Cultural competency: Towards culturally inclusive practice.

In my April 2012 blog post Cities of (in)Difference, I quoted Bloomfield and Bianchini (2002) and Sandercock (2003) on their visionary and transformative thoughts about the shift towards interculturalism. Like Amin (2002), Tully (1995) argues that our societies are intercultural rather than multicultural because of the cross-cultural overlap, interaction, and negotiation — the “politics of recognition” — that occurs out of necessity in the formation of our society. This is what Amin (2002 p 960) calls the “negotiation of difference within local micropublics of everyday interaction.” An acknowledgement of this dynamic cultural nature of society — both the “politics of recognition” and “negotiation of difference” — is a key distinction between intercultural versus multicultural theory and demands a culturally competent approach to both professional planning and urban design, and planning and urban design education.

In my blog The new leaders are waiting: Scaling up diversity and inclusion in environmental organizations I looked at the need for environmental organizations to become more diverse and inclusive as not just a moral imperative, but one of organizational effectiveness and even survival given changing US demographics. In this blog post, I want to look at the role of the planning and urban design professions and their educators in the transition towards interculturalism.

It is important to note at the outset that the professions most closely associated with place making and the policy, planning, design, and development of public and open spaces are not known for their difference or diversity, nor for their cultural heterogeneity. There is a solid case to be made that training and recruitment of planning and urban design professionals who more fully reflect the make-up of our ‘cities of difference’ would help make what I described in my last blog posting as our incomplete streets more complete. A more different and diverse planning and urban design profession would also help speed the production, quality and maintenance of culturally inclusive spaces and places, and critically, the embedding and ultimately the mainstreaming of culturally inclusive practice within those professions. This mainstreaming is of crucial importance as planning and urban design professionals’ cultural awareness, beliefs, knowledge, skills, behaviors and professional practice can and do influence everything from the level and tone of outreach and representation at meetings to the interpretation of codes and the content of reports (Harwood 2005), and from the design of public spaces (Kumar and Martin 2004) to the land use regulations within a region (Lee 2002).

Until that mainstreaming happens, current professionals have an ethical duty to ensure that they embark on culturally inclusive practice where attention to difference and diversity is intentional, and represented throughout design and planning processes. Other US professions with ethical obligations such as healthcare (Betancourt et al. 2003), social work (Lum 2006), education, and public administration (White 2004) have recognized this. The National Association of Social Workers, which sets standards of practice, incorporates cultural competency practice objectives in its code of ethics and has developed an operational definition. The American Institute of Certified Planners’ (AICP) Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct (American Planning Association 2009) notes that planners’ overall responsibility to the public includes seeking:

“social justice by working to expand choice and opportunity for all persons, recognising a special responsibility to plan for the needs of the disadvantaged and to promote racial and economic integration.”

Furthermore, certified planners “shall urge the alteration of policies, institutions, and decisions that oppose such needs.” This statement, while focussing on social justice can also be interpreted as follows: In order to meet our AICP ethical obligations to “all persons,” planners need cultural competency skills in order to recognize, understand, and engage difference, diversity, and cultural heterogeneity in creative and productive ways. In other words, the AICP Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct can be seen as a clear mandate for the profession and professionals to become culturally competent such that the “aspirational principles that constitute ideals” (APA 2009), become translated into culturally inclusive practice. This responsibility does not fall only on the design and planning professionals; locally elected officials must also work to ensure that the places and spaces designed and developed in their municipalities utilize culturally inclusive design strategies.

Cultural competency is the range of awareness, beliefs, knowledge, skills, behaviors and professional practice that will assist in planning for, in, and, with “multiple publics” (Sandercock 1998). It has been described as having both systemic elements and being a developmental process. The five systemic elements are:

(1) valuing diversity, (2) the capacity for cultural self–assessment, (3) consciousness of the ‘dynamics’ of cultural interaction, (4) the institutionalization of cultural knowledge, and (5) the development of adaptations to service delivery based on understanding diversity inter- and intra-culturally.

