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Thread: Anyone work for a large city planning department?

  1. #1
    Cyburbian Ringo's avatar
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    Anyone work for a large city planning department?

    Does anyone here work for a large city in a Planning Dept of a few hundred people?
    What is it like?
    Pros v Cons?

  2. #2
    Cyburbian WSU MUP Student's avatar
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    I work for a large (population-wise) county and our department (which includes planning, business development, community and home improvement, small business center, workforce development, business financing (SBA loans, bond underwriting, etc.), brownfields, and marketing). When we add in the administrative type folks in the department, interns, summer help, and various consultants or people from other agencies who work with us (we have a few folks from SBA, Department of Commerce, the state, etc.) I would say we probably have close to 120 people, maybe a few more.

    The biggest pro by far is that we have a lot of resources and we can share them among the various groups. For instance, our marketing department has 3 full time graphic designers, a full time videographer, and a few part time or intern designers so we have the ability to put out some pretty high quality marketing pieces and reports for our home improvement or planning or business development folks. We also have a full time event planner on our staff (and have enough events that we could easily support another part timer or maybe even another full timer) so our conferences and workshops are very professionally put together. Our event planner has been here for years and is actually a landscape architect so she knows the world of planning and is good at making sure or relevant planning workshops can get AICP continuing ed credits for the attendees.

    One thing that can be a pro or a con, depending on your point of view, is that everybody really begins to specialize in just one or two things. We have a trails planner who is very well regarded at her knowledge of trails and recreation planning, working with utilities to obtain right-of-ways, acting as a liaison with the parks department and various public groups to maintain trails and build new ones, but she hasn't fired up ArcMap in years and couldn't tell you the first thing about helping an entrepreneur write a business plan or obtaining financing. I work in economic development and workforce development and have become an expert in our regional demographics, labor market information, working with site selectors, forecasting/modeling, and responding to RFP, but even though I have a masters in planning, I've never actually looked at a master plan or site plan in a professional manner and the APA doesn't count the vast majority of economic development work towards AICP certification.

    In this area, there are a few other counties that have pretty large populations but their planning departments are usually much much smaller. I'd say that's primarily because of two reasons: First, in Michigan (which is where I am), the county doesn't really have much planning authority. The only planning role that we are required to undertake is to review changes/updates to master plans of individual cities, villages, and townships and act as a liaison between communities when there is a change on their borders. And second, we seem to be sort of unique here in this county that we've rolled so many different groups into the greater planning department so in other counties, planning is a department with just a few people, economic development is another separate department, as is community and home improvement, etc.
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  3. #3
    Cyburbian
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    ^I wanna work there

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    Cyburbian
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    Pros of a big agency: Big agencies have big budgets and lots of resources. Their cities' tax bases are larger and hence they can take on cooler and more innovative projects. you can actually do things in house as opposed to hiring a consultant. Professional development and formal internship programs are an actual thing. If you look at the people who are selected to present at conferences, it is almost always the big cities which are the leading innovators. Big agencies may also have more fresh faces, higher turnover, more young/diverse employees...which in turn might make it a more fun atmosphere to work. Small agencies can have have trouble recruiting and retaining non-local folks and/or junior employees, may struggle with diversity. Also, big city = more people = more networking opportunities, more friends to be made, more things to do. Small agencies can be quite lonely or isolating if you're new in town and don't have family or friends in the area.

    Cons of a big agency: More people=more bureaucracy, more politics, more siloing of jobs. Everyone does their own small part to make the make the giant wheel turn. It's harder to move up. Example from above: While having a person solely dedicated to being a Trails Planner is awesome, it also means that all that person will ever do is trail work. And because they're the only one, it may be difficult to move on up into a more general Principal Transportation Planner type of role. Also, big agencies tend to be in big cities, which are very expensive to live in on a planner's salary, even with cost of living adjustments.

    Personally I think the best route to take is start your career in a large agency, gain expertise, and then transition to a smaller agency later.
    Last edited by akshali2000; 02 Aug 2017 at 12:02 PM.

  5. #5
    Cyburbian
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    Peers

    Interesting thread. Has anyone with experience at a mega-department noticed an increased level of professionalism/formal planning education of the planners? I've only ever worked for small cities in remote places and I've always wondered if you see more higher caliber people at huge big-city departments. I have so far been unimpressed with people working as planners that just happened into the profession and don't have a academic background in it...a la "You're pretty bright -- think you could administer this zoning code? It's not too hard, just make sure the applications fit with the rules" Sad lol

  6. #6
    Cyburbian WSU MUP Student's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by hallstot View post
    Interesting thread. Has anyone with experience at a mega-department noticed an increased level of professionalism/formal planning education of the planners? I've only ever worked for small cities in remote places and I've always wondered if you see more higher caliber people at huge big-city departments. I have so far been unimpressed with people working as planners that just happened into the profession and don't have a academic background in it...a la "You're pretty bright -- think you could administer this zoning code? It's not too hard, just make sure the applications fit with the rules" Sad lol
    I think the level of professionalism and formal education in relevant fields is much more dependent on the size of the regional population rather than the size of the actual community you are working in or the firm you are working for. Here in Metro Detroit, it seems like even the smallest communities (those with less than 10,000 people) that have a "planner" on staff have somebody with formal training or education in planning or public administration, a closely related field, or a ton of experience (but maybe without the formal education). Once you get out into the rural areas, the townships and counties and cities are exponentially less likely to have somebody with a true planning background on their staff. I think it really just boils down to the availability of labor and the size of the labor force in the region.
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  7. #7
    Cyburbian Habanero's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by hallstot View post
    Interesting thread. Has anyone with experience at a mega-department noticed an increased level of professionalism/formal planning education of the planners? I've only ever worked for small cities in remote places and I've always wondered if you see more higher caliber people at huge big-city departments. I have so far been unimpressed with people working as planners that just happened into the profession and don't have a academic background in it...a la "You're pretty bright -- think you could administer this zoning code? It's not too hard, just make sure the applications fit with the rules" Sad lol
    I've worked in larger and smaller departments - a few larger ones did have a few people that were box-checkers and paper movers. That can happen anywhere, but even people with decent training/education can get burnt out and it's large enough that one burnt out person didn't sink the ship. The politics didn't stop, they were just different in my experience. That said, it was always fun to have a bit more in the budget.
    When Jesus said "love your enemies", he probably didn't mean kill them.

  8. #8
    Cyburbian
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    I currently work at a small city and a small city that pretends its a big city. I will start working at a big city in a couple weeks.

    One of the differences I know of is that the big city (the specific one that I will work for) does not care as much about customer service. Not answering your phone is the norm. Where as the small cities you had to respond to people within 24 hours and had to drop whatever you were doing to meet with them for some trivial bullshit that could have been resolved through e-mail.

  9. #9
    Cyburbian
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    Quote Originally posted by rickster View post
    I currently work at a small city and a small city that pretends its a big city. I will start working at a big city in a couple weeks.

    One of the differences I know of is that the big city (the specific one that I will work for) does not care as much about customer service. Not answering your phone is the norm. Where as the small cities you had to respond to people within 24 hours and had to drop whatever you were doing to meet with them for some trivial bullshit that could have been resolved through e-mail.
    Ahahaha! This!! So true. But then again, larger agencies have more staff to do customer service (but also a larger constituency so...).

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