Short story needs details about urban planner work
December 3, 2015 1:01 PM   Subscribe

I'm writing a short story in which my main character is an urban planner. While the story doesn't center around her work life, I'd like to pepper in some details. Can you help me make it more accurate/real? Specifically, she goes from underachiever to getting kudos on the job. What might this look like in a real city planning job?

I'd love any details about what a typical work day might be like for a planner who works for city government (the story is set in Portland, Oregon, if that matters):

I don't necessarily need answers to each of these questions, but this is the kind of info I'm looking for: In a typical day, are planners reading documents online? Do they dig through old paper files in the city archives? Do they have land-use code and development rules memorized, or is a lot of time spent looking things up? Do they use CAD software or is that only for specialists? How often do they work late to attend public hearings and other events? (And do they come in late on those days, or is it just a crazy long day?) Do planners get to leave the office to visit sites they are involved in approving/reviewing, or is everything done on paper and computers these days? How much time is just spent goofing off on Facebook waiting for someone to answer an email, or sitting around in a boring meeting that shouldn't have been scheduled in the first place?

Also my character goes from feeling she has little control over her life, to having more control over her life. And I'd like to include her going from being an underachieving planner to doing better at work, and having people notice.

Some of the ways I'll achieve this:
- Before, she was putting in half-assed efforts and spending too much time on Facebook in the office, missing a lot of work for being sick, and every month or two insisting she could not work late on certain nights for mysterious "health reasons" - regardless of evening meetings that should have been obligations of the job.
- After, she feels more invested in her work, no longer calls in sick as often, is now available for evening work no matter what.

Are there things an excited, engaged urban planner might do, that someone who has given up wouldn't worry about? (Maybe asking for more bike parking from an apartment developer when it's encouraged but not required in the city's 20-year plan?) How else could I illustrate underachieving vs. overachieving in a planning job?
posted by croutonsupafreak to Work & Money (11 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Portland is a really progressive (for the US) city planning-wise, so the setting will impact your planner's work. You might start by looking through their website to get a sense of the variety of positions in a major city's planning department. It's not all zoning compliance, which seems to be what you're describing. (But they have people who do that, and your person could, too). I'm not familiar with the actual Portland's staff, but it's a desirable workplace since they have a progressive reputation, so probably a pretty competitive employer. Which is to say, I have trouble imagining your planner just coasting by.

An excited, engaged young planner these days would probably be reaching to "new' stakeholders like big data analytics and tech; interested in income inequality and housing; hopefully engaged in active transportation and health issues (not that any of this is very new.....). The Boston Office of New Urban Mechanics might be a good model.

There are a lot of evening meetings and some weekend work; the goal is to have community meetings as accessible as possible for the communities. Most places will let you take comp time. Some cities do things like staying open until 9 on Thursdays and letting everyone leave early on Friday, as well. Depending on the position, there could be site visits and developer meetings off-site.

Good luck! There should be more planning in fiction.
posted by chocotaco at 1:43 PM on December 3, 2015 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I was a city planner for many years. I'll try to provide some answers to your questions.

I have to admit, my planning days were coming to an end at the dawn of the internet age, but I would imagine that contemporary planners spend a lot of time preparing staff reports and emailing at a computer, yes.

Yes lots of digging and historical paper files. I imagine that's still true.

Generally, the most common code stuff is memorized. But lots of looking up, especially if you're citing particular regs to folks, either in person at the counter or in written form of one kind or another. Quite often, I attended meetings or found myself lugging the development code around with me.

CAD isn't really used in a government planning office. Not a lot of designing goes on. Work is much more focused on review. There will most likely be some sort of Geographic Information System (GIS). That is run on a workstation by a specialist to be sure.

Depending on your position, working late will be a very regular thing. At least once a week. You accumulate "Comp time", which you then can take time off with, or cash out depending on your HR rules. From what I've seen planners come in at the normal time, take a dinner break and it's just a long day.

Going into "the field" is occasional I'd say. Most of your time is in the office. This is going to vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, of course. Budget constraints, personal opinion of the Director, or Senior Planners will come into play on this.

My personal experience, A LOT of time was spent goofing off, reading the paper, chatting... We also got very good (and quick) with the "Oh, I'm very busy these days" response/greeting. It was almost a mantra, and I found it very rarely was true. A real cover-your-ass sorta thing. This mostly was a mid-management problem, exacerbated by the seniority system. Basically once you're there for a while you're never getting fired, no matter how bad you're performance. I digress...

For your protagonist, I think an energizing thing would be to have success getting her ideas accepted. My collage advisor's advice to us on the first day was twofold "Planning is inherently a political process. And, Planning is the process of muddling through." Planners, the good ones, spend a lot of time trying to do the right thing. To benefit the community. To practice progressive concepts in transportation and land use. But, no matter how hard they commit to it, no matter how right they think they are, it's the City Council, or the Planning Commission that are in charge of what decisions are made. So with that, if she were to have great success convincing those decision makers to follow her, that would be a real boon.

