As I leave Renaissance after 16 years for a new job leading Pinellas County's Planning Council and MPO, I thought it would be fun to share some things I’ve learned during my experience here and three decades as a consultant. So, here are 16 observations that helped keep me grounded in the crazy world of growing a start-up business, serving diverse clients and building an identity in the planning profession. What lessons would you add to my list from your experience?

  • Put the community first. We work in the public interest, not to raise our own profiles. Whatever you do, it’s important to know your audience and how they will use the plan or work products. Listen to them, and then write through the community’s or client’s eyes, ears and experiences rather than your own, and elevate the community’s role in shaping the plan above yours. It's not about you.
  • The past is not a template for the future. There is no “go by” or playbook for a compelling plan. Planners are about change, not production. Change affects each community or region differently, reflecting its unique values, conditions and personalities. When discussing an assignment, I’ve had many young planners ask me where they can look to see how we’ve done it before. My answer is “We haven’t.” Replicating a prior process or plan might be a good way to generate profits, but it’s a disservice to the client and community.
  • Go big or go home. Too often we limit ourselves and our communities by being timid and overly sensitive to the status quo. Our job is to bring ideas to the discussion, asking the “what if” or “why not” questions that challenge past precedent in light of emerging issues (see above). Don’t futz in the margins; be bold in confronting the issues with big, bold ideas. You probably will have to pull back on those big ideas somewhat, but if you start small, you may never get there. Which brings us to…
  • Find the story in conflict. The best short stories introduce conflict right in the first paragraph, often the first sentence. Stephen Crane’s classic, The Open Boat, begins “None of them knew the color of the sky.” Conflict is compelling theater. It draws the reader in, creating interest. Embrace it. Resolving that central conflict is a key part of every novel, movie or play, and should be the focus of every plan. When we examine conflict through the eyes of key actors – an affected community, a person leading a redevelopment project, or people who are injured walking or riding a bike on our car-centered roadways – we can highlight the issues and address them from a human perspective, which makes them interesting and compelling.
  • See connections in all things. I once wrote that you have to un-focus to see well. We put our attention on completing the task at hand and often fail to pick up on important connections that draw people and groups together around a shared vision. Indianapolis Mayor Bart Peterson linked his vision for economic development and an arts and cultural identity with transportation objectives through construction of that city’s Downtown Cultural Trail. A big vision involves many people, and carrying it out means they all need to see something of value in it. The process of making connections is at the core of effective planning.
  • Take a handlebar survey. The best field work I’ve done is on a bicycle. Even if transportation is only a small part of the project, a bicycle is the most efficient mode for understanding a study area. It enables mostly comparable access as by car. It allows you to experience a place through more senses, with maximum flexibility to stop, observe and take photos. With the right kind bike, you can get to the places you can’t by car, and you’ll know well the smells, barriers and challenges.
  • Experience what you plan. Along those lines, you have to become educated. If you’re trying to improve transit service, ride the dang bus and talk to operators. If you want to create a bicycle network, get on your bike and take a Cycling Savvy class. If you are planning for a neighborhood, spend time in the community. And this isn’t casual, recreational investigating. Make utilitarian trips, and shop at local businesses. Talk with owners, workers and users. Get to know their stories.
  • Give people a chance.Most public meetings don’t enable real input from the public. These days it’s mostly stilted survey questions and speaking individually with a facilitator. Stop. We don’t “educate” the public; they educate us. I’ve found open formats that let people draw, make maps, and talk in front of their peers – the audience at large – brings real values and important ideas to the fore, challenges assumptions and demonstrates an intelligence that we planners often discount. It may make us uncomfortable, but it helps our credibility with the community and our plans will benefit.
  • Be irreverent.Planning - unlike college football - isn’t religion, and we’ve spent too many years as supplicants to the manuals and formulas created by other professions. Challenge the status quo whenever necessary, and never use precedent as the sole basis for making the best recommendation. Context is the trump card in all decision-making, so frame the discussion and make your case.
  • Listen to good music of all varieties. The best songs say something to the listener, either through lyrics or a melody. Music fixes a stamp to a place and time unlike any other medium. If you can relate most any event to a line from song lyrics, then you’re in a good place with music as your muse, and you are better able to tell a story that resonates.
  • Drink good beer. OK, this is becoming much easier these days with the proliferation of microbreweries. Beer, like good music and good planning, is a craft best appreciated when the ingredients are authentic, the atmosphere is conducive and the conversation is meaningful. Plus, every public workshop or big meeting requires a debriefing or decompression over a quality malt beverage or two.
  • Finally, volunteer your time. Enable others to learn from your mistakes and successes. Give people a chance to shine by helping them be successful through mentoring, partnering, and rehearsing. You’ve got skills to contribute no matter your years, so join a professional association. Volunteer to edit a newsletter or arrange an event with a speaker. Run for leadership. As retiring Nashville Metro Planning Director Rick Bernhardt told me in 2000 when I was considering a run for chair of the American Planning Association's Transportation Planning Division: "You’ll meet the most amazing, accomplished planners in the world and you will learn from them." He was right. Do it.

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