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Working Am I just a snowflake? Or is there a serious problem with the planning profession?

Sof

Member
Messages
2
Points
0
Hello - I am looking for any kind soul that has some time to talk about the planning profession. I have been practicing for over five years and I am considering a career change, but as a last ditch effort I would like a planner to talk to in case I have any hope of finding something that actually feels aligned with me for once. Any help would be so greatly appreciated and let me know if I can return the kindness in any way.

I've worked in a planning capacity for a university, city department, county health department, two private firms and none of them are jobs I liked. I have lived in small cities, and currently in a major city. I made the mental adjustments necessary to like the jobs, especially if I believed in the cause, and then I wake up and that willingness to perform in drudgery wears off. I will admit that I am the planning student trope - idealistic, thinking I'll help change the world (or at least city) because it is so desperately needed. The planning profession feels castrated and humiliated, especially in the public sector. Even in private firms, I find myself working my ass off to work on projects that pays the firm's bills but has no higher purpose, or worse (to an idealist like me), leads to a development against my values. I'm not looking for a golden job, but I would like to feel like I'm making a positive impact every once in a while. Even 60% of the time would be amazing...

Does anyone have any career advice for people with a urban planning background - for people like me?

Also, has anyone had experiences in planning jobs they love/loved? Could you tell me more about that and what you liked?
 

Faust_Motel

Cyburbian
Messages
703
Points
30
It's taken me nearly 20 years of public service, but I've finally gotten myself into a position to call the shots and get some serious sprawl repair done. I'm working on getting explicit actions related to equity into our next comprehensive plan. I'm still exhausted and jaded, but finally getting somewhere.

Also, I couldn't imagine having done anything else with my working life so far. I definitely couldn't go do something I didn't think created some kind of public or natural value. If you've got bills to pay and kids to feed, planning's a pretty good gig to do that while doing some good.

But yeah, sometimes I had to go mark out the wetland boundary right before some developer filled it, or worked my butt off to defend a staff recommendation or approval for a project that met the rules but that I personally hated.
 

OfficialPlanner

Cyburbian
Messages
942
Points
24
It's more frequent than not that recent planning grads get disillusioned after the first few years of working as some planning schools present a romanticized version of urban planning that's very different from the real world. One of the best classes I took in grad school was lead by an adjunct professor that was also the planning director for a city-county. (Come to think of it, I don't know how she had the time to do both roles!) The curriculum was heavily focused on practice, and it helped manage my expectations being a municipal planner along with the political influences and how to deal with them.

The job where I felt most empowered to implement my ideas and make a change was with state government. I was in charge of a grant program, which allowed widespread flexibility in developing the rules and goals of the program as long as they were consistent with the overall purposes of the grant. Absolutely loved the job! Through the partnership with local governments, the grant was recognized as a success. There were several fantastic projects located throughout the state. The one big negative was the pay, which was ridiculously low given the level of responsibility.

The least rewarding job was working for a private consultant. It was all about the billable hours at the end of the day. The company prided itself with doing good work and we had an okay relationship with difficult clients, but I felt like a drone at times. There was no love or connection to the community we were working. We would land in the middle of the project once the scope of work was defined and leaving before we get to see the real results. No policy development, which is my passion. It wasn't right for me, but it was good experience to see how things worked in the dark side (private sector).
 

Hink

OH....IO
Staff member
Moderator
Messages
16,023
Points
55
I think in the current planning world (especially local government) you have to have thick skin and fight for whatever you can get. As you work your way up the ranks it becomes easier, but each step takes time, and likely a bit of your soul.

I hate the term snowflake. It insinuates because you feel a certain way you are weak, or not good enough. That isn't true. It just means you feel that way. If you can't compartmentalize that you aren't likely to be the change that you think you should be, then planning may not be for you. Go into local government politics, as you likely would be able to change the system from the inside better, from the position of power.

