That Stuff that Gets Blown-Up in Movies

Happy Monday, everyone.  I thought I’d start off the week with a little educational humor. Perhaps this is an extenuation of some recent guest lectures I’ve given, but nonetheless I think you’ll find it enlightening.  I not only found the following segment of the John Oliver, Last Week Tonight Show hilarious but also sobering.  Most often than not planners – and more so, civil engineers – are aware of the dire state of the transportation system in the United States.  But it is also blatantly obvious that the average American is not.  It’s amazing to me that given this information alone – not to mention environmental and socio-economic equity realities – that we don’t take public transit and smarter development options more seriously.  We desperately need to.

Today I’m Loving…

NPR, naturally!

They have a great series on cities, aptly titled, Cities Project.  If you’re not a planner by trade and/or just interested in knowing more about Cities and the issues that influence building them, this is a great series to subscribe. And if you enjoy listening to your news while you are driving or while doing other mundane daily activities, they have the audio program available on their website or via their ap.

Find the series HERE.

What’s the deal with this place, anyway?

I received a request last week from a reader about the job market for urban planners and GIS Techs in Texas.  Two things before I attempt to answer: First, thank you for the question and for reading my meager blog😉; and secondly, please note that I am merely giving my opinion.  There are others in the field who would be much more qualified than me to give input on this!

Generally, Texas is no different from any other location. Figuring out where people network and whose-who is of course the best way to plug yourself into the scene.  Take notice though that just like other places, if you went to a local school you’re more likely to be plugged in by default.  It became abundantly clear that making connections here was going/still can be much more challenging than where I went to school.  There’s no context for me here… and so us outsiders have the added responsibility to provide that context to others.

You may however want to keep in perspective the old-school, car-centric, suburban-loving nature of Texas.  There are some dated schools of thought about how Texas – how Dallas – should grow, and those thoughts don’t necessarily correlate to modern realities.  Sometimes this leads to rather watered down products.  It’s not entirely anyone’s fault per say; an entrenched culture being challenged by all of us transplants makes for one confusing message.  It’s just that I don’t think that Dallas really knows what it wants to stand for yet and so its physical environment can’t reflect much more than a bottom line.   I say all of this because transplant planners from more established areas of the country – perhaps stereotypically more progressive thinking areas – may see projects that go against the practicality of your prior experience or schooling.  Just a thought.

Overall there are a few things you should understand about any planning-related job market, regardless of the location.

1. Public Sector

The public sector may often get overlooked by young professionals due to its fairly apt reputation as a stuffy,  entrenched, and even austere work environment, but it shouldn’t.  (I should note that there are some communities that are less rigid than others and that if you are considering a government job, ask around about the work environment before accepting a job offer.)  I believe every young professional should start their career with a year or two in a government sector planning/GIS job. What good is a beautiful development plan if you don’t know if – or how – it can actually be built?

Additionally during weaker economic times, there is an increased opportunity – in fact, need – for the public sector to get creative with their long-range planning efforts.  When building slows or ceases all together, this is a unique time for the public sector to refocus their vision for their communities’ futures.  While a weaker economy may not allow for these communities to add more staff, it does allow for the existing staff to showcase their knowledge and skills.  You may find a good home in the public sector because of it.

2. Private Sector

On the flip side, the private sector too has its pros and cons.  On the positive side, the private sector is typically where all the “pretty” plans get made and studies get done.  The reasons for this are less important here than to understand that you’ll get great experience from going this route.  However, with many different companies bidding on the same jobs this means that it can be severely competitive and demand a lot of hours… and that those hours don’t always equate to your charged hourly rate.  Too, your work satisfaction is dependent upon the level of support and creativity on your assigned team.  If you get put on a team that doesn’t fit the bill (or on a client who could care less about anything other than their bottom line), you may start dreading your work day.

3. Personal Expectations

Managing your personal expectations is huge when entering the field.  School sets us up for great success and yet expectation failure at the same time. While we come out with an understanding of planning principles and perhaps GIS or Adobe Suite skills too, we most often have never applied a school project within the confines of zoning codes or other federal and state regulations.  School does us a disservice in this way.  We basically come out illiterate to an extent.