Developmentally, cultural competency can be seen as occurring along a negative-positive continuum consisting of six possibilities, with the first being most negative and the last being most positive. The nodes along this continuum encompass the following:

(1) cultural destructiveness, (2) cultural incapacity, (3) cultural blindness, (4) cultural pre-competence, (5) cultural competency, and (6) cultural proficiency (Cross et al. 1989).

Cultural competency, then, is the ability to work effectively with difference, in cross-cultural situations, and cultural proficiency is practice that proactively engages diversity and promotes inter-cultural relations. A major challenge to some in becoming culturally competent will be Young’s (1990) notion that recognition of difference should lead not to equality of treatment but to different treatment of groups or individuals based on the extent of their cultural and group marginalisation, and lack of privilege and power, a point echoed forcefully by Wallace and Milroy (1999) in terms of urban planning in multi-cultural Canadian cities. Harwood (2006, p. 355), reflecting on three controversial land use decisions “in cities with rapidly changing and culturally diverse populations” in Orange County, California, acknowledges as much when she notes:

“In the name of impartiality or treating everyone the same during the process, the system is not flexible enough to handle difference. Some feel that the procedures produce either impartial or unfair outcomes on the basis of difference.” (p367)

Sandercock (2004, p. 136) is unequivocal that planning is ‘‘regulatory, rule bound, procedure driven, obsessed with order and certainty: in a word, inflexible.” The goals of cultural competency and ultimately proficiency demand flexibility.

How does cultural competency relate to the goal of Universal Design, which is about making spaces that are accessible to people of varying physical ability, learning and emotional disabilities, sensory impairments and communication limitations? In Young’s (1990) sense one could argue that Universal Design is about equality of treatment, not different treatment based on need. Two comments, one from Australia the other from Canada (see my blog Grow Canada? Multiculturalism, environmental policy and planning), countries which are officially multicultural, show some similar concerns. The research partnership between Soufoulis et al.(2008, p. 15) of the University of Western Sydney and Penrith City Council investigated cultural barriers to public space use experienced by diverse residents of Penrith. They noted that:

“Fostering social inclusion through Universal Design is a goal that few would dispute. Nevertheless the rhetoric of social inclusion can be questioned for presupposing some social whole into which everyone seeks to be included. This assimilationist logic — which smacks of a populist U.S. American view of society — is arguably not adequate for contemporary multicultural Australia.”

Kumar and Martin (2004, p. 5) studied the Gerrard India Bazaar ethnic business improvement association in Toronto and make a similar point:

“While cultural diversity is a widely acknowledged component of Canada’s cities, discussion of cultural diversity is rare in urban design circles. Perhaps this neglect is because urban design practice is based on universalistic principles and is commonly oriented towards a homogeneous society. Or perhaps it is because urban design is premised on the notion that the public interest is unitary rather than composite.”

In relation to demonstrable racial and ethnic disparities in US health and health care, Betancourt et al. (2003 p 299) note: “Given the strong evidence for socio-cultural barriers to care at multiple levels of the health care system, culturally competent care is a key cornerstone in efforts to eliminate racial/ethnic disparities in health and health care.” Similarly, there is a growing recognition of the urgent need for cultural competency in the planning and urban design professions. Hunter College’s Center for Puerto Rican Studies prepared the report Cultural Competence in Urban Affairs and Planning. Rutgers University developed the Principles of Culturally Competent Planning and Placemaking. In my own department at Tufts, UEP students have formed the Tufts Intercultural Practice Group with the aim:

“to learn to become more socially and culturally competent, to build knowledge, and bring people together to talk about questions such as “What does socially and culturally competent planning look like? How can planners engage in culturally competent practice? and how can planners promote equity in a meaningful and practical way?”

