factors.

The role of a planning professional has continued to gain more prominence over the last century as urban planning in cities and urban areas have continued to grow.

Urban Planning

Urban planning is defined as those activities that are directed towards improving the welfare of a population located in a city or an urban area by creating convenient, reliable and efficient structures that will be used in the present and future time frame (Chang 2010). Urban planning is a management tool used by most governments and countries the world over to deal with effective urbanization and development activities within cities.

Despite the fact that urban planning has faced a slow growth since its inception one hundred years ago, a number of countries around the world have adopted innovative approaches that can be used to develop their cities to meet the 21st century planning standards (Fyfe and Kenny 2005).

These new approaches include spatial planning in integrating the functions of the public sector to those of regional or local areas, land regularization and management approaches, new techniques of master planning, and urban planning techniques that are aimed at producing spatial forms such as compact and urbanized cities (UN-Habitat 2009).

The known Spatial planning in a built-up area refers to the systems and designs that are used to sway the distribution of the residents in spaces of various scales. The activities that fall under spatial planning comprise of regional setting up, urban planning and national spatial plans (Cowan 2005).

Urban planning has however faced challenges in the past such as environmental challenges, climate change, demographic problems, land misuse and unavailability, rapid urbanization, shrinking cities, economic challenges, social-spatial changes, changes in governance and noise, air, land pollution (Seto et al. 2007).

The most common challenge that affects urban planning and urban professionals are the socio-spatial challenges that arise from new spatial forms and processes that are beyond the control of local authorities. Socio-spatial changes usually affect the functions that take place within cities as they affect the fragmentation and specialization of these functions.

There have been notable contrasts in the suburban areas of most cities with tenement zones such as the low income and high-income areas becoming more apparent. These contrasts have emerged as a result of the changing land market, changing uses of land and new policies that govern land use and urban development (Naison and Mangiza 2009).

These challenges have slowed down the growth of urban planning over the years, making it difficult for any new developments to take place in the sector. They have also made it difficult for any meaningful progress in urban planning to take place due to their complex nature. So that the field of urban planning can be able to progress and move ahead, specific steps need to be taken to overcome the challenges that threaten urban planning.

These steps include addressing the above challenges in the form of a global urban reality that affects all countries and employing the skills, talents and capabilities of professional urban planners (Sclar 2010).

The Role of Planning Professionals

Urban planning professionals can fall under various categories, which include:

real estate developers, transportation planners, metropolitan planners, economic development planners, regional planners, civil engineers, neighbourhood planners and strategic urban planners.

Urban planners usually work for developers or governments that have initiated large scale commercial development projects in the urban setting. In setting up a strategy for development, urban designers have to deem several issues which include things like the zoning codes, land availability, crime in the area, traffic congestion and land sustainability (Hall 2001).

Urban professionals play an essential role in the urbanization process, which is characterised to be iterative and dynamic in nature. The scope of their work can be described to be classical articulation where the planning professional’s role mostly deals with presenting a decision-maker with the relevant solutions and courses of action that are important in the planning process.

Once the decision-maker approves the solution and sets it out as a policy, the role of the urban professional is to carry out the decision according to the decision maker’s mandate.

While performing their duties, planning professionals incorporate the use of methodological and technological expertise to develop plans that will be used in urban planning activities. Methodological and technological techniques are used in defining the problem and formulating appropriate alternatives that would be used to address these problems (Barton et al. 2009).

Planning professionals are usually involved in decision-making activities that determine what information will be used in managing the urban development process and whether this information will be presented to the major actors of the process. Once they have made the planning decision, the next stage involves the implementation of the decision.

The role of the planning profession in this stage is to exercise judgement and discretion due to the ambiguous nature of the urban planning process and public policy that deals with urban planning. This ambiguous nature is characterised by many uncertainties and rigid policies that are used in formulating urban development plans.

The job of the professional becomes essential in this stage because legislators lack the technical know-how to deal with the ambiguous nature of urban planning which inevitably leads to them creating vague and unclear policies (Sclar 2010).

The job of a planning professional is deemed to be technical in nature as they have to translate the development objectives developed by the government into strategies that can be used in urban planning activities. The goal of these strategies is usually to implement the objectives set out by the government that has been designed to meet urbanization and development.

