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Urban planning: can someone give me the REAL deal?

Bill Willis

Member
Messages
2
Points
0
As a financial services professional(read: boring) in his early thirties, who is considering a career change to urban planning, I have found a lot of the dialogue in this site to be less than appealing to the urban planning profession. As someone who is fascinated by cities, growth of metro areas, demographic changes, and what and how our cities develop themselves, I seem to be getting the impression--rightly or wrongly--that I can expect to enter a profession where I will be sitting in a dull office, making little pay, working with not-so fun folks who work 70 hours a week. Additionally, it seems you planners continually are under-appreciated, frustrated with powers beyond your control, and used as whipping posts from time to time by the public and/or greater political powers. (Yes, I just read the "Planning Peeves" section). If there is something I could keep from the financial profession, it's the sometimes cushy pay and benefits, the perks, the ability to have a life outside work, the occasional power and glamour, and, I guess, the superficial stuff. Unfortunately, I find the work so dry and uninspiring, I feel a change to your profession just might add some fulfillment and intellectual stimulation. So, do I trade in the cushy, yet unfulfilling life for something that might make my mind actually work? Enlighten me!
 

Zoning Goddess

Cyburbian
Messages
13,853
Points
38
I have rarely worked more than 40 hours (infrequently 45 when I have a night meeting or two)a week. In fact, right now my work day is 7.5 hours, which is not uncommon anymore. I do have a life outside of work, and I enjoy it.

I think the private firms, which offer much more financially, will expect more hours. I haven't ever worked for a private firm, but I hear the war stories.

I enjoy my job. It is rewarding to me. Everyone has their complaints, in any position they occupy. This site is a sounding board for those who sometimes have no one else to complain to. Planners are underappreciated, but who doesn't think they are underappreciated to some extent?

I don't make money hand over fist, but I make enough to enjoy my free time. I don't think anyone truly involved with citizen-based planning will say their job is "dry and uninspiring". In fact, most of the time it can be compared to a soap opera, around here anyway.
 

kbm

Member
Messages
15
Points
1
Have to agree with FLPlanner. Planners with consulting firms often log crazy hours (though for better pay). But I must say, I love working for local government. Sure, the occasional cranky residents will yell, and the occasional elected official will dither, but I think ultimately, planning can be a very fulfilling profession.

Granted, I eventually could have made alot more money in consulting, but now I work for an employer that respects my free time and my family obligations, and the state retirement system beats a matching 401K program any day. And when I drive home in the evening, I can see the results of what I do.
 
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I work for a private not-for-profit business improvement district...my pay was a little lower than I hoped when I first started, but the work and level of responsibility and freedom was great.

Four years later my pay has caught up (in relative terms) and I still love my job. I do put in long hours, and it can be incredibly frustrating, but what fun!

A word of caution - I do not spend my days reviewing suburban site plans and zoning. I'm helping to re-write a downtown strategic plan, work on housing, business, and transportation development, have set up and analyzed a gazillion surveys, write grants, etc. My work is varied and changes from day to day. Planning in the urban environment is so much fun. I'm not sure I would feel the same way working in the suburbs.

Planning offers a nice mix of technical work and creativity. Good Luck!
 

Plannerific

Member
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9
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FLPlanner-You must work for the government. Bill, if you get into the planning field and want shorter hours with less pay, then the government sector is for you. But if you want the "money" you have to work for a private consulting firm. I work for a private firm and I do work crazy hours and for very small communities that usually count on grant money to get these planning projects done for their community. The work is fulfilling, the commute and hours are not. If you are willing to give up your life, then by all means go into the private world. But if I were you, get the education and go for the public world, you would probably start at a decent salary because of your background. At this point, I am looking for a public job because I love what I do, but I will not make it my life. You will be able to get some of the glamour you are looking for if you are in a powerful political arena. Planners do get involved in very charged issues. Our firm is frequently on the news and newspapers regarding the work we do. Sometimes it's good press, other times it's pretty bad. A big decision is do you want to remain in one community and work for them or do you want to work for a private firm where you work with several communities, but you don't have a chance to see your work be implemented. It all depends on what is important to you in the job. I would say don't take the planning peeves seriously, this is one of the only places I have found that I can "complain" with other planners how awful the world is and get some sympathy. The choice is yours and I wish you all the luck in the world. Planning does offer unique working situations and it is never dull!!
 

