Northern News

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A publication of the American Planning Association, California Chapter, Northern Section

Making great communities happen

Director’s note

By James A. Castañeda, AICP

Its the end of summer, or “How I spent my summer vacation”

As we approach Labor Day, many of us are winding down our summer (and realizing perhaps how quickly it went by). By the time you read this, I’ll have just finished my annual cross-country train trip with a group of railfan friends (organized for the past nine years by my friend Matt Johnson, who lovingly calls us #NerdTrain).

Aside from taking in sights and embracing the slower pace of rail travel, it’s a time of year I look forward to as an opportunity to catch up with friends. We have great conversations. As some of us in the group are also planners, we often trade stories from “the front lines.” At one of our chats, it dawned on me that one of the more challenging elements of my time as a planner was and is public counter work.

A nod to planners at the counter, once my least favorite task

I wasn’t sure what to expect at my first planning job, fresh out of college. While I knew a job with a public agency would involve community engagement, staffing the front counter would not have been the first task to come to mind for becoming a professional planner. I felt as though my counter work got in the way of “real” planning. What I would soon realize was how important that responsibility is to our profession, and how it speaks to what we do as planners.

I’m part of a public agency that takes an “all hands-on deck” approach when it comes to taking a shift to help members of the public who come by for assistance and guidance. Regardless of our titles or years of experience at the agency, we all share. For a long time, I dreaded those days at the counter with their nonstop cold-call inquiries. I was left so drained I couldn’t take on much else that day.

In retrospect, staffing the counter has been one of the more important and rewarding parts of being a planner. It’s where I learned two indispensable traits for planners — how to listen to, and how to empathize with, residents, business owners, and tradespeople. And working the counter tangibly validates us. As planners, our work results are seldom realized quickly; they may take years to come to fruition. But over a few hours at the counter, I may take on several challenges I can resolve, while providing specific direction or offering advice for those I can’t resolve. These are small victories that add up and help you appreciate what you do and for whom.

Planning isn’t always what we expect

We planners wear many hats, and our specialties vary. In my experience (and experiences shared by others), the roles that we didn’t know would be ours — or for which we didn’t “sign up” — are often the most interesting, engaging, and rewarding tasks, and are worth our attention and nurturing. They round out our training and education and help make us better planners.