Why I love, and hate, my work as an urban planner

Developing a plan (source: www.planning.org.au)
Developing a plan (source: http://www.planning.org.au)

I am an urban planner. I have been for some twenty years now (which seems astounding to me, but yes, it’s true). I have times when I passionately hate the thought of work, and other times when I can’t wait to get into a project. There are good reasons for both positions – and there are reasons why, when I feel like throwing in the towel, I am still drawn back to it. I want to share a little of what I (and we) do, because I don’t know if it is well understood. I also want to share why I believe it is really important work (well, some of it is), and why it is something that I believe many more people could take an interest in. What is urban / town / regional planning?  Planning is a process that focuses on understanding and proposing changes to how land can best be used (what purposes different areas could be put to) and developed (ranging from physical constructions such as buildings, roads and modifications to landscape, or restoration back to its natural state – or as close to that as possible). We often call this ‘strategic planning’ (the work I do), and we undertake assessments and analysis, propose solutions (in consultation and with input from others) and then, ultimately / hopefully, embed these changes into approved strategies and policies. Planning also puts in place systems to achieve these outcomes – making changes to the legal framework governing decisions on specific land (which sometimes is undertaken by strategic planners, and sometimes by statutory planners). It also administered processes to decide on these specific proposals (in other words, deciding on planning permits or development applications (DA) – which is statutory planning. Not what I do).

Urban planning factors (source: walimemon.com)
Urban planning factors (source: walimemon.com)

In working out the best use of the land, planners consider a range of issues such as catering for various social and economic needs across the community, environmental impacts and opportunities for improving existing environmental conditions, how to strengthen economic activity, improve public welfare and equity, and address transportation and communication needs (in all forms). As such, planners work across a range of technical, communication and political areas. We are not specialists (generally) in one field – but ‘jacks of all trades’, bringing together the expertise of engineers (of all categories), architects, social and cultural experts, environmental scientists, lawyers, arbor-cultural and landscape specialists, heritage expertise – the list goes on. Anyone whose knowledge should inform the use and development of land becomes involved in our work. And we weigh up and consolidate these considerations into recommended approaches. What planners are not What we are not, in the main, are decision makers. Planning is an intensely political area to work in. People are strongly attached to the land they own or where they work, the land that forms part of their local or broader community, or their history. We live in space, in place – and it matters to us what happens in places that we call home or are special to us. Technical considerations are one thing – but the decisions need to include broader matters too. As such, there is a separation between the technical advice that we provide, and the political decision making (made by elected politicians, at the local or state level – occasionally, for issues deemed of national significance, the federal level). We seek (ideally) to have the input of all who will be impacted by planning decisions, in making our recommendations. And, in the main, it is not government (and certainly not planners themselves) who actually deliver the outcomes. The private sector, ranging from small scale one off developers or small business owners, to large corporations and finance or insurance companies, are the primary drivers in delivering outcomes on the ground. There are exceptions to this. Some matters have been determined to be fairly minor in nature, and as such, ‘delegated’ to planners to make the decisions. And many of the decisions of elected representatives are able to be reviewed through appeal boards or the courts, However, the majority of decisions are made by elected representatives. What I love about my work

  • It is relevant and has a purpose

It impacts individuals, it influences the state of the environment, it can generate great improvements in the quality of people’s lives.

  • It provides an opportunity for people to have a voice – to have influence and connection – with what happens in their community.

Sometimes, sadly, this is as a result of opposition (generated by fear), however, if the long term impact is a more cohesive local community, some good has been created.

  • It is interesting work (other than the administrative side – see bureaucracy below).

It brings in so many different fields of research and expertise, to be synthesised into a solution. And there are layers – there is history to the way land is used, who was involved, what occurred prior. It can be really fascinating work.

Temporary park for National Park(ing) Day (source: www:centredaily.com)
Temporary park for National Park(ing) Day (source: www:centredaily.com)
  • When the process is finished, there is a tangible outcome.

Seeing a completed building, more affordable housing developments in place, policies that have led to the retention or replanting of new trees and undergrowth, a restored urban creek environment, a train station servicing an area that was missing out – that provides purpose to what we do.

