When introducing the latest in Taubman College’s Winter Lecture series, “Complexity and Practical Improvisation in Planning: Lessons from Three Case Studies,” John Forester immediately exposed planning theory’s “dirty little secret”: someone has to do the work. He described how his work has been a 20-year process to answer the question ‘how much of the theory actually makes it to the field?’ Using only a whiteboard and a marker, Forester demonstrated how three different problems from three different cities resulted in three very different roles for the planners involved. In each case, micropolitics, or politics within an organization, and context demanded improvisation and adaptation to produce a successful solution. Lessons from Cleveland, New Orleans, and Albuquerque reveal that the role of planners is neither black nor white, but the fifty shades of gray in between.

Forester, the Associate Dean of the College of Art, Architecture, and Planning at Cornell University, distilled these lessons into a triple helix that represents his still evolving thinking on the practice of planning. Whereas traditional planning theory says practice is the combination of diagnosis and technical expertise, Forester adds negotiation as the third piece of the puzzle. The interplay between these three skills is able to incorporate into theory the ever-changing political reality a practicing planner faces. While the assertion that there is no panacea in planning is hardly a revelation, the triple helix of roles a practicing planner must take on requires an, as Forester put it, “improvisation with an underlying structure.”

The lecture’s case study analysis began with Norman Krumholz’s work as planning director in Cleveland’s City Hall. For Krumholz, equity planning’s originator, the political realities of city government in Cleveland and the problems they faced required planning that did not fit neatly into equity or any other defined type of planning.  Forester described several problems Krumholz and his staff faced, from departmental organization to snow removal, and in each one the common theme was improvisation in the face of complexity. Because Krumholz and his staff were able to broaden the scope of the planning department, their role in city government became more vital, and even more diverse. The micropolitics of each problem and the planning office itself creates a situation where, as Forester said, “normal is ever-changing.”

Forester then analyzed Ken Reardon of Cornell University and his student team’s partnership with ACORN working in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Whereas an Urban Land Institute (ULI) report suggested “greening” the Ninth Ward as the best strategy for redevelopment after the storm, ACORN, Reardon, and his team sought a different solution. In response to the micropolitics of New Orleans after the storm, the team decided to embrace a combination of quantitative and qualitative analysis.  Quantitative analysis through GIS showed a substantial portion of the Ninth Ward as salvageable, which may have suggested only a portion of the greening suggested by the ULI report was necessary. However, qualitative evidence gained through 200 interviews revealed a strong commitment to rebuild the Ninth Ward by the residents of the area with the most extensive damage. The combination of quantitative and qualitative analysis proved both greening the Ninth Ward as the wrong solution and that where planning belonged in the redevelopment process. 

In the case of Albuquerque, the role of planners was similarly unclear. Ric Richardson of the University of New Mexico attempted to bring a moribund redevelopment plan to life faced significant opposition. Forester argued that mutual hatred of the plan was the only unifying force for the plans stakeholders. Again, complexity demanded combined tactics that would bring residents and business owners together in support of a new plan. Forester concluded that to negotiate the needs of both interested parties you have to invent new options. Before they could present options they needed to learn the possibilities and more importantly the feasibility. With interviews with stakeholders to diagnose the issues at hand, and technical expertise to assess the viability of solutions, planners were not only able to negotiate a new plan, but eventually a new zoning code with still greater long-term effects.

In all three cases, planners faced conflict where first understanding and analyzing the context led to creative solutions that did not necessarily fit with traditional planning rules. Where easy solutions like transit-oriented development or attracting young professionals and empty nesters to build a tax base did not apply, creativity led to adaptation. The significance of the triple helix is the combination of diagnosis, technical expertise and negotiation requires a diverse set of skills and strategies. All three cases demonstrate a planner’s ability to step out of their traditional role to produce solutions greater than a written plan. To face a world that is increasingly political, context creates complexity that prevents our role from fitting neatly into either the black or white. As far as accounting for the complex political environment, diversity of stakeholders, and fluidity of problems facing planners, this contribution to the theory is something we planners about to enter the field can work with to navigate within the gray.