Inside the Planner's Studio

The American Planning Association's Pennsylvania Chapter, Southeast Section, holds an annual program called “Inside the Planner’s Studio.” Each year we have a candid chat with a planner we admire and learn about the professional challenges they have faced. The audience is composed of professionals, mentors, and students from the mentor program.

This year we were honored to have Patty Elkis, director of planning at the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission, as our speaker. Karen Thompson of the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation asked Elkis about her career, civic engagement, and her advice for emerging professionals in the planning industry.

Here are the highlights:

Would you describe the built environment where you grew up? How do you think this environment and your experience of it has influenced your planning career?

I grew up in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, and when I learned to ride a bike, the only place that I was able to ride that bike was to the 7-Eleven. I was really dependent on my parents and I felt that there must be a better way to get around. I spent a lot of time in Haddonfield, and I enjoyed the scale of their downtown.

You worked as a planner in Israel. Can you talk about that experience, and how has it affected your outlook today?

The community I worked with in Israel was planning recreational facilities, and I learned how important it is to ask citizens what types or recreational facilities they would like and to have programming at these facilities. Facilities that are underutilized are often vandalized.

What is your favorite ...

City? Washington, D.C., because of the scale and the architecture. I also love Jerusalem. I haven’t been there is some time, but the buildings are all created with Jerusalem stone. The city is hilly and green and beautiful.

Public space? Franklin Square [in Philadelphia]. My office overlooks the park, and I’ve been able to see the improvements over the years. It’s full of people. The carousel and the mini golf are popular features and it’s a great place to walk.

Trail? The Perkiomen Trail, which is a 20-mile trail along the Perkiomen Creek in Pennsylvania. I had a small part in its creation. When I worked for Montgomery County, I ensured that the configuration of a subdivision dedicated right of way and access for the trail. At the time, we were not sure it would ever be completed, and now it’s a lovely trail.

What makes a civic engagement process successful?

The planner needs to have a comprehensive understanding of who the client is and who the influencers are. The client, citizens, public officials, and influencers need to have a sense of ownership. It can take years or even decades before plans are realized, and planners need to be patient and persistent.

How can we encourage the public and elected officials to provide funds for maintaining capital improvements?

I see planners as problem solvers, brokers, and facilitators, and we need to communicate the risk of not maintaining infrastructure. Open space and environmental planners have developed excellent strategies to ensure long-term funding for open space acquisition and they aim to set up endowments for maintenance. Maintenance should be considered when the capital improvement is being planned.

What is the most crucial problem today that planners should be working to address?

We need to find a better way to plan age-inclusive communities. It’s isolating to have our aging population live in the middle of nowhere, especially when so many of them can’t drive. Intergenerational communities where people can age in place provide a healthier environment for the aging community, students, parents, and young children.

What project are you most proud of?

In 2010 I worked on a report with  the Greenspace Alliance called “Return on Environment” that quantified the economic value of protected open space. This is the presentation that I’m still frequently asked to do.

Thank you to Patty and Karen for participating in our program, and thank you to Penn Design for sponsoring the event.

Top image: Karen Thompson poses questions to Patty Elkis, director of planning at the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission at the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy. 

About the Author
Kate Raman, AICP, is a licensed urban planner and geospatial analyst with a multi-disciplinary background in municipal government, economic development, and environmental policy. While in graduate school Raman worked at the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. She also worked at Econsult Solutions and New Jersey's State Planning Commission.

November 21, 2016

By Katherine Raman, AICP