Urban Planning, Municipal Politics, and Guerrilla Warfare
The names in this story have changed to protect its participants. To the largest scale possible, geographic place names have changed, such as the name of the town that provides the setting for this story, which presented somewhat of a challenge when citing local periodicals.
The following account is true and is based on real events. Alas, how does one cope with a constant barrage of incompetence? It molests your mind, your consciousness. Assailing you from multiple sources, multiple offenders, to the point where your defenses can't withstand the assault. As you beat one surge back another comes at you from behind, sideways. It creeps like a cancer, predictable, until one day you succumb.
Nonetheless, you keep fighting, because fight is the only thing you have left. If us planners are not carrying the fire, then who will?
Feet up, wishing I could light a smoke. Nothing like getting your fix at 8,200 feet. The air is thin in the mountains, but strangely, that never got to me. It was more the local population that gave me the headaches.
"I wouldn't worry so much about him," she said to the person on the other end of the phone, knowing full well I was in the next office. "People like him come to town, think they can change the world, and once they figure out they can't, they leave."
I should have been reading the fine print of the subdivision agreement sitting on my desk. Instead I tried, once again, to figure out what to do with the Town Clerk, Ava Mathews, my nemesis.
Politically, the place is a meat-grinder. Not because I was surrounded by a group of savvy individuals, more just by incident and induced by a healthy dose of incompetence. Like a sea-going salmon who has been thrown into a small pond full of minnows, knowledge of the wider world is moot if one can't master the discourse set by the dominant species.
What do I do? Go into her office and lay down the law? Suggest that her worldview merits a hearty laugh; that her lack of control over me has led to her current inferiority complex; that her 1986 hair style is a testament to her total lack of contact with reality? Such an approach might work—nothing else has. I have an uncanny talent when it comes to coping with people who are looking to pick a fight with me—it usually involves getting my ass kicked. On my 21st birthday, my brother, Paul, and I were waiting in line at a popular lesbian bar and I announced to everyone that the place was lame and we were leaving. Questioning the merits of everyone else's resolve to enter the drinking establishment insulted a group of five young gentlemen.
I took the big one, Paul the other four.
I knew it was our fight to lose, which is why I was a bit confused when the paramedics woke us up. Hmm, no blood. Clearly, the fight worked out well for me, but why was Paul bleeding? "What's the date today, son?" Looking around, nothing but the glare of flashlights. "What's the date today, son?" I spot Paul. He could see the question marks in my eyes, "It's your birthday," he yelled through the gauze pads. Indeed, he's right! "It's my birthday!" This impressed the health care and public safety professionals. They left. Paul and I got in the car and drove home.
"I don't know what's so special about his master's degree." She continued from her office. "It's not like urban planning is rocket science." Surely she must know I can hear every word of her conversation? "I don't know what he can offer that anyone else could not?" Rugged good looks, perhaps? "This town will never be an Aspen. Most of the time, he's out of the office, anyway, just being a little social butterfly." I've heard enough. Time to leave the office to see who's in the local coffee shop.
"Ava, I'm off to a meeting," I said toward the exit as I shot her a sideways glance.
"Wait," she responded with an urgency, signaling she disagreed with my judgment. "I need you here because I have to run some errands."
Why must she play these games? "Well, I can't help you out because I have some folks waiting for me." This, of course, was an absolute fabrication. But why should I be courteous enough to oblige her with honesty after listening to her conversation, poisoning the mind of who knows who? I left Town Hall and the cold air slapped the smirk off my face.
Maybe what troubled me most was that Ava was right. It's easy to be an urban planner—and it's easy to prove us wrong. Urban planning is to a professional field as reality TV is to reality. Grasping at straws for credibility, a hollow vessel with no underlying dominant theory, it's pretty easy to be a planner, and it's pretty easy to prove us wrong. We're not so special, but certainly better than civil engineers and architects. So I guess that puts us planners at the third rung from the bottom. Good news is, the ladder does not have that many rungs.
Generally, planners have a pretty bad reputation among the public. Why? Mostly because we attempt to advance equality, which pretty much makes us professional socialists. But it goes further than that; we're the ones who are telling you that you can't build your garage because it would be within a setback. We're the ones who are telling you that you can't start your home business because you're not in a commercial district. We're the ones who are the bureaucrats. We're the ones who say "no." A sexy profession? Not really, unless you're the one who can take credit for designing Paris. However, the funny part is, our weakness is also our strength. It is because planning draws from other disciplines' theories—geography, sociology, law, engineering, architecture, environmental sciences, economics, statistics, etc.—that gives us license to don any hat we see fit in any given situation. Like leeches looking for a host, planners have the liberty to draw expertise from a given field as we might deem appropriate. That's what I thought at least. I was fresh out of school and my first urban planning job wasn't going so well.