Large cities have more nuanced planning positions, like bike route coordinator, or food security planner, which may be more in line with what I am hearing you say, which is you want a more direct relation between your work and the good that comes from it.

I'm not sure I have a great answer, but I hope that whatever it is you do you keep some semblance of passion. That passion is a good thing, not a bad thing. You just have to find a way to focus it to keep you happy. Good luck!
 

luckless pedestrian

Super Moderator
Staff member
Moderator
Messages
12,639
Points
54
I agree with @Hink - you might like a specific role in a larger city - more young and progressive people are now running for local/county/state offices which will bring a big change in what kinds of services they will want from planning, and I predict it will be for the better - I work in a small city where almost every councilor is younger than I am and my boss is too and I really love the energy from it

Some of it might be the environment you are in - maybe that was a hostile place you were in

it sounds like you have had a lot of different jobs in a short amount of time - do you think you could have bailed before really seeing what it's about?

You can do a lot of allied things with your role - some city's have neighborhood planners, homelessness coordinators, access to local food coordinators, etc.

private non-profits in your areas of interest might also be a good move

but I would recommend you find a progressive city with a position that is doing the kind of work you believe in and give it a few years in that position - don't leave at the first sign of boredom or drudgery - every day can't be exciting and some days, reviewing plans sitting at a big table with a cup of coffee can be relaxing and a necessary break from trying to save the world
 

Lowland

Cyburbian
Messages
135
Points
6
I agree with the sentiments already expressed here. I was in the very same position a few years back, working for a pretty conservative small local government and feeling burned out after my director left and I was holding the torch. As a pretty progressive person, I felt like I couldn't enact any lasting or practical change and was becoming bureaucratic over tiny junk I didn't even really care about. I left planning and tried a few other jobs, but ended up back at that same unit of government when they asked me to come back and offered a better situation.

This second time around, I've definitely tempered my expectations. The grass was not greener at those other jobs, and this is a solid and mostly stable career. I know change will come at a glacial pace in this municipality, and the changes I can make now I will have to shoehorn in. The organization will never match my politics, so I don't live where I work and focus on efforts outside of my career. I view it more as a fair paying 8-5. It can be very frustrating at times, especially when I know a plan can do much better or the community resists sound planning practice. But it's a career right now, in an uncertain time. I hope one day in the future to move on to a role I find more fitting in a larger city or to another part of the country.

So for advice, I'd say if you can stand the job and it pays fair, it may be worth putting in your 8-5 and implementing what good you can during that time. But then clock out, put the work phone on silent, and focus on your passions outside of work. That could be politics, activism, non-profits, hobbies, etc. If you can't stand the job, I think the others in this thread have touched on some great planning career alternatives that could be available in larger cities or organizations.
 

DVD

Cyburbian
Messages
15,096
Points
52
General planning practice is a rough career for idealistic people. The politics of improving the world kind of wear on you. I can agree with Hink on specialty positions that might meet your interest. I'm in a big city and we have a bike coordinator that harasses us non stop to get more bike parking. We have a transit coordinator who gets on us about ADA routes. The historic planners have a function, but I think it's more of a win some lose some kind of job. You might consider working for a housing non profit or a land trust. I find those to be the best for actually helping people and going home with a decent feeling.

Other thoughts outside of planning would lead to policy work. You would have to find one of the think tanks like whatever named institute or Western Planners (is there an Eastern Planners)?
 

Sof

Member
Messages
2
Points
0
General planning practice is a rough career for idealistic people. The politics of improving the world kind of wear on you. I can agree with Hink on specialty positions that might meet your interest. I'm in a big city and we have a bike coordinator that harasses us non stop to get more bike parking. We have a transit coordinator who gets on us about ADA routes. The historic planners have a function, but I think it's more of a win some lose some kind of job. You might consider working for a housing non profit or a land trust. I find those to be the best for actually helping people and going home with a decent feeling.

Other thoughts outside of planning would lead to policy work. You would have to find one of the think tanks like whatever named institute or Western Planners (is there an Eastern Planners)?

