Uncovering JAPA

Understanding Opportunities and Challenges in Publicly Traded Planning Firms

A planning education prepares aspiring practitioners for a multitude of fields and opportunities, such as transportation planning, community development, historic preservation, and urban design. Planners operate at different scales, from the local to the federal, and in both the public and private sectors. While traditional, municipal-level planning has long been the focus within the academic study of the planning discipline, opportunities for planners working in the private sector have continued to increase. Publicly traded planning consultancies operate along a range of scales, regions, and practice areas and come with unique professional and ethical challenges for planners.

Exploring Planning in Publicly Traded Firms

In "Planners in Publicly Traded Firms: Emerging Issues and Opportunities" in the Journal of the American Planning Association (Vol. 89, No. 3) author Orly Linovski uses interviews with planners working in publicly traded firms to assess this practice type.

Linovski provides background on planning practice in the private sector, catalogs interviewees' descriptions of the opportunities and constraints present in this model of planning, and lays out the implications of working in large, publicly traded firms.

What professional tensions are particularly present in private sector versus public sector planning? Linovski identifies two main differences already addressed in the literature:

  1. The focus on accumulating shareholder value, and the tensions that accompany the need to meet both financial targets and corporate priorities, suggest that returns may outweigh planning outcomes in some company contexts.
  2. The increasing financialization of planning has been previously critiqued for prioritizing market-oriented logic over ethics and professionalism.

Linovski employed a qualitative approach to understanding the experiences of planners working in publicly traded firms, which she defined as those firms listed on a major stock exchange.

In interviews, planners identified opportunities for close collaboration with people across a range of disciplines and skill sets, the ability to work on larger and more complex projects, and the depth of resources available as some of the professional benefits of working in a publicly traded firm. On the other hand, planners interviewed mentioned a lack of capacity, high turnover, subordination to corporate systems, and low staff morale as constraints within their sector.

Navigating Planning in Publicly Traded Firms

Interestingly, more than half of the respondents interviewed felt that their companies did not fully understand the role of planning practice and that the more complex the organizational structure, the harder it was to educate others about the importance of planning. Some interviewees shared that they felt misunderstood or undervalued by management, which then in turn impacted their ability to do their jobs effectively.

The integration of planning services in large, publicly traded firms is a model of practice that has new constraints, expectations, and opportunities. This model will not only affect planners working in these firms but also public agencies and private-sector firms. The turnover of staff, lack of senior capacity, and reduced oversight during periods of transition may create concerns for clients, particularly in the public sector.

The private-sector consulting market is evolving, and changes in this market can create new patterns of interdependencies and risks for public agencies. Cost-cutting measures that affect staff capacity are a significant effect of the market demands of publicly traded firms. This phenomenon is not limited to traded firms and may be felt beyond them, requiring more understanding of the implications for the clients of private-sector firms.

Linovski's dive into the understudied world of planners in publicly traded firms demonstrates that planning work needs to be examined critically in a way that accounts for the complexity of governance, market, and business influences.

Top image: E+ simoncarter

About the author
Gianina Yumul is a master's in urban planning candidate at Harvard University.

July 6, 2023

By Gianina Yumul