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Thread: Wary of strict rules and bureaucracy: could I still be a planner?

  1. #1
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    Wary of strict rules and bureaucracy: could I still be a planner?

    Hi Cyburbians -

    Long story short - I have a BA in urban geography and anthropology, love urban form, landscapes, open-space linkages, transportation corridors but am looking at them as academic interests. I've thought about a Master of Urban Planning with a design focus but realize I don't know much about what the actual jobs and careers consist of behind the scenes. I have done a few info interviews, maybe will do an info session @ Humphrey Institute at which I'd like to pose essentially these same questions:

    What if I find that I am at odds with strict interpretations of zoning and codes? What if end up feeling that I'm against what can seem like overreaching and entrenched regulations that tie up the hands of home owners, architects and builders? Could I still be a planner?

    I basically believe in the "spirit" of a design intent and critical of overly literal "letter" of code enforcement. I am someone who personally believes noise ordinances should not be trump free speech (I grew up In Boston Ma where street bands are a part of the streetlife) I also think garage murals are not graffitti - I think they add to community and artist involvement.

    If anybody has been to Mpls' West Bank there is a stalwart punk/student coffee shop called the Hard Times - an institution, open 23hrs a day,etc. I believe in uniqueness and one-of-a-kind elements within a cityscape. I would be very against any city regulators that tightened codes as a way of getting the Hard Times to go out of business (not saying this is their plan at all but they have tried before) and then proceed to makeover that stretch of street according to pre-set design guidelines. I accept slum-clearance as a good thing but equally skeptical of gentrification sometimes. I really don't like suburban attempts at pseudo-mainstreet master plans. Basically, this kind of slum/dive hang out is what many planners would want to clear out....but, in short I would defend this kind of diversity over another Panera bread in some cookie-cutter, albeit well planned strip in suburbia any day of the week. Could I still be a city planner?

    Design guidelines for walkable, bikeable street bus/railcorridors are great (complete streets) - they create nodes of development, cohesiveness to a streetscape and better gathering spaces. On the other hand, I'm wary of their overuse - a blanket set of rules to homogenize areas that might be better off with minor street and sidewalk upgrades.

    Are there opportunities within planning to affect development and design while having an underying skepticism of the regulatory arm of planning and the clumsy-ness of one-size fits all municipal rules?

    I am interested in design, especially the connections among public spaces and how elements relate to each other in the urban fabric. Take for example the Gutherie Theatre in Mpls in a revitalized warehouse zone - all the attention was paid to the riverfront side and nobody was watching from the non-river side - the view is of a parking garage from Washington Ave. Have to consider all sides and all neighbors to be truly a great plan. Just like in Europe if you have a grand bldg you have create views from all points up to it instead of just developing your own square, isolated from the rest. Sounds more like L. Arch possibly? Do planners get in and affect at that kind if level?

    Any advice?


    thanks,
    Andrew / Mpls, MN

  2. #2
    OH....IO Hink's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by andrews View post
    What if I find that I am at odds with strict interpretations of zoning and codes? What if end up feeling that I'm against what can seem like overreaching and entrenched regulations that tie up the hands of home owners, architects and builders? Could I still be a planner?
    As long as you understand that your job is to enforce the regulations, and try and elict change in the elected officials views of regulation, then you can still be a planner. If you don't believe in the regulations of a community, I would suggest you find another area to work. I wouldn't work in California if you don't agree in environmental regulations for instance.

    Quote Originally posted by andrews View post
    I basically believe in the "spirit" of a design intent and critical of overly literal "letter" of code enforcement....Basically, this kind of slum/dive hang out is what many planners would want to clear out....but, in short I would defend this kind of diversity over another Panera bread in some cookie-cutter, albeit well planned strip in suburbia any day of the week. Could I still be a city planner?
    Other than the huge over generalization, you sound like you don't fully understand what a planner does. We unfortunately don't make these final decisions. We can work to change public perception, and to try and create plans that foster "diversity" as you put it, but if the elected officials of your community want to see more Paneras, and less mom and pop's, there isn't much you are going to do. Again it comes down to the community in which you work. Find a place that shares your perspective and you are alright. Understanding that every 4 years elected officials can change, and the perspective of your community can change.

