Quaker Universalist Conversations

Applying my Quaker principles to urban planning

Rick Brown, AICP, CBSP, has been an urban planner for nearly 30 years, primarily serving communities in the State of Michigan. He was convinced in early 2016, and he is very proud to be a liberal Quaker who strongly supports the universalist belief that the human family can find strength and unity through its diverse spiritual traditions.

The name of his blog, Panethos.wordpress.com, literally means all cultures or all beliefs. This post is republished from that blog with his permission.

Athens (GA) Religious Society of Friends
As a liberal Quaker and an urban planner, I am very intrigued by the interrelationship between these two significant aspects of my life. Back on November 6th of 2014, I summarized how the ten (10) principles of my regular yoga practice correlates to the Code of Ethics that we professional urban planners believe, observe, and honor. In this post, I am attempting to do the same in relation to my faith.

For full disclosure, I have spent many of my adult years seeking guidance when it comes to faith. In this search for truth, I have wandered to and through many a denomination, practice, and doctrine, sometimes dismayed by what I have discovered. This, in turn, has led me to wander away from religion and the belief in a higher power altogether on several occasions. Eventually, my circuitous path has led me to the liberal Quaker practice, which has many unexpected similarities of Tibetan Buddhism. It is here, I feel I have found a long-term faith community that is open and welcoming to all.

As Quakers, we do not subscribe to a formal set of creeds. However, a basic belief of the Quaker tradition is that the inner light of God is manifested in each person and therefore every one of us on this planet is of equal importance. Those Quakers, like myself, who also believe that no one spiritual understanding has a monopoly on the truth, would be identified as liberal and/or universalist. I strongly believe this pluralistic view makes us stronger and unites us with our brothers and sisters across the globe.

Equality and diversity are also of paramount importance as a professional planner, for no one voice in any debate should outweigh any other voice just because they may have more money, power, and influence; nor should they adhere to one set of values versus another. The plurality of my Quaker universalist values also allows for a broader acceptance of alternative ideas/beliefs and helps one avoid being hamstrung by preconceived notions. I strongly believe one is inherently more conscious of the rights of others when we are all seen as being on the same level playing field and of co-equal importance.

Furthermore, I believe (and hope) that I am now even more successful thinking/acting outside the box, outside my silo, and/or outside my comfort zone. This is not to say that non-Quaker planners cannot do the same thing, but I have found my Quaker thinking cap comes in handy.

Similarly, I feel the peace testimony and tradition of Quakers is enormously helpful, as I ply the choppy planning and zoning waters with more ease, grace, and humility than would otherwise be the case. As planners, we all know many land use topics can get rather contentious. In those situations, a calm, thoughtful approach to complex issues can work wonders, even if all sides are not completely satisfied with the end result.

One of my favorite aspects of being a liberal Quaker is the largely silent, unprogrammed meeting format. As we sit in silent meditation awaiting that subtle nudge from within to speak to us, one has the opportunity to cleanse themselves from the daily toils, troubles, stresses, and conflicts. For professional planners, our work responsibilities can be quite stressful. The ability to cleanse from within, much like Tibetan Buddhism, is an awesome mechanism for finding inner peace and strength.

Silent meditation has another benefit in the fact that it teaches us to speak only when necessary and in a respectful manner. As planners, we are often bombarded with questions from the public, developers, officials, commissioners, and others. Responding respectfully, effectively, and succinctly without interrupting others is important in our profession and one of the ethical standards we are held to. Lastly, rising up to speak from the heart in front of your peers in an unprogrammed Quaker meeting (our term for service) is a great way to build confidence for public hearings, charettes, and forums.

Quakerism’s traditional lack of a hierarchical order is another benefit to this urban planner, as it provides an important counter to the often stodgy, ordered, and strictly structured format of many governmental entities. I believe one needs this counterweight to better achieve an open mind and to treat each and every person in a fair and equitable manner. It is one thing to tell someone “no” in regards to a land use or zoning matter. It is entirely another thing to do so in a way which clearly explains the reasons why with both sincerity and empathy. Sometimes, people just want to feel they are being listened to.

Finally, the Quaker testimony of six values, known as the “SPICES” of “simplicity, peace, integrity, community, equality, and stewardship” would be worthwhile attributes for every urban planner to embrace in their daily life. This is not to say that only Quakers can be so virtuous. Like all other humans, we are fallible. But, personally, I have found Quakers to be fine examples of how to exemplify these admirable qualities and remain successful in doing so on a continuing basis. These six values closely align with many of the tenets identified in the AICP Code of Ethics and can provide inner strength, guidance, and solace to planners when they are confronted with difficult dilemmas in their profession.

I hope this post was informative and helpful. Please feel free to provide any thoughts or feedback. Peace!

Image Source

Athens Religious Society of Friends


Thank you for this post. Learning how to bring Quaker principles and practice into my work life, both professionally as a community health nurse, manager and educator, and in my life as a parent and home educator, spouse, F/friend and community member has been an important theme for me and still a work in progress. I am thankful for your articulation of this in your work.
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