A Pandemic In Review


 This past week I was speaking with a co-worker, and cracked a joke about spending 75% of our time documenting how we spend the remaining 25%. This practice has many names, and takes many forms. Maybe to you it’s mindfulness, a way of staying in touch with yourself as you navigate the many twists and turns of day-to-day life. Maybe, as when I was a teacher, you consider yourself a “reflective practitioner,” someone who finds the lessons in your daily work and makes sure to learn from them. Maybe you are just somewhat frustrated with it all and think it’s busy work designed to keep you accountable to someone who never has, and never will, actually understand what you do.

I started this website because I needed a job, and I felt like it was a good way to showcase who I am, and what I do. I had very grand ideas about documenting my every activity, both before and during my time as a professional urban planner. The reality, of course, is that sometimes we have too much to do, and not enough time or energy remaining to reflect. I guess this is all just a very verbose and melodramatic way of saying that I neglected updating my website for a little bit, and so now I’m going to log a few things all at once!

  I also intend to make a more intentional effort to update, maybe on a weekly or monthly basis – but I do think there’s an innate value to it. I’m no longer looking for work, I’m very happily married to a job I love. But I am intensely proud, and sometimes still surprised, by the things I get to do on a regular basis. There’s a great personal benefit to pausing from time to time and taking stock of things.

At Work

The last update I provided to this blog was March 29th, 2020. We were approximately two weeks into the COVID-19 pandemic, and I was working from home. Let’s take a look at what I did in that time, eh?

Business Retention & Outreach.

The role of the Urban Planner, especially in local government, is an eternal struggle between proactivity and reactivity.  One of the lessons I recall most vividly from my Masters was that the best plan is meaningless without a realistic path toward implementation. I think in practice I’d take that one step further, not only should a good planner have the ability to get their plans done, but they should also have the ability to deal with what happens when said plan is suddenly utterly unviable because of a worldwide global health crisis.

Statistics, and just plain old common sense tells us that the first sector hit hard was hospitality. Our response to this was to re-purpose www.dinewoodridge.com. I originally created this website in WordPress to promote our inaugural Restaurant Week in 2019. Within a week, the website was transformed into our one-stop-shop for information on who within our community was still open for takeout/delivery, including immediate links to services like GrubHub and DoorDash so that we could convert a few information-seekers into customers for our businesses.

You can catch a quick PSA I created for it here.

Pivoting to online public engagement.

A number of years ago, a friend of mine invited me to “hop on a Zoom call.” Ostensibly, this was for a “business opportunity,” that in reality was an attempt to sell me miracle legumes that promised to reduce my waistline and restore my hairline. But wait, there’s more! I would also be offered an exciting opportunity to push sell this scam opportunity to other suckers  health-seekers.

Understandably then, when our industry began to trend toward the use of Zoom, I was somewhat concerned as my only prior experience with the platform had been pyramid scheme-touting huns who drove identical white Mercedes.

Now? Now I’m a true believer. I love the structure that the platform provides. We’re forced to think about our audiences. One solution I’ve “borrowed” from my teaching days is to create a rigorous PowerPoint presentation that, in the words of Steve Milton, my old tutor, shows people “where we are, where we’re going, and how we’re going to get there.”

As the world begins to re-open, we’ll be trying out some exciting “hybrid” approaches to in-person and digital public meetings. I’m hopeful that these will provide a good solution to questions of equity and the digital divide, while still allowing us to maximize the potential of online engagement. Because let’s face it, 7 people watching a livestream about a new Starbucks is likely more people than would have attended in person…

Figuring it out.

On a more personal note, my colleague, who had been with our Village for more than 15 years, left for an exciting new opportunity.  I am immensely grateful for the opportunity to learn from her over the past year. She was a wealth of institutional knowledge, a role-model for professionalism, and genuinely great to be around. But, much like when you watch a movie with someone who had already seen it before, it was all too easy to ask her what was going on instead of figuring it out for myself. It’s absolutely sink or swim time, but there’s something exciting about having to just… figure it out now.


Pathways to Planning

I’ve mentioned this before on here, but I think it bears repeating. When I first arrived in the Chicagoland area, I was somewhat adrift. With no school support network in place, I stabbed around in the dark, on LinkedIn and the such to try and find somebody, anybody who could help me figure out how to get started. Luckily, I found people in spades, and one of those people led me to attending my first APA-IL event, which featured both a planning law section, and then a careers and mentoring panel.

I learned a lot from that panel, and I remember promising to myself back then that if I was ever in a position to help someone out, I would be the person that I myself had needed.

It’s hard to proclaim a pandemic that’s ravaged our communities as having an upside, so I won’t. Instead, I’ll simply acknowledge that it created a situation where fears around health and safety were compounded with fears around economic security, and created yet another generation that were set to graduate into an economy were opportunity was to be scant.

Working with my colleagues on the APA-IL membership committee, I put together a panel with diverse careers and background. All of us on that panel had a “non-traditional” pathway into planning, but we all shared a genuine desire to reach that next generation. You can view the recording of the panel here. We had over 100 attendees, and ended up running 45 minutes over our allotted time, thanks to calls for encores from the audience. I hope beyond hope that those in attendance found some support and comfort in our stories.

I also wrote a short article for APA-IL offering some career advice. You can read it here.

Lockdown Lowdown.

I am not a fan of the term “social distancing,” when what we’re actually encouraging is physical distancing. Growing up as an only child, and then finding myself as someone with friends across the globe thanks to my time at Disney, I have always valued online socializing as a very real and genuine way to stay in touch.

I chose planning as my profession because I am drawn to the collaborative nature of it. Much for the same reason I never really felt at home in stand-up, but thrive on an improv team, I am naturally better when I have other people around me to bounce ideas off. Again with my colleagues on the membership committee, we worked quickly to establish the Lockdown Lowdown, a series of Zoom happy hours for planners to vent, where the stated goal was just to let off steam, and learning things was just a bonus. Happily, I’ve cashed in on that bonus many a time, and have made some fantastic connections, and I think our core group of attendees have formed a genuine bond. I am beyond grateful to be figuring out this pandemic in such a supportive, collaborative profession.

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