A job for urban planners? Part 1: the problem

February 14th, 2014

Greater Cincinnati has a lot more urban planners than it cares to employ as such.

If you’re thinking about going into the field, all you current or aspiring DAAP kids, you should know that you aren’t likely to find the job you might expect here. Of all the people I personally know in the area with degrees in urban planning, probably at least a couple dozen, I can think of four who are actually employed as planners. The rest of them are by and large doing interesting things, but not in a way that uses their degree to earn money, or if they are it’s not even remotely near Cincinnati. DAAP churns out about 40 planners a year, about one of which on average will find a planning job here after graduation.1

This is more than a little frustrating for many of us locally cultivated planners, and really, really good for the region. I’d like to begin here to explore ways the situation could be better for planners, and better still for Cincinnati.

First, why planners are good for the region: I think you can think of us as a civic-minded type of bohemian. Like artists, the younger among us are poor, grossly underemployed and tend to cluster together for mutual inspiration. Like classic bohemians we’re often very interested in producing change. Unlike classic bohemians, we tend to have very concrete ideas of what that change would entail.

Urban planners are, in my opinion, by nature some of the best citizens you’ll find in the republic2. We’re wonderfully knowledgeable about governmental and social structures but decidedly apolitical. Planners are reasonable, sometimes to a fault. Trained to handle potentially riotous public meetings on sometimes controversial topics, we know how to calm and deflect, to find agreement, and lead civil conversations toward tangible common goals. We understand, like architects how the subtleties of our physical environment affect people’s perceptions of the world and of each other and are often very conscious of how our own actions indirectly affect others.

Young, underemployed urban planners tend to start interesting and very civic projects. This website, Spring in Our Steps, UrbanCincy, or the People’s Department of Transportation (Columbus) provide a few interesting and fruitful examples from local planning grads that I know personally. Many other young planners are regular fixtures at public meetings of all sorts, providing in some sessions I’ve seen most of the thoughtful(as opposed to uselessly naive and self-interested) input on everything from SORTA’s route changes to the Cincinnati Master Plan.

These are generalizations to be sure, but to the extent that generalizations can be made about any group, I think they’re fairly accurate ones.

So what’s the problem? Normal planning jobs are absurdly secure for the few people who have them and the whole profession has been shrinking if not simply failing to grow. There is almost no chance of getting paid for any of this work. That means people will eventually leave the field or never get into it to begin with. As far as I can see, earning a planning degree is a big gamble; either you end up as one of the few people to get a secure municipal job for as long as you want it or you don’t get any work at all and you give up on planning to do something else. A planning degree is a 5 year, $100,0003 bet against the odds.4

urban planners looking for work in a tough job market

We need to learn to hunt.

Planners seem to still be hanging around and doing interesting stuff though, right? We must be paying the rent somehow. Here are the problems with getting by with pay from another industry while doing planning projects on the side, unpaid:

An illustration: UC’s Niehoff Studio6 seems like it might offer a good model for bridging the gap between planners and the real, paid world, but as I’ll describe the results, the program is typical of the all-too-common corporate exploitation of unpaid creative work.

In a nutshell, the studio attempts to pair up outside organizations (like a transit agency) with a group of student planners, engineers and architects who will work (unpaid and actually, paying when you count tuition and time) for a semester on a ‘big problem’ that the organization might face (like “How might bus rapid transit be implemented?”). The problems are usually local and a low-level representative from the outside agency comes by a few times through the course of the semester to provide guidance to the students as they develop their projects. Through most of their work, a DAAP professor sets the guidelines and requirements. At the end there’s a presentation before the projects are graded and filed away.

One might be temped to think that this arrangement could offer public agencies and non-profits an excellent chance to get valuable ideas from a pool of creative young talent from which they might later hire, and for the planners, a chance to meet and learn from people in their field while working on real-world problems; sort of an interning-lite.7 The ‘from which they might hire’ part I hope I’ve already adequately addressed the possibilities of, so let’s go straight for the ‘helpful new ideas’ and ‘real-world problems’. Planners are deeply interested in affecting the world positively, and the ability to contribute to building a better city is as big a goal as the paycheck for most people.

In the case of Niehoff students, the remove from the agency itself, the fact that planning students are not actually working within the agency, means that the solutions planners come up with are almost completely unmoored from reality and thus unusable. The professors encourage this, egging the students on to ‘think big’ and come up with ideal solutions. The proposals that result are pretty much entirely ignored by the agency because they’re either blatantly illegal(usually in the form of wanton property takings) or financially impossible(new multi-billion-dollar subways bored through bedrock). This problem could be remedied by having each student work in close collaboration with the people from the agency for which the work is being done. Students can’t reasonably be expected to know what the agencies expectations are andd how far they can push them if the two aren’t talking regularly…but that would get too close to being a job or an internship–something the agency would reasonably be expected to pay for. The work done in the Niehoff studio stays closer to the abstract than to reality, allowing everyone to think of the students as students rather than as consultants and devaluing their work to the point where they must pay for the privilege of doing it.

Wanting to stay in the field, how can us planners create our own jobs outside of the archetypical local government positions which there simply aren’t enough any of? We need money and we need authority to do good work here. How do we get these things?

