Address to the American Collegiate Schools of Planning after receiving the
Distinguished Educator Award
ACSP Annual Conference, Denver, Colorado, October 14, 2017
Thank you for this great honor. I especially appreciate the title of Distinguished Educator because most other awards in universities are for research and publication. In the Darwinian world of the academic job market, we are usually judged by our scholarship, but I think we have the greatest influence through the careers of our students. Education is our most important product, and our real accomplishment is helping our students to make the world a better place.
At the beginning of my academic career, it took me at least ten years to learn that I had no talent for teaching, but by then it was too late because I already had tenure. Over time, however, a series of great teaching assistants helped me to up my game. If students have enjoyed my teaching half as much as I did, then I have enjoyed it twice as much as they did.
Every year, UCLA’s graduating class of urban planners elects one member to speak on behalf of all the students at the graduation ceremony. One year a courageous and witty gay commencement speaker told a story about the difficulty of studying to be an urban planner. He said that at the first non-urban-planning parties he went to, people would ask him what he studied. Whenever he responded, “urban planning,” the only follow up was silence. Or worse yet, people would say, “wow, urban planning!” and walk away. After a few of these brush-offs, he tried “city and regional planning,” but it didn’t help. So, he decided to try one more—transportation planning. After all, transportation problems bring all Angelenos together. Unfortunately, the responses were worse. In fact, he had to tell people, “No I do not work for Metro, it’s not my fault.”
He said that he began to withdraw into his shell. His only comfort came in being with his fellow urban planners who understood him. He avoided situations where people could corner him and ask to know what he studied. The thought of having to explain “urban planning” would leave him in tears. Outside the Department of Urban Planning he felt alone, miserable, and had nowhere to turn. Then one day he saw Ellen De Generes or Neil Patrick Harris being celebrated at the Oscars, and he knew that his time had arrived. If they could come out to the world, so could he.
He was tired of being in the closet when everyone else babbled endlessly about their professions. Yes, planners may occupy only 10 percent of all the jobs in the country, but they need to be visible. They need to stop hiding and to let people know that planners are everywhere. They are your brothers and sisters, your sons and daughters. He now he realized there is no shame in being an urban planner.
He urged his fellow students to come out, and tell everyone that they too are planners. He told the graduates’ parents in the audience that they would have to explain to others what their child does for a living, and why their child is this way. He told them that the question of nurture versus nature would arise. And he told the parents that he wanted them to know, it was not their fault. They had done nothing wrong in raising their children to become urban planners. What they had given their children was a sense of responsibility for their city.
He said that since he was out as an urban planner, he was going to non-planning parties again. He knew that not everyone will understand what he does and why he does it. But he felt it was his responsibility to let people know that the planning profession is as important as architecture, law, and public health. He urged his fellow students to come out of their closets—no matter how roomy they may be—and to go proudly out into the city to make positive changes.
The commencement audience loudly applauded his witty and courageous stand for equal rights, and his old professors were extremely proud of him.
After that, I realized that I could come out too. I had not concealed from my students and fellow faculty that I had an unusual interest in parking, which was a seriously uncool topic, but I hadn’t been open to everyone about it. Universities preach equality but they also have a rigid status system of research topics. Global and national affairs have the most prestige, state government is a big step down, and local government seems parochial. Even within the unglamorous world of local government, parking occupies the lowest rung on the status ladder. Most academics cannot imagine anything less interesting to study than parking, so I was a bottom feeder.
But in 2005 I came out in a big way with The High Cost of Free Parking. At first, half the planning profession thought I was crazy and the other half thought I was daydreaming. But there is a lot of food at the bottom, and I’m delighted that many other academics have joined in what is now almost a feeding frenzy of research on parking. Attitudes toward planning for parking are beginning to shift from thoughtless acceptance to severe criticism, and many planners now agree that parking reforms are both sane and necessary. Parking is far too important not to study.
I strongly condemned parking policies that had been dogma in the planning profession for decades. The fact that the American Planning Association published The High Cost of Free Parking made a big difference. It was as if the Vatican had published a book recommending same-sex marriage. For those of you who haven’t memorized the Shoup Doggma, I argue that almost every city’s parking policies are exactly the opposite of what they should be.
If you attack the establishment long enough and hard enough, they eventually invite you to become a member, and perhaps my time has come. I’m grateful that UCLA and the planning profession gave me the freedom to persist on a path independent of and even opposed to the prevailing intellectual currents. So for the young people here, I recommend following something that you believe to be important, even if others look down on it. If you focus on a problem that others have neglected or overlooked, and you can show that it is important, and you explore all its ramifications and possible solutions, you can make a valuable contribution.
And my final piece of advice to young people here is to find the perfect spouse. I wouldn’t be here without all the love and help from my wife of 52 years, Pat.
You can’t tell by looking at me, but urban planning keeps you young. I know because when I was a boy I told my father, “When I grow up I want to be an urban planner.” My father replied, “Son, you can’t have it both ways.”
I think I’m the oldest person to receive the Distinguished Educator award, perhaps because I’m a late bloomer. It’s OK to be a late bloomer if you make it to the flower show, and I want to thank the ACSP for inviting me to this wonderful flower show. Thank you all.