Zoning Goddess

Cyburbian
Messages
13,853
Points
38
Happy North Coast Planner - I would rather work at WalMart than review suburban site plans and zoning (no offense to any WalMart workers).

In my opinion, that is not really a planning task, as planning looks at how to improve our future community, and attempts to build a sense of place. Subdivision review is more checking the boxes to ensure all regulations are met.

OK, no offense to any current planners either. It's just not my bag.

And yes, I do work for a local government.
 
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Messages
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Bill, I think it's admirable and slightly bizarre that you would actually consider leaving your, pretty cushy ($$$) yet "boring" job to become a planner. As the other postings indicate, most of us use these forums as a way of blowing off steam so you really shouldn't be turned off by the negativity.

If you decide to work in the public sector (most people believe that this is where you really "pay your dues") be prepared to deal with the absolutely deplorable pay (at least in my city), stifling politics (especially in my city), and the occasional lack of respect from everyone including the Commission, elected officials, obstinate developers,and the general public. Despite all of this, it really is a rewarding job. (nervous smile) And stay FAR away from current planning. It's kind of cool the first couple of months, then it becomes a terrible bore. LOL
 

EZP

Member
Messages
3
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0
I am a current planner and I don't agree with Planderella!

I've been a doing current planning for over 8 years and I still like my job (especially now that I don't work in Las Cruces - stay FAR away from there!) I get to see some immediate results of my work such as pedestrian paths that wouldn't otherwise exist, better street patterns, better lot layouts and these are only subdivision issues. The stuff in the local news is more often the current planning issues that have been decided the night before at a public hearing. Current planning allows me to more directly infuence the form of development taking place in my community.

I don't find it a terrible bore at all.

In addition, I get paid fairly well, I don't work much over 40 hours a week, I work with a great bunch of people and the yelling developers, dithering politicians and 'professional citizens' are quite amusing sometimes.

I want to know where there exists a long range plan/land development code that allows subdivision review to be boiled down to a task of box checking like FL Planner has experienced. Are the Codes there really that good? Are zone changes and special use permits just box checking too?
 

Zoning Goddess

Cyburbian
Messages
13,853
Points
38
I have to disagree with Planderella (are you in Lousiana?).

Planning here in FL pays pretty well for public sector. Of course, that's all relative. I doubt I'm making anthing near what a financial services career gets.

And, although our politicians can rub one the wrong way occassionally, most of the state is so pro growth-manamement it's not a big problem. My job is actually rather plesant.

EZP - We don't receive any requests for special use permits. We do offer variances, but highly discourage them, and attempt to find an alternate solution. Our philosophy is that if you are granting variances hand over fist, then there is something wrong with your CODE, and it should be amended. Fortunately, our CODE is very detailed and consistent with our COMP PLAN, so there isn't much conflict.
 

Zoning Goddess

Cyburbian
Messages
13,853
Points
38
Current planning is where the action is! The controversy, the challenges, the chance to be on T.V.all the time!

All the long-range planners I've worked with look out a window and meditate on the future all day, and wouldn't know a Code from a hole in the ground! (On the other hand, they do have plenty of time to go shopping and take 2-hour lunches while being handsomely paid by our local government...)
 