According to Bertaud (2010), the most critical role of a planning professional is to set up a framework that will be used in the area that has been identified for development. This framework is usually made up of three components, which include land-use regulations, investments in infrastructure and taxation laws that are related to urban development.

The professional planner has first to review the existing regulations on land use, which have been formulated by the government to ensure that the intended development is consistent with those regulations (Bertaud 2010).

If there is a need for a new land use regulation, the planning professional has the task of drafting a new guideline that will meet the requirements of the new development.

The new guidelines have to follow the six steps of urban planning which include determining the objective of the urban plan, formulating the strategy, determining the number of inputs and outputs that will be used in the development activity, the outcomes and impact of the program to the area that has been identified for development.

When the planner drafts the new regulation, they have to ensure that there is a projection of what the impact of the regulation will be on the intended area’s structure (Bertaud 2010).

Planners should always look at what effect the new regulations will have on the market. Many regulations that deal with land use usually have some adverse side effects like for example regulations that require high standards for housing will see the development of objectives that define housing conditions, and the sizes of the buildings (medium, small or large housing).

The side effects of such a regulation would see the houses being sold at a higher price in the real estate market, making it difficult for a large number of people to access decent housing.

This leads to a situation of overcrowding in the existing houses reducing the standards of housing in the area or city. The planners should also ensure that the new regulations do not affect the density of the area that has been identified for development (Bertaud 2010).

Regulations that increase or decrease the density of an area have an impact on the price of the land which could go up or down considerably, thereby affecting the relative worth of the land. For example, imposing a regulation in a low-density area will reduce the price of the land.

The adverse effects of these actions will see the planning activities for the city requiring more low-density land for development because of massive demand for low-density areas.

A regulation imposed on a high-density area would have the reverse effect of increasing the price of land, but it contributes to the decrease in land availability, which is required for development. The outcomes of such effects will affect the prices of land in the market leading to a situation of instability and uncertainty in formulating urban plans (Bertaud 2010).

The other role of planning professionals is to assess the investments that have been made in the existing primary infrastructure. Primary infrastructure is made up of roads, electrical connections, water and gas supply. The investment that has been made on fundamental infrastructure has an impact on the demand and supply of land available for development within a city’s boundaries.

The infrastructure will also have an impact on the prices of buildings, or houses that have been developed within the primary infrastructure framework. Planners are therefore charged with the role of understanding the infrastructure of the area that has been earmarked for development (Walton et al. 2005).

Infrastructure usually has a double impact on the urban planning as it allows for development to take place in certain piece of land. The double effect of this is that infrastructure influences the supply and availability of houses or buildings. The planners should, therefore, measure this impact with regards to the supply. The other role requires planners to observe the laws of taxation when it comes to urban planning and development.

Governments the world over usually impose taxes on land and also on the amount of rent that has been paid for the land. Taxation on land raises enough revenue that will be used by the city planners and municipal council to maintain and sustain the infrastructure found on the land (Kochanowski 2006).

The taxation of land has an impact on land use as it determines whether the land will be used by the owner or sold. High land taxes might force some landowners to sell off their land to the city, which will in turn, reform the land for further urban development. Land taxation is therefore seen as an essential tool in ensuring the efficient and effective use of land.

The role of the professional planner when it comes to land taxation is to be aware of the effect that these taxes will have on land use. If high taxes lead to the limited use of land, the planner has the task of consulting the relevant authorities to request them to reduce the high taxes so that the land can be properly used (Kochanowski 2006).

The same applies to the reverse situation. If the land taxes are low, the land will be disused where unnecessary developments will take place in areas that are not designed for them.

Bertaud (2010), therefore notes that all professional planners involved in urban development should focus on the three areas identified; regulations, infrastructure and taxation when they are formulating plans to be used in development. They should also analyse how these three areas affect the spatial development of cities and whether there is room for economic growth.

The Role of Professional Planners in Developing Socio-Spatial Cities

Spatial planning is the consideration of what can and should happen in a particular region or area. This type of urban planning involves investigating the interaction that takes place when different policies and practices are employed in urban development projects.

Spatial planning goes beyond the traditional practices that govern land use in urban areas by setting out strategic frameworks that will be used current and future development activities.