Thanks for the very observant reply. The more specific route does appeal to me, and I have a public health background as well. Your suggestion about the housing non-profit is very interesting since I have been working on housing related work for a while, but just not in the right context. I will be looking into this kind of job now - thanks again!

It's taken me nearly 20 years of public service, but I've finally gotten myself into a position to call the shots and get some serious sprawl repair done. I'm working on getting explicit actions related to equity into our next comprehensive plan. I'm still exhausted and jaded, but finally getting somewhere.

Also, I couldn't imagine having done anything else with my working life so far. I definitely couldn't go do something I didn't think created some kind of public or natural value. If you've got bills to pay and kids to feed, planning's a pretty good gig to do that while doing some good.

But yeah, sometimes I had to go mark out the wetland boundary right before some developer filled it, or worked my butt off to defend a staff recommendation or approval for a project that met the rules but that I personally hated.
Thank you for the reality check. It is nice to hear your story about your progression up the ladder.

It's more frequent than not that recent planning grads get disillusioned after the first few years of working as some planning schools present a romanticized version of urban planning that's very different from the real world. One of the best classes I took in grad school was lead by an adjunct professor that was also the planning director for a city-county. (Come to think of it, I don't know how she had the time to do both roles!) The curriculum was heavily focused on practice, and it helped manage my expectations being a municipal planner along with the political influences and how to deal with them.

The job where I felt most empowered to implement my ideas and make a change was with state government. I was in charge of a grant program, which allowed widespread flexibility in developing the rules and goals of the program as long as they were consistent with the overall purposes of the grant. Absolutely loved the job! Through the partnership with local governments, the grant was recognized as a success. There were several fantastic projects located throughout the state. The one big negative was the pay, which was ridiculously low given the level of responsibility.

The least rewarding job was working for a private consultant. It was all about the billable hours at the end of the day. The company prided itself with doing good work and we had an okay relationship with difficult clients, but I felt like a drone at times. There was no love or connection to the community we were working. We would land in the middle of the project once the scope of work was defined and leaving before we get to see the real results. No policy development, which is my passion. It wasn't right for me, but it was good experience to see how things worked in the dark side (private sector).
Thank you for the thorough and thoughtful response. I have read this about state government as well, which puts it on my radar now. Feeling much better and I am starting to equip myself with less expectations.

I think in the current planning world (especially local government) you have to have thick skin and fight for whatever you can get. As you work your way up the ranks it becomes easier, but each step takes time, and likely a bit of your soul.

I hate the term snowflake. It insinuates because you feel a certain way you are weak, or not good enough. That isn't true. It just means you feel that way. If you can't compartmentalize that you aren't likely to be the change that you think you should be, then planning may not be for you. Go into local government politics, as you likely would be able to change the system from the inside better, from the position of power.

Large cities have more nuanced planning positions, like bike route coordinator, or food security planner, which may be more in line with what I am hearing you say, which is you want a more direct relation between your work and the good that comes from it.

I'm not sure I have a great answer, but I hope that whatever it is you do you keep some semblance of passion. That passion is a good thing, not a bad thing. You just have to find a way to focus it to keep you happy. Good luck!
Yes, you're right! About the thick skin, the use of snowflake, everything. The nuanced positions are definitely more for me, and I had a vision of incorporating public health into planning. When I got a job that did that, I wasn't given enough power to be effective and I just have to consider that there may be other possibilities now that I live in a larger city.

I agree with @Hink - you might like a specific role in a larger city - more young and progressive people are now running for local/county/state offices which will bring a big change in what kinds of services they will want from planning, and I predict it will be for the better - I work in a small city where almost every councilor is younger than I am and my boss is too and I really love the energy from it

Some of it might be the environment you are in - maybe that was a hostile place you were in

it sounds like you have had a lot of different jobs in a short amount of time - do you think you could have bailed before really seeing what it's about?

