Americans often contemplate how they want government to contend with our crumbling infrastructure, minority residents’ concerning encounters with police and increasingly complex systems of inequality.

City planners play an important role in all this. They are government agents charged with shaping the social and built environments of cities, suburbs and rural areas in ways that directly impact our ability to address those issues.

Andrea Roberts
Andrea Roberts

But today’s planners are not prepared to contend with the increasingly complex, interconnected nature of these challenges. That needs to change, and it starts with education.

Presently, our educational process and professional practice do little to counteract often paternalistic, reactive planning processes that divide rather than integrate grass-roots interests, resources and ideas. For example, cities are not listening to the voices of residents within the communities hardest hit by the historical arc of racism, exclusion and inequality – all of which are exacerbated by economic restructuring and natural disasters.

Unfortunately, planners, although trained to open planning and development processes to resident participation, instead often dilute community contributions and affirm predetermined investments in public infrastructure and economic development. Adding to the challenge is that planners are trained to be nonpolitical but are increasing put in incredibly political environments. Often powerless to contest the business and political interests that drive growth in cities, planners are charged with mitigating the effects of disinvestment and gentrification.

Planners are also failing to make connections across different sectors such as housing, economic development, transportation and resiliency planning. Socially and racially just development innovations including community land trusts, cooperative enterprises and inclusive, affordable housing appear on a piecemeal basis, but cities aren’t leading the way. Grassroots leaders are the ones doing the heavy lifting.

That’s why we need a broader, more inclusive understanding of the way planning shapes people’s lives and more expansive understandings of the everyday processes that constitute the making of a community or city. There are ways we can better educate tomorrow’s planners. We can start by teaching students to center vulnerable voices during planning processes and to devise sophisticated critiques of and responses to systemic inequalities.

In school, future planning curriculum should feature critique as a core competency. By teaching students to operate from a multidimensional or critical perspective that reframes complex problems and engages in “historical mindedness,” education can better equip planners to work more closely with communities to define problems and strategize more impactful planning interventions. Planning by definition resides at the nexus of systems that disproportionately affect women, people of color, and the differently abled negatively. Future planners must be trained to concurrently contemplate access to transportation and living-wage jobs along with the location of care services, public schools, child care, affordable housing and community space.

Anna Brand
Anna Brand

Planners must reconsider their assumptions about what constitutes a community and rethink how to serve hidden, scattered constituencies. Such a curriculum would include training students not only to point out instances of manipulation by privatized development interests that perpetuate exclusion and deepen inequality, but to also devise strategies to prevent the exploitation of planning processes.

We must teach future planners to maximize residents’ opportunities to contest developers’ determination of what is the highest and best use of land. Planners must be educated to contend with the politics and power dynamics of development in order to avoid being a rubber stamp for pro-growth. This also requires that future planners learn to ask the right questions at the right times to ensure development outcomes that directly benefit the most vulnerable members of our communities.

Diversifying planning education and practice means reframing our curriculums to include underrepresented theories and community building strategies. Missing from planning education are the community development strategies that occur inside churches, at kitchen tables and in break rooms. All of these processes and perspectives shape communities’ built environments and access to opportunity. But more importantly, planners must look like the communities they will serve, which requires that our planning programs enroll more students representing various ethnicities, abilities and genders. The future health and vitality of America’s cities is on the line.