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Thread: Wanted to be a planner, now I'm just confused...

  1. #1
    Cyburbian
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    Wanted to be a planner, now I'm just confused...

    So after working in the development industry for a year now I've hit a point where I'm not liking what I'm seeing. What I thought it was to be a planner as an undergrad student seems to be nothing like what the reality is - a lot more politically driven, less creative/innovative opportunities than I thought, etc - and it's come to the point where I'm not sure I want to be a planner anymore. I'm just wondering, as many of you are professional planners, if any of you ever had thoughts like this when they first started working? And if they eventually got back on track to liking the profession again after more experience?

    I'd like to think that maybe I've just seen too much of the negatives while at work and so I probably have some sort of biased view of things. I'm just worried because at this point I'm not excited about heading to grad school to do an MUP anymore, which will cause problems as I prepare for appliations this fall.

  2. #2
    Cyburbian TexanOkie's avatar
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    I am currently experiencing a similar rut and would also like to hear from planners from a previous generation.

  3. #3
    Cyburbian Masswich's avatar
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    It can be a bit of a shock to find out how political it is and how little influence you have, especially at the beginning of your career. My advice is that you will either have to adjust or move on to a different career. The politics are intense - but in some ways that's the way democracy works. And while you may wish to have more influence, that is something that comes with time.

    I would never say it isn't frustrating. But if you don't want to learn about working in/around politics, you're probably in the wrong field. This is why I think that planners who come out of policy-oriented schools are often less shocked when they start working in the real world than planners who come from more design-oriented schools.

  4. #4
    Cyburbian
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    I've been a professional planner 33 years. That puts me well into the previous generation category.

    Some thoughts.

    1. Any professional job seems different than how it is portrayed in college. The college version of your career is romanticized by professors who have been in the industry for decades. They forgot, if they ever actually practiced, how mundane the job of a planner apprentice can be.

    2. You have to pay your dues. Every young planner wants to change the world as soon as they get out of college. Unfortunately you are now the low man or woman on the totem pole. You get the simple, mundane tasks while your bosses are doing the fun stuff. It is role we all played.

    3. Planning is, and always will be, very political. Get used to it or get out. I jumped to the private sector years ago because I couldn't take having amateurs -- planning commissioners and city council members -- as bosses. The private sector provides you a lot more opportunities to stand back from the politics.

    4. I never bailed because I quickly found that I was good at my job. Good problem solver, could think quickly on my feet and a very good designer. There were a lot of times that I got frustrated wanting to do more -- the old run before you can walk. Today I have the opportunity to now mentor -- I used to teach at the university level -- although I still enjoy dishing out a little frustration every once in while.

  5. #5
    Cyburbian el Guapo's avatar
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    Take the Martin-Baker Fast!

    After 10 plus years in public service I can honestly tell you I'd rather give enemas at the mall. The job has its moments, but I truly regret not going into business for myself. Plus, the political left has captured the agenda. We call ourselves planners, but most planners want to be social engineers. Plus, we have politicize every farking issue and soon having your own beliefs will be cause for dismissal. All in all I'd say get the hell out while you can.

  6. #6
    Cyburbian MacheteJames's avatar
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    The political aspects of the job are the ones that I hate the most as well. I get tired of being a punching bag for the public and for board members with their own agenda and no sense of common good. The local powers-that-be are usually just men and women off the street who have been able to rally enough local support to be elected to office... many of them have extensive personal networks and can campaign well, but are terrible at governance. I feel like we spend a decent amount of time in this office justifying to TPTB why the community should undertake planning at all. It can take it's toll - I ended up getting an ulcer last month from a combination of the cumulative stress of the job and stuff in my personal life.

    In a nutshell, working as a planner can provide one with a picture of human nature that is not pretty and it's easy to get disillusioned by this. Some days I consider leaving the field for other pastures. Who knows, maybe one day I will. I like the idea of urban planning better than the day-to-day reality of it.

