Asking the WHY and a Side of Humble Pie

(photo above is taken from the William Beem Photography Blog:

Life is distracting and sometimes we stop being present in what we’re doing. That’s why we cut ourselves by accident while preparing dinner or stub our toe on that pesky chair leg that got in the way of our foot! It’s also why we metaphorically injury ourselves in our relationships and careers.

My friend Nate recently reminded me about the importance of being connected to what we do.

A couple months ago I left my eight to five. While we departed amicably, the point of the matter is that while I was – and still am – very proud of the work I did and the improved quality of life I helped to create for others as a result of my work, I was burned out. Plain and simple. My quest for purpose got lost in the daily grind. Public life, with minimal resources, surmounting amounts of work, and an inane amount of political influence was NO JOKE. It just was no longer the place for me.

So now I have time to reconnect once again with how and why I spend the majority of my time. …Great…?

Anyone who has gone through a job transition (and most of us have) can tell you this opportunity is both a freedom and a terror. I’ve been enjoying the time off, the ability to pick up side projects, and touch base with people who inspire and encourage me to go for whatever it is that makes me intrinsically happy (not to mention “editing” any toxic influencers). At the same time, I have to swallow my pride, be vulnerable, and accept help to pay my bills and to get to the next thing. …Super… please pass me the humble pie.

There are so many defining questions to answer at this stage: What do you want to do? Do you want to stay in the same field? Where do you see yourself going with what you’re doing? Do you want to move to a new location? *Cue mind spinning to freak out*.

Many career advice columns, coaches, blogs, etc., assume we have the basics down. But from my experience in talking with people, the majority of us really don’t have it down. And it’s because we stopped taking the time to ask WHY. It’s not JUST how we make money that we have to think about. It’s our life desires and priorities. THOSE are the bigger questions. Those are very intrinsic, quietly answered questions. If you don’t know those, then you’re dead in the water. And if you don’t give yourself regular quiet time to connect to your intrinsic desires, then you can’t get to the action stuff. So instead of starting with all the career related questions, why not get quiet and go more basic first: WHY am I looking for a new work experience? I think this question makes us consider the bigger picture so we can align it with what we’re currently doing and determine where we want to go.

Here’s my list and I hope it helps you evaluate your own. Many of them are universal:

To make a living
To find more freedom
To be creative
To do something fulfilling
To have fun
To lead
To improve the lives of others
To connect with something greater than myself
To connect people with each other
To help others feel more empowered
To utilize my varied skill set
To be a source of strength and positivity for others
To do something intrinsically motivated
To see my ideas become a concrete reality

… Again, not all of these things may manifest themselves into one specific avenue. In most cases we all have multiple paths that help us feel complete and whole. But I think it’s a good place to start.

Motherhood, Otherhood, or a Little of Both. Let’s Talk.

Ok. Before you start thinking I’m going to burn bras in your town square, take a breath.  Being a feminist does not have to entail angry underwear hatred…. or hate.

It’s just that gender roles have become such a glaring issue in my life as of late that I can’t help but observe the subversive ways in which we as a culture- as a modern day community – accept and perpetuate that which we know within our deepest selves to amount to nothing more than the denial of basic humanity. We disguise our reasoning for that denial in a fear of a body part we don’t really understand… or worse yet… say out loud. And yet we expect to collectively come to some kind of gender treatise where “bitch” and “crazy” no longer get tagged as a woman’s post-nominal letters in the workplace.

I often hear people talk about the glass ceiling or blatant sexual harassment; and that these things need to be rectified to correct gender inequality.  True. They certainly do.  But mandating better pay or increasing HR punishments won’t make us a more enlightened people.  When do we ever hear a national discussion on this topic that really gets to the core causes of these symptoms… ‘cause that’s what the glass ceiling is, right? A symptom.

It’s so much easier to talk about symptoms. We can see them. We can measure them in some way. We can track patterns.

But this is not the conversation. We need a discourse about the subtler ways in which we experience gender inequalities.  It could be the property owner who attempts to flirt with me before a meeting; or the 50 year old professional woman who asked me as a single young woman when I was going to start having babies; or a male coworker looking right past me to my male boss for an answer I just provided; or even the thought process I admittedly had around whether or not my boss should’ve stood up for me and all of gender equality in what was otherwise a seemingly normal disagreement.  …and then the follow-up thought process of whether or not that thought was fair to my boss. (I’ve since come to the conclusion that is not fair to him. But I had the thought all the same.)

