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Thread: Is small town planning bad for career?

  1. #1
    Cyburbian imaplanner's avatar
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    Is small town planning bad for career?

    What are the thoughts among professionals here about working for very small jurisdictions. Does that hamper your marketability in looking for future jobs? Especially if any future jobs are more urban oriented?

  2. #2
    Cyburbian Wannaplan?'s avatar
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    Not neccessarily.

    But it can matter if you are in the private sector. My firm does plans for communities that range from 1,000 people to 100,000. I am lucky to have the variety - small ag villages to large urbanized cities - and can appreciate the challeneges specific to each type of community. However, had we been just a small town type of firm, we would never have been able to score our latest plan for a client in the metro Detroit area.

    I don't think having extensive experience with small town planning is a detriment - you are gaining valuable experience that will look good to any employer. However, there are some hoity-toity communities out there that will in fact look down their noses at that kind of experience. However, you wouldn't really want to work for them, would you?

    I think what matters to a future employer is that you have experience in successfully enacting a controversial ordinance or successful grant writing that brought significant dollars to your community.

    I hope this helps

  3. #3
    Cyburbian donk's avatar
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    As person who is going through this right now my answer isYes and No.

    Yes it hampers because

    1) Scale of development, not many rural communities introducing 500 -1000 lot subdivisions/condos or land consolidations for big box / power centres

    2) Access to professional development, if you are a truly rural place, the ability to access and discuss ideas with other professionals, outside of your office may be limited to once or twice a year.

    3)Perception, alot of "city" people don't realize how hard it really is to plan for declining populatons who want more and more services,

    If it is a truly rural environment, make sure you have a specific calling and desire to live teh rural lifestyle, just don't take it for the job or you may end up pidgeon holed as a "rural planner".


    No it is good because:

    1) Depending on the size of the office, you get to learn about and do everything - special projects, by-law review, variances, land division.

    2) When you leave teh job you can look back and see that your work actually accomplished something, other than making a few people richer.

    3) Relationships, since the office is smaller you can actually build relationships with staff and consultants so you know who is trust worthy and who is a snake.
    Too lazy to beat myself up for being to lazy to beat myself up for being too lazy to... well you get the point....

  4. #4
    Cyburbian tsc's avatar
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    I don't think it is so much the size of the town...but the type of work you do. If your town is basically a bedroom community ...and all you do is subdivision review... you may be in a pidgeon hole situation. But, if you're town has a strong village character and spectrum of land uses.... the size probably isn't an issue. Sometimes smaller departments allow you to work on a variety of projects...that you might not have the opportunity to do at a larger organization.

  5. #5

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    I tend to agree with tsc, it is the variety of work that helps more than the size of the jurisdiction. And it is easier not to be pigeon-holed in a smaller jurisdiction. Some people like specializing in transportation, or what not, which is fine, but if you want to experience all of the aspects of planning on a regular basis, working for a relatively small jurisdiction is best. I think you will only be limited if you work only for really small (less than 10,000) places.

    The biggest place I have ever worked for regularly is about 50,000 and I would say I have had an excellent and well-reputed career. The one thing about it, though, is that if you are building a career in smaller places, you have to move around some, experience different types of places. You can get experience with fairly large-scale projects in relatively small communities if you work for a growing suburb or a resort town.

  6. #6
    Cyburbian Budgie's avatar
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    One of the basic premises to this discussion is that - moving on to a bigger jurisdiction is the presumed direction to a good career. As Lee points out, you can have a great career and be looked upon as a leader in your field without working for a big city. I've worked as a planner in big departments, little departments and in the private sector. Now I'm working for the smallest jurisdiction I ever have and consider my moving here a good career move, because I am comfortable (but not lazy) and can make a difference in my community. Being able to make a difference is a part of my definition of success.

  7. #7
    Building on the last couple posts, in my opinion it depends entirely on where you are in your career. Doing the full spectrum of planning activities when you start out may open doors at the mid-level. It depends entirely on which direction you are going - for a small town to urban centre, "specialization" in one component of planning is probably to your advantage.

  8. #8
    Corn Burning Fool giff57's avatar
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    Just make sure you get a chance to write one or more plans. The trouble I am running into is I don't have a document to show employers. Also I think you need to try to do some formal presentations. Sometimes in the smaller places you do things informally so you do not get the practice in doing that. Like Budgie says though, the instant gratification is a rush.....
    “As soon as public service ceases to be the chief business of the citizens, and they would rather serve with their money than with their persons, the State is not far from its fall”
    Jean-Jacques Rousseau

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    Cyburbian imaplanner's avatar
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    Thanks for the input people. But maybe I should clarify that I may be considering a REALLY small town of like 1,000. That is what worries me a little in that even though it would be a great opportunity to do just about all aspects of land use planning - it might really pigeon hole me and my future. Yet at the same time I am sort of pigeon holed in my current job.