  7. #7
    Cyburbian zman's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by el Guapo View post
    After 10 plus years in public service I can honestly tell you I'd rather give enemas at the mall. The job has its moments, but I truly regret not going into business for myself. Plus, the political left has captured the agenda. We call ourselves planners, but most planners want to be social engineers. Plus, we have politicize every farking issue and soon having your own beliefs will be cause for dismissal. All in all I'd say get the hell out while you can.
    I'll echo this. Well said.
    You get all squeezed up inside/Like the days were carved in stone/You get all wired up inside/And it's bad to be alone

    You can go out, you can take a ride/And when you get out on your own/You get all smoothed out inside/And it's good to be alone
    -Peart

  8. #8
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    There's really no one out there with a positive outlook on the profession? That's disheartening...

  9. #9
    Cyburbian The One's avatar
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    Well.....

    Quote Originally posted by el Guapo View post
    After 10 plus years in public service I can honestly tell you I'd rather give enemas at the mall. The job has its moments, but I truly regret not going into business for myself. Plus, the political left has captured the agenda. We call ourselves planners, but most planners want to be social engineers. Plus, we have politicize every farking issue and soon having your own beliefs will be cause for dismissal. All in all I'd say get the hell out while you can.
    I work among some of the most right wing people I've ever encountered and if I expressed my personal beliefs on just about anything around here, I'd be GONE Sometimes incremental change is the best course of action....baby steps

    Just to counter some of the negative vibes.....I still enjoy my work....and once in a while I really enjoy it.
    "The modern conservative is engaged in one of man's oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness."
    John Kenneth Galbraith

  10. #10
    Cyburbian Michele Zone's avatar
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    I think no job is ever exactly like what people imagine. "What color is your parachute?" recommends doing informational interviews to figure out if a job you are dreaming of is really a good fit for that dream. I think picking a career based on a job title (for lack of a better way to say that) is basically lazy and highly unlikely to fulfill your highest dreams and aspirations. A career that fits you like a glove essentially needs to be invented. The assumption that out there is some job you can get that will fulfill you runs counter to the weight of evidence that people who really love their work are often people who created something that had never existed before. Finding your calling and getting a job are very different things.

    When I am frustrated with the friction between my dreams of having a meaningful career that has something to do with shaping the built environment and reality (and current reality is that my job has nothing to do with the built environment), the example that I always come back to is Jane Jacobs. She wasn't a planner. She was a writer. Her work has been influential and she apparently loved what she did. Some times the meandering path is the only path to get there from here.

    What do you love? What are your hopes, visions, dreams? What are the obstacles in your current work to getting there from here? Is there some fundamental flaw in the set up which means it's simply not possible to get there from here?

    Good luck with this.

  11. #11
    Cyburbian zman's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by AddG View post
    There's really no one out there with a positive outlook on the profession? That's disheartening...
    Sorry, I almost wish I could have talked to someone like me when I was in school. There are people out there with a positive outlook and they are welcome to post here. I will post my feelings in a truthful manner. (Rather, I will copy someone else's feelings )
    You get all squeezed up inside/Like the days were carved in stone/You get all wired up inside/And it's bad to be alone

    You can go out, you can take a ride/And when you get out on your own/You get all smoothed out inside/And it's good to be alone
    -Peart

  12. #12
    Cyburbian Raf's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by AddG View post
    There's really no one out there with a positive outlook on the profession? That's disheartening...
    I have truly loved my job as a planner for 5 of the 6 years I have worked in the private sector. This past year has been a challenge because of the economy, lack of continued movement upward, and lack of challenging projects has been a hamper to growth as a planner. There are those of us out there that enjoy the politics and everything else that goes with planning. I just think it's my calling
    follow me on the twitter @rcplans

  13. #13
    Cyburbian Plan-it's avatar
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    I have worked in the profession for many years and have moved my way up from a grunt to a Planning Director of a large metropolitan area. The best times I have had are when I worked at the project management level and above because of the autonomy I have been given and the ability to work with the elected officials to initiate change. I work for a jurisdiction that is both conservative (fiscally), but also progressive (championing environmental conservation and smart growth). I love what I do and am glad I picked this profession.

    I would not get disheartened about many of the attitudes you here on this board. There are a lot of great people here, but they tend to be more negative compared to others I have been around in the profession. It is not bad or good, just the way it is.

