A district citizens’ group from East Harlem, in anticipation of a meeting it had arranged with the Mayor and his commissioners, prepared a document recounting the devastation wrought in the district by remote decisions (most of them well meant, of course), and they added this comment: “We must state how often we find that those of us who live or work in East Harlem, coming into daily contact with it, see it quite differently from . . . the people who only ride through on their way to work, or read about it in their daily papers, or, too often, we believe, make decisions about it from desks downtown.” I have heard almost these same words in Boston, in Chicago, in Cincinnati, in St. Louis. It is a complaint that echoes and re-echoes in all our big cities [emphasis added].
Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961)
When I published my op-ed on Embedded Planning praxis in the October 2018 issue of Planning, I figured it would spark conversations and maybe some resistance in the profession. Declaring planning’s orthodox ways outdated and less informed risked alienating colleagues. Nonetheless, the critique was needed. It was needed to evolve planning and nudge planners into the communities they serve. With the rallying cry “We Cannot Plan From Our Desks!,” my call for situating planning practice on the street-level challenged professional planning’s history as a desk-bound, office-based, white-collar enterprise.
I braced myself for pushback. Quite the opposite happened. Reader response was resoundingly positive. Notes of encouragement came from planners around the US, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand. In response to strong web traffic, editors at the American Planning Association removed the paywall on my op-ed. By far, though, the most passionate supporters were urban planning students.
In the six months since publication, students’ enthusiasm for Embedded Planning has consistently grown. Each month brings more DMs of solidarity from these emerging planners. I always make time to talk with them, both online and #IRL – in real life. They share how they found the article and why it resonated. Many students first encountered it in Planning. Others had it referred to them by colleagues or faculty. A growing population is finding it through my saturation of the hashtag #EmbeddedPlanning on social media. Some heard me speak about it at one of my public talks. All of the students describe Embedded Planning in one way or another as a “breath of fresh air” that helps answer the perennial questions in planning school about bridging the theory/practice gap. Embedded Planning praxis means putting ideas into direct action on the ground.
Students now are taking on the stewardship of the praxis. A graduate student in Michigan penned a letter to Planning expressing “hope that inclusive and equitable planning approaches, like Bell’s approach of ‘embedded planning,’ become a regular part of urban planning programs throughout the country.” An undergraduate in Virginia declared in an op-ed that she will be an Embedded Planner in her community. Locally, an architecture student in Burbank wrote a call-to-action poem inspired by Embedded Planning. During the APA 2019 National Planning Conference in San Francisco, UC Irvine students composed Instagram posts and tweets advocating this street-based approach to professional practice.
Not surprisingly, the fiercest enthusiasm for Embedded Planning comes from students in Southern California – in particular, working-class students of color at California State University, Northridge, UC Irvine, Cal Poly Pomona, Woodbury University, USC, and my alma mater, UCLA. My home base and (now-growing) mentee-base in Los Angeles only partially explains the passionate localized support. These emerging planners identify with Embedded Planning because they intimately know the socio-spatial context in which I conceived it. I developed Embedded Planning on the streets of Florence-Firestone in South Central Los Angeles. Against all odds, despite the challenges of structural racism, economic disinvestment, and systemic poverty, the community of Florence-Firestone embodies strength in struggle. As a philosophy of praxis, Embedded Planning aims to make long-term, substantive, material improvements in people’s lives, especially for people residing in such disadvantaged communities. Many of my mentees personally know this struggle.
Like me, these students got into planning to improve their neighborhoods and others like theirs. But established planning theories guiding action fell short. Technocratic work styles involved in Rational Planning did not inspire. The “muddling through” of Incrementalism was too process-oriented and retained the planner-as-expert. Transactive and Communicative Planning’s move to planner-as-mediator in community dialogues sparked hope but risked omitting harder-to-reach voices. Advocacy, Equity, Postmodern, and Radical Planning offered inspiration, though today, these theories are more like exceptions to the rule. Planning’s established methods and approaches also bared the commonality of being mostly office work. That did not motivate these students and me. We wanted to “get political,” not remain “rational” and “objective.” We wanted to be activists over pragmatists, fighters instead of technocrats. We wanted to be out on the street, not in an office. We knew a better world was possible if we, as planners, vigorously pursue equity-minded, justice-driven, compassionate, steadfast advocacy from within our communities. To do this, planning had to go beyond the orthodoxy of ordinance, policy, and program crafted from the comfort of a desk. The question was, “How?” For these students, and for me, the answer is Embedded Planning.
In this context, a recent event at the 2019 National Planning Conference has taken on a deeper meaning than what may have casually appeared to convention center onlookers.
But first, I must transport you back in time to my teenage years as a graffiti writer in early 90s Los Angeles. This was a formative period in my development as a street-level urbanist. I learned regional bus routes, spray cans in tow. I learned about municipal borders and changing police jurisdictions. I learned Los Angeles urban history walking the nighttime streets of a pre-gentrified, desolate Downtown L.A. Moreover, in doing illicit street art, I learned about mutuality and camaraderie in the graffiti subculture – not in high school sports. One way graffiti writers express solidarity is by tagging comrades’ monikers alongside our own when comrades are not with you. “Hit me up tonight,” we would say (I am adjusting to current internet slang #HMU [hit me up] meaning “contact me,” because that still translates as “tag me up, too.”). Hitting up your fellow graffiti writers was a demonstration of kinship on those often-dangerous streets. It was a sign of mutual respect and trust. We had each other’s backs. We trusted each other’s tagging skills. We shared ownership in our reputations. We believed in one another.
At #NPC19, it all coalesced.
I did not attend the San Francisco conference. But Embedded Planning was there. The Urban Planning Students of Northridge made sure of it. On Day 1, several of my CSUN UPSN mentees made their way to the APA’s “Equity, Diversity, Inclusion” wall, which asked conference-goers to use color markers to “tag” responses to this prompt:
“I can move my community forward by:”
One CSUN student wrote: “#EmbeddedPlanning” and my name “Jonathan Pacheco Bell” with an arrow connecting the two scrawls.
Another CSUN student of considerable height prominently inscribed the top of the 6-foot wall with: “We Cannot Plan From Our Desks! JPB”.
There was no prompting, no request, no DM from back home on my part. The CSUN urban planning students took it upon themselves to carry out these actions as emissaries of the praxis. As future Embedded Planners, they own Embedded Planning too, and demonstrated ownership onsite. UPSN trumpeted the praxis at this convocation of 6,400 planners, professors, researchers, luminaries, allies, and students from over 30 countries.
I was standing at my kitchen counter checking in on conference happenings through Instagram late that first night when I received UPSN’s photos and IG Stories showing them hitting me up. My history, present, and future all came together watching this unexpected show of solidarity take place on the conference floor. A sizeable lump formed in my throat. My eyes welled up with tears. I let out a deep, calming breath. My wife noticed and asked if I was okay. I nodded yes, smiled back at her, and swept away the tears as I told her why.
This was a watershed moment.
If the op-ed in Planning announced that Embedded Planning exists, then this act of solidarity by the CSUN urban planning students proclaimed that WE exist.
Embedded Planning is no longer just me – it is we.
We are a movement.
We are a coalition.
We are planners, students, community members, comrades, allies, advocates, and friends.
We are diverse.
We are growing.
We are fierce.
We are dedicated.
We are steadfast.
We are coming to conferences, classrooms, and conversations.
We are out on those streets.
We are in this together.
We are all leaders.
We are the future of planning.
Photo 1 courtesy of James A. Castañeda, AICP. Photos 2 and 3 courtesy of Quetzalli Enrique, UPSN President.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed here are the author’s alone.