  10. #10
    Cyburbian tsc's avatar
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    I don't think the size really matters... amazing a town that small is hiring a planner. Are there things going for it...like trail planning, waterfront development...is there a a main street... a historic district? Are there environmentally sensitive areas.... or is it just a suburb with a bunch of 1960's ranches and strip mall? What would you be doing???

  11. #11

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    I have worked for a number of towns that were smaller than 1,000, albeit as a circuit rider or consultant. Won a major regional award and national recognition in a number of publications for my work in a town of 1,700. If it is an interesting place and they have an adequate salary, you will be fine.

  12. #12
    Cyburbian
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    Quote Originally posted by imaplanner
    Thanks for the input people. But maybe I should clarify that I may be considering a REALLY small town of like 1,000. That is what worries me a little in that even though it would be a great opportunity to do just about all aspects of land use planning - it might really pigeon hole me and my future. Yet at the same time I am sort of pigeon holed in my current job.
    Whether 1,000 or 5,000 or 20,000 you will wear the hat of Planning Director (or some similar title - town planner in my current incarnation). You will review development plans, draft zoning by-laws, create short and long range plans. You may also wear the hat of Economic Development Director, or conversely Growth Management Director depending upon the attitude of the town. You will make presentations to the town government, establish department budgets and a whole host of activities that will benefit you regardless of where you go in the future. Who knows if you really like the place, you might spend your entire career in this one location.

    I have to agree with Budgie that comfort is critical. And if you are comfortable there, the population will not matter. Ultimately if you decide to leave, you will have to sell yourself. If you sell yourself as having drafted master plans, having developed grant proposals, having worked with business and the chamber to promote economic development -- you will have the skills to go to larger communities or to other positions.

    I had the opposite career track. I started in regional planning, first in NH, then in Boston. Potential employers were concerned that I had not directly staffed a Planning Board. I was able to overcome this by promoting the committees I served as staff, the zoning assistance I provided to towns, grants management at the regional level, budgeting for my department, etc. I basically had to sell myself as a local planner - without ever being one. It must have worked, I beat out a career local planner for my first local planning position.

    If you go for the job, take the opportunities it gives you and make them yours!

  13. #13
    Cyburbian mike gurnee's avatar
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    I could not get a job as director or assistant director in a metro area (not that I want one). I have been in smaller jurisdictions too long (and I love it compared to the congestion alternative). If your end goal is to be in metro areas, don't hang around small towns. A two year stint to "do it all" can be great. Longer than 5 years puts you in a pigeon hole. Most all my life has been in 25-50,000 range. I could double that in the future...but not much higher.

  14. #14
    Member Wulf9's avatar
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    You can build a strong resume in a small town if the Council is receptive. I went from a medium town to a small town. Things that took 3-5 years to accomplish in the medium town take 3-5 months in the smaller town. When you do the work in the small town, make sure to put together good presentations and good graphics to show as examples of your work.

  15. #15
    The important thing is to determine what you want to do and what your priorities are. It also helps to know what type of person you are and what your strengths/ weaknesses, likes/dislikes are.

    I started out as code enforcement in a larger jurisdiction and very slowly worked my way up to middle management. I then went to a very small jurisdiction as the planning director and chief bottle washer. Basically, I was a 1-man show. I then went on to a slightly larger jurisdiction and had my first staff. That lead to where I am now as a director in a medium sized jurisdiction with a larger staff. Each one of my stops have had their good sides and their bad sides.

    I have moved around, and that has been both a benefit and a problem, so you need to determine whether want to to that. A larger staff/jurisdiction does you allows you to cubby hole yourself and stay there. Another thing to remember, the higher up the food chain you move, the greater the stress. A key piece of advise I have for you is to keep your eyes open for opportunities. The more skills you gain, the better off you will be.

  16. #16
    Cyburbian Cardinal's avatar
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    As many others have pointed out, a small town can provide an outstanding platform for professional accomplishment. As with any place, though, you will have to manage your career if you want to move up or on to other places. My first job was as a director in a village of 1,500 people. My next was in a city of 14,000 people. I am now at a city of 100,000.
    Anyone want to adopt a dog?

  17. #17
    Cyburbian michaelskis's avatar
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    Although I have never worked for a small community, I think that it could be a very valuable thing. Depending on the cooperation that you receive while you work there, you could have a significant impact on the community. If it were a small staff, it also would allow you to have a diverse background in several different aspects of planning and development.

    Someone once told me that in a small community, the community is a reflection of the influence that the planner does, or does not have.

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