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Since I am probably the "whipping post" who previously invited a yuppie-something attacking so-called baby boomers to take my job, I guess I'd better respond to both Bill Willis and "Another FL Planner". I got into planning because I grew up in Pittsburgh, got a chance to see both the good and bad sides of planning, and figured out creative ways to solve problems. That still drives me, and it's why I'm still here. Despite the level of hostility I sometimes have to accept from local officials who want to demonstrate to their constituents that they are protecting them from overcrowded schools by screaming at a city planner recommending redevelopment of older areas where schools are so under-subscribed that they are being shut down, I believe planning is a worthwhile effort.

I have nothing against site plan review (although I have no desire to be on the same planet as a TV or print media reporter anymore), but I honestly consider "current planning" to be more design oriented. My interest is on the policy side -- helping a community decide what it wants to be when it grows up. So, "Another FL Planner", with all the state required planning, and the strong desires of locals to have neighborhood and small area plans guide their growth/redevelopment, I don't have much time to go shopping, don't know what lunch is, probably wouldn't recognize a window if someone created one in my cubicle, and am not paid at all for the hours of overtime and weekend community meetings I attend to help residents identify the things they really want to preserve or change in their rapidly evolving communities. And -- when I'm done writing the plan amendments -- I WRITE THE ZONING CODE THAT IMPLEMENTS THE PLAN. I work with current planners, design professionals and lawyers while doing it, to make sure it all fits together, but, yes, I do know a code from a hole in the ground, sweetie pie. I guess it isn't enough that elected officials get away with blaming us for all the worlds ills in public -- while smiling and thanking us for finishing a project so quickly behind the scenes. The members of this profession have to turn on each other, too. Be forwarned, Bill Willis, that this is part of what awaits you if you decide this is your future path.
 

Lee Nellis

Cyburbian
Messages
1,371
Points
28
Bill: I have not chipped in here because I am a rural planner. Its the dynamics of small towns and working landscapes that excite me. But if you are still reading this, you may have concluded that planners are whiny. Its hard not to be sometimes. We interact with a lot of folks who do not really want to interact with us, perceive us as obstacles. But this a good profession for anyone who likes a life of variety and has a fascination with the dynamics of communities. The compensation isn't always great, though I have no complaint about my salary or benefits. "Extra" hours do come with many planning positions. But I've been involved in other businesses and they ALL involved long hours. Any one who thinks planners work long hours should give ranching or outfitting a try.

If you really want to pursue your interest don't let all this fussing dismay you. I think all of us complain from time to time, regardless of the job, but if you are willing to pay some dues, and have the focus to work toward your preferred niche (and positive folks to work with), you can have fun being a planner. I do.
 
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Bill, In case you are still with us, I wanted to give you a more complete picture of what a "comprehensive" planner (i.e. 'long range') can become involved with, since it is a lot more than simply dealing with land use issues. In my career, I've had the opportunity to work with other City departments to shape the Capital Budget that will enable the City to buy the parks, build the water lines, etc, that both new neighborhoods and struggling older neighborhoods need. (Someone with your background might be worth his weight in gold to a local government looking for a planner to handle this function). Also, I've helped counties that were put under orders by EPA to develop plans to clean up surface waters polluted by old treatment plants or malfunctioning septic systems. Due to those plans, the communities became eligible for federal dollars to build new treatment plants, and there are now fewer people drinking contaminated water. And I've also worked with transportation and transit planners, and groups of folks who were disabled, to write plans for specialized, accessible transportation. The main point: the profession of planning covers a wide range of areas, so you have an opportunity to improve a lot of different areas. If that sounds like something you'd like to try, don't let the attacking politicians, interest groups or "who is the best planner" groups deter you. Go for it.
 

Bill Willis

Member
Messages
2
Points
0
Thanks everyone for their comments! Although many didn't respond specifically to some of my over-pessimistic fears, they did reassure me somewhat about the profession.