Here’s what many of us come to expect leaving school: Working with a community that is as equally excited and engaged as we are to make improvements and who will fall in love with our studies, plans, drawings, etc., and it’ll just happen.  As GIS and planning professionals, we make enticing representations of what could/will be and everyone is pumped and ready to go. Here’s what actually happens:  A community voicing concerns over needed improvements are often not the ones who actually need it the most.  Participation no matter the socio-economic level is lack luster at best and what is even more dicey is the fragile level of investment, both public and private alike.  Developers will often come in with a product that neither fits the community’s desires or the city’s codes, and so a strange little dance occurs for months, even years, to get to a solution that upsets the least amount of people. Why this is important to know: While I may have exaggerated the above to a degree, entry-level planners need to know this field is hard and that means you won’t be jumping out of school onto some mega master plan  the likes of Daniel Burnham.  You WILL have to read through boring code and you WILL have to figure out how to make a project work within the confines of those codes…not to mention public disagreement.  Get literate. Too, learn negotiation skills and how to navigate different social situations if you don’t know how to already.  At the end of the day, any deal is based on how comfortable the people across the table are from one another.

I hope this helps answer your question.  Have a great week!

You Know It’s Bad When…

Last week I wrote a post about Dallas’s proposed tollway which is STILL being debated ten years post its initial introduction.  The idiocy of the whole thing was aptly captured by the Dallas Observer.  This post may as well be in my series of “Today I’m Loving”, but I thought I’d make one additional observation from this article.

The article quotes a gentleman in opposition of the tollroad, citing comparative statistics with Detroit to prove his point.  The author summarizes:

Among major American cities, he says, Dallas is tied with Detroit for least diversified transit options. “The DFW region is tied with Detroit metro for commuting by bike, foot or transit, at 4 percent, the lowest in the country. Meanwhile, a quarter of the city is in poverty.

***head shaking*** Mmmmhmmm.   Now, as many of you know from my prior posts, I’m originally from Cleveland.  And you probably have heard a few jokes about my hometown in your time…. or perhaps have a less than flattering image of that city in your head.  While I will defend Cleveland in a death match of words with anyone who challenges me, I can tell you that even Cleveland uses Detroit as its whipping monkey.  The “at least it’s not as bad as Detroit” argument or the “this is as bad as Detroit” apocalyptic warnings are used frequently by cities across the country to prove or disprove public programs and projects.

The fact that the Detroit hammer has been thrown down in this Dallas tollway debate may not only mean the public is growing tired of this debate but that perhaps it is getting desperate in its attempts to prove to decision makers that it really IS as horrible of an idea as it sounds (cause it is).  You KNOW it’s BAD when people start comparing their city to Detroit!

Trinity Parkway: The Gary Busey of Dallas




The City of Dallas had yet another public meeting on the Trintiy Parkway this week.  For those of you not familiar with the project or Dallas, this is a proposed 9-mile long highway essentially connecting northwest and southeast Dallas.  It runs along and within the Trinity River (which by the way is man-made since the City filled in the natural river many years ago… on the same spot they now want to build the highway. Oy.)

The project was originally approved in 1998 (holy shit), and then almost 10 years later a bond package to help fund the project – with rather confusing language – was approved by public befuddlement in 2007.  Then public outcry occurred once everyone realized they could not read very *good* and felt they were hoodwinked by politicians.  Now almost another eight years later, Dallas is still talking about this ridiculous idea despite an overwhelming change in the City’s dynamics, factual evidence against it, and let’s not forget, a majority of the public opposing it.

The way we approach building cities has changed. The tools in which we can model trends is more accurate and place-sensitive.  Historical patterns of the destructive results from building highways in urban cores are well documented.  All signs point to the Trinity Parkway being the worst idea since casting Gary Busey in… well in anything; and equally strange and hilarious.  If for no other reason, the $1.5 BILLION Trinity Parkway is still $1.2 BILLION short… yes, short… of being able to get off the ground.  SO WHY ARE THESE PEOPLE HAVING SUCH A MEANINGLESS DEBATE?!

For this I point to an article in the Dallas Morning News.  It probably won’t answer this question, but it will pretend to.  Instead I will give my biased and blatantly unpolitical answer:  Old white people running Dallas can’t wrap their dated minds around another viable option. I can make guesses as to why this is but they will be somewhat cruel and 100% not based in evidence. So let’s move on.

Dallas, especially old-white-people-Dallas, known for its infatuation with big hair and a nauseating amount of wealth cannot let go of the fact that this city is not the one that they grew up with anymore.  (Okay, maybe not their fascination with wealth… or plastic surgery.  But I digress.) It has in fact changed both in color and in age.  And with that comes many other changes, including not building insane highways through our cities.  But instead of accepting this,  the old-white-guy regime and all their quarrels over their 30-40 year careers will remain in play while the rest of us are holding our breathe, waiting for these institutions to get their heads out of their you-know-whats.

