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Leadership in Planning

What skills are critical to the success of a city planner? Creativity, design instincts, data science, fluency in economics, community engagement? Jeff Levine, Lecturer of Economic Development and Planning, believes you should include leadership and communication skills in your list of traits emblematic of effective urban planners. In his new book, Leadership in Planning: How to Communicate Ideas and Effect Positive Change (Routledge, 2021), Levine draws upon his experiences leading organizations and facilitating change to help guide planners to translate their visions of what ought to be into reality.

At DUSP Levine teaches 11.200 and is currently researching how mid-sized US cities will adapt to the changes wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic and the impact of various policies surrounding the legalization of cannabis. Before joining DUSP, Levine was the Director of Planning & Urban Development for Portland, ME, where he led a multidisciplinary team in developing a new Comprehensive Plan. In Portland, Levine introduced best practices in housing policy, land use, and equity planning, while managing the largest private investment in the City since the Great Fire of 1866. He also served as the Director of Planning & Community Development for Brookline, MA, where he managed the completion of the town's award-winning Comprehensive Plan and a public realm plan for the Route 9 corridor into Boston.

Q1. Why are leadership and communication skills critical to the success of urban planners?
Levine: Planning as a profession does a good job coming up with innovative ideas centered on the public good and turning research into potential actions. It needs to do more on how to take those potential actions and turn them into actions. That’s where leadership and communication are necessary.

A key part of urban planning is convincing political leaders to stick out their necks and vote for good planning ideas. That requires an ability to provide a clear and consistent voice and understanding the nuances of good leadership. In my career, I’ve sometimes had good planning ideas that floundered because I didn’t do a good job communicating why they were important, and leading the effort to make them happen.

For example, I worked in a community that had very high off-street parking requirements. I think I did a good job completing an analysis of why those numbers were too high, and why they were detrimental to the livability of the community. What I didn’t do as good a job at was leading a course of action to actually turn that information into reduced parking requirements. I stepped back too much and allowed others to take the lead. The effort failed. If I had engaged in the effort, reaching out to political leaders to explain why the idea was important, it may have failed anyway. But it would have had more of a chance to succeed.

Q2. Are the leadership skills you advocate for planners different from the leadership skills taught at a business school, and if so, how do they differ?
Levine: Planning is inherently an inclusive, democratic, and public profession. That makes leadership very different in planning than in business. Planning leadership requires managing a public process while, at the same time, using internal management skills to keep both your boss and your team on board. The internal aspects of planning leadership are not different from the leadership skills you might learn in business school, but the public process is another animal altogether.

In my career, I’ve been called lots of names by members of the public. It’s not an acceptable response to respond in kind, even if it's sometimes tempting! You need to show leadership in that public arena by showing maturity and competence, while at the same time not backing down just because someone decides to say mean things about you.

In addition, as a planning leader you need to speak up for stakeholders who may not have a natural voice in a process. People who need affordable places to live, or who have language or cultural barriers to participating in decision making, need planners to speak up for them. That means leading as a planner requires not just speaking your mind, but also representing and advocating for the minds of others - particularly those at the margins.

Q3. Could you describe one of the instances in your own practice when you employed your leadership skills?
Levine: When I worked in Portland (ME), it was obvious that there was a housing affordability problem. While traditionally it hadn’t been the most expensive place to live, that changed in the early 2000’s as people from other parts of the country discovered the high quality of life and accessibility of the city. However, political and planning leaders didn’t see the challenge as clearly as I did. In order to respond, I worked with a team of planners to develop a set of tools. These tools took concrete actions to help address the challenges - creation of an inclusionary zoning requirement for new development; upzoning to allow more housing production; and streamlining of regulatory requirements, to name a few.

Without leadership, a set of tools wouldn’t necessarily go anywhere. First, I developed a marketing strategy. I developed a short phrase explaining the set of strategies as both adding new incentives as well as new requirements. That phrase, “Encourage and Ensure,” gave the strategy coherence and helped me explain it quickly. We also created one-page summaries of the tools and why they were important.

Secondly, I partnered with the head of the City Council’s Housing & Community Development Committee, who was well versed in how to advance legislation. He was in his last year on the Council and wanted to take actions to help with the housing challenge. In his early days on the Council, he had advanced some housing policies but knew they weren’t adequate any more. So he was willing and able to lead the political part of the process, while I could provide him with technical and planning leadership. Between the two of us, we got it done!