Friday, September 6, 2013


When I began my career after college, I worked for a small, aging, industrial city that had just lost its biggest employer.   Poverty and crime levels were rising, the city’s infrastructure was decaying, and I was part of a young and eager team wanting to change the world.    It was a great experience where I got to knock on doors and sit around kitchen tables and listen to folks’ problems and what they wanted and needed to build a better life.  We worked very hard on economic development and neighborhood improvements and community building.    Being a very poor tenant myself I knew that people wanted pride and dignity in their homes and lives and  I was blessed for several years to work for a Mayor who believed that when you provide people with quality, they respect it.  It was tremendously satisfying knowing that my work directly helped people who were struggling and that their homes became safer, their neighborhoods more stable and their employment opportunities grew.  

After the assault I no longer felt safe in that city.  I was still the main caretaker of my dear friend and mentor who, less than a year later, died of cancer.  A soon as she passed, I began to look for a new job.  At that point I didn't care what or where - I just needed to get out of that city with all it’s triggers and horrific memories.  

A friend’s daughter sent me a help wanted clipping from the newspaper where she lived -  a town looking for a planner.  I called,  interviewed, and was offered the job as I walked back to my car after the interview.  I said yes in the parking lot, knowing nothing about the Town or the area or what was expected of me.  I really didn’t care.  I just wanted to move away from the nightmares and people who knew what had happened to me - treating me with either pity or disdain.  I desperately needed a new start.

Culture shock set in quickly.  I had always lived in metropolitan settings.  Now I was in a town with about 40% suburban development and the rest was rural and farmland.   I quickly had to shift from tenant rights and code enforcement and to golf courses and septic fields.   The school district was rated one of the highest in the area which attracted wealthy people who could afford the half million dollar homes that were being constructed as fast as approvals could be received.

As much as it was interesting to learn new things, I quickly realized that I was not going to get much personal satisfaction from working for a bunch of rich people  who did a lot of complaining about the traffic and the smell of the 300 year old farm they had just built their mini-mansion next to.    (Which is not to say that this town does not have its share of poverty.  It certainly does.  But it tends to be isolated and therefore, unfortunately, not paid much attention)

Anyway, early on I aligned myself with the farming community.  I loved these people - hard workers, honest, didn’t tell everyone else how to live, great stewards of the land, and rarely complained.  (Unless, of course, government tried to mess with their land.)   And through them I developed a new sense of calling - to protect open space from development and preserve farmland and the environment.  

It was difficult at first in this development obsessed area.   When I first came here there were no open space set asides except for the existing town parks.  Developers were allowed to enclose beautiful streams in pipes, fill in the ravines and build over top of them.    Developers would name their subdivisions things like “Deer Run”  and all I could think of was yes,  run, deer, run.  Run as fast as you can away from here.

Once I decided that environmental protection would be my new focus, I set a goal of 2000 acres to preserve as permanent open space.   Some things were easy - writing new right- to- farm laws that gave greater protection to existing farmland.   Some were politically delicate and took years of lobbying like an automatic 10% set aside of green space or fees in lieu of to purchase more open space.   Some were just an educational thing like convincing developers that clustering their developments would save them tons on infrastructure costs.   I am proud to say that every piece of legislation I wrote eventually got passed into law.  Except one - I have been working for years to get a 1/2 cent tax on gasoline to fund an open space purchase program.   I came close to getting that one but then the economy tanked and I think I will have to let it go.

I have now worked here 25 years.   My open space inventory started out very slow and came together in dribs and drabs.  Mostly in subdivisions where a homeowner’s association would privately own the share the open space, and environmentally sensitive areas like wetlands and ravines.   Then, a few years ago, in cooperation with our farmers, we developed a farmland protection plan that allowed protected open space to be farmed.   This has been a huge boon that has generated small developments with large tracts of land forever open and  used for agricultural purposes.  It has also gone a long way in preserving the rural look and character of the western half of our town.  Anyway, I am pleased to say that when I returned from vacation, a new project had been filed that will put the protective open space inventory over 2500 acres.    I more than reached my goal.
I am now on the cusp of retirement.  I am blessed to have worked in a career of public service where I can see improvements in the natural and built environment that I am responsible for. ( I can also see my mistakes that will be around for a long, long while.  *sigh* )  Yet I am still feeling that tug of regret.  I have long struggled with the difference in my two jobs - one where I served mostly poor people, often personally and at a neighborhood level, to now serving a community of middle to upper class people who don’t need much except clear roadways to drive their Mercedes through.   Once I stabilized my life, I probably should have moved onto a more disadvantaged area.   Often times I feel that I sold out, that I could have, should have done so much more with social justice issues through urban planning.   It was always my passion.