Because sticking a highway between a natural water feature and a downtown urban center has work so well for other places.

Because sticking a highway between a large, central water attraction and a downtown urban center has worked so well for other places…?  Top: Trinity Parkway with pedestrian connection to the river. Below: Cleveland, Ohio shore way.


The population boom happening in Dallas has and will continue to cause dramatic shifts in demographics, land development patterns, and market trends.  Coupled with changes in the way we build cities, this no longer leaves room for massive highways plowing through them. A billion dollars would be better spent on creating more efficient and integrated networks of transportation options, including proper bicycle lanes and street cars. Why not let DART expand? Or get *gasp* a bike share program going?!

Naw. Instead, let’s put our energy in arguing over whether or not we should put money toward Gary Busey… er, the Trinity Parkway.  Dallas has the demographics, investment money, and market trends on its side.  It has what few cities get the chance to do in a short period of time: reinvent itself into a savvy, modern, and progressive place. Trinity Parkway is like watching your favorite sports team blow it in the big game.


Today I’m Loving

…because I never miss an opportunity to be an ambassador for my first city love, Cleveland.  This video is wonderful! It shows the spirit of the town and just a fraction of its charm.  I get the pleasure of going there for an extended stay over the holidays.  So much has changed in the short time I’ve been gone. I can’t wait to reconnect.  Please enjoy! And if you have a chance to visit do that too.  Fun lovers and stuff doers will thoroughly enjoy themselves!

Tiny Business Spaces

I opened up the November issue of Planning magazine to find an article on office density.  (Apparently efficient use of space seems to be a trending topic with me right now.)  It explores the growing trend in reducing square footage per employee, citing the reduction from 500-700 square feet of space per user in 1970 to the now 176 square feet in 2012.  With the trend accelerating, square footage numbers are expected to go down even further to 151 square feet in 2017!

It seems that the influencing factors on this trend are following long-time recommendations from the planning field, including desires of the workforce to live close to where they work and increased tenant demands in amenities like walkable environments and access to public transit. But in part, I believe these trends are also taking a cue from the evolution of co-working spaces; you know, the ones where you can rent a desk per day or per month and sit amongst various independent worker bees, creating the next greatest thing since sliced bread?!

It only makes sense.  These spaces derive their value from open access and transference of knowledge by proximity.  They’re, in a sense, innovation labs.  They’ve had enough success to build around 1,800 locations worldwide, with 684 of those in the U.S., according to  Beyond that there are obvious cost savings in building and infrastructure that is saved both by the public and the private developer by squeezing more out of the square footage.  That’s enough for office managers and business leaders to take note, resulting in many of the once traditional office arrangements to rebuild into denser versions of themselves.  Even in the planning field, offices once traditionally segmented by profession (planners, civil engineers, architects) are becoming open, shared space for mixed teams… essentially making mini-think tanks.

While the movement towards more efficient, collaborative space is commendable, the article aptly points to the detailed implications for what this means in our cities and our daily work lives.  Our zoning codes have long supported sprawl – wide open spaces, single story uses, and “x” square feet of space per user.  And that amount of space has historically been rather large.  Now that we’re seeing the trend swing in the opposite direction, both in our living spaces and in our work lives, there are details to mind to. Among the things we gloss over when looking at density – particularly when we’re collectively so amped up about it – is the quality of the air we breathe, whether a retrofitted older building can physically support increased infrastructure, or demands on parking.  What happens when we go from 2 individuals per 1,000 square feet to nine people?  What happens if that business location isn’t fortunate enough to be within a TOD or near a public transit stop?

It may seem like mundane details, but when we’ve been operating from zoning practices that have not been completely (or only partially) overhauled from their inception in the last century, how can we expect to build in ways that support our current lifestyles and technologies?  And its not just the zoning codes.  With it so too goes our building codes.  Many of the issues discussed in the Planning Magazine article have less to do with with zoning and more to do with how proper plumbing and ventilation will work.

It’s certainly a massive undertaking, but this I know for sure:  The practice of zoning (and building for that matter) – whether it’s traditional Euclidean Zoning or New Urbanism – is out of touch with human reality.  Despite recent strides over the last decade to correct some of these missteps, we’re still far from where we need to be.  We’ve taken innate human living experiences and managed to sterilize them into a regulatory game of semantics… and that can more often than not mean we live the way we build: disconnected.