On Being a Persuasive, Effective Town Planner

By Dom Nozzi

I have a very bad habit of misleading people into thinking I’m upset or defensive or angry when I write. Even when I speak, my spouse thinks I’m arguing with her, when I’m thinking I’m just having a discussion with her. Must be that Italian blood…

In my view, my skill set has never included effective persuasiveness. (a reason I’d never be elected to office). I am, however, cursed with strong opinions that I am mostly unable to repress.

Because he is a better writer than I am, David Owen has written an extremely provocative and persuasive book entitled The Green Metropolis. His book makes the rather counter-intuitive yet compelling argument that high-density cities are the most eco-friendly communities in America. That is, their design promotes very low-impact lifestyles—particularly in minimizing car travel.

Shaping Human Behavior

Planners and elected officials often strive to influence people to live in more “sustainable” or “socially desirable” ways.

Over the years (and in particular, reading a number of authors on the topic), I’ve come to realize that change in behavior or beliefs is largely driven by material conditions (not to suggest that I’m sympathetic to Marxism or socialism). Behaviors and beliefs arise due to prices, costs, benefits, roads, parking, distances, speeds, economic conditions, etc.

An idea can be brilliant, but unless these material conditions promote the idea, the idea will be largely ignored. (for example, water conservation is more common in the western US not because residents there learned wonderful ideas from books or speeches about conserving water, but because water is relatively scarce in the west).

I’ve learned, again, that because material conditions are largely the origin of ideas and behaviors, ideas are mostly useless (unless the timing is right). By realizing this, I’ve mostly avoided banging my head against the wall. I’ve mostly avoided being frustrated by my inability to convince people of my views. I mostly like to point out, when asked, the tactics that I believe are most effective in achieving an objective. “How can we get more transit riders, Dom?” I respond by pointing out we need priced and scarce parking, relatively high gas prices/gas taxes, priced roads, compact and mixed-use development, etc. I don’t expect anyone to agree. At least not in the world we currently live in.

I think that planners can be most effective if they can leverage the tactics that effectively influence behavior and ideas. For example, successfully influencing the size and pricing of roads, the amount and pricing of parking, the amount of gas taxes charged, the amount of impact fees charged, where buildings are placed on a piece of property, etc. Each of those tactics are effective in changing behavior and ideas.

Communicating More Clearly and Persuasively

I have spent much time and effort striving to speak (and write land development regulations and plans) in “Plain English.” I sincerely dislike the obfuscation of bureaucratese and legalese.

On a related topic, I’ve always strived (and mostly failed) to select words that would better resonate with people (coincidentally, I’m now a “complete streets” instructor in cities throughout the nation, and believe the term strongly resonates with most).

Many town planners have the bad habit of making people feel like they have an undesirable lifestyle (from a societal point of view)—that they are bad people. This is an important reason why I frequently make it a point to mention and promote, in speeches and writings, the concept of the rural-to-urban transect that new urbanists are fond of, because I believe it is an effective, equitable way to give some level of acceptance to the full set of lifestyle choices. Of course, there are less socially desirable behaviors, and I believe that while such behaviors should be reasonably allowed, they shouldn’t be allowed at the expense of others.

Many citizens have beliefs or desires that originate from market-distorting subsidies (such as underpriced roads, parking or gasoline). So I believe that the planner must find a proper balance between actually hearing and responding to “real world” citizen needs/beliefs, and advocating tactics that they, as professionals, know to be effective in achieving community objectives.

On this topic, I often like to surprise people these days by pointing out that town center living is shown in studies to be safer, more convenient, cheaper, and easier to travel in than suburbs. If these studies are accurate, and I believe they are, should I be dishonest and agree, as a planner for a town, with citizens who state the opposite? In such a discussion, by the way, I don’t ever feel as if I would be able to persuade people that town centers are better in these ways. I believe, again, that most people will be convinced, over time, of these things as gas prices rise, roads and parking are priced, a growing number of people (particularly the wealthy) start living in town centers, the cost and profitably of town center properties rise, etc.

Now that I think about this issue, it occurs to me that I have found at least one way to be persuasive on topics such as these: Using photos in PowerPoint presentations. When I use certain images, my point can become vivid, rather undeniable, and accessible to the most un-schooled of audiences.


I’ve always liked this comment from Reubin Askew: A leader is someone who cares enough to tell the people not merely what they want to hear, but what they need to know.