You can do a lot of allied things with your role - some city's have neighborhood planners, homelessness coordinators, access to local food coordinators, etc.

private non-profits in your areas of interest might also be a good move

but I would recommend you find a progressive city with a position that is doing the kind of work you believe in and give it a few years in that position - don't leave at the first sign of boredom or drudgery - every day can't be exciting and some days, reviewing plans sitting at a big table with a cup of coffee can be relaxing and a necessary break from trying to save the world
Thanks for the reply! Fair points all around. I have had my share of hostile environments, and me moving was mostly related to the fact I was moving away from towns and cities that were too small. Now that I live in Vancouver, I am so happy and never want to leave. I'm ready for something to stick, which is probably why I am having this crisis right now.

I agree with the sentiments already expressed here. I was in the very same position a few years back, working for a pretty conservative small local government and feeling burned out after my director left and I was holding the torch. As a pretty progressive person, I felt like I couldn't enact any lasting or practical change and was becoming bureaucratic over tiny junk I didn't even really care about. I left planning and tried a few other jobs, but ended up back at that same unit of government when they asked me to come back and offered a better situation.

This second time around, I've definitely tempered my expectations. The grass was not greener at those other jobs, and this is a solid and mostly stable career. I know change will come at a glacial pace in this municipality, and the changes I can make now I will have to shoehorn in. The organization will never match my politics, so I don't live where I work and focus on efforts outside of my career. I view it more as a fair paying 8-5. It can be very frustrating at times, especially when I know a plan can do much better or the community resists sound planning practice. But it's a career right now, in an uncertain time. I hope one day in the future to move on to a role I find more fitting in a larger city or to another part of the country.

So for advice, I'd say if you can stand the job and it pays fair, it may be worth putting in your 8-5 and implementing what good you can during that time. But then clock out, put the work phone on silent, and focus on your passions outside of work. That could be politics, activism, non-profits, hobbies, etc. If you can't stand the job, I think the others in this thread have touched on some great planning career alternatives that could be available in larger cities or organizations.
Thank you! I appreciate you relating your own experience. You make some good points that I will have to continue tot think about.
 

Clange000

Member
Messages
9
Points
0
I have been in the planning profession for about 8 years now, first for a rural county and now for a mid-size city of 100,000. Thankfully when I got my first job I was really able to get into GIS that helped keep me motivated. I was promoted several times which continued to give me more responsibly and additional motivation. However, I was extremely frustrated how my planning school portrayed the planning profession to us during our time in the program and how ill equipped I felt in the real world. I even reached out to the Program Director and stated my frustration and asked to be part of a committee to help provide feedback for the school (I didn't hear back...).

It can be really hard to keep motivating yourself subdivision after short subdivision, etc. but I know a time is coming when I will have slightly more influence on decisions. Ultimately, I know my job is to do government well. To improve processes where I can and serve the public equitably. I gained more appreciation for this approach getting my Masters in Public Administration. Its not easy, I have days where I grow weary of the profession but I continue learning about new ways to approach situations and problems pocketing the good ideas for later.
 

nrschmid

Cyburbian
Messages
2,873
Points
21
Been in planning for 15 years now, but I've wanted to leave for almost a decade, largely to make a lot more money.

Fortunately, I'm applying for part-time MBAs next year and looking to switch into real-estate development and business analytics. I'm truly excited about making the career change and that missing energy/passion has come back in a new form. It seems like the natural progression for me from my background in land development.
 

SlaveToTheGrind

Cyburbian
Messages
1,488
Points
27
Much of it has to do with your working environment and your co-workers. Find the right match for you and going to the office (home or otherwise) does not feel like a chore. My previous employment was that where it was hard to leave. Love the people I now work around but the "city" environment is vastly different.
 

