Creating stronger planners through Reflective Practice

Sandy Mackay is BC Healthy Communities’ former Healthy Communities Planner.

In the last half-century, the planner’s role and responsibilities have changed remarkably. Traditionally, planners worked to build and maintain the infrastructure of the public realm. In contrast, the issues that planners now grapple with are complex, interconnected and interdisciplinary—issues like population growth and shifts, social connectedness, housing and homelessness, equitable use of government resources, reconciliation, and accessibility. When we at BC Healthy Communities attended the Canadian Institute of Planners (CIP) conference earlier this year, this was brought into clear relief: the majority of the lectures, case studies and stories shared by planners at the conference described projects that interacted with gender, race, reconciliation, equity, and power. It’s an exciting time to be a planner, but at the same time, the responsibility to integrate all perspectives and dimensions of power and fairness into planning has never been greater.

So how can planners step outside their own lived experience of the world, and better understand their role in complex systems? One approach that attempts to cultivate this understanding is called Reflective Practice. Reflectiveness “allows one to see things in context, to… slip into the shoes of others, to think out possible implications… not only in a purely analytical sense, but using one’s imagination to supplement hard knowledge.” The practice has has been embraced across many disciplines, including health, community development, and social work, but has particular value for anyone working at the community level to improve health and well-being.

What is Reflective Practice?

A reflective practice helps planners reflect on their experiences and actions in order to continuously learn from them. Reflective practice helps planners recognize the paradigms – assumptions, frameworks and patterns of thought and behaviour – that shape our behaviour and actions. It also prompts us to ask broader questions, such as:

  • What paradigms shape trends in our field?

  • How does our position relate to the assumptions we make?

  • How are our goals themselves limited by our paradigms?

  • How are our actions informed by power structures, and how do we subvert those structures to promote a more equitable process?

By trying out methods of reflection and personal inquiry, planners can nurture greater self-awareness, imagination, and creativity, as well as more systematic ways of thinking and working.

Integrating Reflective Practice into work

Across the disciplines that use Reflective Practice, a variety of reflective methods have been developed. Here are three that we use at BC Healthy Communities:

  1. Keep a reflective journal. Keeping a reflective journal allows you to document ideas, feelings, observations, and visions. It can help you focus your thoughts and ideas, organize your thinking, develop your conceptual and analytical skills, and reflect upon and make sense of experiences and the processes behind them. When keeping a reflective journal, these tips may be useful: write for yourself and use language you’re comfortable with—the harder you make the process of keeping a journal, the less likely you will be to do it. Write by hand, send yourself emails, or keep a file on your desktop that you update regularly.In A Handbook of Reflective and Experiential Learning, Jennifer Moon suggests using words, diagrams, and drawings to record not just events, but reflections on process. Ask questions about who was engaged in your planning process, who benefitted from the outcomes, and who was absent from decision-making. Use a journal to challenge your assumptions and connect personal and professional experiences to concepts and theories from academic and grey literature.
  2. Use peer groups. A group of peers who meet on a regular basis to learn and reflect together can effectively support individual reflective practice. The group may discuss work-related issues, share new resources, or simply talk through difficult professional situations.At BC Healthy Communities, our planning staff meets regularly to discuss different projects and the process through which they were conducted. We specialize in equitable and authentic public engagement, but like all professionals, we work within the constraints of available budget, time, and resources. By meeting to discuss how we went about a project, and how to improve our relationships in a community or better allocate resources, we deepen our understanding of our role in the communities we work with.
  3. Keep it simple. Reflection doesn’t have to be complicated. Not everyone is good at regular journaling (least of all me) and many planners, especially in smaller communities, may only interact with peers occasionally. At BC Healthy Communities, we try to simplify the reflective process as much as possible. After a project or phase of a project, we try to ask ourselves three questions:What? – Describe the situation: achievements, consequences, responses, feelings, and problems that emerged.So what? – Discuss learnings about self, relationships, models, attitudes, thoughts, understanding, and improvements.Now what? – Identify what needs to be done in order to improve future outcomes and develop learning.

In her keynote speech at CIP, Dr. Leela Viswanathan echoed the importance of reflection in planning practice. Put bluntly, she described her struggle to integrate her personal values of anti-oppression, empathy, and reciprocity into “a university institution profession that is historically founded upon systems of patriarchy, capitalism, and colonialism.” As planners, we must recognize our complicity in the nature of our environment and build a practice that embodies our commitment to progress and addresses systemic factors at the root of “wicked problems”. There is no perfect way practice, but reflection can help us continually improve and better address the complex nature of contemporary planning.

Author Credit: Sandy Mackay

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