What I hate

  • The tendency, with any proposal, for those invited to be involved to look at it solely through the lens of self interest rather than looking at what would be generally in the interests of the broader community.

This is my biggest dislike at the moment. I feel that we are becoming an increasingly self interested society, and we do not see the importance of mutual support – that by looking after others, we collectively create a better society.

I think that a key reason for this is the increasing reliance, concern about, and expectations for increasing individual personal wealth and the role that property ownership plays in this. Increased property prices, and the flow on in costs of living is a major factor in growing inequity within Australia, and other western countries.

There are sound technical solutions to addressing property  (this topic has been reviewed over, and over, and over again). But any solution requires political will, and acceptance that those implementing will lose some of their current supporters (although they may also gain some). And who is prepared to show this political will?

  • The aggression, and fear, that so many people feel about change.

And the way that they sometimes express that, verbally or in writing, towards us. No one deserves personal abuse.

(source: Huffington post, via Shuttercock.com)
(source: Huffington post, via Shuttercock.com)
  • Drawing the line between personal freedom and the need for oversight / intervention.

There are many people who are frustrated, and wish for less red tape / less regulation. There are many others whose response to any matter they don’t agree with is ‘we need more regulations’. Sometimes those supporting regulation and opposing it are one and the same (ie, put controls on our neighbours but not on us – or, at least, not until we’ve finished developing our property).

There is a fine line between putting into place plans and processes that make things work better, and becoming a nanny state, where everyone abrogates responsibility to a government body. The line is not always drawn well. This is probably part of the reason as a profession, many people dislike planners (sadly – we are generally actually pretty nice, and well meaning, people).

  • The bureaucratic system that we work within.

By necessity, there needs to be some processes in place (checks and balances). Sometimes, however, these processes seem to be there ‘just because’, or ‘that’s the way we have always done things’. Improvements to systems can, and should, always be explored. And more effective ways to assist elected representatives to fully, but efficiently, consider matters, should also be tested.

This bureaucratic concern also extends to a tendency to work within arbitrary administrative boundaries, despite the fact that the implications can often be much broader. This is a real issue that warrants far more attention.

  • The suspicion that many people seem to have about planners.

Many people seem to think we are somehow corrupt, or lazy, or ‘on the take’ (I have been on the receiving end of these comments lately, unfortunately). It is true that there been some people who have taken advantage of knowledge, and that has given the whole industry a bad name. I doubt, really, that it is any worse that other industries, although there always needs to be ongoing monitoring – which there is).

  • When things go wrong – which unfortunately can happen.

Sometimes a critical piece of information was not properly considered, or identified, when formulating policy. Sometimes a building is poorly constructed. That can have major, and terrible implications. While not flawless, though, I believe there would be more errors without the oversight that we provide

In summary My list of ‘hates’, is longer than my ‘loves’, I know. But, on balance, the field of planning will always interest me, I think. There are definite flaws in the system – in the degree, breadth and depth of consideration of issues, in the way, and at which point, we involve those affected in helping to determine the best outcomes, and in the timeliness of decision making and actual completions. However, in the main, I do believe outcomes are better through the involvement of planning than in its absence. And I am drawn to playing a role in this process – so, for the time being anyway, I see myself continuing in this field. Phew, I feel better getting that off my chest! How do you feel about your work? What do you love and what do you like less (and how do you deal with that)?


11 thoughts on “Why I love, and hate, my work as an urban planner

  1. I’ve seen many – nearly every – good urban plan fail for the last decade. Why? Because of State and Local Government traffic (i.e. motor vehicle) engineering departments getting to determine how, in reality on the ground, people will move around.

    Until the urban planning profession wrestles back control of transportation planning, from strategic planning all the way to the final build is complete, then the end results will always be the same as they are now.

    You may be aware of this phenomenon but perhaps not, so here’s a great place to start learning what needs to happen: http://aviewfromthecyclepath.com/2015/07/notes-on-a-city-how-problems-which-could.HTML

    PS I am a reformed traffic, now transport, engineer.