Honestly, it’s enough to make anyone’s head spin.

So how am I are we to know how to behave with one another when we can’t even talk about the subtle ways in which we experience gender roles? How as a women am I supposed to set standards for my male counterparts when we’re so afraid to talk about these subtle experiences for fear of those post-nominal letters, s-e-n-s-i-t-i-v-e?  How are men supposed to help each other rise to the occasion when we place enough machismo stigmas on them that they don’t have a fighting chance to redefine what it may mean to “be a man”?  And how, above all else, are we ladies supposed to be supportive of one another’s personal experiences when we have no real dialogue and thereby no common agenda to stand on?

…I’ve been talking to some wonderfully intelligent and successful girlfriends about my experiences as of late, and I find it as fascinating as it is disheartening that they too have one too many similar stories. I’m particularly intrigued how stand-up male coworkers and boyfriends/husbands either consciously opt out of interjecting when they see a problem or fail to see these subtle experiences as problems alltogether.

I’m marinating on this and hope I can have something meaningful to share about it soon.   For now, I just hope to give some food for thought and to send a reminder to recognize the humanity in others today; particularly those you see as different than you.

That reminder goes for me too.


Birds Fly, Fish Swim… Humans Walk

Arguably, my job responsibilities primarily revolve around the implementation of complete streets projects. I say arguably for the simplification of making a point on a blog here, but it’s not entirely overstated. Often times in the process of getting these projects implemented there’s opposition against it – politicians, business owners, even other departments on the same “team” (note the quotes as sarcasm)- for all kinds of stated reasons from the ideological to the lack of technical education. Although my professional expertise factually concludes that most of these arguments are hogwash, partial truths, or ignorance on the topic, there’s always been something much more basic about intelligently designed infrastructure that is rarely described so eloquently as the gentleman in the video below.

When we pay attention to and respect basic human dignity the only choice is to provide a complete set of options for all users… The only choice is equitable access and movement… The only choice is fundamentally simple.

Serial Killer…Soda?!

With all the recent news coverage over NYC’s Mayor, Michael Bloomberg, outlawing 32 ounce sodas, I couldn’t resist the urge to make my own commentary on the topic.

A lot of people are calling the decision one more move towards a “nanny state” where the government is beginning to tell us what we can and cannot do in our personal lives. While I can see their point – after all I wouldn’t want to give up my love of French fries- the situation, I believe, is largely misunderstood.

This is not to say I agree with the decision. Singling out one specific product contributing to the U.S. health epidemic rather than approaching the issue more inclusively leads to a public perception of impropriety or bias by the government. In a world laden with government mistrust that’s no good. It has the potential to harm the overall goal to improve the public’s health. At the same time, an overarching “Twinkie tax” on unhealthy food receives such strong opposition by politicians and the public that it leaves public health agencies and the government alike at a loss for how to deal with the growing obesity crisis.

Americans have proven themselves incapable of making collective healthy choices. (A quick side note should mention it’s not entirely the fault of individuals but the market itself. The U.S. makes the mistake of treating food like any other commodity; the result of which is mismatched pricing of food that makes a fast food burger cheaper than fresh produce.) Instead we most often think of health as an individualistic choice. But with all the obesity related diseases that are not coincidentally at the top of the list of killers in the U.S. …and the subsequent increases in healthcare costs …how can we as a society continue to ignore that we’re in this together? How can we go on thinking our health only affects ourselves?

The research is there. The evidence is in. Sodas, fast food, and all that other junk is killing us. It’s killing us in such large quantities that we haven’t seen numbers like this since the cholera epidemic.. As in before people realized cities need sewers because things like e-coli could make people ill. Humans are animals of repetition. Monkey see. Monkey do. If we see that it’s socially acceptable to do something, we will – by simple passive observation – most likely do it ourselves. If we don’t see behavior as socially acceptable, it’s most unlikely that an individual will go against that social norm. Don’t believe me? Do you think you have defied evolution as a superior being uninfluenced by suggestion? Well then, that would mean the entire industry of advertising wouldn’t exist. (Another side note: look at the number of commercials dedicated to prepackaged and fast food.) Better yet look at what changing the social norms around smoking did to reduce the obvious health consequences of that poor health decision.

The whole 32 ounce soda controversy won’t solve obesity – a fact admitted to by NYC government officials. It has however created the start to an overdue conversation.