I think that elected officials are (or should be) elected to be leaders. To do meaningful things, leaders know that they will make enemies – at least in the short run. Margaret Thatcher once said that consensus is the absence of leadership. One of my heroes – Enrique Penalosa (former mayor of Bogota) – was despised early on in his term. He enacted policies that aggressively inconvenienced cars in his efforts to make people, rather than cars, happy. Many wanted to throw him out of office. But eventually, his policies (which nearly all his citizens strongly opposed initially) resulted in visibly obvious quality of life and civic pride improvements. He went on to become much-loved and honored by most in Bogota.

Memorable quotes from Penalosa…

* A city can be friendly to people or it can be friendly to cars, but it can’t be both.

* Over the last 30 years, we’ve been able to magnify environmental consciousness all over the world. As a result, we know a lot about the ideal environment for a happy whale or a happy mountain gorilla. We’re far less clear about what constitutes an ideal environment for a happy human being. One common measure for how clean a mountain stream is, is to look for trout. If you find the trout, the habitat is healthy. It’s the same way with children in a city. Children are a kind of indicator species. If we can build a successful city for children, we will have a successful city for all people.

* God made us walking animals—pedestrians. As a fish needs to swim, a bird to fly, a deer to run, we need to walk, not in order to survive, but to be happy.

*A premise of the new city is that we want a society to be as egalitarian as possible. For this purpose, quality-of-life distribution is more important than income distribution. [And quality of life includes] a living environment as free of motor vehicles as possible.

* Anything you do to make a city more friendly to cars makes it less friendly to people.

If I (or an American elected official) were to state anything like the above quotes, what would the reaction be? Surely such quotes would be opposed vigorously by some. But such opposition must be expected for meaningful leadership.

Elected officials need to acknowledge, sometimes, that public sentiment might be counterproductive (particularly in a world where misguided public subsidies and laws encourage dysfunctional behavior and ideas). Sometimes citizens desire things that will undercut societal objectives (that is, be detrimental to overall community quality of life). Sometimes you need to make enemies. Sometimes consensus leads to ruin.

I believe that sometimes, if a half-hearted approach is taken on, say, a traffic calming or transit project (due, usually, to compromise), the implementation can give the concept a black eye.


I’ve been reading recently about the issue of “confirmation bias,” where your frame of reference leads you to tend to accept information that bolsters your perceptions and reject information that does not.

One antidote to this mistake is my reading The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Thomas Kuhn). From that book, I learned that when we devote a great deal of time and effort working with a certain paradigm, we can become immune to data that undermine the paradigm – even if the data is overwhelming. Most of us are incapable of admitting to ourselves the tragic thought that we’ve wasted so much of our lives on a failed idea. Many of us go to our graves without being able to change our viewpoint. It is only when the old guard dies off that the new paradigm can emerge and be accepted.

Formerly, I made the mistake of thinking that overwhelming data, evidence and logic would pretty much always carry the day and be convincing to most everyone. I now know better.


Visit my urban design website read more about what I have to say on those topics. You can also schedule me to give a speech in your community about transportation and congestion, land use development and sprawl, and improving quality of life.

Visit: www.walkablestreets.wordpress.com

Or email me at: dom[AT]walkablestreets.com

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Filed under Miscellaneous, Politics

2 responses to “On Being a Persuasive, Effective Town Planner

  1. yason

    Logic doesn’t indeed persuade many people. Other rhetorics sometimes may but you’re right about that the key to change people’s attitudes is the ability to make some actual changes first and let them react.

    I wish there were people like you in positions of power. I’m also a thinker who would never get elected. Those who would are generally loud people but they don’t have anything to say: at least they don’t upset citizens…

    The relation between democracy and dictatorship is that a good dictator is ten times better and more effective than a good democracy, a bad dictator is ten times worse than a bad democracy, and a good democracy is not much different from bad democracy. In a dictatorship things get magnified and either something really great or something really bad comes out; in a democracy it’s difficult to change anything.

    There’s a need for a drop of good dictatorship out there, someone who could just make the basic lines right in urban planning that would let the change take care of itself.

  2. Nice article Dom. I think you write better than you think. We (urban planners) and many other professions are always susceptible to confirmation bias. This is natural in life. Like reading a particular newspaper that supports your political views. But we do need to be aware of this and we true enough to our profession and to ourselves.

    I think your point about materials conditions required to support the idea is very important. We just had the Olympics here and the conditions were put in place (reduction in road space, increases in transit) to see a significant modal shift during that time period. Now everything is largely back to normal however. Increased prices for gas, food and other items as a result of less oil, may, in the future, be the driving force for many of the things we’d like to see today.

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