According to the American Planning Association (APA), successful planners should have a variety of skills, one of which is “the ability to solve problems using a balance of technical competence, creativity, and hardheaded pragmatism.” While technical competence and pragmatism are often discussed by planning scholars and practitioners alike, creativity seems to be missing from the conversation.After all, it is almost taken for granted that one can gain technical skills by attending planning school and become increasingly pragmatic by working in the real world. But how exactly does one become more creative or gain creativity? Equally important, how do we as planners encourage and support greater creativity in planning?
Recently, I attended a poetry night held by the USC student organization “Partnership for an Equitable Los Angeles (PELA)” which reminded me of the importance of creativity in planning. This event featured very talented and passionate performers who recited poems, sang songs, rapped, and shared candidly about a variety of social and personal issues, offering insights that informed and challenged my own beliefs and thoughts. As I listened that evening, it became very obvious to me that creative expression is an essential part of community building, promotes freedom of speech and dialogue, and contributes to the health of communities. The event also prompted me to consider whether and how our current planning practices and processes encourage or discourage alternative forms of expression. For example, would the local planning commission or city council tolerate an individual rapping or singing at the podium during a public hearing even if his/her message is relevant?
While combining poetry and songs with planning may sound strange at first, it is actually not a new phenomenon. Over a hundred years ago, the great American poet Walt Whitman broke new ground with his lyrical commentary on New York City and its residents. Instead of conforming to the poetic convention and traditions of his time, Whitman offered a free verse that captured the rhythms and rituals of everyday urban life. Obviously, not all of us are meant to be poets, but we can all go out into our communities, record what we see, and set our vision down in some written or perhaps graphical form. TV station KCET offers contemporary examples of planning-related poetry and song by a few former UCLA students. In particular, I recommend checking out the poem “Density” and the video-song “Whole Foods Parking Lot” at KCET’s website.
There is a growing movement to connect planning to the arts. For example, Art VULUPS (Art as a Vehicle to Understand Land Use Planning and Sustainability) is a collaborative effort which harnesses knowledge and artistic expression to convey urban planning and sustainability concepts which are often difficult to explain with words alone and challenging to grasp. This public art process uses an interdisciplinary approach that involves artists, urban planners, educators, and the public. Specifically, a key element of this project is to have planners and artists work together to produce pieces of art that communicate land use and sustainability concepts, and then make them available for viewing by the general public at community gatherings, exhibitions, and events. The picture shown above is “Milieux” (the French word for an environment or setting), a piece created by urban planner and visual artist Miguel A. Vazquez that initiated the Art VULUPS effort.
In my opinion, two of the biggest ongoing challenges for us planners are communicating clearly with the public and maintaining interest on important planning issues. Through his dynamic kinetic sculpture Metropolis II which captures and communicates the busyness and sometimes craziness of city living, artist Chris Burden has achieved both, as evidenced by the great turnouts at LACMA and the extensive media coverage. Part of the appeal of Metropolis II can certainly be attributed to Burden’s reputation as the well-known artist who created installations like Urban Light (which is prominently displayed at the entrance to LACMA). Nevertheless, this does not mean that planners cannot attract or engage large crowds at planning events without Burden’s participation. On the contrary, the popularity of Metropolis II should challenge all of us to rethink current practices and pursue innovative ways to involve community members in planning. For example, James Rojas’ interactive planning approach through the use of model building has proven successful in engaging the public and encouraging creative city-making. Having participated in a Rojas-led exercise before, I understand firsthand how this approach empowers participants by allowing them to shape and share visions in a supportive environment without the fear of providing a wrong answer.
On a related note, I recommend the book Creative Community Planning (2010) which describes emerging innovations in artistic, embodied, narrative, and technological methods. Authors Wendy Sarkissian, Dianna Hurford, and Christine Wenman effectively capture the reflections of leading planning theorists, researchers, and practitioners in the field on the many successes and challenges in engaging with a diversity of people in rural and urban communities. Their conversations reveal that creativity is the key to enhancing existing engagement practices. The book addresses concepts and practical applications including community visioning, conflict resolution, film, participatory research and reporting, photography, poetry and planning language, theatre, and websites.
As planners, we must be open to innovative ideas and creative expression. We also need more creative individuals to join our profession. My sister is the perfect example. She is a passionate advocate for the arts, has formal training in both studio art and public art studies, and will soon graduate with a master’s in planning. Her background and experience in the arts allow her to approach the field of urban planning from a unique perspective. Specifically, she is able to see planning projects as pieces of artwork: imagining a project site as canvas space, planning methods and strategies as sketching tools, and design as a means to enliven or activate the space. While we may not all have artistic talents and skills, we can all afford to be more creative in our thinking and planning. After all, to solve problems effectively, we must have creativity in addition to our technical competence and hardheaded pragmatism.
Metropolis II courtesy of Julie Yom
Milieux courtesy of artist Miguel A. Vasquez