Planner Profiles: Tom Dinell

The planner profile article in this edition of the APA Hawaii Newsletter features Tom Dinell, a planner and educator who has undoubtedly taught and inspired many of Hawaii's planning practitioners and academics. Tom has graciously shared his experiences and perspective on planning in Hawaii for this article. Mahalo, Tom, for your time and perspective!


Tom Dinell’s efforts as a planning practitioner, researcher, and educator have enriched Hawaii’s communities and our profession. As a practitioner, Tom has led and contributed to numerous planning initiatives. He is currently president of Trees for Honolulu’s Future, which is comprised of planners and urban forestry professionals and enthusiasts. The organization focuses on the development of Honolulu’s urban tree canopy as a means of keeping Honolulu livable in the face of climate change. As a researcher, Tom has served as the principal investigator on planning studies such as the Coastal Zone Management Project, which was conducted for the State of Hawaii. As an educator, Tom has trained generations of Hawaii’s planners by founding UH Mānoa’s Department of Urban and Regional Planning and serving as an emeritus professor with the department. Tom’s passion and enthusiasm continues to inspire students and practicing professionals on planning’s capacity to improve Hawaiʻi.

1.What initially drew you to planning?

I came into planning via a long circuitous path. Here is the condensed version. My graduate degree is in public administration. I came to Hawai’i as one of those mainland consultants, but, unlike many, I stayed. After a stint in the then State Budget Bureau, I joined the Legislative Reference Bureau, which was then part of the University. In time I became Director. I next went on sabbatical to the Littauer School (now Kennedy) at Harvard on a fellowship. On return, after several somersaults, I was asked to start some kind of community-oriented program, which, after a few more twists and turns, became the Pacific Urban Studies and Planning Program, the brief progenitor of the Department of Urban and Regional Planning (DURP). Two credits along the way: First, Harvey Perloff, a giant in academic planning at the University of Chicago, who insisted that planning belonged with the social sciences rather than to be affiliated elsewhere; and second, Roland Fuchs, chair of the Geography Department at the time and now at the East-West Center, who guided the proposal for DURP through the academic maze. And in this process I became a planner.

2. Planning is multidisciplinary and multifaceted. How do you explain what planning is to someone outside our profession?

Planning occurs in a multiplicity of milieus such as corporations, universities, communities, and families. Urban and regional planning, however, is focused on the physical and social aspects of what happened in the city and the region in the past, what is happening today, and what are the desirable and feasible alternatives for the future.

3. Planning programs such as DURP equip students with the skills needed to become professional planners. Has planning education changed since you began your career as an educator, and if so, how?

A major change is the computer. Now planners need to know how to use GIS techniques as well as a range of other computer-based skills. There are even programs for consolidating interview data. While DURP, since its inception, has emphasized planning with people and not for people, that has now become common in the field. No longer is holding a couple of informational meetings a substitute for broad-based citizen participation in planning. The caveat is that the greater the participant pool, the more the planner needs a strong foundation in basic skills such as listening.

4. How has the role of a planner in Hawai‘i changed since you began your career?

Collaboration, collaboration, collaboration. The planner today, more than in the past, has to work with the hydrologist, the engineer, the community spokesperson, the developer, the environmentalist, the lawyer, the architect among many others and understand the focus of their efforts and the nature of their concerns. The opportunity and the necessity to collaborate with an informed citizenry in creating a future for a community (and there are many communities out there) is far greater today than it was 40 years ago. Furthermore, the planner now, as never before, has to understand the political process and the occasions that policy makers/political leaders have to make a difference and the constraints, which limit what they can accomplish or even wish to undertake.

5. What advice do you have for planners starting their careers?

My best response to this question is to provide the neophyte planner with a copy of my “Rules for Planners To Live By”:

1.  If someone has all the answers, it is a sure bet that he or she does not.

2.  Be aware of the Law of Unintended Consequences.

3.  When doing the macro, keep an eye on the micro; when doing the micro, keep an eye on the macro.

4.  Stop. Look. Listen.

5.  Planning only makes sense if you have some idea of the desired outcome and why it is desirable and for whom.

6.  Planning does not occur in a vacuum.

7.  Be culturally sensitive.

8.  Be environmentally conscious.

9.  Practice compassion.

10.  Reflect on what makes the city humane.

11.  Build consensus.

12.  Weave a diverse web.

13.  Be passionate about your work and have fun.

6.What achievement of your career are you most proud of?

That is an easy question: Founding and developing the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Hawai’i, which includes working with our faculty, teaching and conducting research, watching graduates pursue their professional careers in Hawai’i, on the mainland, and abroad, collaborating with many of our graduates and other professionals in the field, and interacting with citizen-based groups. For these opportunities I am most grateful. I followed Rule 13 of my “Rules for Planners to Live By” and I have had fun!