Embedded Planning is a new form of street-level praxis. As I explain in my opening salvo, “We Cannot Plan From Our Desks,” Embedded Planning situates the work of planners on the ground. Embedded planners take part in a community’s daily life, resulting in stronger relationships with stakeholders, increased public participation, and better-informed ordinances, policies and plans that reflect a community’s “street realities.” As a result, embedded planners are better equipped to advance equity in their work.
Inspiration sprang from Advocacy, Equity, Radical, and Insurgent planning theories. I also drew insights from embedded librarianship, social work, community organizing, and Lipsky’s street-level bureaucracy. I first envisaged Embedded Planning on-the-job as a zoning enforcement planner in South Central LA’s Florence-Firestone community. But it was the off-duty spaces of public speaking events, classrooms, and personal conversations where interrogation helped me hone the concept. Cal Poly Pomona Department of Urban and Regional Planning was the site of an early turning point in my development of Embedded Planning.
In March 2018, I was a guest speaker in Professor Courtney Knapp’s Urban Housing course doing what was at that point my third public talk on the Medina Family ADU Story. The Medinas met me in 2016 when I visited their home in Florence-Firestone after receiving a complaint about their informal backyard casita. I worked with them through the stressful process of demolishing an unpermitted accessory dwelling unit. Despite these circumstances, we formed a bond. Being the empathetic embedded planner who knocked at their door, I was able to earn their trust. Years later, they allowed me to tell their story in a speaking tour. Courtney saw my inaugural Medina Family presentation at the 2018 APA-LA Student Symposium at CSUN. When the event was over, she was the first to assure me it’s alright that I cried on stage telling the Medina story. This is what planning looks like in real-life, she said, adding that the Medina story would be perfect for her housing students. I was at the podium in her class a few weeks later.
The Urban Housing class was small with 7 students. I was acquainted with a couple of them from previous talks. I knew Courtney well. So I felt a bit less pressure knowing that this talk on the Medinas and Embedded Planning was an early iteration-in-progress. Each presentation built on the preceding one, including audience commentary and whatever heuristic improvements had popped up in my mind, often live and mid-sentence, during my speeches. But there was one question not yet asked that I’d both wanted and dreaded in the Q & A. Courtney asked me that question.
“How do you define Embedded Planning?”
Courtney emphasized the verb.
Concise, fair, spot-on. Here I was preaching about a new form of planning without defining it. This wasn’t hubris or oversight or ill-preparation. I simply hadn’t figured out that part yet. I dreaded the question because I’d have to admit it to an audience. Simultaneously I wanted the question because it would push me to come up with an answer.
With a knowing nod and smile, I confessed to the class that Embedded Planning was still a nebulous concept articulated through my storytelling vignettes. The story of the Medina Family was too timely, too vital to put on pause, I reasoned, so I proceeded with these talks without defining my praxis. Mercifully, the class didn’t annihilate me for the omission. Courtney encouraged me to develop a working definition to give the idea life. Being put on the spot was the incentive I needed. I left the university that evening with a priority — define Embedded Planning for future audiences.
A month later, I was in New Orleans telling the Medina Family’s story as part of the “Latino Informal Housing” panel at the American Planning Association National Planning Conference. I remember looking out from the dais at our packed room and recognizing the large contingent of Cal Poly Pomona urban planning students, about 12 strong. They smiled and waved at me, which put me at ease. Seeing friendly faces in an audience is like having back-up on the streets. You know you’re not alone. This talk was higher stakes, and their very presence helped me get through it. I choked up again at the end of this one. It was okay because there was love in the room. I felt supported and certainly more prepared.
Our conversation in Courtney’s class had helped me better describe Embedded Planning during this presentation and afterward in one-on-one audience member chats. One of those was with editor Lindsay Nieman at APA. That’s when I got the invitation to write what would become my inaugural article on Embedded Planning. It would be published six months later in APA’s widely-read Planning magazine. As I wrote on Twitter on October 1st when the op-ed went live: “Consider this page one of my manifesto nailed to the Planning Department’s door!”
Embedded Planning has caught-on widely since then. Planners across the US and Canada, and as far away as South Africa, New Zealand, and the UK have messaged me saying they’re working on their own versions of this street-level praxis. Although my speaking tour on the Medina Family has concluded, I continue to advance Embedded Planning in high school and college classrooms throughout the LA Region. Open invitations to guest lecture from Cal Poly Pomona urban planning professors Alvaro Huerta, Brettany Shannon, and Annie Koh bring me back to their classrooms, too. Meanwhile, urban planning students across North America are writing more and more about Embedded Planning. I’m always thrilled to receive their work. To date, this has encompassed short commentaries, op-eds, a poem, social media threads, personal reflections, research papers, presentations, internship culminating projects, and inclusion in two MURP theses at Cal Poly Pomona, two at UC Irvine, and another at MIT. These Embedded Planning “emissaries,” as I call them, are encouraged to interpret and build upon the praxis through their local experience. Embedded Planning is the future of planning. It’s available to everyone who wants to take urban planning to the streets.
I brought Embedded Planning to life — with a firm definition and anchored by the Medina Family story — by declaring that Embedded Planning exists and is a better way to plan. Indeed I had help along the way. Years on now, I’m sure of at least this: I could not have written my one-page manifesto without the support of faculty, students, and alumni at Cal Poly Pomona Department of Urban and Regional Planning.
Let me sign off by saying “Thank you!” to graduating ENV Student Council President Jazmin Moreno for encouraging me to write about Embedded Planning at Cal Poly Pomona. Drafting this essay became a radical act of self-care. First, it gave me a respite from obsessively devouring news about the current COVID-19 crisis. The global human and ecological impacts of this Coronavirus pandemic make it all the more imperative for planners to marshal our best ideas and actions in response. Second, this essay allowed me to acknowledge the unforgettable role of Cal Poly Pomona students, faculty, and alums in developing Embedded Planning. Your conversations with me over the last two years nurtured its growth. Embedded Planning belongs to you too. When I declared “We are a movement” in 2019, know that all of you helped bring our movement to life.
Author’s Note: This essay was written in March-April 2020 as a reflection for a coffee table book being designed by the Cal Poly Pomona ENV Student Council. Due to COVID-19, the book project was put on hold indefinitely. Rather than leave it unread, I’ve published the story here to recognize the inspiration CPPENV has given me. Thanks again, Cal Poly Pomona urban planners! Let’s find a way to finish that book.