Q&A with Dawn Jourdan and Eric J. Strauss, authors of "Planning for Wicked Problems"

Dawn Jourdan and Eric J. Strauss, authors of Planning for Wicked Problems discuss the uniqueness of their new book and what got them interested in the topic.

Why did Planning for Wicked Problems need to be written?

Planning law is a specialty that is unfamiliar to most lawyers. Furthermore, many law schools do not offer courses in land use law. When it comes to enforcement, the trial court level judges tend to be former prosecutors who have no experience and often little interest in the subject.

So it is the planner who most commonly becomes the local “expert” on land use law. Political decision makers rely on the planner for a legal “early warning” system to see if the government faces potential legal problems. On the private side, the planner often gives the developer advice as to whether it will be worthwhile to pursue litigation after a decision goes contrary to the applicant’s wishes.

Most planning students gain this expertise and responsibility for advice after several years of experience in a single jurisdiction. In the past, planning students were taught land use law as if they were law students. Planning students used case books or treatises for their text in this course. read cases, wrote briefs, rehearsed court arguments, argued hypotheticals, etc. as if they were second or third year law students.

But of course planning students are not law students. The result of this approach was confusion on the part of the planning student as well as a distrust of the ability of the planner to give sound advice when asked by decision makers for an opinion. Planning students became confused with procedural issues instead of focusing on the substantive holdings of cases.

This book is designed with a different approach in mind. The idea is to take a planning student, planner or other person not trained in the law and educate them on the impact of the law in certain areas of land use planning. No prior knowledge of the law is assumed or needed; no cases need be read. The idea is to give the reader the confidence to know, after reading the book, when it is time to call a lawyer. Based on the professional practice of the authors, the key tools of planning are discussed in order to begin the process that turns a beginner into the local “expert”. The holdings of cases are highlighted; decisions are discussed in general terms. The teaching tool used is not a real case, as in Law School, but a set of facts loosely based on actual professional practice. This allows readers to consider not only the issues raised by the litigants in the case, but by other stakeholders in the dispute. This book widens the scope of inquiry to include the neighbors and the community because the planner must also consider these interests when giving advice.

How is Planning for Wicked Problems different from other books in the field?

Planning for Wicked Problems is written for urban planners. Historically, students in planning programs have learned the particulars of land use law from a case law book generated by a legal scholar. While the topics covered remain the same, the approach is different. The authors of this book worked diligently to provides a common sense explanation of land use law principles, focusing on the application of these concepts to hypothetical scenarios. This provides the students with an opportunity to practice what their learning.

What do you hope readers will take away from this book?

We hope that those who read Planning for Wicked Problems will gain an understanding of the power of the law to help shape the planning process and the urban landscape. It is important to use that readers have enough knowledge of the law to be able to effectively communicate with municipal attorneys about issues of mutual importance. Further, we hope readers will understand the significance of effective, well-designed planning processes as an alternative to litigation, which is costly and often does not yield good planning.

What got you interested in the topic in Planning for Wicked Problems?

Shortly after graduating Law School, I began working for a state agency that was charged with assisting local governments. My first meeting with a large city Mayor began with what I thought was a brilliant analysis of recent U.S. Supreme Court cases. He looked at me and said that was a wonderful piece of work but what he really wanted to know was “what could he do with the law?”

His particular interest was land use planning. He pointed out to me that in the 50 years since the Zoning Ordinance was adopted in his city, not a single non-conforming use had been eliminated. He asked me to work with his planning staff to use my knowledge of the subject area to make all the neighborhoods of that community a better place to live.

I soon discovered an important distinction between land use planning and law. Over time, the law asks the same questions (what is property, what is due process, etc.) but arrives at different answers. Urban planning, on the other hand, asks different questions (how to control urban sprawl, what is historic preservation, etc.) but always has the same answers (zoning, subdivision control, etc.). I decided that it would be a worthwhile activity to study how planners could use the same tools they learn about in their education to solve the different problems that would come up during the course of their career.

My experience since I began teaching this subject almost 40 years ago is that no planner wants or needs to be a legal expert. They needs short answers to see how their familiar decision techniques solves the problems that arise in their communities. The topics contained in these Chapters represent issues that have been of interest to planners and decision makers over time. They represent models of action that can be used to answer the set of endless questions that seems to confront planners. The materials in the book are designed to show planning students that the familiar can be a source of inspiration.

To answer the Mayor after so many years, I would say that the law could solve any urban planning problem, within reason. What remains is for the practitioner to become skilled (and the student to become familiar) with the power at their disposal.

  • Planning for Wicked Problems

    A Planner's Guide to Land Use Law

    By Dawn Jourdan, Eric J. Strauss

    Efforts to teach students pursuing graduate degrees in urban and regional planning are often frustrated by the "case books" that have been prepared for use by law professors teaching similar courses.  Dawn Jourdan and Eric J. Strauss have attempted to take their concerns to heart in the design of…

    Paperback – 2015-11-06
    Routledge