Understand that there's a split in planning. There is Long Range, and the is Current Planning. Current planning is permit processing. So as in your example, getting more bike parking from a developer would be a character who was doing Current Planning. I think a more interesting story is one based around a Long Range planner. Here the ideas are more esoteric. Easier to relate to than permit processing. The other thing is that permit processing is an objective process by definition. There's really no place for asking from more bike parking than is required by code. I'd expect a Current Planner to require what is prescribed in the code.

I'll close with what became my mantra, "No good deed goes unpunished." It's a thankless job where you become the foil for a lot of hatred and discontent. Good luck with your story.
posted by humboldt32 at 2:22 PM on December 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: To follow up on chocotaco's comments about Portland. Modern planning was more or less born in Oregon. It was a farmer from Corvallis who instigated the concept of an Urban Growth Boundary. Oregon Planners are proud of this. Working in Planning in Oregon is very rewarding and a coveted position to be in. My colleagues always seemed to be very aware of that.

ugh, spelling above. My apologies.
posted by humboldt32 at 2:26 PM on December 3, 2015

Best answer: I'm a long-range planner with a focus on affordable housing and community development in the Portland area (not IN Portland-- I work for a county in the Portland Metro area). I agree with humboldt32 that making your planner long-range could be more interesting. Long-range planners get to craft changes to development code and policy that will shape future development and action, while current planners are way more restricted to making sure that things comply with current regulations. So (and this is the kind of thing I personally find super-energizing and validating), if your long-range planner was able to do a really effective job of, say taking community desires for change (e.g. "we want more local businesses") into an actionable, feasible, and actually-passed into ordinance/regulation terms (e.g. successfully getting City General Fund dollars dedicated to a fund that would provide grants to small business owners who live and operate a business in a specific neighborhood), that could be really exciting. With bonus points for really innovative stuff, or solutions that address needs that have been long-neglected, or from communities that have felt disenfranchised for a long time!
posted by Kpele at 2:59 PM on December 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks, all, for your comments -- and I'd love to hear more.

I appreciate the long-range/short-range distinction. I've been thinking about "planning" in terms of the paperwork I'm getting mailed each month about a forthcoming development in my real-world neighborhood, and hadn't been thinking as much about the long-term aspects. My character has fled what she considers a dysfunctional rural home environment, so I think working on long-term community planning in an urban setting would be extremely appealing to her.

Also, excellent points about Portland being a desirable destination for planners. I guess I need to work on an explanation for how an underachiever landed such a good job (was healthy, then got sick; top of her class at school, worse in the real world; etc.), or else to maybe have her live in the city but commute to a job in a less prestigious suburb -- possibly even across the river in Washington, which I'm guessing is less of a destination for planning gigs.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 4:03 PM on December 3, 2015

Best answer: There will most likely be some sort of Geographic Information System (GIS). That is run on a workstation by a specialist to be sure.

I have an actual Certificate in GIS because I wanted to go into urban planning. I used to hang out a lot on an urban planning discussion board, where I was a subforum moderator for a time.

Modern urban planners do get involved in GIS pretty routinely. I don't know if Portland planners would have a cow about this, but I have a suggestion for how you can show the growing dedication to the job.

The above assumption that GIS is something you stick on a workstation in a corner is a common incorrect conceptualization of what GIS is all about. It is actually possible to purchase GIS software and stick it on a workstation in the corner somewhere. GIS stuck on a workstation in the corner somewhere is not a proper Geographic Information System.

That set up is appropriate for a one-off project and sometimes turns into what gets called "a map shop" where actual decision makers go to some tech and ask for a map showing thus and such. The tech's only involvement is making the map. Maps from a map shop wind up being beautiful pieces of art because making it pretty is all the tech is invested in.

A good map is beautiful in much the same way that a well engineered car can be described as beautiful. But a beautiful map is not necessarily a good map. It does not necessarily function well to convey geographic information. So map shops have a bad reputation for producing poor quality maps and being disconnected from the actual decision making process.

GIS software is basically database software with a mapping function. Most data can be connected to a location, such as address or lat long. Urban planners tend to have a lot of data in databases, much of it geographic in nature. If you integrate GIS into your existing system, then when you update a database as part of your usual duties, it updates info the GIS can map and actual decision makers can query it and create maps. This is the proper use of GIS.

So you could have her get a GIS software package to do some little project. It could be stuck on her desktop computer only and used for a limited scope project. She could get excited about the possibilities and push to integrate it properly.

The first step in moving to integrated GIS is surveying the existing hardware, software and IT skills in the organization. Some databases are easily and readily ported into a GIS where the GIS software primarily adds a mapping function to the existing databases. Maps can be printed with existing printers, but if you have reason to produce larger and higher quality maps, you may desire to upgrade to a more serious printer. etc.

So she could see the potential and get excited and push for this.

