Why did you decide to become a city planner?
Recently I gave a presentation to a graduate class of future social workers about the rigors of community planning and organizing. Before I began explaining the current ins and outs of planning, I first explained why I choose planning as a career. You maybe surprised to know that many planners in planning offices do not have planning degrees. Whether it’s a good or bad thing to have people from various related fields giving different perspectives, I don’t know. Most people do not grow up dreaming to review development plans and organize monthly community meetings. As a kid, I was always fascinated by cities and always loved gazing at skylines. I had no clue of what a city planner did. I wanted to be an architect.
My dream of being an architect began with legos. Every year a group of architects would hold a design workshop with legos during Baltimore’s Artscape festival where I would help build castles, ships, towers, you name it. As I got older I volunteered with the local architects to help run the lego workshop. Those same architects gave me my first of many internships in high school, which led me to major in architecture at Temple University for two years. To come full circle now, I now review the architectural plans of those same architects as a planner who I met helping kids play with legos as a teen.
It was at Temple University that I grew a deep appreciation for cities. Temple was an urban campus right in the heart of inner-city Philadelphia. I was a kids from an inn-ring suburb and while I had visited Philadelphia dozens of times because my family was from there, I had never lived there. It was an eye opening experience. The big city allowed me to experience the new cultures and neighborhoods, the subway and el trains, lively and crowded downtown streets…and great poverty.
My University was in a neighborhood that had been in blight for over 50 years. In fact, the building my studio building was in was across the street from public housing. The studio space had the top floor in a nine story and from every direction that you looked past the campus, there was a mile or more of blighted neighborhoods. I really liked being in architecture, it was my dream. But studying how people feel and perceive space seemed trivial in the face of abject poverty that was in front of us. No matter how the spaces of the buildings of across the street where designed they were never going to feel safe.
I could not get past the fact that as future architects, if we are designing new and better spaces for people, how are we going to help the people in public housing across the street? When I asked my professor, “Who designs buildings for the poor?” The answer I got was, very few. Since architecture is still a business, there is no profit in building for the poor. Your future clients will be those with means (being individuals or institutions) and that’s who you will essentially work for.
This is not to say that all architects do is design buildings and spaces for the rich. As an intern for several architectural firms, I worked numerous public projects that would affect almost everyone from hospitals, schools, government buildings and for commercial projects intended for low income neighborhoods. Even if architects were to design pro bono for low income neighborhoods, at best all they could do is change the perception of how they felt about their neighborhoods. And while it is important for everyone to have a positive relationship about their environment, especially the poor, it is not going to bring jobs to their neighborhoods, it will not provide a better education, and it will not provide them with better skills or healthcare. Can a city planner do all these things? Probably not but at least we can educate people and help guide communities into a better direction.
So I left my major of understanding how people live and interact within their immediate spaces for a major that studies how people live and interact with their community. Both professions seek to improve the quality of how people experience their environment. The planner’s job is to help communities envision a better environment.
Well I hoped you enjoyed reading my “Johnny Do-Gooder” city planning story. Most city planners have similar tales of wanting to change their world. And while working for government can be slow and arduous, most of us still hold on to the belief that we can impact the world we live in. If you read my past tales of a city planner, then you know that changing the world I know is a lot harder then I thought. And in this line of work, it is very hard to measure any discernable success or to gauge how much of an impact you really have on your community. But all I can do is learn from the mistakes from the past so I can help plan a better tomorrow. And from these blog posts, I hope that any future planners can learn from my mistakes.
Thanks for reading!