RandomPlanner

Cyburbian
Messages
1,770
Points
26
It's more frequent than not that recent planning grads get disillusioned after the first few years of working as some planning schools present a romanticized version of urban planning that's very different from the real world. One of the best classes I took in grad school was lead by an adjunct professor that was also the planning director for a city-county. (Come to think of it, I don't know how she had the time to do both roles!) The curriculum was heavily focused on practice, and it helped manage my expectations being a municipal planner along with the political influences and how to deal with them....
While working as a Planner for a County government years ago, I took a grad class taught by a land use attorney. Since I was in the field, she allowed me to take over the class on several occasions with real world PB or ZBA applications so we could debate. Those classes were the ones with the most participation and I personally enjoyed them as I am a thinker who likes to debate aloud.


I would also add that when you have downtime in your career is a good time to consider more education. It was during that hum-drum of County Planning that I explored tangential careers at the local college like Landscape Architecture, Environmental Science, and Historic Preservation. I like to think I'm an idealist who wants to change the world but, at some point, I also needed to appreciate that the cup of coffee over the drafting table that @luckless pedestrian referred to is a good thing too.

If Cobra Kai has taught us anything, it's that it's all about balance, right? ;)
 

MacheteJames

Cyburbian
Messages
984
Points
22
Been in planning for 15 years now, but I've wanted to leave for almost a decade, largely to make a lot more money.

Fortunately, I'm applying for part-time MBAs next year and looking to switch into real-estate development and business analytics. I'm truly excited about making the career change and that missing energy/passion has come back in a new form. It seems like the natural progression for me from my background in land development.
Welcome back nrschmid. Old school Cyburbia folks showing up in this thread, I love it, and always appreciate these occasional threads where we question what the hell we're doing in this field.

Planning, for me, is a way to both provide for myself and my family while providing for a relative degree of work-life balance and being able to nerd out about urbanism, growth, and the future of cities with fellow practitioners. I see it as a form of applied sociology, my undergrad major. If you do this long enough (15 years for me, like nrschmid), you will become a pragmatist. Every successful long-tenured public sector planner that I've ever known is. Each time one of your closely-held ideals brushes up against the cold realities of a councilmember who doesn't see the value of planning, or of a self-interested abutter, or fly-by-night developer who wants his approvals yesterday, year on year, those ideals won't necessarily die, but you'll be less precious about them and more measured and sanguine. I don't seek fulfillment of some sort of Great Life Meaning in planning like I did when I was 25 but I do believe that it is honest and valuable work.
 

glutton

Cyburbian
Messages
483
Points
12
Thank you for posting this! I'm glad I saw your post. I'm sorry you're going through a tough time figuring out your place in the planning world :(. I can offer some camaraderie - like you, I too have been working for about 5 years and like you, in different sectors and locations (small cities, big cities, consulting, and public sector + internships in random other stuff like non-profits and MPOs). I too have started to become a bit disillusioned and am not entirely sure if I see myself in planning 20 years from now. Not because of anything inherently bad or super bad experiences, but just due to the slow pace, lack of upward growth (as compared to other professions), lack of young people in government, and bureaucracy. And honestly, I'm someone who has multiple interests in life that I'd like to pursue someday. Not sure how or when, but someday after I have kids and that's all settled. For now, I'm starting to value stability and benefits more as I cross the 30 mark and think about kids, but that doesn't mean I too don't get frustrated and question everything about my career thus far.

I recently moved to the PNW as well and finally found a place that I want to stay in for a while! I totally understand (firsthand and in hindsight) what @luckless pedestrian said about bailing too soon. Really sage insight honestly. I had my own personal reasons for and limitations behind all of my moves (marriage, culture, and gender norms do affect careers a lot, you can't always do whatever you want). But I do now finally understand that planning is truly a long game and thus, so are planning careers. It's not like tech or corporate or engineering or most other fields where you can just switch every 2 years, and I learned pretty late (honestly still learning!) not to compare myself to people in other fields. Government (especially local government) is its own world.

Since we are at similar career stages, I'd love to chat one on one sometime - feel free to DM me!
 
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