After 25 years as a planner in local government in New England, Jeff Levine, AICP, is training the next generation of planners as a faculty member in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His new book, Leadership in Planning (Routledge, 2021) explores a variety of case studies and real-world examples to get at what makes a good leader.
Planning's Ezra Glenn caught up with Levine to discuss elevator speeches, balancing best practices with innovation, and the value in getting it wrong. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
GLENN: One key element of the approach to "leadership" in the book — which is often overlooked in the more corporate, B-School management texts — is your emphasis on communication. It's even stressed in the subtitle of the book, "How to communicate ideas..." We all know that communication is at the heart of good, inclusive planning, but how do you view it as contributing to being a good leader?
LEVINE: Leading in a public-facing profession like planning can't be done unilaterally. You need to build a coalition of political leaders and professionals who share your vision and will work alongside you to advance it. In order build a strong coalition, you need to be able to explain what direction you want to take things and why. That involves having strong communication skills, especially an ability to get others excited about something that may seem mundane.
You hear the term "elevator speech" a lot — the sales pitch you give if you get someone in an elevator with you and have a short time to convince them of something. You need to have an "elevator speech" for your planning goals in order to lead!
GLENN: You talk in the intro about the process of finishing the book while the world struggled through a pandemic. How do you think this experience changed your understanding of the topic? Did the pandemic highlight the importance of a different type of leader from what we'd seen in the past?
LEVINE: I don't think it changed my understanding of the topic, but it did teach me that leadership skills don't always require speaking in person. Our collective experience with Zoom and sharing things remotely did require adjusting leadership skills to a different communications paradigm. Going forward, I think we will see even more efforts to lead remotely through the creation of convincing, multimedia elevator speeches. On the other hand, I suspect that in-person leaders will continue to be highly effective, as we all like to speak in person.
GLENN: For most planners — even those with fancy degrees — it seems that a lot of what we do was learned on the job, typically through experience (and mistakes!). Your book clearly reflects this. It represents over 25 years of hard-won wisdom, as well as knowledge collected from colleagues and research. As a teacher, a mentor, a manager, and a writer, how do you strike a balance between delivering "best practices" and "time-honored solutions" with the importance of adaptation, reflective practice, innovation, and risk-taking?
LEVINE: In my work, I always say you need to know both the best practices and the local context. The best leaders don't just take an idea from another place and apply it to their community. On the other hand, it's very common for residents to say, "that may be how they do things there, but our community is different." The reality is somewhere in-between.
I like to start with a toolkit of national best practices, and an environmental scan of the local political, physical, and social context. The best leaders can take those two sets of information and find solutions that apply these toolkits locally. As an example, when I worked in one community, residents always insisted that they couldn't allow overnight on-street parking because it was antithetical to their identity. As a result, that community had high off-street parking requirements they could justify by the fact that you couldn't park overnight on the curb. This was a self-inflicted challenge, but one they felt deeply in their identity. Rather than fight over the overnight ban — which was a battle I was likely to lose — I focused instead on providing alternatives to driving, such as introducing bikeshare to the community. Similarly, when I worked to introduce inclusionary zoning to another community, I was careful to adopt the standard requirements of the tool to the specific needs and political will of local leaders.
GLENN: In addition to writing about how to get things done, you have clearly thought a lot about how planners can frame the agenda: how to even decide which problems we are ready to solve, which need more discussion, and which ones we should just accept or even ignore for the moment. Can you share some examples of how you learned this?
LEVINE: By getting it wrong! It's easy to not filter your convictions through what can or can't actually get done as a planner. I'd argue that, as good as it may feel to fight to solve every problem at the same time, that's not what planning is about. Planning is about successful solutions, not just strong advocacy. So it's important to be thinking about which policy windows are open and which are closed. You can work to open those closed windows, but you're unlikely to open them entirely by yourself.
In one community I worked with, I had a different set of values than some political figures. However, we all agreed that there was a need for more below-market affordable housing. So I focused my efforts on tackling that challenge. At the same time, I tried to push other issues when the right situations arose.
GLENN: There's an elegant structure that unfolds through your chapters: leading within the planning office, techniques for "managing up" to lead your boss or mayor, and the "leading public opinion" outside of city hall as well. Is there one approach that works across these difference settings, or do different audience and relationships call for different forms of leadership?
LEVINE: A lot of it comes down to being a decent reader of body language. Some of the same tools will work in different arenas if the peoples' responses are similar. On the other hand, there is clearly a different power context when you are talking to your boss, versus talking to someone on your team or a member of the public. At the end of the day, it's important to read the room and be able to respond accordingly.
GLENN: Are there tensions between being a good leader-communicator internally and a playing the same role in a more open, transparent, democratic setting?
LEVINE: I don't think there are tensions between the two. However, they may require different skills sets. Some planners are great at public leadership, and others at internal leadership. The best leaders excel at both.
GLENN: For decades, planning theory has oscillated between "advocacy planning" representing the interests of particular groups or sectors in a community, and a more neutral — albeit self-proclaimed — "expert-led planning." Do you think your book might suggest a third path, between these overly simplified conceptions of public decision-making and self-government?
LEVINE: I don't actually think there is as much of a conflict between the two as it may seem. As I read advocacy planning, it's not just about advancing the interests of underrepresented communities, but also providing an expert response to how to address legitimate needs that may not be getting a voice in the room. The problem has been that traditionally the "expert-led planning" meant planning without thinking about the full range of needs in a community. But true planning expertise involves thinking about all those needs and coming up with a path forward for a community. That's where planning is different from some other (important) professions. Planners try to both factor in the needs of an entire community, but also provide the expertise to come up with solutions.
For example, it's really important to preserve and even restore wetlands, but at the same time, it's important to provide for transportation options for people. It's easy to see a debate over a new light rail line that travels through a wetland as pitting one against the other — and the advocacy planner may take a role that they feel is the most advantageous to those who are not able to advocate for themselves. In reality, I find true planning leadership as figuring a way to accomplish these multiple goals as best as possible. So rather than saying no to the light rail line, or dismissing the environmental concerns as bourgeois, a good leader might figure out how to preserve the critical wetlands while allowing the rail project to proceed. As part of that process, she can apply her expertise to accomplishing a balance between social and environmental goals.