GGWash recently received the following email:
Love your website. Kind of an oddly specific question, but I was wondering if you had any advice/suggestions for me about getting involved in a career in urban planning in DC.
I'm a 22-year-old recent grad of Colgate who grew up on the Hill and has always thought of myself as a future Hill staffer/Democratic political guy. I'm an intern now, and am still pretty sure my next job will be in the front office of a Democratic member.
For the last few months, I've developed a real, strong interest in the possibility of changing course and focusing on city planning and/or the DC government. I love my city, I want it to succeed (statehood is a part of that), and I truly enjoy reading about all that happens here.
On top of all that, for the past year or so I've found myself reading your site and all those like it. Nothing gets me going like an old proposed expanded Metro map that runs through Thomas Circle and “Longfellow Square.” I want to figure out how I could turn all this energy and creativity and interest into something more. Do you have ideas or suggestions for places I should look for entry-level jobs that could lead me down this path?
I mean, I fully didn't know how to ride a bike six months ago (never learned) and now I bike to work every day.
Glad you asked Andrew! Malcolm wrote a response to a similar inquiry a few years back, and we thought it would be a good time for an update. Here's some recent advice from our contributors, along with some great comments from 2015.
Canaan Merchant says,
The obvious one is to uh, read GGWash. Seriously. At least for my own sake it was a good source not only to find information (both locally and abroad) thanks to linksbut also meet and talk with like minded people and eventually write. Personally that's done more than anything to get me involved with the world of planning.
Mike Grinnell adds:
Get involved with what the community has to offer. I was able to serve two terms on the Potomac Yard Design Advisory Committee. It gave me valuable experience, but also gave me valuable insights and connections. Consider writing for Greater Greater Washington to develop a portfolio of writing samples. Also, make sure you set up a LinkedIn profile that’s geared towards your interest in urban planning.
Hopefully, some of those insights and connections can lead to a job. For that initial job, don’t be overly concerned with the pay as much as the opportunity. Jobs aren’t limited to local municipalities. There are also large companies, like AECOM, that have urban planners.
If your degree is not in something planning related consider some grad school work. Virginia Tech offers a local Masters in Urban Planning as well as some related graduate certificate programs.
Aimee Custis has a whole list of recommendations:
- Look up your ANC meeting, and go to it. Every month. Talk to people, and make friends. (If you live in DC)
- Join YPT and go to its local events if you're interested in the transportation side of things. Join the YIPPS list
- Sign up for the daily emails/email lists from GGWash, CSG, WABA, and ULI at minimum
- Make a list of five people from these circles (or twitter, etc) and/or people whose roles you'd like to have someday, and cold-email them, asking them out to coffee. Have 5 good questions you want to ask them prepared before you walk into the coffee, and take notes to remember what they say. Ask them to introduce you to someone else. Follow up religiously and promptly with anyone who talks to you/does something for you, and thank them warmly.
- If you're considering grad school, make a special note of studying up from the people you meet on who studied what in which programs, and what about the program they found useful (or, ahem, not useful)
And she also wanted to make this point:
I'll also add some perhaps-more-controversial or unwelcome advice: not everyone has to work professionally in urban planning to make a difference and be involved in urban planning. I say this, I realize, from the privileged position of having a full-time job in it, but… if what you care about is more having a community you can be proud of, giving back, and passing a better universe onto future generations, one of the most valuable things you can do is be a highly-informed, highly-engaged activist/hobbyist/non-professional.
As a professional, one of my BIGGEST wants is more regular people with day jobs to just be high-information urbanist citizens. Oftentimes neighbors and non-professionals are taken as seriously (if not more) in public input processes (whether that's good or not is a conversation for another day). The urbanist community, to succeed, needs far more hobbyists/citizens than it does full-time professionals. We need donors, readers, activists, citizens.
So if you can be happy doing something else and having urbanism be a hobby, that's GREAT! Donate to your local orgs. Go to your community meetings. Write for your community blogs. And feel okay that you can do that AND work by day for Deloitte, or GAO, or, or, or….
Matt Koehler says,
I am one of those non professionals who has slowly gotten more involved by just being informed. It started with going to one of the workshops GGWash put on a few years ago and instead of just going home and never looking at my notes again, I followed up with the editor and started writing a few articles for GGWash here and there. To be completely honest, I knew nothing about urbanism/ planning before I started writing for GGWash, and still feel like I have way way more to learn, but starting out small like that has built up my background knowledge in related topics. My eyes don't glaze over when people bring up developments, PUDs, DDOT, Funding, VZ, etc., because now I know what people are talking about.
That in turn has 100% helped in conversations I've had with local community members, friends, and even activists. Instead of just reacting to a topic around urbanism, I have a little more depth to offer. As an aside, being able to write about this stuff has also helped me develop an area of interest I never had before. It's also connected me with other interested parties and given me opportunities to meet industry insiders. So, maybe some good advice would be to ask young Andrew if he'd like to write and article or two?
And to reiterate: go to those ANC meetings, community gatherings to discuss a new development, or even a hearing or two. It's an eye-opening experience.
Tracy Loh had some insightful comments on the specific dynamics of the planning profession from Malcolm's 2015 article:
Within the planning sector, I think it’s important to distinguish between agencies and nonprofits. Understand the different roles each play and think about which is a better fit for your personality and perspective.
In the DC area especially, I think many agencies have a strongly technocratic bent, where it’s about skills, experience, jargon fluency, etc, and Payton’s advice about being expert enough to have opinions and back them up is right on the money. I would perhaps rephrase it as “being able to express opinions without making them sound like opinions.”
I want to second another thing Payton said, about volunteering. I work at a nonprofit. I see job applications from people all the time where they swear up and down in their cover letter that they love our mission and are personally committed to it… and then there is no volunteer experience on the resume. I’m not even talking about working for free, like with internships; that is a privilege that not all people have. But planning is all about being engaged with a community— when I was in grad school, I waited tables some nights and went to community meetings other nights. I learned a lot about how the development process works and I showed my seriousness about the issues. You need to engage, even if it’s just when you’re done making rent.
A lot of planning is really about people, even when superficially we are talking about transit, or stormwater management, or whatever. What are your people skills and how do you want to put them to work? What kinds of situations energize you, and what drains you (or would you rather avoid)? Seek out positions that are a good fit and make the case for that fit in your cover letter— show that you really understand what the role requires.
This is hard only inasmuch as many organizations (whatever the sector!) do not know what they actually need when they are hiring. You’re not going to find a dream job, but you might be able to make one. Look for openings and opportunities to do so and see the cover letter and interview as your chance to make a pitch about what you would turn the job into.
Dan Reed also offered some advice that's still useful. People looking for planning jobs should brush up on skills that are useful in any sector:
Whether you’re in the public or private sector, good planners generally know how to:
- Express ideas clearly and succinctly through writing.
- Speak to particular audiences (whether it’s an agency, a community group, businesses, etc.).
- Craft a narrative (about a community’s past, present, and future). Work with many different people (often across different agencies, companies, and also the general public).
- See things for what they can be, not just what they are (have a vision!).
There are other more specific disciplines, like graphic design or engineering or public policy, that relate to planning and often come up in a planner’s work. But I think they all go back to those general ideas.
If you're interested in getting involved with GGWash, there are a wide variety of ways to get plugged in, whether it's joining the social media team or another committee, or writing posts.
Readers in the planning field: What advice would you offer Andrew?