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Thread: Disillusioned planners?

  1. #1
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    Disillusioned planners?

    Wow.

    There appears to be a lot of disenchantment and disillusion on this messageboard. I'm concerned because I begin planning school in just over a month's time.

    I've noticed most of the disenchanted planners are writing from the States. Does anyone have any perspective on planning in Canada? Most of the students and professionals I've spoken with here seem fairly upbeat about the feild.

    And what of peoples' experiences with planning in developing nations, where my real interest lies?

  2. #2
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    I'm glad you started this thread, because I'm about to embark on a planning degree as well.

    Something which got me thinking about the prospect of a career of frustration and despair was a recent phonecall made by a Canadian planner onto the Kunstler podcast where he claimed planners are the most powerless of all bureaucrats. I really don't know, but I would imagine you'll get different answers depending on whether you speak with local, metro or state/province planners. I'll be interested to see what other responses you get to your question.

  3. #3
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    But is the disillusion I'm seeing here just the cumulative result of so many young idealists coming to terms with the harsh realities of market pressure, politics & willful ignorance?

    Because, as a 31 year old, I already know how hard it is when you're in your 20's, and you have a head full of great ideas, but nobody wants to listen to you. It's a bitter pill for sure, but one you eventually come to accept and adapt to.

  4. #4
    Cyburbian mike gurnee's avatar
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    Gaz,
    There is not that disillusion. In our jobs, we rarley have a chance to rant. Cyburbia offers us this chance, to share with others who have felt the same way. When I post about Mr. Self-annointed Big Shot who justifies his rediculous project as "adding millions to the tax base", 98% of the readers know precisely what I mean. I don't have to provide any details and the typical Cyburbian immediately thinks "I feel your pain; it happened here a fortnight ago".

    I have no figures, but I believe that a vast majority of planners retire as planners.

    Perhaps in addition to ranting, we should start a thread on things that went right. I'll start.

    A teen center wanted to redevelop on land it owned in the middle of a residential neighborhood. It was allowed as a conditional use. The governing body was likely to not deny a teen center wherever they chose to build. I suggested to the architect that parking and noise could be a real problem--and that providing the needed parking could be quite expensive. A better site would be where they could share parking with another facility. I also mentioned this to the 2 or 3 teen center board members I knew. After a couple of months they came back with a site adjacent to the high school, and with a letter allowing shared parking. The site is surrounded by school property on three sides; the original site had housing on four sides. A small win, but still a win.

  5. #5
    Cyburbian Zoning Goddess's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by mike gurnee View post
    Gaz,
    There is not that disillusion. In our jobs, we rarley have a chance to rant. Cyburbia offers us this chance, to share with others who have felt the same way. When I post about Mr. Self-annointed Big Shot who justifies his rediculous project as "adding millions to the tax base", 98% of the readers know precisely what I mean. I don't have to provide any details and the typical Cyburbian immediately thinks "I feel your pain; it happened here a fortnight ago".

    I have no figures, but I believe that a vast majority of planners retire as planners.

    I have to disagree with this. I am a "disillusioned planner". Maybe it's different in FL with our exponential growth until recently. But there are only so many times you can see the county commissioner wink at his land use attorney buddy, who then winks at his developer buddy (who is also a buddy of the commissioner), as the county commission approves a horrible land use/zoning amendment. You feel beat down, you feel used, frustrated, patronized, sorry for the neighbors, etc.

    We had one poor kid from Canada come down here to work (girlfriend here) and he didn't last long, couldn't take the abuse from the Planning and Zoning Commission and County Commission. Went back to Canada to work for a private firm.

    I will not be retiring as a planner. Just for my sanity.

  6. #6
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    Quote Originally posted by mike gurnee View post
    Gaz,
    I have no figures, but I believe that a vast majority of planners retire as planners.
    In Australia, I've heard there's a high drop out rate for women, so women aren't retiring as planners.

  7. #7
    Cyburbian
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    As an entering student, this is something I worried about as well (especially after reading some related posts on this site), but I think in reality one would be hard put to find a career in which a certain proportion of people AREN'T disillusioned. I read somewhere that the average person goes through 3 different career changes, which would certainly support that idea. Part of the reason I like planning is that besides becoming a city planner, there are many related jobs to transition to if needed... if you look at school alumni lists, many are not specifically urban planners. I'm also always a little confused by people who become urban planners and then are surprised by the political nature of the job, it seems like such an obvious relationship (and one i must admit to looking forward to). If the game ever gets old, there is always a phd...

