Finding Meaning in Municipal Careers: Insights From Planning Directors

What work can I do to make the greatest difference in my community and the world? And where will my career as a planner take me?

All planners — from newly minted planning school graduates to mid-career and even seasoned practitioners — ask themselves these questions at many points throughout their professional lives. Last month, planning directors from some of the country's largest cities shared their answers to these questions with an audience of planning students.

Big City Planners Discuss Future Challenges

For two decades, the Big City Planning Directors Institute (BCPDI), an initiative of the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, American Planning Association, and Harvard University, has brought together the planning directors of the largest U.S. cities to share insights and engage with shared challenges from racial equity to zoning. In the fall of 2022, the BCPDI addressed the future of work — in cities and, importantly, in the planning profession.

The end of COVID lockdowns and massive federal infrastructure investments have combined to create a great deal of work for planners. Around the country, local planning departments are attempting to hire enough professionals to deal with what in many places is a development boom. This is a challenge. The desire of many city governments to bring employees back to the physical office has come up against workers' desires for flexibility as well as the wide range of options for planning careers.

BCPDI Panelists Highlight Planning Career Paths

In this context, a BCPDI panel of four planning directors emphasized the vital roles that public-sector planners play in elevating voices that are not always heard and making cities more inclusive, equitable, and livable places for all community members.

Focusing on the benefits of work in local government, panelists outlined their diverse paths to becoming planning directors. Panelists included:

  • Laura Aldrete — Denver
  • Vince Bertoni, AICP — Los Angeles
  • Antoine Bryant — Detroit
  • Edith Hsu-Chen — New York City

While Hsu-Chen began her career as an intern in New York City's planning department, the others shared stories of moving between nonprofit, private, and public-sector jobs in a variety of cities. Other planning directors from the audience joined in a wider conversation, highlighting the opportunities that municipal planners have to address the key challenges of our time, including racial inequality and climate change.

Now is a time of great opportunity for planning work that can make a difference. However, the many paths that planners can take to achieve these ends add complexity to the decision-making of new planners, as well as those further along in their careers. The BCPDI panel highlights the importance of municipal careers as the main focus of one's work life — or as one chapter of a larger story.


Top image: The BCPDI panel discussion (from left to right): Moderator Ann Forsyth of Harvard University; Edith Hsu-Chen, New York City; Laura Aldrete, Denver; Vince Bertoni, AICP, Los Angeles; and Antoine Bryant, Detroit.

About the Author
Ann Forsyth is the Ruth and Frank Stanton Professor of Urban Planning at Harvard University and Editor of the Journal of the American Planning Association.

December 7, 2022

By Ann Forsyth