Let me see if I can sort this mess out: she hates me, she talks behind my back, she subverts me, she does not respect me, and she tries to subjugate whatever power that I might otherwise have. They didn't teach me how to deal with this stuff back in graduate school.
La Blanca Gente is nestled in the Colorado mountains. With a stable year-round population of roughly 1,000, the town is, from an urban planning perspective, a total mess. The "town" is a hodge-podge of subdivisions and commercial development arranged with absolutely no rhyme or reason. A bastard step-child of its mother county for years, it's clear that few gave the settlement the tenderness necessary for it to grow into a well-rounded and dynamic organism.
The political environment is that of pro-growth, as to develop the tax base. Pro-growth, that is to say, with a taste of growth management, which is where Mr. Urban Planner comes into play. When they hired me, "they" as in the seven elected town officials, the thought was that a growth boom was on the horizon and somebody needed to be around to deal with it, shape it, make sense of it. Sensing, like a gazelle before the lions pounce, that the predators are lurking somewhere unseen, the La Blanca Gente Town Board launched a preemptive strike against all those who wish to delve into the local real estate market. As far as I was concerned, hiring me was the best decision they ever made.
They were right, the town is ripe for a growth boom. As a pre-pubescent teenager is to Playboy Magazine, La Blanca Gente is to Colorado mountain resort towns. Not even close to being built out, hundreds of acres of raw land parcels await development and/or subdividing. More or less in the mountains, sitting on a bench at 8,200 feet, it is only a matter of time before the town is "discovered." Based on my employer's opinion of the situation, and my eagerness to line up a job after graduate school, I thought to myself, "This may well be the first step toward seating myself alongside the Gods of Urban Planning."
Excited as hell with two months to go before graduation, I really talked myself up, too. And with good reason. I was the only one of my peers who had landed a "Community Development Director" position. Most planning master's degree graduates start at the bottom. They get pigeon-holed into doing one mundane planning task or another, with very little wiggle room for professional development. Typically, it is the entry level planners who end up doing the run-of-the-mill code enforcement; i.e., zoning. In planning lingo, the term is not "zoning," it is "land use." However you say it, though, it shakes down to the usual nonsense; they might-as-well just call it "government processing" because that's all they're doing. There's no difference between an entry level planner processing a public request than there is a cashier at the local driver's license bureau processing little Jimmy's very first license to drive. The only skill that is required for either position is patience. But me, the lucky bastard that I am, landed a gig where I may be able to actually do some good.
As far as the planning labor market goes, we're a dime a dozen. Supply is much greater than demand. Thus, when one finishes graduate school and enters the job market, one's value will only be in the neighborhood of $40,000 per year. Pennies, indeed, and it speaks to the lack of credibility planners have as a profession. In an attempt to boost planning's credibility, the American Planning Association (APA), which is likely the foremost professional organization for planners, offers what is called the "AICP" exam—the American Institute of Certified Planners. Like a CPA exam is to accountants, the AICP exam is to planners. The APA pushes their AICP exam like to take it is to take a drink from the Holy Grail. And, don't forget, that it costs $450 to take the exam,1 another $195 for the official exam preparation guide,2 passing the exam will raise your dues by about $100 per year,3 and you'll have to pay for and attend 16 "certification maintenance" credits per year via seminars almost exclusively offered through the APA.4 Indeed, AICP certification is a better revenue generator than credibility generator. Sadly, though, not only does a planner need a master's degree to have any prayer of getting ahead, one may be able to score some cheap credibility points with the AICP certificate hanging on their office wall.
In most cities and towns, however, AICP or not, planning master's degree or not, what you know is hardly relevant; it's how you play the local political game that counts. Because municipal and county employees are subject to the whims of elected officials, it's the planner's job to implement their decisions, however wrong they might be.
Urban planning educated planners hold the keys to the Promise Land. We're the only government employees that actually learned how to make cities and towns better. However, because the public administration educated city manager whispers into the ears of city council, because the law school educated municipal attorney whispers into the ear of the city manager, because the city finance director bemoans the cost of doing business, and because the public works director hammers at our credibility "because it wasn't planned by an engineer," is it any wonder that many cities and towns struggle?
When laymen are elected to guide the business and future of a municipality—a complex and dynamic organism—and such laymen are guided by trained bureaucrats (city managers), attorneys, accountants, and engineers, the answer to the question, "Why are there so many problems that face my city?" has just been explained. The contingent of professionals that should be the most leaned-on to steer policy decisions hardly have a seat at the table.