Once Upon a Permit Counter: Explaining what Urban Planners Do

Once upon a permit counter screenshot

Written by Pete Sulllivan, AICP, Senior Associate at Clarion Associates

June is graduation season, and as I watched various high school and college ceremonies popping up around town, I thought back to my own passage from school into career, and how I wrestled with that slippery question, What do urban planners do?

Actually I still struggle with this inquiry. I’m constantly tweaking my response to keep the attention of non-planners while I try and boil down one of the broadest fields imaginable into a single-sentence response.

The what-do-planners-do question takes me back to my first job interview for a planning position. I was right out of planning school, ready to save the world, and had a nicely packaged elevator speech about density and mixed use. The only problem was, I hadn’t actually been a planner yet.

The first 50 minutes of the job interview went well—I was able to rely on academic training. Then the interviewer hit me with a curve ball. He said,

“Ok, now for the exam. I’m going to leave the room and ask that you prepare a response letter to an applicant who wants to know whether she can subdivide. The property details and zoning code are on my desk. Draft the letter using my computer. I’ll be back in 10 minutes.”


I sat alone in the hiring manager’s office with a creeping sense of panic thinking,

“Wow, this is such a basic task and yet we didn’t do this in planning school….why didn’t we do this in planning school??”

I threw open the zoning code, and fortunately it was user-friendly enough that I could look up the development standards and turn in a decent letter (and later became inspired to help other communities write user-friendly zoning codes, but that’s a different story).

Fast-forward to 2014. I was invited to join a career panel at the University of Washington in Seattle, with an audience full of 1st –year urban planning graduate students. The purpose of the panel was to share career-related insights like public versus private sector jobs, working with elected officials, break room etiquette, etc.….all the juicy tips students don’t get in planning theory class.

I really wanted to connect with the students because I was a graduate from the same program. I knew exactly what they were (and weren’t) learning in school, and I wanted to help them avoid a situation like the one I had during my first job interview.

Well, maybe that’s not true. I knew they would have a deer-in-headlights moment at some point. We all do upon starting a career. What I really wanted was for them to be ready for it, and approach it with a sense of humor. Because planning is hard work, and while you might be lucky enough to see concrete results, you probably won’t be thanked for it. It’s a long process and it helps to smile along the way (this advice comes straight from the mother of a former colleague/Planning Commissioner who watched the meetings each week on TV at home, and said, Your meetings are great, but you all need to smile more).

So I approached my role on the panel non-traditionally. I prepared a skit based on my early experiences in front-line customer service, with a healthy dose of humor and honesty. I convinced others on the panel to play a role in it too, and even sent them a script in advance.

We did the show, and it was a hit. I’m not sure the skit was particularly funny or well-performed, but for months students and faculty followed up to say how much they appreciated a lighthearted career reflection. I felt great knowing that I connected in a meaningful way and had fun doing it. Every planning curriculum is a trade-off of theory and practice, and it felt great offering something useful to my academic community.

After that event I kept telling myself I should write the skit down or capture it somehow. And that it would be fun to tell other stories from the front line…or public meeting…or council chambers.

I finally captured it with a video. I’m not sure if it has the same punch that it did on stage, but it was fun to assemble, and doing so has helped me once again tweak my response to the question, What do urban planners do?

Urban planners laugh at themselves. It’s how you tell us apart from the engineers.

Cheers to the new planner in all of us.