But...to take it a small step further, it seems to me(being a novice) that planners' influence in determining a city's and community's development seems to have lessened throughout the years. It almost appears as if planners are these intellectual folks who give their advice on certain developments(zoning, congestion, transportation and environmental effects, etc), but the real thrust and influence of a city's development comes from the private sector: generally what buildings get built, how they get built, what they look like, and where they get built. For example, the City of Philadelphia came out years ago with a "master" city plan which foresaw where the future business district would expand and new transportation centers, etc, but do people really follow these "guides". Do developers care? It almost appears that rather than planners being the guides and leaders of a city's development, they take a backseat and just make sure things adhere to regulations.(???) Any comments?
 

jmf

Cyburbian
Messages
594
Points
17
Your to old man. Use the money to travel or for other hobbies. There are thousands of young, eager and university trained people languishing in dead end jobs just waiting to get into this profession. I must say the wait can be worth it. The 10% of my job when I actually PLAN makes up for the other 90% when I do zoning clerk level stuff (if you think financial planning is boring...)

Good luck!
 

Cardinal

Cyburbian
Messages
10,079
Points
34
Cities can have a great influence on the location and character of development, if they choose to. (Though perhaps this is more true in smaller communities.)Planning and zoning are one method of control, provision of utilities is another, and then there is economic development. I am fortunate to work in a community where economic development has included real estate development - over a square mile of land (mostly office/industrial) in a city not much more than ten square miles in size. We plan, prepare the land, market it and let the private sector develop it. But at the same time, we place additional requirements, covenants, etc. on it that exceed the zoning. By creating a higher standard, even the projects in which we are not involved need to set the bar a little higher. The planning and economic development functions in this city have a lot of influence.
 

Zoning Goddess

Cyburbian
Messages
13,853
Points
38
A Plan is only as good as those enforcing it. Unfortunately, there are too many planners out there afraid to stand up to the big guys.
 

Zoning Goddess

Cyburbian
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13,853
Points
38
Remember that when we talk about planning, we aren't just talking about a land use map. We are also talking about the capital improvements (sewer and water lines, treatment plants, wellfields, drainage and roads) that are usually too much of an expense for developers to bear alone. The location of, and timing of, these facilities are critical in opening an area for development -- or making the area wait. The City of Boca Raton went all the way to the Supreme Court to defend its right to deny a development in an area where there were no water and sewer lines, and the City's comprehensive plan programmed those improvements 5 years in the future. The City won. Of course, the other side to this picture is the fact that a plan is only as good as the information that went into it. Plans have to be based on real world conditions. I've told elected officials repeatedly that, just because you put a color on a map does not automatically mean you will get that land use, if the market won't support it AND there are no incentives (such as installation of sewer lines by the local government, or increased densities, etc) in place to encourage what the community wants. Planning in this country is not regulatory; it is a policy effort. Good plans with good land development regulations, redevelopment plans and capital budgets behind them do result in good places to live and work. Cookie cutter plans based on someone else's data, or someone's pipe dream, result in hodgepodge development, or constant plan amendments. It is a constant shock to planners from Europe that this country's planners are not the law. But we have to play the hand we're dealt, and I know we can make a difference. I've seen it done.
 

geobandito

Cyburbian
Messages
509
Points
16
I work for a planning consulting firm and my hours aren't crazy. Most overtime is voluntary and we get paid at our hourly rate for it. I get every other Friday off in the summer too. And the pay is very good. So, it's not all bad.
 

mugbub

BANNED
Messages
67
Points
4
Do not change careers into this ugly, stupid profession. The pay is horribly low (you'll never break $40k a year) The people you work with are morons, the public is so damn ignornant, and if you ain't got a Masters degree in planning nobody will hire your ass anyway.

Believe me friend, you'll have a much more rewarding life staying where you're at. Why on Earth would you want to leave a finance related career? Are you insane? Your job is for money only (read the book "Live Rich") pursue your pathetic interests outside of work- atleast you can afford them! I've been stuck in this god-awful profession too long. STAY THE HELL OUT!
 

mike gurnee

Cyburbian
Messages
3,066
Points
30
A person obtained the holy grail MBA. Was hired as financial officer for our community development program. Later promoted to division manager. Salary stayed in the 40s. If the kids had a ball game, the time off was available. Yes, politics and special interests abounded, but we made a difference. And a big part of our successes were due to this person's business and finance background.