In April 2012 they organized a workshop: Skill Building for the Intercultural Planner: A Cultural Competency Workshop for Policy and Planning Students. In the UK, the work of Comedia is ground breaking in this respect. In 2006, they compiled a set of case studies from the UK of how to plan for, in, and with intercultural communities. In their excellent Planning and Engaging with Inter-cultural Communities: Building the Knowledge and Skills Base they reflect Young (1990) when they note:

“it is no longer acceptable to impose a planning solution upon a community, or to assume that all communities are alike and require the same pattern of provision. Rather, the challenge now for planning is to capture the rich diversity of communities and to reflect this diversity in intercultural strategies and actions.”

Recognizing, understanding, and engaging difference, diversity, and (inter)cultural heterogeneity as an advantage and using it in creative and productive ways in planning and urban design processes and practices requires cultural competency. The planning and urban design professions and their educators have an ethical duty to both diversify their respective professions in terms of race, ethnicity, and other forms of difference, and to help student planners and urban designers become more aware of (inter) cultural dynamics and how their own conscious and unconscious assumptions, beliefs, knowledge, and desires affect their ability to listen well and understand other cultures. In short, cultural competency should become an essential part of the professional planner and urban designer’s praxis.


For a fuller discussion of the points I make here see both Agyeman J and Sien Erickson J (2012) ‘Culture, Recognition, and the Negotiation of Difference: Some Thoughts on Cultural Competency in Planning Education’ Journal of Planning Education and Research Vol 32 pp358-366, and, in May 2013 Agyeman J, Introducing just sustainabilities: Policy, planning and practice (Zed Books).


American Planning Association. 2009. AICP Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct. Adopted March 19, 2005, effective June 1, 2005, and revised October 3, 2009.

Amin, Ash. 2002. Ethnicity and the Multi-cultural City. Living with Diversity, Environment and Planning A 34: 959-980.

Betancourt, Joseph, Alexander Green, Emilio Carrillo and Owusu Ananeh-Firempong. 2003. “Defining Cultural Competence: A Practical Framework for Addressing Racial/Ethnic Disparities in Health and Health Care.” Public Health Reports 118 (4): 293-302.

Bloomfield, Jude and Franco Bianchini, F. 2002. Planning for the Cosmopolitan City: A Research Report for Birmingham City Council. Leicester: Comedia, International Cultural Planning and Policy Unit.

Comedia, 2006. Planning and Engaging with Inter-cultural Communities: Building the Knowledge and Skills Base. Accessed on August 18, 2011.

Cross, Terry, Barbara Bazron, Karl Dennis, and Mareasa Isaacs. 1989. Towards A Culturally Competent System of Care, Volume I. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Child Development Center, CASSP Technical Assistance Center.

Harwood, Stacy Anne. 2006. Struggling to Embrace Difference in Land-Use Decision Making in Multi-cultural Communities. Planning, Practice & Research (20) 4: 355 – 371.

Lee, Joyce. 2002. Visioning Diversity: Planning Vancouver’s Multi-cultural Communities. MA Thesis. University of Waterloo.

Lum, Doman. 2006. Culturally Competent Practice: A Framework for Understanding Diverse Groups and Justice Issues. Third Edition. Pacific Grove: Brooks-Cole.

Sandercock, Leonie. 1998. Towards Cosmopolis: Planning for Multi-cultural Cities. Chichester, England: Wiley.

Sandercock, Leonie. 2003. Cosmopolis II: Mongrel Cities of the 21st Century. Continuum.

Sandercock, Leonie. 2004. Longer view: towards a planning imagination for the 21st century. Journal of the American Planning Association. 70 (2):133–141.

Tully, James. 1995. Strange multiplicity. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Wallace, Marcia, and Beth Moore Milroy. 1999. Intersecting Claims: Possibilities for Planning in Canada’s Multi-cultural Cities. In Gender, Planning and Human Rights, edited by T. Fenster. London: Routledge Kegan Paul.

White, Susan. 2004. Multi-cultural MPA Curriculum: Are We Preparing Culturally Competent Public Administrators? Journal of Public Affairs Education 10 (2): 111-124

Young, Iris. 1990. Justice and the Politics of Difference. Princeton, NJ. Princeton University Press.


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