By Dom Nozzi
Late in my career as a town planner for Gainesville FL, I received a very kind note from a student seeking advice in what studies to pursue in college.
I was immensely flattered.
When I hear comments such as his, it truly makes my writing efforts seem so much more rewarding and gratifying. I was very pleased to hear that my thoughts about SUBurban sprawl (“urban” sprawl is a misnomer) had been so influential to him.
He complimented me and asked for career guidance. He asked about my academic background, and what path he could take so that he could help make the world a better place as a town planner.
Below is what I told him…
My academic background is that I originally obtained a bachelor’s degree in environmental science, but realized that I have strong opinions and a desire to help elected officials make better decisions about how to improve the quality of life. Working with test tubes in a lab did not seem like a very effective way to achieve that. Because I’ve always read a lot and have a bit of knowledge in a lot of topics, I came to decide that town planning will be a satisfying way for me to best use my skills and interests (since the profession tends to be relatively “generalist” rather than “specialist”).
After graduate school and a master’s degree in urban planning, I was hired by Gainesville FL to be a planner. I eventually became a long-range senior planner and retired from that job in 2007 after 20 years in that job. Since then, I’ve been semi-retired as an independent town planning/transportation consultant. I write, give speeches, and read about urban design. I love doing each of those three things. (ironically, while I initially loved being a town planner early in my career, I eventually despised the job because I came to realize that the “smart growth,” new urbanist principles that I love and strongly advocate are strongly opposed by almost all local governments and their professional staff – which meant that my job made me “part of the problem.” I was even banned from giving speeches by the city manager of the town I worked for.)
My planning job consisted of my writing land development regulations, long-range town plans, preparing professional recommendations to my city about the benefits and costs of a proposal to rezone land in the city (by a property owner), making presentations to the elected and appointed officials, and preparing planning reports. Mostly, the work I was asked to do focused on making cars happy (telling developers they MUST provide a huge amount of parking) and working on ways to reduce the negative impacts of cars on neighborhoods (mostly by requiring walls and berms and huge, unwalkable building setbacks).
Based on my experience, I would strongly recommend that your studies emphasize design rather than my academic emphasis of policy. And the design I would recommend you concentrate on is traditional, new urbanist town planning principles – an emphasis that strives to return to the timeless tradition of designing for people, not cars. I believe there are websites such as cnu.com where you can find listings of schools throughout the world which specialize in traditional, new urbanist design. The University of Miami School of Architecture is an outstanding example of such a school in the US, as is the University of Notre Dame. I would also recommend books to you, as listed on my walkablestreets.com website.
Ultimately, you may find, as I did, that a job in the private sector would be much more pleasant and rewarding than a job working as a planner for a public agency (city, state, county, etc.), as the later tend to be strongly opposed to the planning principles I recommend. In general, that would mean seeking to be hired by a firm using new urbanist principles, such as those listed on my walkablestreets.com website.
You may also find it very helpful to watch presentations found on the internet (YouTube, etc.) by such people as Andres Duany, Jim Kunstler, Michael Ronkin, Ian Lockwood and Victor Dover.
I envy your life situation, as I wish I had gotten the suggestions I mention above when I was starting out my college career. I ended up being mostly self-taught.