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Cover of Indigenous Planning Times, cycle I, number 4, 2003

As Maori planning scholar and practitioner Hirini Magunga puts it, “Indigenous planning has always existed. Indigenous communities predate colonialism and were planned according to their own traditions and sets of practice.” [1] However, indigenous planning had long been pushed to the margins of planning within the settler-colonial United States. One effort to center indigenous planning as a core practice in the planning profession is the two-year-old Indigenous Planning Collective.

In the 1980s, the term “indigenous planning” was embraced within two related projects. Indigenous communities and tribal planners began to use the term “Indigenous planning,” with specific attention to reviving the worldviews of First Peoples in the development process. At the same time, indigenous planning as a “new” approach began to emerge in the 1980s in urban centers, seeking to put a new emphasis on the struggles of communities of color to survive and thrive in the United States. During my studies in the MIT Planning Department, several of us began to embrace indigenous planning as a necessity in order to respond to the ongoing injustices of displacement and dispossession, as well as to provide an expanded multicultural sensitivity to community development practices. In this perspective, planning “from within” must respect and grow out of local traditions and be rooted in “indigenous” leadership. And, to the extent that the group in question has suffered past traumas and may still be experiencing forms of oppression, the process seeks to be transformative of these power relationships - in concert with other emancipatory strategies. In urban areas where many ethnic groups have come to locate, special prominence is given to African American, Latino, Asian and Native American Communities, as such groups have been historically marginalized. Moreover, in a profession where planning claimed to speak as the unified voice of those in power, the histories of our communities were largely invisible and untold. This is not to say there has not been both friendly and hostile co-habitation at times between communities of color and more dominant groups – the Americas have long been an inter-cultural place. This is also not to suggest that only communities of color have faced dispossession by others. Indigenous planning is now sometimes used to describe any approach that is attentive to local [2] needs, traditions and power, and seeks to broker authentic processes of peaceful co-habitation against forces and institutions from afar that may sometimes threaten them. The main principle here is that the people themselves get to define who and what their community is, as well as to voice their own vision of what their future should be.

Indigenous planning gained visibility during the 1990s. The publication Indigenous Planning Times was a literary forum which ran from 1994 to 2003 to give greater prominence to this approach among students and young professionals. It was distributed at several East and West Coast Universities, and at Planners Network and American Planning Associations (APA) Conferences. In addition, from 2003 until about 2008, Ted Jojola lead an Indigenous Planning Division of APA, putting a greater focus on Native American Communities in the profession. The Division eventually disbanded, due among other reasons to pressure from APA to maintain a minimum membership count. This in itself illustrates a typical pattern with respect to this work – we often see intermittent support and then retreat from dominant institutions that still do not fully appreciate the need for and the difficulty of indigenous planning. More recently, a panel on indigenous planning was rejected for the 2017 National Planning Conference in New York City, although the reason is not known.

Following APA’s rejection of the panel, a series of conversations led to the formation of the Indigenous Planning Collective. In 2017, after a meeting at the home of Mel King [3] in Boston, the idea of an Indigenous Planning Collective was spawned. This meeting included alumni from the MIT Planning Department that had once organized classes under this name, as well as former editors of Indigenous Planning Times Sean Robin & Wanda Mills Bocachica. This meeting was followed-up by a second Boston meeting hosted by Michael Murphy and his MASS Design Group, that was co-chaired by Ted Jojola, now Director of the Indigenous Design + Planning Institute in New Mexico. With an awareness of these meetings, Sharon Hausam, a Planner with the Pueblo of Laguna who had been active with the APA Indigenous Planning Division, organized a related discussion with contemporary planning students in New Mexico.

The Indigenous Planning Collective is an informal association of individuals and associations dedicated to strengthening the “indigenous planning” approach in our field, as well as similar approaches in the related disciplines of architecture, community and economic development, and public health. It is an activist perspective that pushes against the grain of the status quo, while nevertheless remaining savvy with respect to navigating mainstream systems. What are the ideas (new and ancient) that would better resonate with our communities than more standardized approaches that come from afar? How might recent planning efforts in a given community have been strengthened, or have been made more democratic and inclusive, or culturally resonant?

