The Death and Life of My Planning Career

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One of the many things that surprised me from my recently concluded and definitely blogged midlife crisis was a re-examination of what I want to do for a living for the rest of my life. You know, when I finally grow up. (Or is that old?)

Since arriving in Chicago fourteen years ago, I have done a mix of communication strategy, media relations, and online communications, both for nonprofits and as an independent consultant, and I have loved that work. But there’s a reason that I do that work here, and that is because the work has so much to do with the core of what I did in New York City as an urban planner.

I studied urban planning at Hunter College in New York, as undergraduate and as a graduate student. The school is considered to be one of the nation’s best for instilling the ability to perform and desire to engage in civic-minded public involvement. I grew up drawing pictures of subways, buses, and airplanes. Spent my young-adult years reading one classic urban planning book after another. Spent every moment I could afford visiting one world city after another–the highlight always being getting to experience their rail transit systems.

But one thing Hunter instilled in me is the understanding that planning is done for people. Planning is not done in a vacuum. We are the whole point. Organizing where we live, work, study, shop, and play, and how we travel among those places, is all about improving the quality of live for people who choose to come together and live among each other in urban regions.

When I was transportation planner and then associate director of the umbrella organization for the New York City Transit Riders Council before I left New York for Chicago, reaching out to communities and representing their preferences and views, their needs and aspirations for being able to access their regions–and thus live their lives–on public transit filled me up every day.

When I arrived in Chicago in 2003, it was a harsh realization that public transit was not yet the same hot-button political issue (the Bilandic blizzard notwithstanding) that it was in NYC. Popular and political respect for transit has really grown up in this city in the past decade and a half (during which nearly half our urban rail system has been renovated or rebuilt from scratch), but back then, public transit was still trying to climb back out of long decades of political and financial neglect.

So I pivoted and did what I could to forge a career as close to planning as I could, taking the elements of the planning process that would translate and running with them. Meaning, I took my civic-minded public-involvement skill set and went into social-justice based communications work. That work is been very kind to me–but there has always been an inner-child urban planner missing actual planning work.

So besides my Hispanic heritage and my desire to live in warmer climates (which is #ThatBlogPost I keep telegraphing), another big takeaway for me this year has been the desire to be a planner again.

Not necessarily a traditional, “Let’s go write environmental impact statements that are going to sit on a shelf until a politician decides to move forward with them” planner. Not necessarily a “Let’s crunch these origin and destination numbers” transit planner.

And definitely not a “let’s totally disrespect people of color and other minority communities planner”, either. One organization like that is enough for any career. (Especially one that considers itself a local planning leader–and I’m pretty certain they’ve thrown out those extraordinarily rare records I reviewed in the blog post, but I digress.)

What I miss most is the public ombudsman role, the advocacy role. The “Helping hold the feet of a transit board to the fire” role. The “Life in service to the people who live in your region” role. My public-involvement skills that were fungible enough to use outside of planning, I’d just like to use them back in planning again.

I’m not sure what that means or where it will take me in the Chicago region. But I’d like to be able to use that skill set in planning in the region that Ryan and I have decided to eventually make our home after Chicago, too. That blog post is on its way soon–and no, it’s not a blog post about New York City anymore, either.

There’s a reason why I’ve never, ever learned to drive a car. I’m too much of a lifelong urbanist. As I’ve always said, I was born to take transit or be driven around by handsome men. That’s worked up to now, though in 2017 I would definitely add ridesharing into the mix as well. But I’ve never forgotten my first New York City planning boss bitching at me for taking a taxi instead of a train when I worked at the Transit Riders Council.

So scratch those.

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What do you think?