Spatial planning extends the work of the professional planner from that of land use management, development of layout plans or formulation of land use regulations to include activities that deal with living conditions or the liveability of certain areas marked for structural development.

Spatial planning also attempts to bridge the gap that exists between the economic, social environment and urban development activities making the process of urbanization also to be focused on sustainability. Spatial planning also plays the role of coordinating sectoral policies by creating recognition of the objectives of these policies and how they relate to the economic or social environment (Thompson 2007)

The American Planning Association (APA 2010) describes the role of a professional planner in spatial planning as that of researching, designing and developing programs that will be used in urban planning development.

Professional planners also have the role of leading public change processes by effecting social change, performing technical analysis of urban areas and educating the general population on urban development planning. While most planners choose specific roles or areas of specialisation in urban development, majority of professional planners practice most or all area of urban planning (American Planning Association 2010).

The major role of professional planners as identified by APA is to create a plan that will be used in development activities. These plans are usually based on the objectives, goals, and strategies that have been developed by the municipal council or the city by-laws for urban development projects and activities. Apart from formulating these plans, the professional planners also have the role of implementing or enforcing these plans.

They achieve this by coordinating the work of the actual implementers of the plan, such as the construction workers, the developers, or the site contractors. A further task of the professional planner is to carry out field studies on how land is being presently used in a particular area. This is done by performing interviews on the people using the land and also assessing the current structure of the land (APA 2010).

The Bureau of Labour Statistics (BLS 2010) identifies the role of regional and urban planners to be that of developing short and long term plans that will be used in land management as well as in the revitalization of communities based in urban, suburban and local areas.

The planners accomplish these activities by helping the local officials to alleviate any social, spatial, economic, or environmental problems that might affect the community and formulating recommendations that will be used in developing the appropriate infrastructure. Professional planners also have the role of providing recommendations that will be used in developing zoning regulations for commercial, public and private land.

These recommendations are usually based on forecasts and projections for urban developments in particular areas within the city’s limits. Planners also have the role of promoting the best use of land and land resources amongst community members in a specific area.

Professional planners have also been known to perform the role of addressing the environmental, social, and economic problems that affect city dwellers or people that live in an area undergoing certain levels of developments.

The plans they formulate and develop are mostly used for the construction and development of essential community structures such as hospitals, churches and recreational facilities such as gyms or stadiums (BLS 2010).

Professional planners also participate in decision-making activities on what natural resources will be used in development activities. These natural resources include land, minerals, rock and soil that are important in urban development projects. If using these resources will prove to be a threat to the natural ecosystem, the planner has the task of informing the developer of these adverse impacts.

A number of planners are engaged in activities which are aimed at environmental preservation with their roles and activities mostly being centred on the control of air, water or land pollution, the preservation of land and forest areas, wetland preservation activities, and the conservation of natural habitats or ecosystems (Bureau of Labour Statistics 2010).

Professional planners also have the role of drafting relevant legislation that will be used in developmental activities that will address social, economic, or environmental challenges that affect particular communities that live in the urban areas. Planners usually study and analyse the current practices on land use before they develop reports that will be used in urban planning.

The information that is usually contained in these reports includes the location, power lines, water supply, gas supply pipes, roads, street lights and other essential amenities that are important for to the area (BLS 2010)

The report also analyses the kind of activities or land-use practices that have been exercised on the area under evaluation. With this information, the professional planners try to optimize the land use by formulating plans that will see developments such as buildings or houses being initiated in the area.

These plans are usually used as guidelines and blueprints by the people who are responsible for setting up these structures. Planners are also involved in rehabilitation activities by examining the current structures in a given urban setting and determining whether there is a need to improve these buildings (Bureau of Labour Statistics 2010).

The field of spatial planning has played an essential role in the planning and development of urban areas. The role of professional planners has mostly been relegated to preparing and designing layout plans that will be used to develop towns, cities. Once the developer gets these plans, the work of the planner is seen to be complete until the next developer comes with a new project for development.

This limited role has made it difficult for them to plan for spatial and social problems that might arise as a result of land allocations and extensive developments in city areas. Urban professional planners have not been active in searching for new ways that can limit the number of spatial issues that arise due to land disuse and depletion (Wang and Zou 2010).

