Wednesday, November 29, 2023
Business & EconomicsUrban Planning

Blueprint for Value: Why Companies Need City Planners on Their Payroll

You may remember when I attended NPC22 in San Diego and was so excited to extol the virtues of working for a company that was proud to have a city planner on staff. This was a tragically unsuccessful attempt to try and please the management of a company that had, in their infinite magnanimity, refused to cover the cost of attending this conference. They told me that, even if I exclusively attended sessions about energy and power infrastructure and decarbonization, that city planning wasn’t part of my job. (This was an about-face from when I was hired– when they boasted about how supportive they are of individual professional development). Rather, my job was to check the boxes on the spreadsheets, and copy the spreadsheets into a Word Doc! Zorach’s law. In other words: “You have one job! Get the ball to Tucker!” They aren’t alone in this aggressively-inside-the-box thinking, but here’s a pitch for you: More companies, especially public utilities and any firm dealing with infrastructure of any kind, should hire city planners on their staff. It’s a huge value-add. A win-win all around. Why?

In the corporate world, a roster of engineers, MBAs, and finance gurus is par for the course. You’ve got your policy wonks, your nerdy quants, your software engineers, and your clandestine agents of the arcane arts of high finance. More recently, some of the more enlightened companies have begun to hire anthropologists, ever keen to leverage their understanding of human behaviors and societal trends in the pursuit of staying as close to the front of the innovation curve as possible. Keen to figure out clever ways to humanize systems, certainly, if not make them more profitable (as an MBA with tendencies to try and move the needle on a variety of subjects, I ask: porque no los dos?).

The value here is in city planners’ ability to connect the dots between elements of complex systems that involve both people, technical systems, and capital systems. In the most abstract terms, that’s what a corporation is.

And a lot of fields increasingly recognize that there can be a lot of value in bringing in expertise from outside the field– chiefly in niche but extraordinarily valuable use cases. An example here would be the ways in which public health increasingly recognizes the dangers from poor indoor air quality, and has, at least gesturally, figured out ways to partner up with housing developers or city governments to retrofit housing to be healthier, hopefully demonstrating clinical benefit and cost savings across the board. The healthcare sector is notoriously awful at connecting the dots with other sectors, because, like many other sectors, healthcare exists in a silo.

Planners Can Define Value Creation in Complex Systems

The core of my pitch is that city planners understand interrelated, complex technical and non-technical systems, in a way that the average professional does not. To use specific examples, a city planner doesn’t necessarily have to be an expert on NACTO design standards, nor on GIS, nor on the MUTCD, nor on EPA regulations, nor on real estate finance. But while even a generalist planner probably has some deeper specialization in at least one or more subject matter areas, any planner at least understands best practices for safe street design (re: NACTO example), how GIS works and how it can be used, why the MUTCD is a garbage document and needs to be thrown out, what kinds of activities would trigger what kinds of regulatory responses (re: EPA), or what a capital stack might look like for a housing development project (real estate finance).

Compare this to traditionally more siloed career fields. An architect, for example, is going to be able to tell you about things like ADA code compliance for bathroom renovations. A great architect is going to be able to tell you about the ADA stuff, the engineering, and how the HVAC systems work. The problem with NCARB, though, is that it’s so focused on engineering principles– even though the projects where this really matters have their own civil engineers- that architects dabble in a world that is a mile wide and a foot deep. I worked on a project last year in which the architect was really well-versed in high-performance design for new construction but had very little clue how historic construction worked– and I’m not talking about differentiating between Type S and Type N plaster, I’m talking about, like, the fact that buildings have plaster-on-lath to begin with. It’s the same in trades. Ask a union plumber to install blocking in a wall, and they’re gonna look at you like you’re insane. I’m a plumber, Jim, not a carpenter!

Cities, like corporations, are not islands, nor are they oases. They operate in a complex regulatory environment, much like a corporation does, dealing with municipal regulations as well as state and federal law. Similar to how corporations can raise funding through everything ranging from IPOs to crowdfunding to promotion sales, cities also source capital from different places– like use fees, taxation districts, federal grants, state grants. Sometimes they negotiate partnerships that help them achieve a goal by making use of the expertise, competency, or resources of a private sector organization like a philanthropic institution, university, or even a corporation. Corporations, similarly, have to work on not only selling widgets, but also on maintaining a diversity of value streams.

Another vital thing? Planners might not always be the best communicators, but even the worst communicators in planning generally understand how to connect with the general public better than the average corporate sector player. This is valuable in building consensus, obtaining buy-in, or facilitating broad collaboration. In my experience, people in the corporate sector are often so siloed that they’re often really bad at talking to the outside world. Corporations function as effectively as they do because they’re able to efficiently amass large amounts of affordable capital. But they often move very slowly, and this is reflected in how hard it can be to communicate with a corporation from the outside world, or vice versa.

Planners deal with this kind of thing all day. Real estate and economic development development projects require connecting vast and often problematically disparate networks of stakeholders. Again, the objective should always be to drive more value creation for a corporation– but I don’t mean this in terms of selling more widgets, I mean it in terms of figuring out better, more efficient, more sustainable, more equitable solutions to any problem. That’s what we as planners are tasked with on a daily basis. And I tend to think that, for all of the problems in the planning field, we’re pretty good at it.

Nat M. Zorach

Nat M. Zorach, AICP, MBA, is a city planner and energy professional based in Detroit, where he writes about infrastructure, sustainability, tech, and more. A native of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, he attended Grinnell College in Iowa, the Kogod School of Business at American University, the POCACITO transatlantic program, the SISE program at the University of Illinois Chicago, and he is also a StartingBloc Social Innovation Fellow. He enjoys long walks through historic, disinvested Rust Belt neighborhoods at sunset. (Nat's views and opinions are his own and do not represent those of his employer).

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