Community Psychologists as Community Planners
by Bill Berkowitz
This post is about community psychology and community planning, and how they should be, but rarely are, related. Readers may also find at least two possible morals.
Here’s the prologue: My town has begun what’s called a master planning process, where the planners who work for the town create a comprehensive written plan that sets forth town-wide goals and is supposed to serve as a blueprint for the town’s future.
Master plans are not uncommon in local government circles. One rationale is that they offer an agreed-upon vision and common objectives for the town, based upon resident participation. Such plans can be criticized as feel-good exercises, forgotten as soon as they are finished; yet I’ve also heard claims that master plans have economic value by promoting the community to outsiders and improving a town’s bond rating.
If my town’s completed plan will resemble similar plans I’m familiar with, it will focus on local economic development, on the business climate, on housing stock, transportation, open space, zoning, and land use – all important and necessary contributors to the quality of life of any community. It won’t, however, have much to do with the relationships among people living in the community, or with community psychology values, or with community life as it is actually lived. We’ve long known that strong social and community networks yield multiple benefits, ranging from improved physical and emotional well-being, to greater security, better outcomes for children, and increased economic development. But when it comes to the social as versus the physical infrastructure of a community, most community plans are mute.
Why is that? My town planners, whom I’ve come to know casually, are caring and competent people, with a genuine commitment to an open process. In fact, they’ve bent over backwards to stimulate participation. There was a well-publicized community kickoff this past fall (with 150 attending), plus a vigorously-promoted online survey on resident priorities, as well as three public hearings on different days, time, and locations, with more topic-related workshop sessions scheduled this summer. All of this rates an A for effort. But from what I’ve seen in preliminary accounts so far, social concerns are unlikely to make it to the final or even semi-final cut of the plan.
Again, why? It’s not that our planners lack concern for social issues or oppose inclusion of social goals, even progressive ones. It seems rather that they just don’t see such goals as part of “planning.” “Planning” to them is basically physical planning, involving community elements you can touch and rub up against, such as bricks and mortar. That’s how most planners are trained, and our perceptions are shaped by the disciplines we’ve been trained in. In community psychology, we are trained to see the community as a network of interrelationships; but planners who make policy typically are not.
As it happens, residents rate a strong sense of community as among their highest values in the planners’ survey. And when I’ve spoken about social concerns at local hearings, I’ve seen planning staff nodding their heads in agreement; but somehow this doesn’t get translated into plans or actions. Incorporating community psychology into a local plan won’t transform community life; yet it should surely help if municipal leaders had more of that consciousness. I must admit, it’s a little frustrating.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Lowell, where I work, offers a different story. Its current and just-published master plan, also involving an extensive public process, is called “Sustainable Lowell 2025,” and can be found at http://www.lowellma.gov/depts/dpd/master_plan/complete_masterplan/master-plan-update/Sustainable%20Lowell%202025%20Document (Please paste link into browser if it does not work directly). It’s worth checking out as a model of what a community plan can be.
Many of this plan’s goals are social. Just for example, one of its main goals is Sustainable Neighborhoods, with specific objectives including “Promote Safe and Welcoming Neighborhoods,” and “Foster Neighborhood-Level Camaraderie, Advocacy, and Resource Sharing.” Each of these objectives is accompanied by multiple specific action steps designed to achieve it. Another primary goal is Sustained Public Engagement, including the objectives “Make Planning and Public Engagement Fun and Enjoyable,” “Diversify Existing Leadership,” and “Cultivate the Next Generation of Local Leaders by Encouraging the Sustained Engagement of Youth in City Life.” Does this sound like a community you would like to live in?
So why then in Lowell, and not in my home town? It’s not because Lowell as a community is any more enlightened, or ideologically committed to social goals. I think it’s largely because the lead writer for Lowell’s plan was one of our community psychology program graduates, who after graduation was hired by the city as its Neighborhood Planner. Our graduate program is largely applied, with strong community connections; here was an obvious application, and a good fit.
Of course, a plan is not action, nor will any plan necessarily lead to action or to community-building accomplishments. The future of Lowell’s plan is presently unknown. But we may agree that it’s a step in the right direction, and that we should take any small win that comes our way.
This leads to the first of two possible morals. Community building, as we use the term, is typically not on the radar screen of local government leaders. To instill social goals into their thinking often takes much hard work and repeated effort. Yet this is achievable over time. There are many strategies for so doing, and one worth highlighting is to get people hired from the inside – to make community building an inside job. That is, instead of trying to influence decision makers, to be the decision makers. And that in turn depends on developing a large cadre of community psychology students and graduates, and encouraging their placement into local decision-making positions as well as into academic life.
As for the second moral: Community psychology is about skills and techniques, but it’s also about finding opportunities to use them. Becoming a professional community planner is one of many such opportunities. Since our numbers are small, we must be opportunists. Sometimes the door is wide open, and we can walk right in. If it’s open just a crack, we can push it open further. If the door is locked, we can find someone with a key. But what’s even better is to be the keeper of the keys – so that we can open many doors, leverage many opportunities, and be able to walk down many corridors, leading to the wise use of community influence and power.
University of Massachusetts Lowell