Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Advice for Getting into Professional Urbanism

I get this email quite a bit.  People come across the blog or a published article I've written and they're hoping to get some advice for course of study, career path, or if they're already out in the work force how they can get more involved.  There is quite a bit to say about that and how lost we are in terms of city building that matches our needs.  That need of course being improved quality of life.  And people want to help.  They have an inherent need to improve the world around them.

My advice is pretty terrible.  I don't know the answer beyond quoting Morpheus from the Matrix, "there is a difference between knowing the path and walking the path."  Our institutions are set up to funnel you into commodotized and compartmentalized silos.  This doesn't help expand our horizons and the possibilities for the world.  But it takes an awful lot of risk to step out from the institutional order and orthodoxy even if we know deep down these institutions aren't currently set up to improve our world, and more specifically, our city building to meet our needs.  There is far more long-term gain to be had from value creation rather than value-extraction.  This is probably overly abstract and imprecise but precision is impossible given the context.  Everybody is different and everybody has their own specific interests and skill sets which can contribute to a greater good, for self and others.  We're really a remarkable species in that way (sometimes I have to remind myself, like every time I turn on the local news).

We can build some roads though.  Oh buddy can we build some roads.  Roads that funnel and create their own congestion so we need some more roads.

This most recent letter came from someone
Happy to hear it [redacted].The funny thing about urbanism and urban design is that it is all-encompassing.  Literally any course of study can relate to it if given the right focus, from design to finance, economics and development to community organizing to politics.  Even agriculture with the rise of urban farming and similar endeavors.  Ultimately, it's all about taking your interests and skill sets and aligning them with improving the place around you.  I happened to go to undergrad for Landscape Architecture because at the time I knew it had a focus on urban design and I had been interested in cities since I could walk.  During school and afterwards, I became more and more focused on my particular interests which is the nexus between transportation networks, real estate, and design.  No field was established in this direction, so I had to learn more about transportation and real estate economics and realities on my own.   
Each of those fields have an easy and direct path.  Want to go into transportation, the field is civil engineering.  Architecture? It's design school. Real Estate? Business school.  There isn't really a path for trying to bridge those fields.  And that's where our cities need interested, motivated people like yourself.  I guess I would say, of the big world of cities, find the specific element you're most interested, follow that field, and then seek to expand that field in a direction that interests you and improves the place around you.  We can't change the entire world, but a million hands can make a big change.  I hope that helps and feel free to ask more questions as they arise.