In their practice, planning professionals are continually challenged to understand the varying needs, values, positions and actions of community members and groups. To achieve that understanding, planners must exercise a special set of research skills. Since community members often have cultural backgrounds distinct from that of the planning professional, as the professional works with them to think about their desires for the future of neighborhoods and towns, he or she must be able to re-evaluate his or her own professionally and culturally constructed worldview. To form such collaborative relationships with all of a community’s residents, professionals must be willing to cede their position as ‘experts.’ Working dialogically and iteratively, planners committed to a participatory model of practice must embrace the uncertainty and instability entailed in reaching understanding among the various actors.
Unlike many aspects of planning practice, these skills cannot be taught in a traditional classroom setting. This paper describes studio projects in which students worked with community residents to develop neighborhood and town plans. The students thus worked as “planning practitioners” in training, developing the hermeneutic research skills inherent to effective planning practice. The two cases, one in East St. Louis, Illinois and the other in Monteverde, Costa Rica, involve several years of collaboration among faculty, students and community members. In both cases, community organizations had requested assistance in exploring long-range visions for their communities primarily because local planning capacity was weak or nonexistent. In the end, those involved understood better not only what terms such as "rural character" and "good neighborhood" meant, but also the implications of the physical forms that embody those terms. The paper concludes with reflections about when hermeneutic practices make the most sense if pressure to take action exists.
Available at: http://works.bepress.com/stacy_harwood/9/