    1. Thanks Jim – good points (except that I am not sure planners ever really had the power to wrest back – but the engineers did take a broader view pre 1950s in terms of planning). It’s encouraging to see more of former traffic – now transport – engineers (and I should have referred to that in the post), and hopefully more sustainable transport solutions will continue to be pushed and will eventually gain more traction and investment.


  2. That was a fascinating read, Helen. I have always been curious about ‘town planning’ as it seems like such a worthwhile thing to do. Your first ‘what I hate’ point would kill it for me, though. I struggle enough with the ‘me me me’ in my daily life, let alone having it impinge on my ability to do my job. I loathe, LOATHE, how lacking in community care most people seem to be in the modern world. I like to think that careful planning makes everyone in the village happy, including the me, me, me-rs of the world… x


    1. Yes, it’s definitely the worst part of the job for me (but at the same time, the most insightful – it helps me recognise my own tendencies to think my way is the right way, and sometimes that’s actually hiding some uncomfortable self interest too).

      This post has been an interesting one – it’s clearly resonated with a few of us planners as it has been shared through Melbourne Uni past and present (and associated) students quite a lot, thanks to one of the lecturers (I’m now up to more than 300 unique reads, which is amazing for me, and will be speaking to a class in a couple of months – and I’ve received quite a few positive facebook comments in our private group – but no one comments on the post. Interesting, isn’t it? – still learning the world of blogging …) x


  3. Thank you very much for that bit of insight! I’m currently in the process of applying for a Master’s of Urban Planning with a focus of Economic Development at Wayne State University here in Detroit, Michigan. Unfortunately, without some serious political/cultural reformation, it may take a generation or two to see major shifts in the political climate to actually lay the foundations for Detroit’s urban revitalization. But, I want to do my part in that regardless, as idealistic as that may be. Or, would you say it isn’t worth the headache? haha. You made brief reference to Australia; is that where you work as a Planner? If so, are you familiar with the similarities with the profession in the US?

    Thank you once again.


    1. Thanks Cameron for reading! I was writing this in the main for people who have no real understanding of planning (ie, they don’t work or study in the field, and have had limited interaction in other ways). So it was attempting to be a little more illuminating, rather than deflating, about the purpose of planning.

      No, I think it’s definitely worthwhile! I’m not very familiar with US planning – you’re correct that I’m from Australia and work here I have a general idea though, through publications like Next City, and there seems to be a lot of innovation occurring in the US despite (or maybe because of) some challenges at a national level. Detroit (as an example) gets a lot of focus as a positive example of change, although I’m sure it’s not perfect.

      I think with any role, there are aspects that are frustrating, and being aware of them is important. It also depends on the type of planning you do, at what level you work (close to the action or behind the scenes in an advisory role, for instance). But across the world we need good planners, and overlaying that with a strong economic base is an important component. Good luck!


  4. As a planner in the profession for 22 (ugh…) years, I appreciate the perspective. However, in the US, planner are often decisions makers. There are many, many planners who work for consultancies, developers, law firms, etc. who help communities make decisions, and direct decisions, everyday. A planner, regardless of employer, has the responsibility of ensuring a well considered and informed process resulting in land use/transportation/economic development/public space/ etc. for every project. Civic engagement is critical to the process. However, the “facilitator” planner is but one role. Nowadays, the facilitator and implementor planner is critical for many employers.

    Good luck!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Cameron – I have a similar level of experience to you (which makes us knowledgable rather than old!) I didn’t mean to underplay the importance of our role but I don’t think we are as much ‘decision makers’ as many make us out to be. Certainly, we play a key role in ‘helping’ others (like community groups), or advocating, with evidence, for a particular solution, or actually developing that solution. In the main though, the ones with authority (access to finance, in the case of developers, as one example) or legislative power to approve on the recommendation of planners, who are actually the final decision makers. We have limited scope to approve under delegation here (although possibly the cumulative effect of these smaller decisions also needs consideration).

      On a broader sense – maybe no one solely holds the decision making power – politicians come under pressure from different interest groups and budgetary imperatives, the private sector needs to satisfy its financiers. It’s definitely not as a simple as drawing up a plan and it is done (maybe in the old days when land was seen as a blank palate but not today).


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s