    I will second what many have said; politics will always be part of this profession. You cannot avoid it regardless if you are in the private side or public side. You need to find a place that has sane politicians and I prefer large jurisdictions over smaller towns (a little less politics as usual). Good luck!
    Satellite City Enabler

  14. #14
    Cyburbian cellophane's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by el Guapo View post
    We call ourselves planners, but most planners want to be social engineers.:
    if only i could get a degree in social engineering i would love to do that. at one point i believed that i could change the world via architecture but now that i am working in the real world all i get to do is design retail strip centers and old folks homes

    Quote Originally posted by CPSURaf View post
    I have truly loved my job as a planner for 5 of the 6 years I have worked in the private sector. This past year has been a challenge because of the economy, lack of continued movement upward, and lack of challenging projects has been a hamper to growth as a planner. There are those of us out there that enjoy the politics and everything else that goes with planning. I just think it's my calling
    how does private sector planning differ from public sector planning? i know private sector has a lot more "design" work relative to the more bureaucratic side of things working for the government but i really dont know the difference otherwise.

  15. #15
    Cyburbian ThePinkPlanner's avatar
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    I"m not of the "older generation." as I've only been in the field full time for about 5 years. On the flip side, maybe it means I have a more recent memory of my walk out of grad school and into the 'real world.' Its definitely more political than anybody ever tells you. There's no doubt about that. But I'd have to venture a guess that your immediate impacts will be best felt in scale. Did you say you were in the development industry? Are you on the private side of the fence or public? Not that I'd start an argument here on which is better, but they do have different approaches at times.

    I'm not a liberal, nor right-wing. I didn't go into the field to be a social engineer. And yet, even without that as an intent, I have had my moments with the title. In my five years here I've been a key figure in beginning an energy committee, implementing smart growth policies, bringing the city into Tree City USA status, and others. Even better, I've been a part as other people in the community contributed. Sometimes its even the little things that get you excited. I got to name a street once. So minor, yet it made my day and I'm already excited to show my son that mommy named that.

    I'm not wearing rose-colored glasses, nor do I think its all peachy all the time. Definitely not. Just a few months ago I left the office for a 2 hour drive after one developer called me a very bwitchy word during a meeting with my peers. There are hours, days, even months that can suck. Truly suck. And you won't leave here wealthy or for a profession as a motivational speaker. But its not all bad. I promise.

    PS- for newbies and "older generation" alike, if you haven't already, take a look at "What Your Planning Professors Forgot to Tell You." Its been out for 10 years or more, but it still makes me laugh (and shake my head in agreement) every time I read it. I'd post a description but I'm not familiar enough yet with the rules here to know if thats advisable.
    Last edited by NHPlanner; 02 Dec 2009 at 4:13 PM. Reason: double reply

  16. #16
    Cyburbian Emeritus Chet's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by smccutchan1 View post
    I've been a professional planner 33 years. That puts me well into the previous generation category.
    That was sage advice! Well put. There is a glass 1/2 empty side of me that thinks to be successful - especially at PD levels, you DO need to have some political savy, even if it kills you. Ivory Tower idealism should be left on the floor once you exit college. Pragmatics win more than ideals.

  17. #17
    I've been in the profession for only 3 years, but I've acquired some good experience and am managing my own projects. I have a BS in planning and am almost finished with my MPP. I work for a private firm that acts as a consultant for city and county governments for long-range planning and environmental analysis. Without being overly negative, or sounding like I have a lot of experience, here are my general impressions:

    You can't plan without someone paying you to plan, and the people who are paying, like all customers, are "always right." You can give your recommendations for what you think is the better option(s), but in the end, you're there to provide a service, not to change the world because, believe it or not, most people do not want their world changed.

    Most planning decisions are made by politicians with agendas that are not in line with what we know about planning. Politics are petty, and local government politics are often the pettiest.

    Many politicians will not be educated, or have any clue about basic planning principles. A planning commission may have some expertise (former planners, etc.), but most of the time they are there to just provide recommendations to the politicians (council, or supervisors), who must weigh other priorities, like not pissing off that one developer who will bring in a lot of jobs with his project, or that other developer who they went to high school with, or any number of "good ole boys" who they have to run into at the supermarket/cocktail party.

    Most planning work is not creative. I've never worked in a design firm, so I don't have experience as an urban designer, but this sector only accounts for one slice of the whole pie. Chances are you will be sitting by yourself in a cubicle/office, shuffling papers around, and talking on the phone. But then again, most professional jobs involve a healthy (or unhealthy) dose of that.

