The Quasi-Public Good:
The Ethics of Information in New York City Planning

Master's Thesis (2006)
Recipient of the Columbia University's Charles Abram Urban Planning Thesis Prize
Faculty advisor: Susan S. Fainstein


In 2005, the American Institute of Certified Planners (AICP) revised their members' Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct, making a number of changes including several pertaining to the treatment of information by planners. This study takes advantage of this moment to investigate the relevance of a unified code of ethics as it pertains to the use of information in New York City planning practice.   Along with that primary research question, the study asks three subsidiary questions: (1) the effective difference between specifically prescriptive statements of ethical behavior and generalized statements of moral conviction to which a planner is expected to adhere, (2) the nature of information used and shared by planners, and (3) the ways in which the Code has evolved to accommodate and shape the use of information.   The research methodology was three-fold, including a review of past and present literature on planning ethics, a comparison of the current and past AICP Codes, and a series of fifteen interviews with practicing planners in New York City.  The research hypotheses included that the treatment of information does not fully coincide with the prescribed ethical norms presented by the Code, that there are discontinuities between the personal ethical epistemologies of practicing planners and the Code, and that information is used in the manner deemed most effective for accomplishing an individual's professional objectives regardless of the Code.  By and large, the study concludes a confirmation of these hypotheses with some deviation based on an individual planner's age.  As such, the research recommends that a professional code of ethics in planning be approached in less prescriptive ways, creating a forum for discussion and debate on ethical issues, freeing the planner from black-and-white restrictions and creating a process by which ethical action can be determined with an appreciation for the specificity of each planning situation. 


The last temptation is the greatest treason:
To do the right deed for the wrong reason.

(T.S. Eliot)


from CHAPTER 1

Accurate information and access to it constitute a fundamental cornerstone of empowering any individual or group. As the necessary first step toward knowledge generation, access to information is the crux of Francis Bacon's "knowledge is power" adage. Under any epistemological system, the information we possess, along with our determination of its validity, defines and limits what we know. As a result, the power that is harnessed in the acquisition of knowledge often rests in the control of information, a reusable and excludable semipublic good. As fully as it can be possessed, information can also be withheld. As easily as it can be altered, censored, or omitted, it can also be openly shared.

In the advancement of the public good, the planning profession must pay specific attention to its treatment of information, critically evaluating that which is gathered to influence decision making and that which is shared for public empowerment. The reliability and quality of information affects the success of economic and physical planning interventions as well as the effective creation of community planning implementations. It is through accurate data collection and objective analysis that the planning profession's trustworthy expert opinion is reached. Likewise, it is through open and transparent channels of dissemination that those who plan the urban environment hold themselves accountable to whom they affect.

from CHAPTER 4

What a Planning Code of Ethics Could Be

The conflicts that characterize and define the practice of planning are too numerous and too specific to be resolved in one written document. A code of ethics cannot resolve those conflicts via scientific categorization without oversimplifying situations defined by their subtle specificity and jeopardizing the planner’s special expertise for paying sensitive attention to the grey areas. This research has reinforced a basic tenet of postmodernism in planning: nothing is black and white. We cannot normalize the contexts in which we plan. Thus, we should not seek to normalize our methods. 

This conclusion does not imply that a code of ethics is unnecessary or obsolete in planning practice. On the contrary, a code of ethics can be as much of a tool for the planner as it is for the profession if its primary aims are not to limit, prescribe, regulate, or restrict. It is perhaps one of the few potential tools planners have when working in the face of power. A code of ethics provides a planner with the means to recuse himself from unethical action while avoiding placing blame on others. Explicit responsibility can untie the planner’s hands when power seeks to dictate his action.