Show 7 footnotes

  1. Source: my ass, which hasn’t failed me yet
  2. This is absolutely a self-selection bias, though the work reinforces the early inclination.
  3. In state tuition + moderate living expenses ( + time??).
  4. At least if you want to stay in Cincinnati, or really, any major urban area where competition is fierce.
  5. Planners don’t expect useful feedback from the public; their plans are mostly developed by the time they’re open for public comment. Getting comments at this point from (citizen )planners who have criticisms that are hard or impossible to dismiss throws a wrench in the works. The right time for comments like these is earlier in the planning process.
  6. I did indeed go through several studios in this program. This isn’t just hearsay ;-)
  7. Unpaid interning has it’s own…let’s say ‘issues’ that I need not elaborate on here!

2 responses to “A job for urban planners? Part 1: the problem”

  1. James Braye says:

    Hi Nate, pleasure to meet you previously (I stopped you right outside the Rec center after recognizing you from your “About Me” section).

    The problem you’re running into is endemic in the public sector. Basically, it costs money (or staff time-the same thing) to employ or supervise you guys. Given the limited resources SORTA has and the lack of authority UC students have, this arrangement is predictable, if not ideal. This might be solved by having the college collaborate more closely with SORTA and having Niehoff students that are working on transit problems work downtown at SORTA’s office.

    The second point that most graduating planners cannot work locally is also expected. UC’s programs graduate much more than the local demand can employ. A good portion of you are expected to work in NYC, or LA, or Chicago. That’s the nature of coming out of a strong program like DAAP or CCM. Local employment of the entire graduating class is unreasonable. How willing are the graduating planners to relocate, wherever the jobs may be?

    Finally, the point that people who have day jobs are unable to keep up with their interests/true career training is also valid. Unfortunately, it may be a grind to get into the industry. I’m a mechanical engineer who’s trying to work with SORTA’s board/UC’s economics department/APTA to have good information/data points for the streetcar opening. Basic things like ensuring all the cars have passenger counting equipment at the outset (compared to the Metro+ opening). I’m finding it difficult to devote the time I would like to this project due to school and community service obligations.

    Your best options are leveraging the multi-billion dollar community you are a part of and plain old relocation. Thoughts?

    • Nate Wessel says:

      Same to you! Sorry if I was terse; you took me by surprise and made me feel a little like a celebrity :-)

      Your comments are a good leader to the next one or three posts I’ll do on this topic. Ill try to answer them here but I’m sure I’ll also dwell on them and weave more developed thoughts into the coming posts.

      1. Definitely true. Were I in SORTA’s shoes(or those of the other public or semi-public agencies), I probably wouldn’t engage the studio significantly either. The work hasn’t broadly demonstrated it’s value to the city and it would indeed be a lot of management time for indefinite results. But then I also probably just wouldn’t engage in the first place. I think this really needs to be all or nothing: going halfway doesn’t make a worthwhile product and also results in frustration and dashed hopes since these are real problems people are working on. Naturally the student-planners want to see someone really listen to what they’ve come up with! Both sides need to invest more in the relationship or recognize that they don’t have the time/interest in going all the way.

      To your initial claim: Is this true to the same extent of other public sector employment types? ‘Traffic’ Engineers? Municipal policy experts?…I’m having trouble thinking of more who might not be readily employed by the private sector.

      2. NYC, LA or Chicago are dream-jobs for planners. Totally unrealistic, even for the top of the class graduates. Where people can actually expect to see job openings are in the Ketterings and Deer Parks of the world. Suburban ‘communities’ need people to maintain (but not change) their zoning codes and do other dull administrative functions. This is dreadfully boring and not the kind of thing the DAAP program gets us excited about, never the kind of thing for which we get into planning in the first place. CCMers can all work in downtowns since that’s where theatres will be, but planners are more evenly distributed among the population which is more suburban than our generation is willing to tolerate. I expect there will be a major discontinuity in this regard as boomer-planners retire out of these places. Who among us will want to work in the world’s West Chesters? Mostly only those without other options.

      So I guess I’m saying that it’s not as simple as moving to another city. It’s about moving to a wholly different type of place. Urban planners are very urban folk and they are reluctant to live among (or professionally reify) the values of the suburbs. The whole profession is now (in theory if not practice) reacting against that style of living.

      In any case we are observably still living here in the dozens at least, employed variously (or not) as coffee shop baristas, teacher’s assistants, freelance graphic designers, retail clerks, small-business-owners, etc.

      3. I think it’s a shame to waste a lot of the specialized knowledge gained in five years of planning school by letting it get stale. Much of it of course is transferable to other parts of life, but to the extent we might weigh that consideration, why pick a major at all?

      Overall, American cities, especially mid-sized ones like Cincy are in constant crisis. Their paradigm is growing stale and they’re in need of the change that a fresh crop of planners can bring. That’s why we’re here for the most part.

      For Cincy in particular, the city is big enough to matter and be exciting, small enough and diverse enough to be a laboratory for urban policy. A strong planning school shouldn’t be an exporting manufacturer so much as a municipal endowment as big as the hills.