    Quote Originally posted by andrews View post
    Design guidelines for walkable, bikeable street bus/railcorridors are great (complete streets) - they create nodes of development, cohesiveness to a streetscape and better gathering spaces. On the other hand, I'm wary of their overuse - a blanket set of rules to homogenize areas that might be better off with minor street and sidewalk upgrades.
    Most Euclidian zoning is a "blanket set of rules". Personally I feel that it is better to have overuse of complete streets, than nothing at all, but that is just me. There are many ways to create flexibility in regulations, it depends on how the community decides to handle it.

    Quote Originally posted by andrews View post
    Are there opportunities within planning to affect development and design while having an underying skepticism of the regulatory arm of planning and the clumsy-ness of one-size fits all municipal rules?
    Honestly, I think you are probably going to get frustrated and hate it if you don't fundamentally believe that communities have the right to regulate anything and everything. I think that there are plenty of libraterian planners, but most believe in the right of the community to regulate as needed. I think you will find it hard to find a job where the political environment isn't pro-regulation in some sense. There are "business friendly" communities, but even there, regulation is big. Skepticism is fine, as long as it doesn't mean you can't do your job.


    Honestly Andrew it seems to me like you like lots of aspects of what planners do, but don't like the fundamental concept of regulation. We regulate. We guide that regulation to the best of our ability under the political environment that we work to create a specific community. Some places look for sidewalks. Some places don't like signs. It really depends on where you are. If you hate regulation, look at Urban Design or Landscape Architecture. In these fields you have less to do with policy and more to do with creative design. Whatever you choose, good luck!
    A common mistake people make when trying to design something completely foolproof is to underestimate the ingenuity of complete fools. -Douglas Adams

  3. #3
    Cyburbian Cardinal's avatar
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    All of your concerns are ones that good planners consider every day. Your experience of planning will vary from place to place. Some places are very bureaucratic and use planning to force their concept of what is right, while others take a more lenient approach. In your career, steer yourself to the culture that best fits your perspective.
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  4. #4
    Cyburbian
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    If you hate regulation, look at Urban Design or Landscape Architecture. In these fields you have less to do with policy and more to do with creative design. Whatever you choose, good luck.

    You might get more creative on the design side, but having done both design AND regulation of design, there are still people telling you what to do: the client often tells you to spec cheaper materials whereas a community might want something fancier (or these opinions could also flip in a different community with a different developer). One exception would be high-end (residential, retail, etc.) but then these guys can bring on a whole different set of headaches, too.

    Although I grew up with my fair share of street bands, including college, at 29 I don't want to listen to them in the middle of the night when I have work in the morning. People's tastes change and what you think is acceptable other people find unacceptable. As a planner, you strive to meet the needs of the community or client you represent, and that can vary even from one neighborhood to the next or one town to the next.

    Hope this helps-
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  5. #5
    Cyburbian TexanOkie's avatar
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    In addition to the excellent advice already provided, I would also point out that almost regardless of choice of career or job, there will be a large part of similar sentiment and scenario in almost any job you'll take, whether the specific bureaucratic issues will involve land use interpretations or not. If not, it'll be some other thing like financial reporting, internal policy & procedure, you name it. Unfortunately, there's not much in the way of getting around such things in life, especially in professional life.

  6. #6
    Cyburbian ColoGI's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by TexanOkie View post
    In addition to the excellent advice already provided, I would also point out that almost regardless of choice of career or job, there will be a large part of similar sentiment and scenario in almost any job you'll take, whether the specific bureaucratic issues will involve land use interpretations or not. If not, it'll be some other thing like financial reporting, internal policy & procedure, you name it. Unfortunately, there's not much in the way of getting around such things in life, especially in professional life.
    These are generally my thoughts as well.

    There are rules and bureaucracy everywhere in civil society. It doesn't matter that you don't like them. You have to live with them - it is part of the human condition. It's what we do. That's how it is. You will eventually choose a career in which you will find a set of rules that you can live with. Will that be planning? Who knows. Hopefully you will choose a career that is durable throughout your life and you won't have to retrain in ten years.