  8. #8
    Cyburbia Administrator Dan's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by s1m0n66 View post
    I'm also always a little confused by people who become urban planners and then are surprised by the political nature of the job, [snip]
    I put some of the blame on planning-related periodicals and publications. It seems like they assume that community leaders want their communities to be well-planned, that residents and neighbors will put aside their self-interest and cheerfully come together in charettes and workshops to find win-win solutions, and so on. Some of the articles in Planning magazine make it seem so easy; just follow this formula, and you can turn your dying Rust Belt burg into the next Portland or Boulder.

    In reality, I think only a very small percentage of communities in the United States are as progressive and welcome to planning -- that is, willing to make the short-term sacrifice that is required - as the communities highlighted in planning publications.

    The one thing these articles never seem to report on is resolution of disconnects. For example:

    * They value rural character; but want to keep the right to subdivide land into unlimited frontage lots, which would destroy that character.

    * They want to preserve farmland, but are opposed to higher-density residential development that would consume less land for the same level of population growth.

    * They want their children to remain in the community, and they want "age in palce" as they get older, but are opposed to residential development that young adults can afford, and older people can maintain.

    * They want parks, parkland and open space, but oppose taking land off the tax rolls.

    In some communities, I feel like a doctor who is advising an obese patient that wants to lose weight, but doesn't want to change their diet, doesn't want to exercise, doesn't want to make major changes to their lifestyle, and don't have money for surgery. As a doctor, it would be wrong for me to advise the patient to wear fashions that make them look slimmer, but I think that's what some communities want. They want easy, painless and politically expedient.

    Many of the communities I worked with acknowledged their disconnects, but were unwilling to work to resolve them, because doing that wouldn't be politically expedient; it would make some established residents with deep roots in the community upset. In these communities, generally small and slow-growing, where everybody knows each other, keeping friendships and business relationships intact is considered more important than following good planning practice.

    How to avoid this? For planners in the US, it means finding employment in a place that has one or more of the following traits:

    * Politically liberal/progressive (as opposed to old school liberal/labor)
    * Influx of new residents, some of which are serving in positions of power (planning commission, village/town/city councils, and so on)
    * Large percentage of educated, white-collar residents
    * Presence of prominent liberal arts college or large university (as opposed to a community college, ag/tech/mining-based land grant school, non-accredited "Bible College", and so on).

  9. #9
    Cyburbian Masswich's avatar
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    I think there is a relatively high level of disillusionment in planning, but that's not necessarily a sign that the work is any more powerless than any other field. Consider the following:

    1. Most planning students are attracted to the field because they are idealistic.
    2. Most planners do not wield final power but only recommend to citizen boards or political figures.
    3. Most planners don't take "time off" from planning to do other work and refresh their attitudes.
    4. Most planners feel that "playing the game" of influencing opinion leaders behind the scenes is somehow cheating, that the best solutions to issues should be clear to everybody.
    5. Lawyers and consultants similarly have little influence and must also feel powerless (although better paid...)

    I think planning is a worthy field but you need to recognize that this is not SimCity and that this is a democracy. If you can build good relationships with opinion leaders you can have an indirect influence. If you want to have direct influence on the built environment, become a developer, get on a Planning Board, or run for office.

    Anyway, good luck. Remember that many people with planning degrees do not end up in planning for the long term. Its still a good field.

  10. #10
    Dan Staley's avatar
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    If you can build good relationships with opinion leaders you can have an indirect influence. If you want to have direct influence on the built environment, become a developer, get on a Planning Board, or run for office.

    Anyway, good luck. Remember that many people with planning degrees do not end up in planning for the long term. Its still a good field.


    What Masswich said.

    If you can do the politics and learn (or know) how to influence decision-makers, you'll be good. Otherwise, if you don't want to do it all your life, the skills you'll gain will absolutely serve you elsewhere.

    Good luck in your decision.

  11. #11
    Cyburbian MacheteJames's avatar
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    It is what it is. It's not what they fed to you back in grad school. It's a little bit like when you were a little kid and saw a really awesome toy on TV (grad school) and then go out to Toys R Us and get one (hired for your 1st planning job), bring it home and open the packaging, put the batteries in, play with it for a little while, and find that it just wasn't cool as the commercial (disillusionment with the realities of the field).

