I rarely know what to call myself, professionally that is. I have a degree in urban planning, which would make me a planner, but I have never spent even one day working as a planner. I have a degree in economics, and while I use economics constantly in my work, I doubt that makes me an economist, although I would like to be one. I worked in Main Street for years, so does that make me a Main Streeter? Is that even a thing? None of those labels feels quite right.
I have tremendous respect for planners, but that is not the field I work in. I do not plan. I see the value of planning. I know the value of planning. Cities that plan for their future, just like business and individuals, fair better than their non-planning counterparts. So therefore planning is a valuable undertaking, if that is what your community needs, but rarely, do I find that this is what a community needs. If your community has its shit all together and has the ability to make decisions for 10 and 20 years down the road, by all means, plan your asses off. These, however, are not my communities. My communities are the dysfunctional ones. Mine are broken. Mine have stopped existing in a manner where traditional thinking is useful. The communities I focus on cannot benefit from planning and every dollar they spend on such things, is a dollar wasted. It is not to say that planning isn’t beneficial, but there is a time and a place. A business owner that can’t keep the lights on has to do some emergency strategizing before concerning themselves with 10 year sales projections. A building owner who is concerned with collapse must look at stabilization options before thinking about landscaping. A community suffering from a crippling lack of self-esteem will not derive any benefit from planning.
It is not to say that planning and budgets and landscaping are not important, we all know that they are critically important, but we also know, there is an order to things. I am all for planning, when a community can actually use a plan. This is why I am not a planner, because most of the communities I have worked with throughout my career have no business worrying about plans. They are struggling with more basic problems. Apathy is rampant, ownership is low, buildings are crumbling, residents are angry and leadership is providing no guidance. All the land-use maps in the world won’t help these places. They don’t need to plan, they need to do. Now.
I am happy to talk shit on most subjects, but I am not here to talk shit on planning. I loved my school. I loved the classes, the professors and the people I attended with. They are all civic-minded individuals ready to be their best Leslie Knopes. The world needs planners. The problem with my degree, and even my time working with Main Street, is that no one ever taught us now to deal with places that weren’t ready for a plan, places with rampant dysfunction. No one ever talked about what to do when a community is incapable of helping itself. The brutal lessons I learned working in Main Street, is that the communities that needed the most help, were the ones we could not help.
I found in my work that no matter how many times I may have returned to a place, nothing I would do or say was working. I was trying to address the wrong problem. Now, I think of places like people, and I am much more able to assist. The thing about planning that doesn’t work for certain communities, is that the whole nature of planning is future focused. A better tomorrow is the entire idea behind planning, but if you can’t even get through today, worrying about tomorrow is just not a priority. Planning just won’t take hold in a place where there is no thought of what comes next. The problem with planning, is it has an inherent lack of doing. The only cliche that is more tired than “out of the box” is the one about a “plan collecting dust on a shelf.” Why does every single planning firm I know always talk about plans collecting so much dust on so many shelves? Is every community the problem? Or perhaps…is trying to apply a planning solution to a non-planning problem, the problem. At some point, do you stop blaming the towns and start looking at yourself? Planning firms have one product to sell and that product is not civic pride, it’s not strategic doing, it’s not self-esteem building, it’s planning.
When everything becomes about planning, too little doing takes place. We have become mired down in planning in some places. Community organizations and residents are paralyzed with inaction, waiting for the next plan. It has also lead to an over reliance on silver bullet projects. When I working in Illinois back in March, the community I was assisting had a million small things that needed to be done. Small, easy tasks and projects that could have made a difference, that could have transformed their town, and in turn, themselves- but they were all waiting. Waiting for the next big plan and the next big project. They could have been doing the work every day, improving their town and improving their lives, but they wanted a plan. Doing is the plan. It is the simple act of picking a weed, throwing away some trash, repainting a porch, or inviting over a neighbor that can start repairing what went wrong. If we can start focusing on doing, we can demonstrate momentum. We can remind people that they all have the power to make a difference and that the smallest act of improvement is still an improvement and sometimes, that’s all it takes. A thousand small acts will outshine one large project every time.
Along the way, I have also learned another incredibly important lesson that I rarely hear discussed in planning circles and that is the importance of a sense of community. This isn’t just some toss away, intangible, gone by way of the 8-track tape. Sense of community is alive and well in many places and it is this bond between residents that makes a place work. People connect with other people. What becomes special about any place, is the relationships you have in that place. When people begin to create meaningful relationships with other people in their community, they will begin to fight for their community. You are’t going to have any luck getting people to support a town where they don’t care about anyone else in their town. If a person’s place doesn’t bring them closer to other people, they will not, and should not, care about that place. No one fights for their municipality, people fight for their community.
So I am not a planner, probably not an economist, I love Main Street, but my work is focused on more than just downtown. I am DEFINITELY not working in tourism or economic development. I am not sure what title works for me, but I suppose in the end it doesn’t matter. Titles don’t bestow any knowledge or expertise. I just know that I am passionate about my work and for that I am lucky. Too few people get to wake up excited to do their job. I know that what I do, is desperately needed. I know that the need is great and I hope to make a difference. What drives me is the belief that every single person should live in a place that provides them with a sense of dignity, a sense of pride, and a sense of belonging and dreadfully few places are doing this today. I may not know what to call myself, but I know this is my calling.