Most professions have a corresponding TV show that unites students in their field, the way law students love Suits, medical students love Scrubs, and aspiring paleontologists love Dinosaurs (probably). Planning students were adrift without Their Show until 2009, when NBC’s Parks and Recreation entered the scene. Television had focused on the inner workings of government before, but the setting was either window dressing (Spin City) or a soapbox for the creator’s political beliefs (The West Wing). Parks and Recreation was different: an actual celebration of the glory of the public sector and everything it is capable of. This is all encapsulated in Amy Poehler’s Leslie Knope, an idealistic career civil servant intent on harnessing her government power into making the fictional town of Pawnee, Indiana, into the best city on Earth.
But the show started in a much darker place. Parks’ creators, Greg Daniels and Michael Schur, originally worked as writers for the U.S. version of The Office, a show that cast cubicle life as a slow death march toward retirement. For its first season, Parks adopted a similarly pessimistic view of civic government as a place where nothing gets done, a litany of community meetings where, in Knope’s words, “the rubber of government meets the road of actual human beings.” The titular parks department’s original mission was to fill in an abandoned construction pit and turn the lot into a park, with the underlying joke that this process is so tangled in red tape that Knope’s quest would take up the entire show. Most relevant for city planners, Pawnee’s resident planner, Mark Brendanawicz, was the most unlikeable character of all, a sullen paper-pusher who treated his easel like a ball and chain.
In the second season, something changed, for good. The show’s overall tone became brighter and notably more optimistic. The pit suddenly got filled in over the course of a single episode through some creative legal wheel-and-dealing, as if it were never a big deal. Brendanawicz left Pawnee, never to be heard from again, and there was much rejoicing. Replacing him were the much more lively Ben Wyatt (Adam Scott) and Chris Traeger (Rob Lowe), state advisors who show up to pull Pawnee out of a budget crisis but end up sticking around for the long haul. Most importantly, Knope transitions from a hapless clone of The Office’s Michael Scott into a public crusader, viewing her job as an essential public good and platform for change.
And as Parks finally came into its own, one thing became clear: Urban planning isn’t about being Mark Brendanawicz. It’s about being Leslie Knope.
In a strange but telling way, the evolution of Parks and Recreation reflects the actual evolution of U.S. planning as a profession over the 20th century. From the Great Depression well into the postwar period, planning was the domain of skilled technicians, with little to no self-reflection and the public treated as a single, homogenous entity. This rote, Brendanawiczian perspective on planning practice experienced a sea change in the 1960s with Paul Davidoff’s pioneering of “advocacy planning,” a much more pluralistic approach in which planners seek to represent the interests of the full range of groups in society. The spirit of advocacy planning is apparent in latter-day Parks and Rec’s DNA, with a much greater emphasis on collaboration and serving the needs of the public, albeit an often ridiculous public.
The complication inherent to advocacy planning is that letting everyone have a voice means these voices are going to clash frequently, often in adherence to established power dynamics. In that spirit, later Parks episodes are more about oiling the gears of governance rather than fatalistically accepting that they’re eternally rusted shut, with conflict arising from external forces rather than the red tape of the department itself. This comes in forms such as Jeremy Jamm, a councilman hell-bent on shooting down every one of Knope’s proposals for personal gain and the fun of it (often with the exclamation “You just got JAMMED!”) and longtime local businesses such as sweet-treat manufacturer Sweetums and fast-food chain Paunch Burger, who offer a “child size” 512-oz soda (“roughly the size of a two-year old child, if the child were liquefied”).
The most significant fly in the ointment for Knope comes from Nick Offerman’s Ron Swanson, a mustachioed, woodworking libertarian who runs the parks department, despite believing that government is a sham and should be privatized. Setting aside Offerman’s gruff deadpan, which shot him instantly to fame, Swanson is probably the most close-to-home representation of the challenges civil servants face in today’s political environment. The character is based on an actual libertarian elected official who reportedly told Schur, “I don’t really believe in the mission of my job.” Parks premiered in 2009 amid a surge of early Obama-era liberal optimism, so that kind of attitude almost came off as hyperbole at the time, but after six years of obstructionism by Tea Party representatives in Congress, Swanson’s bluster comes off as downright rational.
Parks’ optimism admittedly has blind spots that mask the actual realities and challenges inherent to the planning profession. It’s particularly telling that Pasadena City Hall stands in for the exterior of Pawnee’s city hall, because Pawnee is basically a bustling Southern California city in a small Midwestern town’s clothes, with hipsters, gastropubs, and a trendy molecular mixology bar. In terms of demographics, Pawnee reflects the network television standard of white and middle-class, with little to no low-income and minority residents — in fact, Pawnee is supposed to be the “poor” counterpart to the town’s snooty rival neighbor, Eagleton. Finally, after a while, the show’s optimism just gets exhausting, especially in its seventh and final season, which amounts to a suffocating, prolonged group hug.
Parks is nonetheless the cultural standard-bearer for urban and regional planning in U.S. popular fiction (not a very crowded contest, granted). A civil servant’s life may be way less funny in practice than Leslie Knope’s, but her drive and enthusiasm are something to be treasured and studied.