I hope everyone had a great Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is unequivocally my favorite holiday of the year because it gives me more time to both spend with my family and think about how blessed I have been. And I believe that it is important and good for my soul to reflect upon what I am particularly thankful for. Here are the things that quickly came to mind and perhaps you can relate to them as well.
Many people would consider themselves fortunate just to have a job. I think of myself as one of the lucky few who not only has a job, but loves the work he does. If you follow my writing, you know that I am very passionate about park and recreation planning, and often discuss the projects I am working on in my articles. I do this not because I feel obligated to, but because I really want to. I am thankful that my office is supportive of me writing and sharing about the important and interesting work that we do. I am grateful that I have a career, not just a job, as I have been given opportunities to learn, grow, and contribute ever since I joined the County of Los Angeles as an entry-level planner. Specifically, over the years, I have been able to gain knowledge and experience in a wide range of planning issues including parks and recreation, land use and zoning, coastal and environmental protection, and housing and community development.
While it may be challenging to work with our constituents at times, I believe that our job as planners is to plan with, rather than for, the communities we serve. I am thankful for the community members I have met over the years, and greatly appreciate their involvement and participation. As I shared previously in Parks and Recreation: Not Just Fun and Games, residents are generally very passionate about park and recreation issues, and have been actively involved in the development of the Community Parks and Recreation Plans. At one particular workshop, some residents initially expressed their frustration in past land use planning efforts that did not materialize, but still enthusiastically participated in park planning exercises and activities later on. I really admire their passion and willingness to continue working with us even though the process is typically lengthy and complex. At another workshop, trained volunteers from the community happily served as organizers, greeters, and small group facilitators, helping to make the meeting particularly successful. It has also been humbling to see senior citizens, families with young children, and disabled individuals attend our community workshops knowing that it was not easy for them to leave their homes and that they could be doing something else. In addition, I have been amazed by the vision and creativity of children participating in “Draw your Perfect Park” exercises at our workshops.
I am thankful for public transit which makes it possible for me to get to work without driving. The availability of reliable transit service between my home and office has also meant that my wife and I can live with just one car, thereby saving us money that would otherwise be needed to buy and maintain another vehicle. While cities like London and New York City may be better known for their subways, I am proud of our expanding system here in Los Angeles and appreciate the work of Metro. As I mentioned in Los Angeles: 20 Years After Speed, L.A.’s Metro rail system has expanded greatly since 1994. In addition to the Red Line, the following lines have opened: Green (1995), Gold (2003), Purple (2006), and Expo (2012). I am also grateful that historic public transit lines still exist. Earlier this year, I was able to ride San Francisco’s streetcars and cable cars (see Vintage Public Transit). It was my daughter’s first time on the streetcar and she clearly enjoyed it. I wish I had captured the joy and excitement on her face as she leaned against the window to see the sights along the route.
Geographic Information System (GIS)
Geographic Information System or GIS is no longer just a “nice to have,” but is an indispensable tool that all planners should be thankful for. It is rare these days not to hear GIS mentioned at my workplace as least once a day. GIS is a tool that we rely on daily for a variety of park and recreation planning projects. I have witnessed firsthand how GIS technology has evolved and advanced through the years and how it is utilized by a variety of public agencies including housing, planning, and parks departments. During my internship at the Los Angeles Housing Department about 15 years ago, one of my first duties was to geocode a database of addresses using Atlas GIS. Later on, as a planner with the Los Angeles County Department of Regional Planning (DRP), I had some experience working with ArcView 3.1 and used GIS-NET, a web-based tool developed in part by DRP’s own GIS staff. Currently, I am with the County’s Department of Parks and Recreation where ArcGIS is used. As part of the Community Parks and Recreation Plans project, we have been using GIS to identify neighborhoods with the greatest need for new parks and analyze potential sites for new parks, which are necessary steps towards achieving more equitable distribution of parks and recreational facilities in unincorporated communities.
