Tales of a Young Urban Planner – How to Sidestep An Out-of-Bounds Question

A few weeks ago, I found myself an extremely taxing conversation with a representative for a commercial real estate company.  I had to do on demand research which put this call at 25 minutes.  Towards the end of the conversation, the rep asked me to recommend law firms in the area that deal with land use issues.

Now hold on.  Seriously?

Private sector representative just asked public sector employee to recommend to him/her a legal team that will give his/her company a favorable outcome.  I say ‘favorable’ because who wants an unfavorable outcome when there is land, money and time involved.  I almost choked on my tea when hearing it.  I explained to the rep that I was not in a position to do this.  The rep says ‘Its okay, this conversation is off the record.’

What???  Because that makes it better somehow.  In the murky world of land deals, dollars and politics, nothing is truly ever off the record.

The rep began to rattle off a few legal firms that s/he was already aware of doing business with my agency.  I replied ‘yes, you are correct, they have worked on cases brought to our agency.’  The rep wanted to know which of these firms was actually ‘good at their job.’  At this point I am completely exasperated.  I said ‘you are going to have to speak with their clients to make that determination.’  The rep FINALLY caught the hint and seemed a bit embarrassed by the line of questioning.  End scene.

During the course of my career, I have heard of firm representatives (reps) attempting to pay for the lunch of employees and inviting agency employees to social functions held by the reps.  All of these actions are out-of-bounds and could be considered a bribe.  Someone just starting out in the field may find it nice when a company/firm representative wants to invite them to a party or pay for coffee/lunch/whatever but you better believe from the rep’s perspective, s/he is operating under the mindset that these acts are greasing the skids, some way some how.

Baby planners and baby public sector employees who have any sort of contact with the public.  Just.say.no.  If your spidey sense is  going haywire to any type of request that sounds remotely off,  trust it.  You will save yourself a whole heap of trouble down the line.

Rant over, off to write my next post which will be all smiles and rainbows…


Event: State of the Harbor Conference

Inner Harbor
Photo of the Inner Harbor, Baltimore
Source:  Kevin Harber (Flickr)

On Saturday, February 5th, the first annual State of the Harbor Conference held by Baltimore Waterfront Partnership. The Partnership’s initiate Healthy Harbor by 2020 seeks to have a ‘swimmable, fishable Inner Harbor’ in the next nine years. If you are from Baltimore, you are probably already aware that the Inner Harbor is in need of tender loving care. To learn more about this event, go to http://www.healthyharborbaltimore.org/

Off-Topic Friday: Wanderlust Edition

Today’s off-topic links were inspired by my desire to start traveling again this year. 2010 was a hardcore year that did not allow for me to do the traveling I so love to do. Here’s to 2011 being the exact opposite. Enjoy the links and the architecture wonder of the day!

Bonnie Greer on London – Black Atlas

Midnight Walking Through Paris – jordan gordon’s blog

Northern Lights Festival – Travelrific Travel Journal

Island Music:  Concha Buika a Afro-Spanish Collective – Island Organics

Dubai Skyline
Source: Joaquin Alterio (Flickr)

What the @!?**#! Is An Urban Planner?

The Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Center
A model showcase at the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Center – Shanghai, China
Source: Michael Jentsch (Flickr)

I get this question a lot (without the cursing but the facial expressions convey the blue language).  A few months ago, a Primerica “salesman” approached me in the produce section of my neighborhood Safeway attempting to get me to sign up for his MLM scheme and he asked what I did for a living (wow how brazen to ask someone you don’t know this question!).  I told him, I am an urban planner.  Primerica man’s eyes glazed over and we stood in a 5 second uncomfortable silence.  He finally decided to ask what is an urban planner.  My stock answer for the everyday man or woman is this  — “I help design cities.”  Four words.  Sometimes I swap the word ‘cities’ with ‘neighborhoods’ or ‘towns.’ He went on to ask did I make good money in my profession.  Errr, well enough to not have to go around soliciting people in a grocery store to get them to waste their time and resources on a scheme.

It’s a bit more complicated than that definition but it works when I get the glazed over look.  But if you are curious to know what an urban planner, here is the definition courtesy of Wikipedia:

An urban planner is a professional who works in the field of urban planning for the purpose of optimizing the effectiveness of a community’s land use and infrastructure. They formulate plans for the development and management of urban and suburban areas, typically analyzing land use compatibility as well as economic, environmental and social trends. In developing their plan for a community (whether commercial, residential, agricultural, natural or recreational), urban planners must also consider a wide array of issues such as sustainability, air pollution, traffic congestion, crime, land values, legislation and zoning codes.

In other words urban planners design cities (and towns, and the suburbs).   Sometimes the job is routine like many others but most of the time is great in a frustrating complex way. The sheer amount of meetings with community residents, developers, architects, engineers, politicians and bureaucrats would probably drive most people batty.  You have to master the art of negotiation having to deal with all of these groups. One thing I really do like about the profession is that I get to set policy in what is good for a community.    At this moment, I am working on two plans that will guide the growth of  two communities for the next 15 to 20 years. Power trip anyone? Ha!

