June 30, 1993 - From the June, 1993 issue

Open Letter: Redefine “Social Planning” for 1990s

An open letter by Maxene Johnston, president of the Weingart Center, to the men and women in the next wave of local leadership: 

Government's old-fashioned methods of planning have failed to meet the challenges of our times. Planning must go beyond finding the "highest and best use" of property and following rigid requirements for updating a community's master plan. We must add "social planning" to the standards that civic leaders use to make public policy decisions. 

That America's social infrastructure is in serious need of repair is not in dispute. The problems of homelessness, residential overcrowding, child and elder care, education, and business development remain unsolved and are growing. As you assume leadership roles in the coming months, we need your attention focused, now more than ever, on broader concepts than merely short-term economic vitality - concepts that will themselves lead to economic vitality if done right. 

The Old Social Planning 

Social planning is often ignored today because of its past. Today, many people think of social planning as the "soft stuff' of planning - all hearts and flowers but no dollars and sense. 

In the 1960s and 1970s, "social planning" was a code phrase - a derogatory term used by people angry with school integration, welfare, truces and other aspects of public policy. At that time, there was a suspicion that "social planning" was a conspiracy to bypass the normal political process and force change on an unwilling public. Planners still occasionally use the term when they want to inject a much needed dose of "equity" into the planning process. 

But the glaring failures of some public programs incorporating old concepts of social planning should not let you off the hook for dealing with our glaring social infrastructure deficit. Social planning must be an essential part of the way we conduct public business in this region. 

Social Planning Redefined 

As you give increased attention to these issues, we all must recast the term, "social planning," and what it stands for. Social planning in the '90s should openly involve the political process to avoid incurring the resentment of the public. It must emphasize outcomes rather than process -outcomes that deal with the complex cultural realities now confronting us. And perhaps most importantly, social planning must become entrepreneurial and consumer-driven. 

Social planning should mean considering the effects of public policy decisions on the immediate neighborhood and the community at large, in terms of education, business retention or development, social service, human development activities, and other community problems targeted by political bodies. It should mean redefining existing social service programs to meet present challenges, rather than creating entirely new service activities on the recommendation of foundations, corporations, or government agencies. 

Results-Oriented Questions 

Public officials thinking of testing the use of social planning in their decision-making process can start with a simple question: How will the results of this proposed action affect the quality of life in the neighborhood and the greater community?

This question then leads to a series of other "yardstick" inquiries for the social planning process: Will there be more jobs, cleaner air, safer streets, or happier people? Or, will there be more displaced tenants crowding into fewer housing units, more homeless camping in the alleys, more small businesses closed down, and more welfare claims? 

Who profits from this decision ­ the community, or a narrow interest? Will this decision produce profits at the price of the community's spirit? If a decision is made against this proposal, who is harmed? 


These questions must become part of the planning and decision-making process within government and civic institutions. But social planning cannot define societal values or social goals: these are political issues. The techniques of social planning should be applied after the public policy process prioritizes our social goals. Therefore, goal-setting on such topics as encouraging families to stay together, attacking child abuse, and reducing alcoholism should be a political procedure. 

Social Planning Applications 

Once the goals and the programs to reach them have been adopted, the community planning process should work to support and implement those programs. That might mean, for example, that planners considering a redevelopment program might develop new rules for determining the "highest and best use" of a neighborhood of aging buildings, rules that would point toward restoration because it would better apply resources in terms of housing, neighborhood businesses, cultural identity, and the well-being of adjacent areas. 

One model is the Hollywood Redevelopment Plan, in which all projects must include a set-aside amount to support social services that the community has decided are important. 

Lessons from Weingart 

Social planning is part and parcel of the services the Weingart Center provides to homeless clients. The problem of homelessness is not just the lack of a permanent address, after all, and does not lend itself to easy solutions. People become homeless for many reasons, and their escape from the streets requires comprehensive attention to needs ranging from adequate clothing, to employment, social skills, and many other factors. 

The new social planning should do what we do at the Weingart Center - take negatives and turn them into positives. Just as we take people on general relief and move them into a positive orientation, government policy can do the same. The MTA, which is creating jobs, could, for example. set aside 100 jobs for an apprenticeship program for persons in transitional housing.

Recently, we had several people sitting and lingering on the street outside our parking lot, creating a negative atmosphere in the Central City East neighborhood. When I asked them why they sat there instead of doing something more positive, they responded that they had just left a clinic and were merely waiting for a shuttle bus to the County hospital. Simply by intervening and putting in two benches and a sign labeled "bus stop," we turned a negative image of street behavior into a new, positive perception for the community. 

Social/Economic Harmony 

Finally, recasting the concept of social planning is essential to addressing the escalating conflict between the social and economic agendas. Under the pressure of the recession and the loss of defense contracts, local governments out of necessity are focusing more attention and resources on economic development. Social needs therefore get less attention, at the very time that the needs have increased exponentially. 

At times of stress, both people and human institutions like government often tend to place blame rather than seek solutions. Conflict between business and government is increasingly becoming shrill. 

But by recasting social planning in an entrepreneurial, results-oriented light, local government can address social needs while also pursuing an agenda of economic growth and recovery for our region. 


© 2024 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.