    But if you are interested in design, especially the connections among public spaces and how elements relate to each other in the urban fabric, then in order to get some of that done and actually built on the ground for people to use (as opposed to making a real nice drawing that sits on a dusty shelf), you will have to be in a place that has restrictive, grumpy-causing durn ol' rules to make that happen. As a planner, you may be in a place that wants such a thing done, but doesn't have durn ol' rules, so it won't get built. That means you will have to work to enact durn ol' rules to make that happen. If making rules or seeking out rules is something that you don't want to do, then be something else and forget being a planner.

    HTH.

  7. #7
    Cyburbian Raf's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by ColoGI View post

    But if you are interested in design, especially the connections among public spaces and how elements relate to each other in the urban fabric, then in order to get some of that done and actually built on the ground for people to use (as opposed to making a real nice drawing that sits on a dusty shelf), you will have to be in a place that has restrictive, grumpy-causing durn ol' rules to make that happen. As a planner, you may be in a place that wants such a thing done, but doesn't have durn ol' rules, so it won't get built. That means you will have to work to enact durn ol' rules to make that happen. If making rules or seeking out rules is something that you don't want to do, then be something else and forget being a planner.

    HTH.
    "Strait cash homie".

    Couldn't have said it better myself. As a designer you have to play by certain rules, as well as come up with some but realize that it may not be politically viable and thus never get approved or implemented. Sometimes it is the small battles that mean more than the large ones.
    Men do dumb $hit... it is what they do to correct the problem that counts.

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    Cyburbian MacheteJames's avatar
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    *Paging ChocolateChip, this thread needs you*

    My .02 is that you'd be much happier in a nonprofit organization like a community development corporation or advocacy organization where you have the chance to be proactive rather than reactive. There are opportunity to do good things in the public sector but if you hate dealing with bureaucratic red tape, you'll be miserable. So much of this job just comes down to regulating the actions of others as well as guiding & managing the expectations of the various boards and committees you work with. All too often, you have to be the one who says "No" in this job. When you do get the chance to finally implement positive change, it's done in baby steps - you may not even see the results of these changes during your tenure in that particular job. Not only that, but your priorities are the community's priorities. You will do as your superiors tell you and you will not be the one to set the agenda - your job is to advise those who set the agenda.

    It sounds to me like public sector work isn't for you.

  9. #9
    Cyburbian Cardinal's avatar
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    Don't be scared off by all of these posts. The public sector and the planning profession are not all about rules and bureaucracy. First of all, there are different kinds of planners. I suspect that many who have gven you advice are current planners who perfor development review. Yes, this tends to be bureaucratic. Long range planning and some other specializations are not so much involved in establishing and implementing inflexible rules. And as I said, it depends on where you are. I worked eight years in one community that took a very open-minded approach. If the city staff and planning commission thought a rule should not apply, or was a bad rule, they did not simply impose it because it was on the books. Instrad, they asked if there was another way to consider the project, or even changed the ordinance. There, good ideas mattered more than policy. Other communities are the same way. It is a challenge to find these places, but it can be done. One hint would to be to stay away from the so-called planning meccas and the bigger cities.
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  10. #10
    Cyburbian mike gurnee's avatar
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    My tenure in Greensburg was all about advocating sustainability within the rules. We also have the luxury of changing the rules. Our sister non-profit (Greensburg Greentown) goes a few steps further with advocacy.

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    Cyburbian cng's avatar
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    Lots of good advice here. Working for a municipality, I try to encourage good design, creativity, and innovation when I can. However, the majority of developers are looking to build at the lowest cost possible, so I am more used to seeing developers cut corners on design... "foam" window treatments on production homes is an example. This kind of approach to building results in the regulations that we have now. We ask for sidewalks, curbs and gutters... these are standard regulations that allow communities to look organized. Asking for amenities like enhanced architecture, connected trails and parks is like pulling teeth. Other example... when it comes to signs... most businesses would love to put up a cheap "can" sign. In order to ask for "channel letters" instead, we simply have to ban them as a means to get better results from sign regulations. As a planner, I am more concerned about end-results. If I can get great results by "encouraging/facilitating" as opposed to "regulating" - great. However, as much as I would like to take a more libertarian approach to things, I find that my actions usually involve the latter. Don't get me wrong, you will come across builders that will want to do the right thing. Take advantage of those situations and find enjoyment out of those cases.