Food for Thought

Anyone see a recent Arby’s commercial lately?  In case you haven’t, next time you are indulging in your secret indulgent TV program (confession: mine is Jersey Housewives. Don’t judge.) be on the look out for one.  At first glance it may seem like your average fast food commercial with happy people eating their sandwich and curly fries. But then the advertising jingle has their spokesmodel guy popping out of the Arby’s tag line, singing “It’s good mood food”.


Don’t get me wrong – I have a serious infatuation with all kind of french fries.   But Good Mood Food?! It’s enfuriating to me and here’s why: Fast food not only causes the exact OPPOSITE reaction to the tagline due to the horrific nutritional value it provides (Bad Mood Food)  but it also – if eaten regularly and/or in combination with other high sugar and fat foods – makes you ADDICTED to it.  This means that a person can  literally alter their taste buds to where nutritious foods taste displeasurable.  Crazy, right? 

What, you ask, does this have to do with our built environment? Well as my plannning counterparts and public health professionals can attest, low to moderate income neighborhoods typically have a higher prevelanance of fast food establishments than grocery stores.  This contributes to a problem you’ve probably heard before, called food desserts.  I prefer the term nutritional dessert because I think it is more accurate, but tomate-o, tomaht-o, it’s essentially the same thing.  Anyhow, the food is cheap so low income families can get more bang for their buck, especially when a  single mother of three, for example, holds down two jobs and barely has enough time to brush her teeth let alone make dinner every night.  What makes it worse is the building disposition itself, smack in the center of some vast, mostly unused parking lot with cars circling it because walking through the doors is too inconvenient.  In some regions around the country I can almost pinpoint the income range by the number of fast food joints, their proximity to one another, and if the drive thru has multiple stacking lanes.  I’m not sure what is more sick – that fast food product positioning preys on the “weak” or that it goes mostly unnoticed by the public. 

The other problem is the long-term life of the building itself.  Due to the specific use- with a drive thru and often awkward lot postion for traffic flow – the reuse of the building as something other than a fast food establishment is difficult and often unlikely.  In a declining real estate and economic climate, it will end up as a vacant building that will further depreciate property values of neighboring businesses.  Some hope exists in sprawl repair suggestions from the Congress of New Urbanism, but it takes a forward thinking developer to make such changes.  Forward thinking can be hard to come buy in under invested communities. 

Of course, there are other factors that go into determining fast food locations other than just income.  But next time you are driving through or hang out in a higher income area (besides along the highways) count how many fast food places you see and take a mental note at the number and names of grocery stores.  I bet you you’ll find it’s significanlty different than in moderate and lower income areas. 

Food for thought.

Gentrification in a Town Near You

*disclaimer: the above cartoon is obviously an editorial satire. It does not mean it reflects the views of yours truly.


For my non-plannery friends out there: gentrification is essentially when an “up-and-coming” area, for example, realizes its up-and-coming status, jacks up the rents, and Gap moves into what was previously your favorite off-beat music store.  Suddenly you walk down the street and you see a lot more middle to upper class (typically white) people walking around a place you moved to because it had an underappreciated, well-priced character. 

I’ve been lucky in that I’ve never had to experience the life-is-unfair feelings that would come from finding out that I was too poor to afford to live in a place that was previously unwanted by most others. That is, until this month.  My lease on my apartment is coming due and the management company wants to hike my monthly rent another $50 (It was raised $50 last year too.)!  Naturally, I made my case listing the points of grievance I feel do not justify such an increase. The response? They’re at 100% capacity so they’d rather have me move out and make more money off some other poor unsuspecting shmuck than to negotiate with me and keep a good tenant that has proven to pay her month on time and not cause problems for her neighbors.  **steam smoking from my ears**

In my fury I did what any normal person would do: talk trash to my neighbors and investigate. One of the great things about being a planner is I know how to access comparable market rates, crime stats, etc., etc..  So in my hunt, not only did I find my apartment complex is overcharging for the age of the building and the area, but also I found out the other reasons behind why the management is so unwilling to meet me halfway. Much of it had to do with property tax and insurance increases.  **sigh** I then realized I have NO negotiating room with these blood suckers.