Bill, are you still with us? Follow your passion.
 

kbm

Member
Messages
15
Points
1
The more I read on these pages, the luckier I feel. I'm a mid level planner in a small, local government planning department with a supportive director and mostly supportive planning commission. I think I'm adequately compensated, I get loads of comp time for all the the night meetings that I am required to attend, my health insurance rocks and I have no worries about my retirement.

I think what you will find, Bill, is that there are alot of places where being a planner is fun and challanging, and alot of places (such as wherever I Hate Planning is from) that don't value planning or its practitioners. I would suggest contacting the planning department of a university in your region of the country and talking to them about your thoughts to get their perspective.

Good luck.
 

Zoning Goddess

Cyburbian
Messages
13,853
Points
38
ditto for the KBM posting.

I think it makes all the diference in this profession when you have a staff that supports each other, especially the director.
 

BKM

Cyburbian
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6,464
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29
A good boss definitely helps. A cooperating, comfortable work environment also helps.

As to the argument that the only thing that matters in your job is money - well I feel sorry for I Hate Planning. Too many of the corporate jobs require ungodly hours, feature self-serving, back-stabbing careerist corporate drones, and, unless you can sell your soul for the corporate ideology, no mental reward beyond "I did my job and got a lot of stock options."

Is Planning frustrating? Yes. Most of us are/were idealists, and the real world often doesn't work that way.

Would I trade places with my sister, who earns twice what I do (not that I have any room to complain, I am very happy with my pay and benefits) but spends her time overseeing computer data bases for anal retentive marketing directors and other scum of the earth? Nah!
 

mugbub

BANNED
Messages
67
Points
4
BK- I'm so sick of private sector bashing. I'm work with a private consultant, and yes, I do work more than 40 hours a week while getting a hell of better paycheck than you.

I know too many planners that suck the tit of government all their lives not knowing how to get stuff done in the real world. "Oh, our budget was approved- now we can sit on our asses 'till next year" is the attitude I hear often.

So your sister has an anal boss- I'd be willing to bet she gets more work done in one day than a typical government planner gets done in one week. Quit this bs that the private sector is so bad. There's people who play on this site all day instead of doing work.
 

BKM

Cyburbian
Messages
6,464
Points
29
My real point was not to bash private sector consultants. Although, to be blunt, too many of the products presented by private sector planning consultants for projects that I have managed don't show any more a sense of the real world than us comfortable government sector planners. And, when I rotate to current planning in a couple of years, I will work more than 40 hours anyway.

I was simply pointing out the horror stories I constantly hear from her and my techie brother. And, she constantly wonders about the value of her work beyond the (lucrative) paycheck. I wasn't bashing her work, I just don't think it would be that interesting for ME. The bottom line: hates planning is wrong in assuming that the private sector is some nirvanna.

Enough. I do have things to do, as worthless as you consultants think they are.
 
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I have a simple request that may well go a long way to improving the impression that people have of planners:

Please craft your messages with care and consideration. There is no reason to be offensive to get your point across. Planners are (supposedly) trained in effective communication, mediation and negotiation techniques, although one would not know it from reading these postings.
 
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Forgive me for sounding like an idiot but what exactly is meant by "current" planning. Besides sounding a bit oxymoronic, I have to confess that I have never hear anyone in my quite frankly broad professional circle refer to themselves as a "current planner." Definition please?
 

kbm

Member
Messages
15
Points
1
I believe that a "Current Planner" is involved in such matters as development review, site compliance, zoning and the such. I think current planning is more involved with applying and enforcing the plans (ordinances) as opposed to crafting the plans. Did that make sense?
 
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