The role of the planner, as an extension of the role of government, is often complicated by the difficulty with which we attempt to define the public interest, which is, according to Frank Sorauf, a highly nebulous term whose meanings are so manifold as to make it appear useless (Sorauf 618). In his essay “The Public Interest Reconsidered” Sorauf considers the idea that there are five basic conceptions of the public interest – as a set of commonly held values, as a wise or superior interest, as a moral imperative, as a compromise or as no interest – all with varied arguments in their favor, and none without criticisms of their ability to serve as truly public interests. Despite the difficulty with which one defines this term, it is still a remarkably important element of planning today, impacting the ways in which the community becomes involved in a planner’s process, and by observing this manifestation of the public interest, one can begin to complicate and expand Sorauf’s theoretical notions of the public interest.
Several times in his discussion of the politics of planning, John Levy, in the book Contemporary Urban Planning, reinforces the importance of community engagement in the civic and planning processes (Levy 93), evidence of which can be seen on the main page of the New Brunswick City Government website (Fig. 1). In a very practical way this is a manner of maintaining the planner’s proximity to the public interest, a public interest which appears in parts to resemble several of Sorauf’s conceptions of the public interest. It is perhaps most similar to Sorauf’s notion of the public interest as a compromise, but complicated by the limitations of the public forum and the skills, knowledge and recommendations of the planners themselves. First one must note that while the voices of community members in a forum or discussion appear to represent the interests of the public, there are a limited number of community members who can or want to show up to these meetings, limiting the notion that any compromise developed in part via this method is truly public. The interests of planners, acting in the public interest, often from the convenient perspective of the wise or superior interest, further complicate this matter. It is clear that in a practical setting, each of Sorauf’s theoretical notions of the public interest are constantly fighting for purchase and form a complex, composite whole.
If the planner’s role is to represent the public interest, then he or she must interpret that role in complex and interesting ways. While the public interest is never clear cut, the planner exists in such close context to this obscure concept that he or she must strive for that ideal, impossible as it might be to achieve. When anticipating the needs of a community, and even listening to the voices, the planner must be careful in trying to understand how or if those decisions relate to the whole.
Levy, John M (2017). Contemporary Urban Planning, 11th edition. Prentice Hall.
Sorauf, F. (1957). ‘The Public Interest Reconsidered”, in The Journal of Politics, Vol. 19, No. 4 (Nov., 1957), pp. 616-639.