I suppose only a plannerd like me would give thanks for data. But I feel that it is so important that I must discuss it. In particular, I am grateful that the American Community Survey (ACS) is still being administered after being at risk of elimination a couple of years ago (see Why We Need the American Community Survey). Specifically, my department currently uses ACS data to update the average household size component of the Quimby parkland formula which calculates how much parkland and/or in-lieu fees residential developers must provide. Average household sizes, together with the number and type of housing units proposed for a subdivision, are key components of this formula. By using the latest ACS data released each year, we are able to more accurately determine the parkland obligation of proposed subdivisions and ensure the adequate provision of parkland and/or in-lieu fees. Government agencies are not the only ones using ACS data. Many businesses, especially retailers, are increasingly reliant on the market data collected through the annual survey. Without this information, they would have a hard time determining market demand, identifying the most appropriate locations for their businesses, and stocking their shelves with the most appropriate products for their customers. I am also thankful for ESRI’s Business Analyst which offers valuable market data on a community’s recreation expenditures, sports market potential, and health market potential; this information supplements the input we gather through the community outreach process and helps us better understand the park and recreation needs of communities.
Rise of Planning in Popular Culture
We have all watched TV shows and movies about professions like doctors, attorneys, and law enforcement officers, but how many of us have seen any starring urban planners? Well, that might have changed in recent years. By now, most people should have heard of the comedy series Parks and Recreation which features Amy Poehler as Leslie Knope, a perky, mid-level bureaucrat in the parks department of Pawnee, a fictional town in Indiana. Did you know that the writers actually researched local California politics for the show, and consulted with urban planners and elected officials? The show even had a city planner (Mark Brendanawicz played by Paul Schneider) in its first season, although he was hardly a shining example of planners. I have noticed that because of this show, my family, friends, and even strangers have taken more interest in what I do as a park planner. There is also a musical on Broadway called IF/THEN which stars a 40-ish city planner moving to New York (read this review on Streetsblog). The heroine, played by Idina Menzel, got a PhD in city planning, married a grad school classmate, and moved to Phoenix. In her late 30s, unfulfilled in her career, in a loveless marriage, childless, she leaves that life behind to return to New York. In addition, BBC released a documentary series last year called The Planners which tell the stories of the planning world by following the work of Council Planning Officers across the United Kingdom. It is certainly nice to see a comedy series, a Broadway musical, and a documentary series about public administrators/planners because they all raise the profile of our profession and generate interest in what we do.
Healthy Design and Planning
The growing focus on health in general and healthy design in particular has made our profession more important and relevant. I am thankful for this because I firmly believe that planners should be leading the effort to develop healthy communities. While protection of public health is one of the justifications for government intervention through planning, it seems that for far too long, many planning agencies appeared to be more concerned about limiting, regulating, or separating incompatible land uses rather than promoting healthy communities. However, this is changing as healthy design is now a priority for planning departments and planners across the country, including those at the City of Los Angeles and County of Los Angeles. It has been good for me to see planners actively involved in various efforts to promote healthy design. For example, I attended a very informative symposium a few years ago which included Los Angeles City Planning Director Michael LoGrande (see Symposium Discussed Ways to Plan for Healthy Cities), went to various sessions at APA Conferences focusing on healthy design, and am currently my department’s representative on the County’s Healthy Design Workgroup (which I wrote about previously in Coordination: Can’t Plan Without It).
Family and Friends
Last but definitely not least, I am very grateful for my family and friends. As I pointed out in Rest for the Weary Planner, it is not easy being a planner. Our job can be stressful and challenging, especially when we have to do things like deal with residents who are angry with you over a plan or project that you are working on, respond to letters of opposition to a plan or project that are based on preconceived ideas or rumors, compile documents and correspondence to comply with Public Records Act requests for information, and/or handle threats of litigation from developers, community residents, and/or environmental groups. One thing that has really helped me is to have some family members and friends who I can talk to about my work and life in general. They may or may not be planners and may not understand what I do exactly, but they are just great at providing a listening ear and helping me put things in perspective. I am certain that I would not be able to do my job well if I do not have their support and encouragement. We all need people in our lives to remind us to breathe, not give up, and fight on when things get rough. I am just so thankful to have family and friends who care about me and support me 100 percent.
Note: Photo of thank you card by author.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author alone, and do not reflect the official views or positions of the Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation.