This website uses cookies so that we can provide you with the best possible experience. If you continue to use this site we will assume that you are happy with this. You can find out more about how we use cookies here. If you would like to know more about cookies, or how you can delete them, click here.

Paul Farmer Interview

Ethics - an international perspective


Paul Farmer photoInterview with Honorary RTPI Member, Paul Farmer former CEO of the American Planning Association (APA), Planning Educator and Senior Officer in Local Government.


On the occasions I was fortunate enough to attend the APA Annual Convention, one of the best presentations was a workshop chaired by Paul as their ethics officer. Here he took American Planners through examples of difficult ethics issues he had considered during the year and took questions from an audience of a couple of hundred planners!

Interview by Martin Willey FRTPI (RTPI Past President 2009-10).

Photo credit: The Planner


Paul, delighted to catch up with you again. The RTPI is taking ethics very seriously, and has recently published advice on Ethics and Professional Standards, has introduced clearer ethics advice in an updated Code of Professional Conduct, has joined an International Ethics Standards Coalition and as one of the most regularly failed criteria for our Assessment of Professional Competence for planners seeking professional accreditation continues to seek to help professionals on understanding and applying ethical standards. We have a sub-committee that deals with complaints against chartered planners which is different to the APA process. This interview is one of a number on current RTPI CPD priorities and we are keen to learn from your experience.

Thank you for asking me Martin. The situation in the USA is very different from that in the UK. While planners must know our single written, federal constitution, the laws that implement it and the courts' decisions that interpret it, we also have 50 states. Planners must also know the laws, regulations and case law for the states in which they practice. Most planning law is state based and varies considerably. Other professionals such as lawyers, architects and engineers are regulated or have state licensing requirements, but only one state, New Jersey, has a licensing requirement for planners. At least they are required to pass the American Planning Association/American Institute of Certified Planners (APA/AICP) exam, including its questions on ethics! Because so many planners move around and states vary, the APA/AICP exam is a national exam and APA/AICP for many years has included a very strong ethical code component in the exam.  It applies at a national level and ethics features strongly in our CPD requirements, which we call Certification Maintenance (CM). We believe our standards are often stronger than those of other professionals in the USA. Planners also take a collaborative approach and a cross professional perspective.

Sometimes, professionals from different professions may differ even when each relies on their ethics codes.  In Pittsburgh, early in my career, we had rejected a site plan submitted by an architect on behalf of his client and we required a revised submission that was then approved.  Months later, the Building Department asked us to review the submission for the project's building permit and we discovered that the architect had submitted the rejected site plan.  We met with the architect and he admitted that he had knowingly submitted the rejected plan because it was what his client wanted.  His defense?  "I acted in accordance with my code that requires that I act on behalf of my client.  You acted in accordance with your [planning] code that requires you to represent the public interest. You caught me; see, the system worked."

Our national AICP certification process, we believe, is appropriate, especially our AICP Code of  Ethics and Professional Conduct which we have regularly updated since the 1950s. At most state events, ethics will be one of the issues discussed. Also we believe our approach  is meaningful at the international level.

What is different in the USA?  We set out additional core principles within our ethics code that we describe as Principles to which we Aspire (Section A).  Although different from our enforceable Rules of Conduct (Section B), these are nonetheless a very important part of our code.  We felt it was less confusing to distinguish aspirational from enforceable, so we separated them into two sections in revisions made in 2005.  The aspirations allow us to more extensively consider social justice, continuing education, dealing with other professionals, diversity and equality.  We have also benefited during the last 15 years from conversations with other professionals on ethics.

From 2001-2014 I was Ethics Officer and had personal responsibility for dealing with complaints. We  introduced a supporting Ethics Office of practising professionals that helped by offering free advice on the phone on that our members may face which proved enormously helpful.


That's an interesting service Paul. Our sub-committee deals with complaints after they have been made and although our officers are always available to help, this might be something we could consider.

Can I bring you back to this point about Federal responsibilities as much of your environmental law is national not state which has enormous ethical considerations?

Our Federal Law such as the Clean Air, Clean Water and Environmental Protection Acts guarantee a fair process but, only sometimes, an outcome.  Ethical Planning Code navigation is a balancing act addressing issues, whether they are perceived or actually in conflict. Planners seek a transparent process and are responsible for a fair process. We stand for something different!


Can I ask you for advice on some specific principles please? Many of our public sector planners move into the private sector and are invited to "change their minds"!

Our enforceable rule 3, found in Section B of our Code, suggests there should generally be no change in advice unless several strict standards are met:  

"3. We shall not accept an assignment from a client or employer to publicly advocate a position on a planning issue that is indistinguishably adverse to a position we publicly advocated for a previous client or employer within the past three years unless (1) we determine in good faith after consultation with other qualified professionals that our change of position will not cause present detriment to our previous client or employer, and (2) we make full written disclosure of the conflict to our current client or employer and receive written permission to proceed with the assignment".

Advice will have been given in good faith at a moment in time but circumstances change and the law changes or different evidence may emerge. To take our wetlands as an example, public policy may have clearly discouraged development but delineation may have changed boundaries, scientific evidence may suggest a form of development that would not undermine selected development areas and mitigation mechanisms may enhance the value of undeveloped wetland.  Several years ago, at our AICP Ethics Committee's urging, I began writing an Ethics Case of the Year.  Modelled loosely on the Harvard Business School's well-known case method, I would create a fictitious place and highlight several ethical challenges for planners in each case.  Discussions using the Case of the Year occurred throughout the year at state chapter meetings, and culminated each spring at our National Planning Conference.  One year, I included a "Rule 3" scenario, requiring planners to grapple with the challenge of the change in a professional position by planners. See the 2013 Case of the Year.

An ethical stance that addresses a process may be successful but we are also keenly interested in outcomes. We are not just meeting managers! Planners represent the public interest.


Communications skills development has featured strongly in changes to our planning school support mechanisms, but we also suffer from the divisiveness of social media that engages not just the young but the middle aged and elderly NIMBYs too. I learnt much from presentations at your annual conference where social media had been used to create a more representative civic voice. With others I subsequently encouraged its use in the UK to engage the young, dispossessed, cynical, and generally under represented voices of those suffering our housing crisis and needing to engage and support planners in the Local Plan process seeking more affordable housing. Can social media help the public better understand the planning process and planning issues?

This is a difficult issue. Social media has been used to send out inaccurate and dangerous information and promote prejudice and divisiveness – just look at our recent election and your BREXIT vote. Nevertheless, there is now much evidence of the constructive value of social media in generating fair and effective planning policy and community engagement, but it requires a considerable and skilled resource in the public sector at a time when cash is tight.  I touched on social media in scenario 4 in the 2014 Ethics Case of the Year, Murphy Mountain wants a Plan for its Birthday.

Social media brings other problems. Before social media you could recognise interests and address them, seeking to discover common interests through the planning process. Now it's hard to tell who is speaking for what. Everybody now expresses an opinion. I repeat it is essential to resource tweets, Instagram, Facebook and others media to reach people.  However, we all need to address how best to guide planners and those wishing to become planners on how best to use social to public benefit. Social media is really good at stopping things. There is also the need for the planners' voice to be heard and social media provides a real opportunity to get your balanced approach across by contributing to and leading social media discussions.


Another difficult issue facing all planning sectors is the risk of losing your job or business if you stand up for ethical standards?

We face this regularly in the USA. This is especially the case where the planner in the public sector is not senior enough to apply appropriate influence or finds out that the Mayor, City Manager or the Chair of The Planning Commission has reached a different conclusion to the planner's fair and balanced recommendation. The advice I would give, offered to me by another practising planner, is have enough money in the bank to allow you to survive for 6 months if you lose your job over an ethical stance! I am sure that in the UK like the USA there is a shortage of good planners and another opportunity is certain to occur.  Planners must be respected for their objective, evidence based recommendations. 

In Pittsburgh, during a time of tremendous economic transformation, the Deputy Mayor and I were having lunch one day and he mentioned to me that a major strength of the planning department was that we were not a "ticket-selling" department, helping politicians raise money for their next election.  He explained that everyone knew that our recommendations were based on ethical, professional judgment. He continued, "Of course, a major weakness of your department is that you are not a "ticket-selling" department, so you are often outside the political loop."  He recognized the planner's conundrum.

On another occasion, a member of the council called me into his office to complain about a position that we had taken on a favoured development project.  "You are always opposed to development," he bellowed.  I respectfully explained that we worked hard to facilitate responsible development in our downtown and neighbourhoods.  He banged his fist on the table, "That's the problem; you planners are always talking about responsibility." I was proud to say that we were guilty as charged.


Acting "fearlessly and impartially " giving "independent and impartial advice" is the keystone of the planning profession. There are now in both countries consultants who use communications pre application, application management and post application to demonstrate an evidence based approach to planning decisions when engaging the community and as you have said sometimes planners have to persuade people to tolerate a decision with which they disagree.

The RTPI is "unique" in being a charity devoted to providing public benefit whether practised in the public, private or voluntary sectors.

The APA is a charity open to anyone  although the AICP, as APA's professional institute, is not open to everyone, but we can introduce Ethical Principles in Planning to everyone, including those who do not have the AICP credential.  These ethical principles, adopted by the APA in 1992, can be added to Planning Commission bylaws. For example, when I was the Planning Director of Minneapolis, we added APA's Ethical Standards to our Commission's operating by-laws and procedures and found them to be quite helpful. For every newly-appointed commissioner, we had a required orientation that had to be completed before they could join in deliberations and cast votes, and the APA Ethical Principles became a key component of the conversations raised in those orientation sessions. One County Council appointee to the Commission balked at attending the orientation session, saying that he already knew everything he needed to know.  The President of our Commission explained that he would not be able to join the Commission until he had completed the orientation.  The newly appointed Commissioner answered that he was going to attend anyway and "just try to stop me from sitting at the Commission table."  Our President had his own answer, "You may be seated but you can't vote."  The soon-to-be Commissioner snapped back, "just try to stop me from voting."  Our President had the last word, "Just watch the way I count."  The Commissioner attended the orientation, appreciated it and later would joke about his reluctance to attend the required orientation, with its emphasis on ethics. 

High ethical standards are good for marketing to young people making a career choice or more mature individuals changing their career to planning. We find that our approach to environmental and sustainability issues is hugely attractive to young people at a stage in life where they have not yet become cynical! Planning students tend to be idealistic.


How do USA planners address equality and diversity? We seek information from planning schools as to how they address the issue and do our best to address under representation in our membership, but it is not easy to get it right. I believe we are much better at addressing the gender imbalance but ethnicity is hard to get right?

Our planning educators could be more effective at this. Our higher education system means that academics "publish or perish" and this has diluted the professional practice elements of our planning schools. There is always much talk about issues of equity and diversity but not enough action. Planners' values are progressive and in the USA our community has become more partisan which provides a bigger challenge for planners. You can't be a planner with only self-interest at heart. Planners care about all people and all environmental interests. In the USA, planning provides the opportunity to address social justice issues head on. We are good at dealing with physical issues such as waste and infrastructure but ethically, we could do much more on societal issues, especially housing, transportation, and environmental justice.  We should work more successfully with the other allied professions, as well. We need to make social sense as well economic sense. APA and AICP placed an emphasis in educational offerings and publications on social justice issues, broadly defined.  As just one example, after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005, with vivid photographs of vulnerable people in the wake of the disaster, we published a book, Overlooked America, which had begun as a series in our Planning magazine.  Social justice issues are inextricably bound up with ethics.


Thank you very much Paul. It has been a valuable and informative interview.


Find out more about Ethics at the RTPI.