  12. #12
    Cyburbian
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    I think you'll find different philosophies at different places, both city departments and consulting firms. I've found sometimes in cities it has as much to do with the philosophy of the manager and team as with the politics of the city.

    There is a whole school of thought out there on planning that allows for organic city development rather than the poles of little/no regulation (beyond engineering standards) and strict but cookie-cutter rules. The book "a better way to zone" and some of the thoughts of Clarion Associates, for example. In the public sector, perhaps a department in a bigger (or more central) city where the staff enjoy city life and realize good cities can be "messy."

  13. #13
    Funny thing, I was just reading the Planner Weekly this morning over my coffee, all bleary-eyed, and I saw this headline:

    RANDOM COLLEGE STUDENT IS WARY OF GOVERNMENT CRUSHING HIS DREAMS

    It went on to describe a young planner hopeful who talked about his reservations working for "the man," and how he didn't know if planning was for him. He went on and on about creativity, ideals, "urban fabric," and all the other trite sayings that made me reflect on my own doomed immersion into planning. Within my first 6 months of working full-time, I knew I wasn't going to like planning any more than I did then. After a couple years, I started to fade. Now that I am planning in the federal government, and am employed by the single largest bureaucracy the world has ever seen (the DoD), the idea that government might somehow keep professionals from doing their best and performing according to their respective best practices is laughable because it is too true and obvious to be worthy of serious contemplation. Bureaucracies exist everywhere, even in private industry, but working for a _bad_ bureaucracy is like getting slapped with a fish every day coming into work. I can't rid myself of the smell, and it permeates everything I come in contact with. It's affecting my home life. My wife wrinkles her nose when she kisses me. My baby daughter looks at me like I just stepped out of Blue's Clues. It _will_ change you if you stick around too long. You can see it in the faces of those who've been around for five years or more. It gets too comfortable, and everyone is, as I've heard it said, watching over their rice bowls with gleaming, greedy little eyes, hyper-aware to any threat to the niche they've carved out for themselves.

    With that said, I also want to say get over it. No job will be exactly what you want, and everywhere you will have to put up with some level of bureaucracy, even in small offices. But as far as whether you should go into architecture or whatever, know that planners don't do design. We may hover over architects and go to their charrettes and manage their projects, but the design is either done or so ambiguous as to be largely meaningless in the face of the political gauntlet. And that's another thing: all planning takes place in the public and political sphere. You can't get away from it.

    As far as "spirit" of design and "letter" of regulation... it's all been hashed out by the New Urbanists, and they will be happy to sell you their services. Form-Based Codes were invented to mesh New Urbanism with Euclidean zoning codes, so that's all been worked out as well. God, i could wax something serious here, but I think I already have, and it's just about the last thing i wanna talk about.

    So in a nutshell, yes, planning will be bureaucratic. Can you handle it? F*** if I know. Try it out. if you don't like it, do something else. You can do anything you want to do. But don't be naive. If you clutch on to your naivete, then dam up the waters, man, because when you get your first job at a local, state, or federal government you're gonna cry a river of tears. The trick is to "stay true to yourself" (as naive and trite as that sounds), and go to work to make a living. Unfortunately, life is chock effing full of compromises.

  14. #14
    Sorry about the double post, but I'd just like to add that, more than anything else, more than the bureaucracy under which you'll work and the rules of the organization, what matters is the people you work with. You can work in the worst place in the world, but with co-workers you enjoy working with, it can be a great time in your life. That's my situation now. A company or agency ain't worth beans if it doesn't have great people working for it. It can have all the flextime, 401ks, health benefits, and swanky office space in the world, but if it's full of dullards, leeches, and inauthentic careerists, run for the hills. I don't want to belabor the point, but I will: It's the people.

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