    Planners are always caught in the middle, and make no one happy. We are the scapegoats, either public planning staff, or private planning staff. This is because politicians have a very short and sensitive life span and can't risk taking the blame for anything.

    People want growth, and they don't want growth! The same people who vote for growth will vote for downtown height restrictions. Understand this: all planning happens in the public sphere. None of it happens in a vacuum. Unless you want to draft all day for the rest of your career, you will have to deal with the politics of government. College is great for producing planners who know a little about everything (statistics, demographics, drafting, design, environment, history, society, regulation, etc.), but what it can't prepare you for is the political environment in which you'll do all of that work.

    Probably the most important class you'll take about planning is theory. Learning about incrementalism, satisficing (not a spelling error), technocracies, oligarchies, etc. will help you to see where you are in a larger machine.

    From what I've seen of public sector planners, you have to be a certain kind of person to make it for 10, 15+ years. It seems they learn how to weave their way through a complex environment of inside, city hall politics, and the larger community issues that create occasional fallouts. Bitterness often prevails, as well as cynicism. I for one, do not want to be shaped into a bitter, cynical person, but I can feel myself changing in this direction after only three years. If I were you guys, considering a bachelors or masters in planning, I'd very seriously consider this factor. The most idealistic ones are at the greatest risk of becoming bitter. If you need to feel like you're making a difference--any difference at all--get into a profession that actually touches people's lives, where you have meaningful human interaction.

    how does private sector planning differ from public sector planning? i know private sector has a lot more "design" work relative to the more bureaucratic side of things working for the government but i really dont know the difference otherwise.
    This is probably because your only exposure to the private planning sector has been with design firms. Design firms (the ones with architects, urban designers, etc.), generally work for developers, not for government. The developers need someone to design their development, and often, to walk them through the approval process, which is can be very long. Along the way, that development needs to go through various hoops, such as environmental review. This will be done by another private planning firm, not a design firm. These other types of planning companies do the more regulatory, bureaucratic stuff, which actually comprises a larger share of all planning work. These other types of firms may also do certain planning work for government, such as general plans. There are some design firms that do big urban design projects, and do the actual urban planning design work we did in school. This, however, is probably the minority among all professional planning work. Also, most urban design by these firms will be the crap strip malls, because that's what gets built the most, and what developers get financing for. Fewer urban design firms do the hip Smart Growth/New Urbanism stuff because there is less of it being proposed, financed, and permitted. Go to any urban design firm and they will likely showcase the stuff they are proud of most, but will not show that 80% of what they do is just a bunch of crap development.

    A good example of this is [Moderator=Gedunker: firm name edited] a small firm based in San Luis Obispo, CA. They are a medium-sized regional firm, with offices throughout California, and had a few hundred people working for them before the housing crash. They would always talk big about their projects, like they were on the cutting edge. But the vast majority of the work they did was really just typical suburban, auto-centered development with large lots and strip malls. In fact, I've never once seen any impressive or truly creative project from them. I don't mean to say they never had the in-house talent, but that their goal, like any company, was to make money. Since they did this by riding the housing bubble wave and making money on the developers who were building that junk, they suffered big-time when the housing market went down. As a result, they had to fire a ton of people. This is just one example of many design firms in CA who built their company on the housing bubble and contributed to the poor quality design of many communities, talking out of both sides of their mouth by espousing New Urbanism et al., and at the same time producing plans for all the other junk.

    Moderator note:
    ~Gedunker~
    Chocolatechip I don't see the value of naming firms in affirming the point of your thread and frankly, I don't have time to look into the factual nature of what you imply. A LOT of factors go into firms going the way of the DoDo bird, many of which are entirely external and not related to a firm's specialty. Firm name has been removed.
    Last edited by Gedunker; 02 Dec 2009 at 7:12 PM.

