The Importance of Representativeness: Diversity and Perceptions of Diversity in Virginia’s Planning Profession

Margaret Cowell

The importance of representativeness


It has long been known that the urban planning profession does not reflect society’s ethnic makeup, but there has been little research conducted on the extent of this disparity. During the Spring 2015 semester, a partnership was formed between faculty and students in Virginia Tech’s Masters of Urban and Regional Planning program and Virginia APA’s Ethnic and Cultural Diversity Committee to conduct a study on diversity and perceptions of diversity amongst planners in the Commonwealth of Virginia.  The paper presents results of the statewide survey of planning professionals (n=320) and a subsequent focus group on the topic of diversity within the profession. The goal of the survey was to determine: a.) the demographic composition of the planning profession within Virginia, b.) how planning professionals define define diversity, c.) the extent to which planners consider and incorporate issues of diversity within their day to day work, and d.) how important it is to planners that their organization reflect the diversity of the population they serve.


The timing of this study corresponds to increased interest in issues of diversity and representativeness in planning and other professions nationwide. The country in general, and Virginia in particular, are becoming increasingly diverse with each passing year; US Census data indicates that caucasians are expected to no longer be the racial majority nationwide by the year 2043 (Census). Virginia’s population is growing faster than the nation as a whole, and its population is increasingly diverse. These trends and this study raise the question of whether planners as a profession need to be as diverse as the people for whom they are planning in order to best anticipate unique regional and local needs.



Margaret M Cowell, Assistant Professor, UAP, School of Public & International AffairsMargaret Cowell, PhD is an Assistant Professor of Urban Affairs and Planning at Virginia Tech. She teaches courses on economic development, urban economy, and public policy. She was a member of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation-funded research project, “Building Resilient Regions” and also part of a team of researchers assessing the potential of the homeland security economy for community economic development at the St. Elizabeths Hospital site in Southeast Washington, DC. Dr. Cowell’s research has been funded by the MacArthur Foundation, National Association of Counties, and the United States Economic Development Administration. She obtained her doctorate from Cornell University in 2010. She is the author of Dealing with Deindustrialization: Adaptive Resilience in American Midwestern Regions (Routledge 2014).