In my profession the use of the word ‘urban’ is sometimes controversial because not all work in urban areas – yep someone out there is planning rural areas and farmland folks.  Some have taken to saying they are ‘planners’ but I have learned this causes so much more confusion than is necessary.  I tried it once at an event and everyone thought I was a party planner.  Seriously.  So no thank you, tacking the word urban on the title at least gets people’s minds working and wanting to know more.

In conclusion, I help design cities and I am proud to say so.

By the way, the photo above is great! Shanghai is teaching its people about the benefits of urban planning.  Where is the U.S. is this happening?  If you know of any, please send the details my way.

The Great Meetup Experiment of 2011

I signed up for Meetup.com about a year and a half ago to become more involved in activities around Baltimore and DC. But it never happened. And here are my excuses for it not happening:

1. My extreme commute to and from work. We are talking about 1.5 hours each way. From Monday-Thursday (and sometimes Friday) I was too worn out to attend anything extracurricular on a week night.

2. My sometimes retiring personality. It’s weird because I can hold court when I need to (which is a lot considering the field I work in) but sometimes I don’t want to get ‘into character’.

In 2011, I want to harness the power of Meetup.com – which will enable me to learn more about my city, make connections and perhaps provide value to whomever I come into contact with along the way. With that said, the great Meetup Experiment of 2011 will commence. I want to participate in 3 activities per month to start.  Posts on the outcomes of these activities will make it to Wicked Urbanity.

People of the interwebs have you ever participated in a Meetup event?  If so, what is your take on the event and Meetup.com?

Hello Beautiful World: Twitter Activity on New Year’s Eve

While checking out The Atlantic’s online magazine yesterday, I came across this article by Nicholas Jackson on activity on Twitter on New Year’s Eve.  According to the article (and Twitter’s statistics), 6,939 tweets were sent in one second immediately after midnight in Japan.  The east coast of the U.S. sent almost 3,000 TPS (tweets per second) after midnight celebrating the new year.Wow!  The picture below shows twitter activity on New Year’s Eve.  The large circles represent a concentration of tweets taking place at once (The Twitter blog mentions these circles are presumably taking place when the clock struck 12am in a particular time zone).  *Nerd alert* I am completely fascinated by this graphic and the power of Twitter.


Source: Twitter

My Favorite Urban Blogs & Websites

I watched Oprah Winfrey’s new network OWN over the holiday weekend on and off and decided to do a ‘favorite things’ blog post that highlights interesting urban/city-focused blogs and websites (if you have never watched Oprah you will not get the ‘favorite things’ reference). This list is not in any particular order.

1. Harlem Bespoke (@HarlemBespoke)

Back in the early part of the 2000s, I had a boyfriend/college sweetheart who was from NYC, Harlem to be exact.  And I liked visiting him during school breaks in large part because I would get visit Harlem (shhh don’t repeat that).  Harlem Bespoke is a lovely blog that transports me back to all that walking – around the corner to  the subway station at 145th Street, to all the stores on the Avenue, walking around one of the City College campuses (I don’t remember which one).  For that, Harlem Bespoke, thank you for keeping me up to date on  the Harlem happenings.

2. Car Free Baltimore (@CarFreeBaltimore)

One man’s tale of living in Baltimore without four wheels.  Being from Baltimore, I did not think living car free was possible before I found this blog.  Will I ever get this hardcore, who knows but it’s a great first-person account of living in Charm City car free.

3. Rebuilding Space in the Urban Place

I heart this blog for a couple of reasons.  First it provides an in-depth analysis on the issues taking place in the DC area in  the areas of urban planning, development and politics.   Second, though the blog author, Richard Layman, may not remember, gave my first blog Urban Ethnic Focus a big shout out on Rebuilding Space, which drove up the site traffic considerably.

4. Miamism (@Ines)

While this is a website that focuses on real estate I have to give it the thumbs up.  Those beautiful photos of Miami architecture, of the sun, the beaches, the people.  You would be crazy not to like this blog.  Oh, and Ines’ (the author) tweets and reviews on mojitos will make you want a mojito!

5.  Urbanophile (@urbanophile)

Providing great analysis and discussion on urban issues in  Mid-West, Urbanophile is where it’s at.  I check on the happenings at this blog at least once a week.

6.  Montreal State of Mind (@JeanAymeri)

I want to go to the Montreal International Jazz Festival this year so I decided to start checking on local blogs  to get a feel for life in Montreal.  This blog is visually appealing and has lots of good information.

7.  StreetsBLOG

This blog covers urban/city issues on both coasts – specifically NYC, LA, San Francisco, and DC.  An enjoyable read for us urban-loving types.

8.  Spotted by Locals (@spottedbylocals)

A treasure trove of information on Euro locales.  A heavy focus on urbanism and related issues which makes me giddy!

9.  The Pop-Up City

Wicked Urbanity wants to be like The Pop-Up City when it grows up.  It’s that good.

10.  BLDGBLOG (@bldgblog)

A photograph-heavy blog on urbanscapes and buildings.  I could star that this blog for hours.  Seriously.