By Dom Nozzi
My academic background is one in which 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. This is because the profession tends to be relatively “generalist” rather than “specialist” – a planner, more so than most professions, is expected to be a jack of all trades. And because at least in theory, planners are expected to provide expert, professional advice to help decision makers make decisions.
I was ultimately to learn that this is commonly not the case, particularly in the public sector.
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 the profession. 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 came to despise the job because I eventually realized 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 to perform my job the way my supervisors expected me to do my job made me part of the problem (I was to write and administer development regulations that actually undermine smart growth principles). I was even banned from giving speeches by the Gainesville city manager.
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 undertake largely focused on making cars happy. For example, I was obligated to telling developers they must provide a huge amount of parking. I needed to request that developers install shrubs to benefit the view of the motorist from her car (no matter that the road is too wide and too high speed and too dangerous to walk or bicycle on – “greenery” was seen as the only necessary path to quality of life). I was also required to insist that developers must keep residential densities and commercial intensities inappropriately low (which is necessary to retain “free-flowing car traffic”). I was also tasked with the overriding need to reduce the negative impacts of cars on neighborhoods (mostly by requiring walls, screens, berms and huge, unwalkable building setbacks).
Based on my experience, I would strongly recommend that students interested in promoting quality of life, or sustainable (smart) development seek out an academic emphasize on design, rather than my academic emphasis on policy. And the design I would recommend students 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 Notre Dame. I would also recommend books listed on my walkablestreets.com website.
Ultimately, students and aspiring town planners 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 the public sector, elected officials tend not to have the courage to stand up to enraged, screaming NIMBYs bent on fighting smart growth (or ANY growth, no matter how beneficial). They tend, in other words, not to have the backbone necessary to be leaders. The result is that planners employed by most towns are almost exclusively asked to be reactive. To put out fires. To minimize anger from citizens. Avoid, at all costs, upsetting ANYONE. Just do what you are told, which translates into “covering your ass.” In other words, to do nothing. To design nothing. To be proactive about nothing. To be a boring, milque toast bureaucrat that speaks for 45 minutes but doesn’t say anything beyond unintelligible jargon and bureaucratese – words that provide protection against angry citizens, because no one besides the bureaucrat knows what the words mean. Or because the words are so vague and equivocal that they don’t amount to anything.
In general, a private sector planning job is the place to find work that is meaningful in improving community quality of life. Private sector jobs that are most likely to be rewarding in this sense would mean seeking to be hired by a firm using new urbanist principles, such as those listed on my walkablestreets.com website.
It is the private sector that performs proactive, design-based planning and design today. In the public sector, planners must only react to what developers have proposed. To be single-mindedly focused on ensuring that the development will make cars happy. And to under no circumstances express an opinion about community planning.
Visit my urban design website read more about what I have to say on those topics. You can also schedule me to give a speech in your community about transportation and congestion, land use development and sprawl, and improving quality of life.
Or email me at: dom[AT]walkablestreets.com
My book, The Car is the Enemy of the City (WalkableStreets, 2010), can be purchased here: http://www.lulu.com/product/paperback/the-car-is-the-enemy-of-the-city/10905607
My book, Road to Ruin, can be purchased here:
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