  18. #18
    Cyburbian Raf's avatar
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    This is just one example of many design firms in CA who built their company on the housing bubble and contributed to the poor quality design of many communities, talking out of both sides of their mouth by espousing New Urbanism et al., and at the same time producing plans for all the other junk.
    Really, you had to call out a company huh?
    follow me on the twitter @rcplans

  19. #19
    Cyburbian beach_bum's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by chocolatechip View post
    I
    A good example of this is [Moderaor:=Gedunker: firm name edited] a small firm, based in San Luis Obispo, CA. They are a medium-sized regional firm, with offices throughout California, and had a few hundred people working for them before the housing crash. They would always talk big about their projects, like they were on the cutting edge. But the vast majority of the work they did was really just typical suburban, auto-centered development with large lots and strip malls. In fact, I've never once seen any impressive or truly creative project from them. I don't mean to say they never had the in-house talent, but that their goal, like any company, was to make money. Since they did this by riding the housing bubble wave and making money on the developers who were building that junk, they suffered big-time when the housing market went down. As a result, they had to fire a ton of people. This is just one example of many design firms in CA who built their company on the housing bubble and contributed to the poor quality design of many communities, talking out of both sides of their mouth by espousing New Urbanism et al., and at the same time producing plans for all the other junk.
    Careful there...you never know who reads these boards or what cyburbans have/do work for a particular firm.
    Last edited by Gedunker; 02 Dec 2009 at 7:22 PM.
    "Never invest in any idea you can't illustrate with a crayon." ~Peter Lynch

  20. #20
    Cyburbian otterpop's avatar
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    I've been a planner for more than 10 years. I have worked in Alaska and Montana. I have days when I like my job, an occasional day when I love my job, too many days when I don't like my job, and most days I think my job is pretty okay.

    I am fortunate that I work in a place where the political atmosphere is not too charged. There are disagreements, of course, but mostly people remain civil. Most of the people I work with know we are all trying to do the best we can. We fail short sometimes and they fall short sometimes. Most of us are all trying to do our best.

    I get discouraged sometimes. Every planner in the public sector knows there are going to be days when circumstances smack you hard and it seems unfair or hopeless. I do get discouraged.

    In those times I have to remind myself that I am doing what I do because I want to help people (developers and the residents), preserve and protect the environment, promote sensible growth and keep the place where I live a nice place to live.

    I realize that no matter what I do, I will never achieve those goals to my satisfaction. No one can. I am not omnipotent (and if I was, I sure wouldn't be a planner).

    I just do what I can, how I can, take the brickbats along wth the bouquets, and hope I make a postive difference in my county.

    Then I go home to my family. Much of what I do is done for them. I provide for the people I love with the money the county pays me to do the work I do.

    Corny as it sounds, it is your family and friends that matter more than job satisfaction.

    No one's job is great all the time. It is not always fulfilling and sometimes it is damn discouraging. But I do my job to provide for the people that matter to me. I will bear this disappointments because I know at five o'clock (and it is now past that), my wife and son are waiting to see me. No matter how bad my workday was, my evening is much better.
    "I am very good at reading women, but I get into trouble for using the Braille method."

    ~ Otterpop ~

  21. #21
    Cyburbian Emeritus Chet's avatar
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    Jebus this thread makes me miss Michelle Zone.

  22. #22
    Sorry, everyone, for the mistake I made above by naming a specific firm. It's my fault for not checking the forum rules first.
    I tried to send a PM to you, CPSURaf, but I'm not sure it's working.

  23. #23
    Cyburbian MacheteJames's avatar
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    Chocolatechip, FWIW, you are right on the money with your analysis of the realities we face in this field. I could have almost written this myself.

  24. #24
    I'd like to think that maybe I've just seen too much of the negatives while at work and so I probably have some sort of biased view of things. I'm just worried because at this point I'm not excited about heading to grad school to do an MUP anymore, which will cause problems as I prepare for appliations this fall.
    One thing you might consider is getting a degree in something that would aid you in planning, if you decide to try it, but that could apply to other career directions as well. An MUP is a specialized, professionally-oriented degree that does not apply to other fields as well as something more general. For example, you could get a masters in geography or public administration/policy, which could set you up for many different fields, including planning. You may not seem to be as well prepared for real-world planning as an MUP-grad (at least not on paper), but you would for a wider range of career/academic directions.

  25. #25
    Cyburbian
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    Chocolate, private firms also do considerable work for municipal and institutional work, not just developers. I did design AND non-design work in the private sector. Some firms do MANY different types of projects.
    "This is great, honey. What's the crunchy stuff?"
    "M&Ms. I ran out of paprika."

    Family Guy

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