Faculty Profile

Lawrence Susskind
April 1, 2005

Lawrence Susskind is the Ford Professor of Urban and Environmental Planning at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and president of the Consensus Building Institute, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He graduated from Columbia University and received his Masters of City Planning and his Ph.D. in Urban Planning from MIT. As current head of the Environmental Policy Group in MIT’s School of Architecture and Planning, he teaches courses on international environmental treaty negotiation, public sector dispute resolution and environmental planning. He also holds a joint appointment at Harvard University as visiting professor of Law and director of the Public Disputes Program at the interuniversity Program on Negotiation, which he helped to found. Susskind has published many books and reports and held many visiting appointments and guest lectureships. He is a faculty associate of the Lincoln Institute.

Land Lines: How did you become interested in land use mediation?

Lawrence Susskind: Land use planners are supposed to ensure that the public is involved in all growth management decisions. Yet, most efforts to ensure such public participation lead to protracted political battles. Within the planning profession it is not clear how competing conceptions of appropriate land uses ought to be reconciled. Since the early 1970s I have been trying to introduce the concept of mediation as well as other conflict management tools into the lexicon of professional planners. In my view, in the absence of consensus building strategies of some kind, most communities are doomed to use resources inefficiently, unfairly and unwisely. I got interested in land use mediation as a way of helping the planning profession do a better job.

LL: What types of land use disputes are most difficult to resolve?

LS: Land use disputes that revolve around values or identity are the most difficult to resolve. When values (as opposed to economic interests) are at stake, people often feel that their identity is threatened and in such situations they are rarely open to considering the views of others. For example, proposed changes in land use that would eliminate agriculture as a way of life are not likely to be accepted, even if financial compensation is offered to the landowners involved.

LL: When did you start collaborating with the Lincoln Institute?

LS: My ties to the Lincoln Institute go back a long time. When Arlo Woolery was executive director in the late 1970s, we worked together on a multiyear effort to analyze the impacts of the Property Tax Limitation Law (Proposition 2 1/2) in Massachusetts and on the state’s Growth Policy Development Act. Two decades later, in 1997, I began working with Rosalind Greenstein and later Armando Carbonell, co-chairs of the Institute’s Department of Planning and Development, on a series of research projects that evolved into the training programs on land use mediation that we (LILP and CBI) currently offer together.

LL: Explain a little more about CBI.

LS: The Consensus Building Institute is a not-for-profit organization founded in 1993 to provide consensus building services to clients involved in complex disputes. Building on the “mutual gains” approach to negotiation developed at the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School, CBI offers conflict management assistance, negotiation training, dispute system design services and evaluative research to public agencies, corporate clients and nongovernmental agencies on five continents.

Our staff now includes a dozen full-time professionals, mostly based in Cambridge, and a network of more than 30 experienced affiliates around the world. We have become known as expert public and environmental dispute mediators and have helped to resolve complex disputes related to the siting of controversial facilities, the setting of public health and safety standards, the formulation and implementation of development plans and projects, and conflicts among racial and ethnic groups.

LL: When did the joint Lincoln and CBI training programs begin?

LS: After several years of careful analysis of land use mediation efforts throughout the United States, CBI developed a curriculum with Lincoln Institute for public officials and planners, and that course has been offered since 1999 at a number of locations. During the first few years we offered only a basic course designed to familiarize participants with assisted negotiation as a method to resolve land use disputes, and then we expanded our offerings to include more detailed skill building for experienced mediators and practitioners. Today we offer a full range of courses at multiple locations around the country.

LL: Who are the primary participants in these introductory and advanced courses?

LS: We are trying to reach three different audiences. First, we have identified and invited local elected and appointed officials who preside over land development disputes and administer land use regulatory systems at the local, regional and state levels. They need to know that there are techniques they can use to help resolve land use disputes before they escalate.

Second, we are trying to attract real estate developers and their attorneys so they know how to participate effectively in dispute resolution efforts when they are offered or suggested by public officials. Third, we have a special interest in attracting professionals of all kinds who want to learn how to be better facilitators, particularly of multiparty land use dialogues that involve complex technical dilemmas.

LL: What are the key goals and lessons of these programs?

LS: The introductory course offers a quick overview of the reasons that land use disputes seem to escalate so quickly and often end up in court. We then introduce the basic principles and tools of dispute resolution and show how they can head off such escalation. They are presented in a very interactive way using gaming and simulations. Participants are given a number of hands-on opportunities to apply what they are learning in hypothetical situations and to bring their own cases before the group. We spend some time talking about techniques for overcoming resistance to the use of mediation and other consensus building strategies.

The advanced course is aimed at experienced mediators or planners and lawyers who think they might want to become mediators. It assumes that the participants have mastered the material presented in the introductory course and moves to a set of dilemmas at the next level, including methods of handling science-intensive disputes through the use of joint fact finding. We also review key theoretical debates, such as managing unequal power relationships in a mediation context.

LL: How do you incorporate both theory and practice into the curriculum?

LS: We expect many of the participants to bring their own stories about land use disputes in which they have been intimately involved. We model in real time how the theory we are teaching can be applied in their cases. We also try to ground all of our theoretical presentations in detailed case accounts of actual practice. Finally, as mentioned above, we use role playing simulations. Students can’t just sit back and take notes. They have to wrestle with the application of the ideas we are presenting.

LL: What other projects have you undertaken with the Institute?

LS: About a year ago, in May 2004, I joined Institute President Jim Brown at a Lincoln-sponsored seminar in Cuba on the problems of restoring and redeveloping Havana Harbor. Energy production and inadequate attention to pollution control have spoiled one of the most beautiful harbors in this hemisphere. Some of the many different committees and groups concerned with economic development, environmental cleanup, restoration of the harbor ecology, historic preservation of Old Havana, and enhanced tourism are seeking advice on strategies for balancing these (sometimes) competing objectives.

CBI is beginning to develop a new joint course with the Lincoln Institute and some of its partners involved in local economic development efforts around the country. We believe conflict resolution tools and negotiation skills can be of great use in neighborhood development disputes, not just growth management conflicts in the suburbs. With Roz Greenstein CBI is creating a new set of training programs for community-based organizations that we plan to offer for the first time next summer.

Another new initiative is a collaborative Web site that highlights recent research by the Lincoln Institute and CBI, as well as timely news articles, background material on consensus building, and links to related programs and publications. One section of the site will provide an interactive platform that will permit hundreds of alumni of our joint courses to remain in touch with each other and share their mediation experiences. This “virtual learning community” will be a valuable resource for public- and private-sector stakeholders involved in land use disputes (even if they haven’t taken the course).

LL: What is the outlook for future joint programs?

LS: I believe our ongoing CBI–Lincoln Institute partnership holds incredible promise. We have conducted an Institute-sponsored study on the use of consensus building to resolve land reform disputes in Latin America and hope to expand on that work, as well as to address land issues facing China and the newly independent states of Eastern Europe. The Institute is already involved in research and training programs in these regions, and land use disputes are at the core of many of the challenges facing national and local policy makers.

The Lincoln Institute is an ideal partner for CBI. We both care about applied research, theory building and sharing new knowledge through educational programs of all kinds. We both measure our success in terms of real improvements on the ground, and we share interests in both domestic and international arenas.