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Specialized Public Relations: Urban Planning

Posted At: February 16, 2009 1:28 PM
by Kayla Gail Anthony

When you hear the word “planning,” what image is created in your mind? Do you think of extravagant events such as weddings with stressed out coordinators? Or maybe you see your future and those detailed lists of what you hope to accomplish.

I see planning as a specialized public relations discipline, but not your typical event or career planning. For me, planning involves buildings, streets, housing programs, business districts and land-use rights. It looks at social problems and economic situations. You probably never realized that the streets you drive on and the cities you visit were carefully designed and premeditated so your experience would be a desirable one.

What is planning?
The American Planning Association defines planning as a “dynamic profession that works to improve the welfare of people in their communities by creating more convenient, equitable, healthful, efficient and attractive places for present and future generations.” It works to improve the health, safety and welfare of the people in the community. Similar to public relations, planning is all about the public. “Planning is about two percent technical knowledge and 98 percent public or community relations,” said Dr. Seth Appiah-Opoku, professor at The University of Alabama. “The success of any planning program is greatly dependent on the nature of the relations within the community.”

Cities have been “planned” in some form for almost as long as they have been built. Even the earliest cities in Mesopotamia had preconceived form. Since these societies had very elaborate political, religious and military hierarchies, the cities were often planned to accompany their customs. During the Renaissance period, the need for city planners multiplied. City design became more open and free-flowing and planners were needed to create layouts that were aesthetically pleasing. Industrialization brought in a plethora of ideas and standards of living that transformed planning. For most people, however, the start of modern-day city planning began at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. It was organized to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ discovery of the “New World.” Daniel Burnham and Frederick Law Olmsted, among many others, designed the fairgrounds for the exposition. As the world watched, city planning took root in America and cities would never be the same. Since that time, many inventions have changed the way cities are planned, from transportation networks to city beautification movements to zoning laws.

As evidenced from this brief history of planning, it is clear that the nature of the profession is a very dynamic one. Zoning ordinances are passed daily that affect the nature of planning. Citizen wants and needs are constantly changing the way planners do their job.

The planning profession
The challenging nature of planning is that there is no absolute answer. The dynamic nature of human needs and wants make it impossible to predict what your day-to-day activities as a planner will look like. Professional planners work around the world in both rural and urban areas. They can be found in the public sector working for government and nonprofit organizations or in the private sector working for consulting firms and real estate companies. “Planning is a collaborative field. Planners have their hands in some law, some engineering, some architectural designs and some politics,” Appiah-Opoku said. Consider planners by the old adage of “A jack of all trades, but a master of none.” It is essential in the planning profession to understand the different publics you work with and be able to unite these groups to further the city’s vision.

The case for public relations practitioners in planning
Citizen involvement is the most effective tool for a planner. Having public relations skills is very helpful to a planner who is trying to win the trust of the community. Public relations “serves to bring private and public policies into harmony,” according to thePublic Relations Society of America Web site. The purpose of public relations and planning correspond with each other perfectly. Both strive to eliminate the conflicts among their publics by offering clarity and solutions.

LaParry Howell, a recent graduate from The University of Alabama with a major in planning and a minor in public relations currently works as an Economic Development Planner for Tuscaloosa. He spoke about the importance of having public relations skills in the planning profession.

“A planner must be skilled in writing in order to compile grant proposals and obtain money for projects,” he said. “They must write comprehensive plans for cities and design presentations for new developments within the planning region. They must speak at council meetings and in front of public forums. Organization is the key to managing a planning project, from the community leaders and politicians to the architects and construction workers to the lawyers and environmental activists and even the public. A planner, just like a public relations practitioner, is the buffer between each group, ensuring that the goals and objectives are reached while each group’s needs and wants are being met. We must be skilled in crisis management and be ready to handle any predicament that gets thrown our way. I know that my background in PR helped me in the planning field.”

The study of public relations harnesses a person’s abilities in writing, speaking, organizing, administrating and managing crises, skills that are also needed in the planning field. A planning professional is essentially a specialized public relations practitioner. They are proficient not only in managing the public, but also in finding solutions to the current problems facing the way in which our cities function. Becoming familiar with more specialized forms of public relations is becoming the trend today, shown by the rapid growth of Hispanic PR and PR in healthcare. Now when you hear the word “planning,” you can think of the profession as a specialized area of public relations. For more information about a career in planning, visit theAmerican Planning Association Web site.

Other sources:

Smith, Herbert H. (2000). The Citizen’s Guide to Planning. Chicago, IL: American Planning Association.

Photo by TAS

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