See, my apartment is a hidden gem tucked away where no one (at least until this year) realized that it existed.  But besides the market change that now favors rental properties over owner properites, the apartment is situated in one, if not THE, best school district in the city.  There are only 2 other rental properties  like mine and everyone and their mother (literally) are trying to get space in there now.  Since the property has an invisible split between the dangerously crappy neighborhood on the one side and the ridiculously rich on the other (hence, the good school thing) it’s easy to see why this trend is occuring and why my apartment complex is so unwilling to work with me on the rent issue. 

I’ve had family members and friends comment to me on how shocked they are by the number of children in the complex and how much older the many of the other residents are.  Just goes to show a shining example of where the economic market has collided with increasing numbers of empty nesters and 20-something city dwellers that we hear so much about in the planning field and in the media.  And I’m all for a mix of ages and cultures and what not… but it’s made me think that this trend might be a new kind of gentrification.

As a young person I’ve never seen gentrified “up-and-coming” places filled with people my own age but rather the 35-45 (possibly empty nesters too) buying out what us 20 -somethings (and minorities) made cool.  But I’ve never seen an up-and-coming place become gentrified by 4-16 year olds.  Frankly, sometimes I’d rather have the adults than the kids ’cause kids can be down right annoying – like barking dogs but with verbal capabilities.    But that’s neither here nor there.

What do you think?  Is the double income family now the subgroup pushing out lower income peeps like myself? Are they the new source of Gentrification?

Today’s Forecast: Thought Clutter with Signs of Positive Thinking

This quote is really the epitomy of how I view life and work.  I think it is why I like urban design and architecture:   We don’t have to accept dead-end subdivisions, nasty automobile oriented strip malls, or cookie cutter housing just because it’s how we’re used to seeing things! Our spaces truely influence how we percieve the world and, often, so subconciously that many of us don’t even realize it.  Obviously I’m passionate enough about the quote above that I started this blog. 

On the personal side of this: I also don’t believe marriage is neccessary; that there should be a desire for a woman to have kids; that I have to be making $X dollars by a given timeframe, etc., etc..  Why? Well, I have a pet peeve around “shoulds”.  Translated, “should” stands for the following: fear and lack of imagination.  (Wow, what a metaphor to the built environment, no?!)  If the things that our society and immediate circle deems as shoulds are your wants, then of course, go for it..but please take the concept I’m trying to stutter through here and apply it in a way that works for you. 

I’m not saying I’m always the best at this.  Although it did spawn me to get my masters degree in a field I wasn’t sure I’d love, get up and randomly move to Texas where I knew no one, plan to up and leave the country on a week notice,  I have had a lot of noise in my head these days clouding my mantra and clogging my sense of purpose. So much so that it has caused a motivation slash inspiration problem.  Between the recent ethical dilemma at work, the challenge of keeping an affordable roof over my head, and a canceled vacation (unfortunately some untimely and sad deaths in the family blew Aruba out of the schedule), work has… shall we say… felt unfulfilling.  I’ve really come back to this quote to bring me back to earth. 

The only problem is I think it’s backfiring.  Rather than getting myself back in the saddle at my job, I’ve been thinking of all the more unconventional ways that I can live out my passions – IF I could get over the comfort of a 401k and health benefits  *sigh*.  After all, just because I’ve been told these things make “normal” jobs great, doesn’t mean I SHOULD do it, right? 

Right now I think I’m too far in my head to have great perspective on things.. And I’m sorry I don’t have a neat and tidy way of wrapping this up today.    I’m thinking that no matter what, whatever this is will push me forward in some way… or at least I hope? Afterall, standing still is just that and besides, a little daydreaming never hurt anyone. 

For myself it merely feels good to fess up to these thoughts/doubts/fears/confusion. But I’d still like to leave you with something more concrete to inspire your life or work and maybe get you to view your built environment a little differently today.  It’s a sight called The Art of Nonconformity.  Yes, the fella who started it is a bit of a nonconformist – and is an inspiration for pursuing your dreams (he is also responsible for the graphic of my favorite quote seen here in this post.)  In it he has a 4-Step Encouragement Mantra to keep him going when doubts plague his focus.  I’ve modified it below to fit my life.  Feel free to do the same.

  • I can do anything and be successful – as long as I’m passionate about it.
  • I’m not looking to have a regular life anywhere, I’m looking to have MY life somewhere.
  • Struggle happens because I wouldn’t be able to recognize success without it
  • And I won’t give up.

At the very least, check out this entry from our friends at Pop-Up City .  If it doesn’t make you look at the world a little different today, I don’t know what will!!