The other side of the coin is that the older I get, the more people irritate me.  Not all people - just the whiners and complainers and the bigots and the hypocrites.  Perhaps I am better off working for all the other critters that share our planet.   Because in the end, I really I think we humans will pollute ourselves into extinction long before we solve the problems of poverty, racism, classism,or any other inequality.

Regrets?  I've had a few.


  1. I never actually knew what you did for a living. Either way it is fascinating. It seems to me that protecting the environment serves both rich and poor people and open spaces and parks are sometimes the only places that poor people can go to get some recreation for free.

  2. I agree with Kim - your job must be fascinating, and challenging! From my point of view, both endeavors seem necessary and important to society as a whole. As you say, we cannot go on for long without a healthy environment nor can we be proud of our environment if people are being oppressed.

    I find that people usually regret things they didn't say or do, once they no longer have a chance to do them. Perhaps once you retire, you will be able to dedicate more time again to social justice issues. It is certainly not too late!

  3. I had to smile when I read your article today. It reminds me of why I got into urban planning as well and helped put into perspective what I have achieved over the last 22 years. Unfortunately, I am not quite reaching the retirement age yet. I probably got another 20 years....egads! I started in a poor community where CDBG funding played a major role in just about every project. The unfortunate thing with my first job is that everything was "reactionary planning" and not progressive planning, due to being a very small department. But its smallness meant a lot of experience under "my belt."

    My current employer has allowed me to take on the progressive approach and the most recent ordinance I had passed was for residential cluster developments. While the community has allowed cluster developments for some time, there weren't any guidelines to go by. With the ordinance I prepared, we require at least 25% of the developments to be open space and no more than 25% of that amount can be flood plains or wetlands. What benefit do they provide for residents when it's space that cannot be used actively? We also provide density bonuses when the developer provides more than the 25% minimum open space.

    The only drawback today is that I have found the man who has become the love of my life. We have been together for almost three years. Unfortunately, he lives almost an hour away and trying to find another urban planning position in the public sector has been hard. And after living two miles from my employers over the last 22 years, commuting is out of the question. Such is life. But it does make the work weeks go by fast, knowing that we'll be together over the weekend. :-)

    Steven from the former blog, "Heterosexually Challenged."

  4. I love that there is tangible evidence of your work.

    Don't fret regrets, we all have them. Focus on the positives, of which there were many. :-)

  5. I've worked many, many jobs. My first job post med school was as an ER on call psych consultant. Bad hours, scary patients. Then I worked at an AIDS clinic. I loved that job, but it broke my heart. Then..I worked for in a partnership based clinic that specialized in serving wealthy women. That broke my spirit. I was making an incredible amount of money, living in a fancy condo and hating every second of my job. The only good thing about that job was that I made enough money that when I had my daughter, I was able to leave the workplace, buy a fixer upper house and live on my savings for the first 6 years of her life, supplementing my income by being a jury consultant. My first full time job after she started 1st grade was in a hospital. I was a paper drone. I proof read all medical reports to make sure that the hospital could not be sued for malpractice. Then...I joined up with two colleagues who ran a psych clinic for children. We made our bread and butter money from referrals from health and human services (children removed from homes due to abuse) and there is a lot of red tape and a LOT of pro bono work. My two colleagues have since retired and we've hired two new ones and I am still there. I love my job. But, I think regrets are always a good thing to have. You learn what NOT to do from them.

  6. Congratulations of more than making your goal!

  7. 2500 acres is no small achievement! How many acres would be protected if not for your goals? None. So, kudos to you, 8D.

    I'm in agreement with Sue. Once you have more time, who knows what you'll do with it... besides hiking, canoeing, and going to Disneyland.

    Regrets? Yep. We all have them. Yours should be few and tiny.


  8. Oh! That picture! I love that!!!! Where is it?