Planning Obsolescence?

A short conference points out a long-term educational weakness

Last Thursday afternoon, about 50 citizens gathered at the Urban Design Studio in the old Fidelity Building at Gay and Union to attend an advertised public forum on a provocative subject: "Planning, Do We Need It?"

It was an impressive panel of some heavy hitters, seemingly assembled for a major press conference. Among them was Metropolitan Planning chief Mark Donaldson; well-known consultant and former MPC director Don Parnell; Ed Cole, the statewide chief of Environment and Planning for the Tennessee Department of Transportation; Richard Bernhardt, director of Metro Planning Nashville; Dan Hawk, community development director for the state Department of Planning. Some of them drove in from Nashville for the meeting. Moderating the discussion was former city planner and prominent developer Wayne Blasius.

Several members of the faculty of UT's College of Architecture, as well as members of the Community Design Center, were in the audience. Together, it would seem, this august panel could solve any number of practical problems. However, anyone who might have expected them to discuss specific issues concerning planning, or the lack of such, in Knoxville, would have been disappointed.

Overtly, the short conference was intended to be proof of the vital importance of comprehensive, multi-disciplinary planning in the long-term success of almost all successful development. But the subtext was the slow decline of planning as a subject of study at the university. Several of the influential panelists, including Cole, Parnell, and Blasius, it turns out, were graduates of UT's now-defunct Graduate School of Planning.

In its original guise, the Graduate School of Planning was connected to the College of Architecture and Design, and had as many as 50 students. It combined disciplines of architecture, urban design, political science, economics, and geography. Sometime in the mid-1990s, though, the discipline was shuffled over to become a department in the School of Political Science, to the objection of then-dean of architecture Marleen Davis.

About three years ago, two of five planning professors retired, another was denied tenure; UT, in a financial bind, did not replace them. Due to the faculty atrophy, the planning program lost its national accreditation. With only two professors remaining, it seems to have lapsed into the sort of study that calls for some gumption on the part of a student who really insists on such a degree. At present, only 12 students are enrolled in the two-year program. Some worry about its long-term viability.

Professor Bruce Tonn, the only tenured professor involved in the planning program, says the national trend is actually toward more emphasis on planning, and he says he still has hopes that UT's planning program will expand, but admits it's a "Catch 22," attracting faculty without students, and attracting students without an accredited program. "It's hard for us to build up students without more professors."

Don Cox, associate dean of arts and sciences, was surprised to hear about last Thursday's meeting. "I don't know if it's a shame that it died," he says of UT's older planning curriculum. "It didn't have any professors and didn't have any students." His impression is that professors slowly lost interest in the program. "It's not because the university made a high-handed decision to axe the program. The program was just withering, and it kind of expired."

Others aren't quite as ready to see it go. Parnell, in particular, spoke of beefing up the study of planning even beyond what was offered in the graduate school when he attended it; he proposed adding finance and economics to the study. He and others spoke of the rising concerns about conservation and environmental husbandry, and the role that planners of broad educational backgrounds will have to play. The implication of Thursday's meeting was that these influentially progressive guys know what they're doing, but the next generation won't have anybody to replace them.

Parnell quoted Lewis Carroll with a planning-oblivious epigram that could almost pass for a community motto: "If it doesn't matter where you're going, any road will take you there."