Role of Professional Planners in Developing “Just” Cities

Professional planners have to consider the societal context when they plan for a city. A city is usually identified by the people and therefore, professional planners have to consider the societal characteristics of these people when they create a “just” city.

All the aspects of planning require the professional planner first to understand what a just city is after which they should seek a balance between the city resident’s who are going to be impacted by the development activity and those who are going to benefit. A “just” city is defined as a city that has equitability in resources and in the number of planning and development activities that take place in the city.

Fanstein (2005) defined a “just” city as one that was democratic, equitable, sustainable and growing. However, planning for a just city that incorporates such values is an elusive and challenging concept.

Illiberal majorities might view democracy to be indifferent while the high cost of trying to achieve equitable distribution of resources might create resentment to those forced to give out more. Sustainability might diminish the growth of the city’s population leading to high unemployment rates and an increase in social justice.

Professional planners are faced with the challenge of creating a socially “just” city given the various disparities that exist in society. Planning for a just city also involves incorporating the views of the affected citizens to ensure that the planning process does not discriminate against them.

The social inequalities such as crime, different income levels and level of education make it difficult to ascertain the planning outcomes of the urban development process.

The role of professional planners in developing a just city is to ensure there is social justice in land use, environmental, economic incentives, technological innovations and local resources. Planners should have experience in dealing with disputes that arise as a result of economic disparities as well as resolving environmental and economic equity issues (Campbell 2010).

The professional planner’s activities in the recent past have mostly been characterised by downtown developments, freeway planning, public and private partnerships and other urban planning activities that do not add up to equitable planning and development.

This has limited their responsibilities when it comes to economic justice and equity. The planner’s role in the present and future context will, therefore, be to reconcile the two aspects by ensuring that there is growth in the economy and that there is equal distribution of resources without degrading the natural ecological system (Campbell 2010).

The role of the professional planner in creating a just city will be to arrange the procedures and approaches that will be used in making important decisions by using techniques such as bilingual translation, political pluralism, the developing of market mechanisms and conflict negotiation.

Bilingual translation will require the professional planner to relay the necessary economic and environmental information to the affected citizens of urban planning. Campbell (2010) notes that professional planners should use economic and ecological bilingualism to achieve a socio-spatial framework that will be used in urban planning.

The role of the planner in conflict negotiation is to reduce the gaps that exist between the economic, social and political environments. Conflict negotiation is essential for a planner in developing a “just” city as it balances all these environmental contexts. Conflict negotiation and resolution is more likely to be successful when there is a specific dispute that needs to be resolved.

The political pluralism approach will require the planner to incorporate political ideologies in their planning approaches to ensure that their vision of a just city includes political frameworks. Market mechanisms are essential for the professional planner as they bridge the gaps that exist in economic disparities and the environmental priorities of the affected groups.

The role of a planner in creating a just city will also involve taking into consideration technological improvements such as alternative resources, land use and design, and bioregionalism (Campbell 2010).

The importance of developing socially and spatially just cities is to ensure that there is an equitable distribution of economic and ecological resources, to ensure that there is an appropriate use of land and land designs, layouts, to ensure the social aspects of the city’s residents have been taken into consideration and to ensure that everyone benefits from the urban development activities.

Developing socially just spatial cities ensures that the difficulties experienced in plan implementation are reduced considerably and there is development of a just, democratic city (Fanstein 2005).

Socially and spatially just cities are also important as they reduce ecological devastation on the natural environment and they ensure that there is equal distribution of economic outcomes by considering the views of affected citizens.

Socially just cities foster economic growth and justice reducing crime and unemployment levels in these cities. Socially and spatially just cities reduce the variations that exist in tolerance levels, quality of public services, utility infrastructure, the availability of affordable housing, a reduction in economic segregation and a reduction in autonomy.


Professional urban planners need to recognize the importance of social and spatial planning in urban development projects. This recognition has been referred to as new regionalism because cities, towns and urban areas have been recognised by planners as important spatial units in a globalized world.

New regionalism has been seen to be an essential approach in urban planning as it has reduced the level of land misuse and the depletion of natural resources that takes place in areas that are facing urban developments. The role of professional planners is therefore essential in ensuring that new regionalism is achieved in urban planning activities.


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