This usage and purpose of an ethical code is specifically liberating. It frees the planner to pursue other – right, just, or ethical – actions. Given the reviewed literature, prior studies, and the present research, perhaps such liberation should be the singular goal of a professional code of ethics in planning. A code should not dictate restrictions on a planner’s actions, but open avenues for effective response paying respect to the different contexts which call for different measures. Otherwise, the code’s authoring association may be no different than the powerful client, seeking rationalization for a predetermined action and wielding sanctions for the noncompliant.

How might a code of ethics and professional conduct, a medium so traditionally linked with controlling professional behavior and normalizing professional responses, release the planner from restriction? The literature and research interviews offer three insightful recommendations. First, a code of ethics should focus on responsibilities rather than obligations. Given the difficulty in enforcing a code of ethics in planning and the fact that most egregious potential offenses are prohibited by law, the profession can afford to forfeit its specific restrictions regarding behavior. If this forfeiture seems too radical, these restrictions can be easily summarized in a statement banning illegal acts and those contrary to stated responsibilities. Perhaps the only explicit obligation should be this: that our responsibilities obligate us to work toward their fulfillment and seek the most effective and equitable means to do so.

Likewise, a list of the planner’s responsibilities should be as unlimited and unrestricted as possible. The planner is responsible to individual people: his employer, his client, his “concrete others,” and himself. He is responsible to groups: the public at large, his “generalized others,” the communities for whom he advocates, the communities his work affects, his agency or firm, and his colleagues and profession. He is responsible to concepts, ideals, and goals: social and environmental justice, equity, quality of life, diversity, efficiency, efficacy, and the advancement of knowledge. The creation of a code of ethics – as a method of formalizing the profession, unifying its members, and publicizing its intentions – is the writing of planning’s mission statement. Perhaps it should read like one. This list should challenge the planner to identify each of his responsibilities and inspire him to voluntarily and actively hold himself accountable to them.

Second, such a code should clearly state that ethical conflicts cannot always be resolved by balancing interests or simply prioritizing responsibilities and discourage these decision-making techniques as the sole basis for ethical evaluation. In the present research, planners reported that the wants and needs of stakeholders are rarely quantifiable and often incomparable. Balancing and prioritization allow for quid pro quo planning that could create harm done to some if that harm is “less” or “less important" than the potential benefit to others or if that harm is simply (though potentially inequitably) paid for. While prioritization is often necessary when dealing with conflicting responsibilities, a code should not minimize the implications of placing one group’s needs above another’s. Instead, a code of ethics should prompt planners to seek holistic approaches to resolving ethical conflicts wherever possible.

Lastly, a code of ethics should encourage the thought processes, the intellectual and emotional exercises, and the “soul-searching” by which ethical action is determined. In lieu of balancing and prioritizing responsibilities and conflicting interests, a code should offer guidance – not on what should be done – but on the ways a planner may determine what should be done. A code should discourage formulaic or dogmatic ethical rubrics that belittle the involved parties by not recognizing the contextual specificity of their needs, that undermine the planner by not trusting his deliberative abilities, and that stagnate the profession by preventing the accumulation of expertise that comes with diverse experiential knowledge. Instead, a code of ethics should respect the stakeholders, planners, and profession it affects by empowering practitioners with the right to meaningful moral deliberation, stimulating its discussion, and acknowledging that each situation deserves its own ethical evaluation. Further, a code should foster an academic environment for the development of professional ethics, wherein alternative decision-making strategies are regularly shared and explored. If this code of ethics were to mandate anything, let it be a commitment to the continued reevaluation of that which we deem ethical.


1. Introduction & Scope of Study
(a) Research Questions
(b) Methodology
(c) Expected Findings

2. Review of the Literature
(a) Ethics, Information, and Planning Theory
(b) Research on Practical Ethics
(c) The Recent Evolution of the AICP Code

3. Research Findings & Discussion
(a) Survey Scenarios
(b) Ethical and Effective Practice
(c) Individual Value Judgment and Formal Ethics

4. Toward a Determination of Ethical Practice
(a) Information & Ethics in New York City Planning
(b) What a Planning Code of Ethics Could Be