Portland planners may go NUH UH. WE DID THAT YEARS AGO! But the concept that GIS is mapping software off in a corner somewhere is common. It can be done that way, but it is not a proper GIS and it does not accomplish what a proper GIS accomplishes. A proper GIS is very valuable in a planning department and adds a lot of value to their existing databases and existing data entry procedures, etc.

(Also, you could maybe appease the Portland planners by putting her into an urban planning role outside of the main planning office. A big city like Portland typically has more than one office involved in urban planning duties where introducing a GIS would be appropriate. So you may have, for example, the long range planning office and also the parks and rec department and so on. A little research might turn up something that would work okay. But I am on shakier ground with this paragraph than with my comments about GIS. So double check that idea.)

/GIS nerd.
posted by Michele in California at 5:34 PM on December 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: One characteristic of Long Range Planning is that it can be very long range. It can take decades to assemble the parcels of land for a park. For that whole time, the assets that have been obtained are at risk. The mayor might want to sell the land to balance the budget, or the school board may think it's the easiest place to put a school. Although these battles are fought at the elected (or at least politcal) official level, the staff has to be responsive. Staff often has a "we'll be here when you're gone" attitude about elected officials.

My daughter is finishing a degree in urban planning. Her interest is in transportation. The transit systems she has worked with are chronically underfunded and then heavily criticized when something breaks down at an inconvenient time.

Not strictly an planning story, one of the amazing things about the preparation in NYC for Hurricane Sandy was that all the electric signals in the subway tunnels were removed before storm. I would have thought that would take months. It suggests to me than planning for and surviving a crisis of some kind could work in your story.
posted by SemiSalt at 5:56 PM on December 3, 2015

Best answer: In the role of a concerned citizen I've spent a lot of time observing the Planners in my hometown. A major activity for them here is making recommendations to the Planning Commission and City Council, on land use and related items. They prepare "staff reports", sometime lengthy documents, which describe and give background to items the Commission or Council are hearing, and which advise on how they think voting should go. The planners also appear at hearings to orally present the material and answer questions from Commission members. There is a lot of powerpoint presentation involved, with numerous maps and charts. Architectural renderings also feature, but, yes, these are supplied by the relevant architecture firms. The maps and data charts, however, are created by the planners.

Videos of Portland's Planning and Sustainability Commission hearings have been posted to youtube. You might learn a lot and get a particular vibe by sitting down and watching some all the way through. I can't quickly find the Portland staff reports, but if you dig around hereabouts you might find some.

One main thing planners do is produce plans, which are lengthy documents that are supposed to serve as the basis for policy and municipal legislation. Portland's new Comprehensive Plan has apparently recently been approved by the Planning Commission and is currently awaiting hearing by Council. Click on the links under recommended Comprehensive Plan (like the one to here, for example) to see what such a document is like.

Planners are also often called upon to create or supervise studies of various sorts to give the citizen boards and commissions focused information on an issue -- parking studies, traffic studies, etc.. And sometimes they play the role of negotiators when the city is working with a developer on a project that won't be restricted to following the zoning code. (These are called development agreements.)

The Trouble with City Planning is a nicely written book that addresses the question of what planners do, and how they exist in a limbo of citizen dissatisfaction born in part of false expectations for what power planners and plans have. Worth having a look at. It's true that planning staff, at least in my town, are frequently and unfairly the target of resident ire. But it's also true that the planners are not neutral about outcomes and sometimes are doing what's within their means to push for an outcome that concerned citizens happen to be fighting against. They do have to take a lot of anger, whether misguided or not, and maintain a professional demeanor.

The American Planning Association website is a good place to get a clearer idea of planning as a professional activity. Try starting from the page on What is Planning? Scroll down for, especially, the section on A Typical Day for a Planner.
posted by bertran at 10:46 PM on December 3, 2015

That paperwork you mention IS coming from the long range planning department. It is not coming from the current planners. You'd meet them if you wanted to build a second home in your large yard and dropped in to get your plans approved.
posted by slidell at 1:59 AM on December 4, 2015

Best answer: Having done IT in a planning department for a relatively well-funded local government, I can tell you that all the planners have large cubicles with standard cube desks, two monitors, plus a big drafting table. People who had been there longer had higher semi-permanent stacks of paper. There were lots of plaques and certificates for conferences and awards and such, more so than in other departments.
posted by 4th number at 6:29 AM on December 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Great question! Town planner since 1988, albeit in GB. An engaged and proactive planner in what we would refer to as policy planning / forward / planning (long range planning) would definitely be going to public meetings for things like consultations on an emerging local plan, making themselves available to local interest groups or parish councils to explain new processes like neighbourhood planning or undertaking site visits to assess potential new development allocations. I'm sure all these will have close parallels in urban areas in other countries. It's also going to be things as simple as picking up other people's phones in the office and answering the queries that the public have on the local plan or policies, rather than passing them on, which might involve exploring areas outside their own immediate remit. A relatively enthusiastic planner might be much keener to get involved in public contact than a jaded old timer ...

Please feel free to MeMail me if you have any questions about planning over here!
posted by Martha My Dear Prudence at 4:25 PM on December 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

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