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The Commissioner

The Commissioner

Planning Tools

Commissioners Online

— Carolyn Torma
Torma is APA’s director of education and citizen engagement and the editor of
The Commissioner.

Online education has blossomed. Whether you want to pursue a ­college education or learn to bake a cake, the Internet provides a wealth of choices. Once regarded as the repository for everyone’s homemade videos (which it still is), the Internet and online education have gained new respectability. The launch of university-sponsored online “universities” such as Coursera and edX have sparked discussion and drawn many new users to these sophisticated courses.

Conceivably the Internet is an excellent venue for disseminating training for planning commissioners, zoning board of review members, and other appointed officials. Convenient, accessible, and potentially low cost, the Internet could be the answer to widespread training for officials. But is it?

A search for planning commissioner training online suggests that this platform for education has been used to a limited degree. The most robust of the training programs — designed for planners but appropriate for officials as well — is found at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy’s site. Its “Comprehensive Planning: Introduction and Planning Principles” contains 17 units and displays a video of the lecturer along with his or her PowerPoint slides. The State of Washington Department of Commerce has created video lectures, also organized in a module format. The videos cover topics such as “Comprehensive Planning Basics” and “Updating Your Plan.” The videos are designed to accompany the manual, A Short Course on Local Planning Guidebook, which is available as a PDF.

Many states and cities as well as university extension services post training materials for boards and commissions. Almost all of these are in a static text (PDF or HTML) format. An example is the Plan Commission Handbook, posted in 2012 by the Center for Land Use Education, University of Wisconsin Extension. In Pennsylvania, officials can read “The Planning Commission in Pennsylvania” from the Government Center for Local Government Services, and in Tennessee, they can access the “Tennessee Planning Commission Training Handbook: ‘A Closer Look at Zoning.'” The state of New York publishes a fact sheet called “Promoting the Training of Municipal Planning and Zoning Officials” that provides tips and references for live training and published materials.

A privately run website, PlannersWeb, is designed specifically for planning commissioners and officials. Although the extensive information is static on the site, the site does sponsor webinars, such as a recent one on Citizen Planning Academies.

Live, face-to-face training remains the most popular and documented form of education for planning commissioners. Frequently, the training materials are posted online. Commissioners and trainers still consider this to be highly effective training as it can be tailored to specific localities and made flexible to the needs of those community officials.

Webinars provide another form of training. The Michigan State Extension Service conducts a “Master Citizen Planner Series,” which runs from February through December. Recordings of these programs are available online. These webinars help reinforce the core training program that is offered face-to-face and that provides the foundation for the Master Citizen Planner certificate program.

An online search looked at the big, free, university-based programs called Coursera and edX to see if they offered anything specific to planning commissioners. The answer was no. Coursera offered one course by a planning professor titled “Technicity” that focused on the use of technology in cities and planning. The other was titled “Re-Enchanting the City — Designing Human Habitat.” These are courses that might attract the very adventurous planning commissioner.

Planning commissioner training is most often done at the local level. The most popular format is face-to-face as it allows commissioners to share experiences. Online training offers convenience and flexibility

Planning commissioner training is most often done at the local level. The most popular format is face-to-face as it allows commissioners to share experiences. Online training offers convenience and flexibility. Ryan McVay/ Digital Vision/Thinkstock.

The edX site offers more courses on cities and especially theoretical concepts around cities. Courses, for example, included “Future Cities” and “Exploring Humans’ Space: An Introduction to Geographicity.” Both sites offer courses in the mold of undergraduate and some graduate classes.

What about YouTube? Surely a site that supplies generous access to the seemingly inexhaustible array of human interests would have space to accommodate planning commissioner programs. It does — mostly in the form of recordings of planning commissioner meetings. A rather blurry 2012 video of training in California, called “Planning Commission CEQA Training,” focused on that state’s environmental planning programs. A 2009 video has lectures from the Virginia “Community Planning Academy Training for Planning Officials.” A curious video is titled “LA City Planning Commissioners Need Better Training” and dates from 2011. More helpful is a video posting of an American Planning Association division and chapter webinar titled “Ethical Rules and Considerations for Planners, Planning Commissioners, and Lawyers.”

Pay-for-view online training can be found on the Planetizen site. The courses are geared primarily to practicing planners, although commissioners may find topics such as food systems and disaster planning of interest as well. A search of other commercial online providers such as Udemy did not turn up any educational offerings on planning topics.

Upon reflection, it’s apparent that most of the online learning is geared to large audiences. For example, the university-developed sites focus on science, the arts, and professional careers, and the tens of thousands of people seeking college degrees. The one pay-for-view site that covers planning, Planetizen, is geared toward those most able and willing to pay for the education — practicing planners. Much of the educational materials available for commissioners, in either an active learning format or as PDF handbooks, have been created by state agencies, city planning departments, or universities. Further, it is the universities with extension services or a strong community-service orientation that provide the bulk of the education.

Planning is complex and ever changing. An effective planning commissioner needs to keep abreast of evolving planning practice and also master the skills of meeting facilitation and ethical decision making. These are not negligible skills and demands — planning commissioners and officials need ongoing training just as a planner or dentist or lawyer does. As the tools for recording and creating online education become more accessible to more people, we should encourage the dedicated trainers who write and teach to make more of their courses available online in order to reach a larger audience.


APA Streaming Education
The American Planning Association provides online training in the form of live webinars, conference webcasts, and recordings of these programs. Among the 17 products are:

  • Design Review for Officials
  • Creating Successful Meetings
  • Great Plans, Great Communities
  • Informed Decisions
  • Managing Complex Relationships
  • Open Government and Engaging the Public
  • Staying Out of Court by Avoiding Pitfalls

Online Resources