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  • Jennifer Howland, AICP

What is Going On?! Staying Connected to Local Planning

Finding the Planning Profession

Being a self-proclaimed American Planning Association (APA) Geek, I know that October is National Community Planning Month, a time set aside to celebrate planning and elevate awareness for our profession to a broader audience. Each year, I spend a bit of time reflecting on my career and how I discovered planning. I have heard from some colleagues that Sim City is what did it for them. For me, it was the book The Little House by Virginia Lee Burton. I found the story of the evolution of countryside to big city fascinating. I didn’t know it then, but that book was my first exposure to urban planning.


I spent the first 16 years of my career in local government as a practicing planner. My friends and family didn’t really understand what I did. I was quoted in the newspaper occasionally, and sometimes the City would post about a new development or ordinance on their Facebook page, but I am not sure how much they paid attention. My friends and family knew I was often at City Hall in the evenings, and they knew I was the one to ask if they were curious about a rumor about a new restaurant opening up or when a particular summer festival was taking place. But, I’m pretty sure they still think I was an event planner.


Transitioning to a New Role

Now that I have “gone to the dark side” – aka the private sector – I get to tell people that I work for The Schreifer Group, a woman-owned, veteran-owned small business specializing in federal planning and meeting facilitation. We work from our home offices in every major time zone across the U.S., supporting community planners at federal installations all over the world. This grabs the attention of my friends and family. They may not understand what “planning” is, but they do understand that I get to travel and work with interesting clients like the Air Force, Army, and NASA.


No longer immersed in local government, I quickly lost touch with what was happening at City Hall and in my community at large. When is my street going to be repaved? When are the food trucks going to pack up for the season? Did that property downtown get approved for that new apartment development? Has the zoning ordinance changed in my neighborhood to allow me to build an accessory dwelling unit? I took that knowledge and awareness for granted as a city employee.




Finding Ways to Connect

Now that I am a private citizen, I find that I have to really make an effort to stay up to date on what is happening in my community. Short of crashing the weekly staff meetings at city hall (awkward!), I wanted to explore ways to stay “in the know”, ways to stay connected to my community and local planning on my own time.


Monthly coffee dates with former colleagues have been a great way for me to stay connected and to maintain friendships with people I have known for years. An hour of catching up in person gets me out of my home office and leaves me re-energized for the rest of the day.


Another idea I have is to start attending public meetings again – this time, on the other side of the podium. Communities across the country, even small ones, have started broadcasting their public meetings on ZOOM, Facebook Live, and YouTube, especially since the COVID-19 pandemic changed the way we communicate on a day-to-day basis. I don’t even have to leave my house to participate. But what fun is that? Half the entertainment comes from watching people’s facial expressions and overhearing muttered comments from audience members. I have to be honest, though, I am having a hard time skipping out on the bedtime routine with my three young children to attend a meeting I no longer am required to attend. So many nights with my kids were missed due to work. Instead, I will hop on to Facebook after they are put to bed to listen to the recorded version.


Connection Ideas from Around the Country

For more ideas, I decided to check in with some of my planning colleagues to learn about how they stay connected to their community.


“Honestly, planning is too involved and exhausting on a day-to-day basis for me to want to stay apprised of what’s happening in other places. That being said, I do receive the monthly e-newsletter from my hometown community. It shows the top stories by topic, which gives me a quick summary of what’s going on.” – Stacey Fedewa, AICP, Loudon County, VA.

 

“There's a yin-yang relationship between my professional career and my local involvement. On one hand I can bring very useful information to improving my neighborhood. On the other, neighborhood social media and monthly meetings are another "public meeting" to navigate amid complaining and resident frustrations. I like being useful, but it is a lesson in patience dealing with planning-related situations with my friends and neighbors.” – Aaron Young, AICP, St. Louis, MO

 

“Because most of my project work is focused outside of my local community, it has allowed me to serve on my city’s planning commission with very few conflicts of interest. I enjoy giving something back to the community through my service, and I think my planning skill set is an asset to the commission, but I’m sure it doesn’t always feel that way to the poor staff planners who have to put up with me!” – James McMurray, AICP, Colorado Springs, CO

 

“One of my goals when I took on my current position was to create a regular National Community Planning Month (NCPM) program. Despite COVID, this will be our second year celebrating the occasion with community engagement on planning and sustainability. I think it's critically important for planners to stay front and center - NCPM is a great chance to do that." – Sean Maguire, AICP, Colonie, NY


Let’s Take a Survey!

I’d love to hear from you about how you stay connected to your local community. Please take a moment to respond to a few survey questions: https://form.123formbuilder.com/6252904/form. Results will remain anonymous.


Taking Your Community to the Next Level

Finally, if you too would like to elevate yourself to APA Geek status, ask your community to pass a proclamation declaring October National Community Planning Month. The American Planning Association (APA) has resources on its website to help planners promote National Community Planning Month, including a sample proclamation and logos. It would be a natural reason to approach the podium or call your local city planner. Just be careful – they might try to rope you in to serving on the planning commission!


For those of you who would like to take it up a notch, The Schreifer Group has facilitators on staff that would be delighted to assist you with running a public meetings in your community to gather information from stakeholders on a variety of topics important to them. Contact us for more details!


I challenge you to (re)connect with your local government by trying out one of the options referenced in this article. It can be as simple as watching a public meeting online or as intense as volunteering to serve on your local planning commission. Whatever it is, I hope that you find a new way to celebrate the planning profession in October.


Happy National City Planning Month!


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