Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Tales of a City Planner


You know as professionals when people ask what we do or when we explain to the others what we do we tend to only focus on the challenges and frustrations of our job. Recently one of the younger planners at my job asked me for advice on whether or not he should continue to study planning when they apply for grad school next year. He was given advice from others about going into other related fields and was bemoaning the typical (but often justified) gripe that planning was not progressive enough. As I was joining in with the young planner about the slowness of government, I stopped…and thought to myself that despite all the challenges that city planners face, we do have our fair share of successes.

So this post will not be dedicated to a funny tale, a planning rant or a hypothetical question but to the successes I have had as a planner. There are a lot of times as a planner that you fight for the merits of a plan or a community and get overruled by political will, community opposition or by pressure from a key stakeholder. But despite the losses we may have occurred we can often prove through our consistency of comments a new framework of ideas and procedures that can be flushed out into a new policy. While I have certainly been apart of many lost battles and had to concede at times for the sake of moving forward, I know have been apart of positive policy change within my office that has put my office in a better position to affect change then it did in the past.

While as an office we can not change the approval of bad developments in the past we can continue to strive to make better developments in the future. While the progress can be slower then we would like at least we know progress is being made. Often times as young planners we slow progress as no progress because we lack the vision some times to see or better yet to know how far the policies we are apart of have shifted.

The irony is that for as fast as we as young planners would like to move to change policies, we can not move faster then the understanding of the communities we represent. Even if we have the best intentions, if we plan ideas faster then what the community can comprehend we would ultimately be a bunch of planners telling a community what we are going to do without their input. This is what we do not want to do because ultimately our success should be defined on whether we achieved a community’s goals responsibly (without disenfranchisement) and not solely based the success of an individual development plan.

And from community interaction is where I believe I have my greatest success. My father once told me that the goal of communication is not to be understood but to not be misunderstood. To be a good community planner you have to be the liaison to a lot of different understandings which may all be competing against each other, totally baseless or all true at the same time. As a community planner I have to explain the ins and outs of zoning to communities so that they can properly interpret zoning and not gleam their own account of zoning. I also must make sure I understand all of their concerns and issues when I bring them before other government agencies when making policy decisions.

Now not everyone in the community will like me. Just the fact that I work for government will perhaps always make them suspicious of me. However almost everyone in the communities I represent respects the information that I give them because I make sure that the information I give them is precise, accurate and without any misunderstanding. Due to that fact I have been fortunate that I have not had any hotheads in the community go off on the job I’m doing. Do people still yell and get angry at me? Sure. But most of the time is based on past failures of government long before my time.

So for any young planner out there reading this or any frustrated planner or any other professional for that matter, I’d say it’s healthy to vent out your frustrations about your job but do not become jaded. Once you become jaded you often stop seeking to achieve any type of success or positive change and become content to the same policies which may be doing harm. I write these posts to educate discuss and learn from any of you guys who post comments and not as a journal of daily gripes.

I mentioned way back in first “tale of a planner” series that a past professor told my class that his greatest success as a planner was preventing bad plans from happening. Well that may ultimately be true for a lot of planners because it is hard to discern personal accomplishment within a neighborhood but by far our greatest success is helping people. And I believe in that department, I have done my job well.

Thanks for reading!

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