Ethics of Environmental Planning

by Shannon Spencer

Rural communities in America have developed in a wide variety of ways, from compact and relatively dense to more widely spaced with lower densities -- determined by factors which vary with the nature of and historic origins of the community -- and these communities vary in their relationships with the surrounding natural environment. When they were originally planned most of these communities had a relatively obvious relationship to the surrounding countryside. They were oriented to the water for commercial purposes, followed the course of least resistance when laying out roads, chose hilltops with beautiful views for their most prestigious buildings, public or private, and were located near good soil for agriculture, good forests for logging, or the ocean for shipping. Though people may have feared nature, they also had a sense of their own world as it related to the natural world, locating public dumps away from water sources, using geographical landmarks for way-finding and taking advantage of topographical features both in the towns and outside of them. As technology advanced humans beyond the requirement to adjust their needs to the facts of nature, development began to take place in spite of the natural obstacles, often in an effort to tame nature -- we built canals, bridges and railroads, filled and dug the topographical changes in the landscape to ease our street construction, filled the estuarine areas along the coasts to allow us more ocean front land, constructed dams to supply our drinking water, built interstate highways and high-speed automobiles to transport people rapidly from one place to another, and built metropoles to contain the burgeoning populations of some of our cities. As our dependency on the natural environment has changed, our towns have often turned their backs on the surrounding natural environment. The connections once so clear have become blurred.

In effect these changes heralded a divorce of humans from nature. And with time this lack of relationship between human action and natural restraints has led to a loss of understanding of the relationship between our actions and their impacts on the natural environment and in turn a loss of understanding of the relationship between the condition of and connection with the natural environment and our human need for a sense of belonging to that natural world. One profession which has a significant influence on these issues is the planning profession.

Planners perform for the communities they serve a wide variety of services, often depending on the financial resources of any given community. These services include urban and rural design, landscape planning, public utilities planning, social services such as adequate housing provision, administering community development block grant funds, environmental planning, infrastructure planning, working as liaisons between county boards of supervisors, city councils and citizens, writing comprehensive plans for entire counties and coordinating with other localities on services and regulations. These professionals wield significant influence in various decision-making processes because of their knowledge of many areas and contact with various groups and decision makers. Perhaps because of this influence, the American Planning Association has laid out a set of ethical principles, which guide planners in their professional pursuits and practice.

Three of these ethical principles are particularly relevant to environmental issues (though all of them have implications to a degree), and each is inextricably linked to the others. These three are to serve the public interest (this is the primary obligation of planners), to recognize the comprehensive and long-range nature of planning decisions, and to maintain public confidence. As indicated by the first principle, as planners deal with issues and the ethical principles that guide them in addressing issues, they also must consider the needs of their constituents, who are diverse in their interests and their views. These constituents are citizens (with all of their divergent interests), political office holders (who may have hired the planner and who may also have an agenda), businesses and other financial stakeholders (who may have considerable economic benefits to offer to any given community as well as considerable costs -- economic, environmental or otherwise -- that have to be borne by that same community), governmental departments (whose regulations must be met), private interest groups (each of which has its own agenda and may be able to sway other constituents), and governmental bodies (which must approve any decisions that require legal validation).

The first of the three principles, to serve the public interest, may seem like a given for any public servant. But consider the conflicts inherent in this duty. With constituents who range across all levels of community stakeholders, planners must determine whose interests constitute the "public's". This means that the interests of some, if not many, constituents will not be served as well as those of other constituents. For example, issues which pit economic development against environmental protection often are decided in favor of development because the benefits of the protecting a natural resource are less tangible in the short run regardless of their value to the community. Constituents who favor natural resource concerns may be able to sway those who don't, but they may not be able to because alternatives to development plans often do not compete with the economic benefits of the development. Planners must determine what the public interest is in such cases and support that interest. But conflicting allegiances can raise questions of partiality and planners must determine what the public's best interest is while under pressure from all sides.

The second ethical principle -- to recognize the comprehensive and long-range nature of planning decisions -- must be used in making decisions about issues which involve the natural resources we all depend on for fresh air, clean water, open space and biodiversity. These issues almost always have significant long-term and comprehensive effects and yet these effects are hard to comprehend for many people, particularly those used to having immediate results. This is easily understood, though not so easily digested, given that the people in the United States have come to expect instant gratification. The planning process is particularly difficult when environmental concerns are pitted against lucrative business deals. Planners (and other public officials) who may be interested in protecting the public's interest in the long term through favoring environmental protection, may have great opposition in cases where their constituents see their opportunity to get rich quick being threatened by an unprofitable alternative.

Finally, planners must maintain public confidence in their actions. This presents another dilemma. If the planner truly believes that environmental protection is the best course of action in the long term and that this action truly serves the public's best interest she may lose the public's confidence if the public believes that she is not taking the best course of action for them. If she loses the confidence of the public that she serves then she will become ineffective.

Given that planners are guided by vague notions of correct behavior, that there is no consensus on how rural areas should be protected or developed, and that planners have such diverse responsibilities, there is little surprise that rural planning is wracked with confusion. Addressing the ethical dilemmas/problems inherent in the planning profession will be a task of Herculean proportions, which is not to say that it should not be undertaken. On the contrary, I believe that we must address this problem head on for it concerns the well-being of our communities, not just today, but for generations to come. Several solutions come quickly to mind, though I realize that none of these is a panacea. First of all and only as a temporary measure, I believe we need to incorporate the economic value of protecting nature into the cost-benefit analysis process. Additionally, we need to redefine our methods of cost- benefit analysis to include other types of values, e.g., cultural values of protecting characteristic natural and vernacular landscapes, the value of having a biologically diverse ecosystem, or the value of having lands set aside for mental health or recreation. Another solution is implementing state-wide growth management regulations, which focus attention on improving our built environments while protecting natural environments. Particularly in states which have more serious environmental constraints and more pressing development issues -- Florida, for example -- growth management techniques are not only effective, but I think necessary. But regulation is a stop gap measure which can be undone at the drop of an election. Finally, I believe that we need to develop an underlying, collective environmental ethic which would reevaluate the role of land in our society and our methods of valuing it. This ethic would encourage, if not require, consideration of the actual costs and benefits to society of environmental protection and destruction and should also consider the needs of all citizens of our society -- not just those who support environmental protection and including future generations of citizens who will live with the consequences of our actions.

And what of the planner? Perhaps armed with a powerful, equitable and just environmental ethic and new methods and principles for valuation of natural resources and natural resources protection, our friendly planners will be able to live up to the expectations imposed by their ethical principles and be able to perform their valuable function in our communities.

Shannon Spencer is a doctoral student in cultural geography at the Yale University School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.

copyright 1995, Shannon Spencer

 APA Ethical Principles for Planning

Planners must:
1.       Serve the public interest.  This is the primary obligation of planners.
2.       Support citizen participation in planning.
3.       Recognize the comprehensive and long-range nature of planning decisions.
4.       Expand choice and opportunity for all persons.
5.       Facilitate coordination through the planning process.
6.       Avoid conflict of interest.
7.       Render thorough and diligent planning service.
8.       Not seek or offer favors.
9.       Not disclose or improperly use confidential information for financial gain.
10.      Ensure access to public planning reports and studies on an equal basis.
11.      Ensure full disclosure at public hearings.
12.      Maintain public confidence.
13.      Respect professional codes of ethics and conduct.