    It's probably best to work as a planner for a while, get out when you can't take it any more, find a job in a related field, and join a local board in your town and influence the development process that way.

    Oh and one other thing: it's the local planners who seem the most disillusioned. Regional-level planners seem to have it a lot better... they're a bit more insulated from the BS.

  12. #12
    Cyburbian rcgplanner's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by MacheteJames View post

    It's probably best to work as a planner for a while, get out when you can't take it any more, find a job in a related field, and join a local board in your town and influence the development process that way.
    Feel free to move this to another thread, but what are other jobs that one with a Planning degree could pursue? I enjoy planning now, not so much the never ending code enforcement part of my job, but am curious what else can be done with my piece of sheepskin.

    My main frustration comes from what always seems like a moving target. In my community the Plan Commission forget that staff actually works for the Town Manager, not the PC. The more efficent staff becomes, the more crap we seem to catch for not getting things done. I am not so sure it's much better in the private sector though.

    For the most part I do still enjoy coming to work, working with developers to create better developments. It's the small victories that keep me going, i.e., convincing a middle school to install pervious pavement in some of the less-used parts of their parking lot, even if the ordianance doesn't require it.
    Last edited by rcgplanner; 03 Jun 2008 at 2:22 PM.

  13. #13
    Cyburbian Zoning Goddess's avatar
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    Oh heck, it just depends on WHERE YOU WORK. In the 4 yrs I've known RJ, I think he's had one weekend meeting and one night workshop.

    In two FL counties, before I moved to a Trails job, when I was in general zoning/comp plan stuff, 60 hr weeks were sooooo normal. 4-5 regularly scheduled public hearings a month, all after hours, maybe until midnite or later. Night/weekend meetings with homeowners groups. Going into the office on Sat to take care of paperwork because you had too many useless meetings during the week to get it done. If we were doing a comp plan update, I had 4 night meetings every week. Even in Trails, we had a monthly night meeting, and had to man the booth at a bunch of weekend/evening festivals/events/PAC meetings.

    I had to cancel vacations, or go in and work on vacations including New Year's Day once, I missed important family events, and my employers just didn't care.

    Yeah, 22 years of this also contributes to being disillusioned.

  14. #14
    Cyburbian jmello's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Zoning Goddess View post
    But there are only so many times you can see the county commissioner wink at his land use attorney buddy, who then winks at his developer buddy (who is also a buddy of the commissioner), as the county commission approves a horrible land use/zoning amendment.
    The surrounding counties here operate in a similar fashion. That's why I work for the city/mpo as a transportation planner. We are getting a lot of great things done and several transportation projects that I have helped to plan are actually scheduled to begin construction soon. I would not want to work in the papershuffling side of planning and zoning. I would absolutely hate it. I count myself as very lucky and I would recommend my career path to any young college student considering planning.

  15. #15
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    No need for going into an office anymore

    I find when going into an office after an hour freeway drive, that most of my time is spent emailing files toother members on the same planning team. Your attitudes might improve a bit, if you can convince yourselves that you can do this from home just as efficiently and still produce documents that look the same for your clients. Your boss might listen, if you can prove that your saving time and money for the company.

  16. #16
    Cyburbian tsc's avatar
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    It really depends on where you work. If you work in an area where the mentality of the community is development at any cost, then it is really hard to swallow as a planner. I spent 9 years fighting 100% impervious coverage, signs that would rival that of Gatlinburg on a postage stamp lot, and waivers from every decent regulation. Thank-god I got to move on.

    I now work in an area where planners have a decent go of things. I think the a good (local) economy makes all the difference, but of course there are always some issues like the cost of living here is high. But, I think our department does good things that make a difference in the quality of life in our community. It helps a ton that we have a huge capital budget that allows us to build things that aren't made out of t-111 but stone.

    Take a good look at the community if you are applying for a job. I think when you are just starting out, go where the community isn't a diamond in the rough. Go someplace where things have already happened so you can learn by example. Some places that come to mind near me: Burlington, VT, Ithaca, NY, Portland, Maine, or about anywhere in the Lower Hudson Valley, NY.
    "Yeehaw!" is not a foreign policy

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