“Best practices,” for members of the Indigenous Planning Collective, are not ones that are imported lock, stock and barrel, but grow out of the local creativity and visionary nature of the people [4]. Ivan Illich referred to this as the vernacular, by which he meant “homespun” ways, rather than starting with those of the institutional elites in an industrializing age. The concrete, built environment as well the fluid, social environment, can be made to reflect the best elements of our collective memory and aspirations for the future. Ted Jojola, referencing the Indigenous worldviews of Turtle Island, calls this the Seven Generations Model.

For a time in the 1960s and 1970s, community building and advocacy planning might have been ascendant as social movements demanded spatial and political justice. Right now in 2019, our society has become much more technicized and fragmented. People have become much more cynical regarding their belief in the ability to effect change. Why should they participate when the public is only invited to speak when there is nothing left to be decided, because all has already been decided by power brokers? Indigenous planning can address these power dynamics and the tendency for planning to focus on proficiency and technical aspects of the process – among other ways through authentic dialogue and working to give voice to the people in the process. Cynicism is not a sentiment we can afford.

Even in truly participatory, community planning, intermediaries often stand between people and the political system. A translator inherently changes the message and creates distance between the population and the political elites. While we do not discount the continuing need for advocacy by allies and partners, members of the Indigenous Planning Collective seek ways for people to more authentically represent themselves directly in decision-making. During the civil rights era, African Americans and later others put forth the need for self determination in their affairs. In “Indian Country” (i.e. within territories of the Americas where First Peoples still inhabit and hold influence) the cry has often been for greater sovereignty. Planners should be cautious about the kind of help they/we think folks need before we have truly met them, lest we insult and injure who they/we already are.

Every community has already developed their own ways of governing, even if they have been impeded by others at times. There is no formula for indigenous planning. For me, indigenous planning is a way of working that allows a people’s inner soul to manifest as a living reality. My own work is guided by the idea “The People are Beautiful. Already.” By this I mean that communities are best served if we meet them where they are, gazing with the eye of an open heart, all prejudice pushed aside. Others may choose to label folks by their worst characteristics, based on a cold assessment from afar – but this is not the indigenous planning way. Communities do need partners and allies. Planners and other professionals can only hope to earn the respect of communities of color, First Peoples and other sometimes marginalized groups, and thus become allies - only if they themselves start from a place of profound respect for the People, recognizing their inherent worth and value.

The Indigenous Planning Collective is looking for ways to expand its network, as it continues to convene exchanges informally, and at planning conferences. The Collective is also working to lay the foundation for a Centre for Indigenous Planning in the coming years.

Sean I. Robin, MCP is a planner, musician and cultural thinker who has worked at the intersections of health and community development for many years. He was founding editor of Indigenous Planning Times - Alternative Paths/Inner Voices in Development, and currently serves as Housing Director at Community Access in New York City. Sean Robin can be contacted at

Photo: Cover of Indigenous Planning Time, cycle I, number 4, 2003


[1] See Hirini Matunga’s chapter “Theorizing Indigenous Planning,” in Reclaiming Indigenous Planning, Edited by R. Walker, T. Jojola and D. Natcher, McGill-Queen’s University Press, Montreal, 2013.

[2] “Local” refers to from within a community that has had long-term tenancy on a particular land – long enough that it has both spiritual and political claims.

[3] Mel King is a prominent Black Activist, Educator and Politician from Boston’s South End neighborhood. Mel King’s book Chain of Change: Struggles for Black Community Development, Hugs Press, Boston, 2016, uses the term “indigenous” to refer to anti-colonial, anti-racist efforts originating in the Black Community.

[4] Indigenous ways and traditions may come to hybridize with techniques and ideas from afar, but this would be a hybridity that the community controls, not one that is imposed.



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