An Interview With - Donna Carney, Director of Citizen's Planning Institute, City of Philadelphia Planning Commission
Wow, where has the time gone? I can't believe we're over halfway done with 2018! Didn't it just seem like the Eagles were marching down Broad Street? Now preseason is only a few weeks away! Crazy! So, my summer has been very hectic and as such, I've been remiss in getting blog posts out like I've wanted to, but I've finally made the time to get to it, and for this post I've got a fantastic interview for you all. I've had the pleasure of meeting Donna and presenting to the Citizen's Planning Institute, and it's a really great organization that does phenomenal work in the City of Philadelphia. But you don't have to listen to me, please read below and let Donna tell you all about it!
Hi Donna! Thanks for taking the time to speak with me. So, you work for the City of Philadelphia, but in a non-traditional planning capacity. Can you please describe what exactly you do for my readers?
Sure! I'm Director and founder of the Citizen's Planning Institute (CPI), which is the education and outreach entity of the Planning Commission. Its primary mission is to empower residents all across the city to be better advocates and activists in their neighborhoods for issues related to the physical environment.
Sounds like an admirable mission! What made you interested in planning?
My initial graduate degree program was historic preservation and I defined that as managing the best of the built environment. I was less interested in the technical side of conservation of materials and more interested in the “whole” of community, so I suppose I was actually doing planning without realizing it! And in my later architecture work, I realized I was most excited by projects that engaged with the voices in the community.
An architect who ended up in planning? What would George Costanza think!? So what made you want to join CPI?
There was no CPI when I was hired! As mentioned, I didn’t go through any formal academic urban planning program. I was laid off from my architecture job during the 2009 recession and was doing lots of informational interviews. When the RFP for the Citizens Planning Institute position was issued by the Planning Commission, several people forwarded the link to me because they thought it would be a good fit. I was hesitant (to apply) for a while because I wasn’t a “planner”, but my background in preservation, architecture & sustainable design, and especially organizational design, ended up being a perfect fit for creating the Institute.
As an “outsider” to planning, I didn’t come in with any preconceptions and would be learning about planning alongside the participants! I did the research and interviewed city and neighborhood influencers to figure out what the structure of CPI should be. It’s been years of growing and tweaking ever since!
That's impressive! What’s something that you learned along your career path that you wish you knew 5 years ago?
I approach life with no regrets. There may have been things I would have done differently, knowing what I know now, but learning is part of the journey of life! This position has definitely helped me to grow and learn more about myself, which has helped me be a more effective and happier leader.
If you weren’t in planning, what other career path do you think you’d have gone into?
I have degrees in interior design, theater design, architecture, historic preservation and organizational management & development. There is still time to explore other paths!
That is literally a fistful of degrees! With so many professional interests, to you, what’s the most interesting part of your job?
Definitely it’s meeting the inspiring people who are making a difference in neighborhoods all across the city. It’s also been interesting to get a glimpse into how city government works (and doesn’t).
And the least interesting?
When it stops being interesting, I’ll find something else!
Fair enough. With such a diverse professional background, I'm curious as to what you've worked on that left you feeling the most proud?
CPI has been the most inspiring project I’ve been involved with and most proud of. CPI has been the only time I was given the space and the agency to create a program that didn’t exist before-- do the research, talk to stakeholders, and design a program informed by everyone with clear outcome goals. [At CPI] People “testify” how the course has changed their view of how they are able to enact change. For example, a fall 2016 participant wrote “Being a CPI graduate has given me tools, empowered my skills and opened up doors that were always closed to me.” There is really nothing comparable [to that] in my 30 years of work as an architect.
I will say that a project I was really proud of while working in historic preservation in New York was producing the historic structures report for Ellis Island for the National Park Service. I got to do archival research at the National Archives and extensive on-site documentation when the only “tenants” were pigeons and rats!
That has to feel so good when you can get direct feedback on how you're having a positive impact on someone's life. So, you work for the City and we know that there's still a bit of a slower job market here for planners than elsewhere. In your opinion, is the Philadelphia region right now a good place to be a planner?
There are opportunities in all sectors - public, private and non-profit. I would suggest [to a job seeker] that you think about what motivates you - what are your strengths? What gets you excited to get out of bed? Then go talk to someone in each of these sectors doing work you think is interesting. There isn’t any single path. That’s what’s great about planning - you [as a planner] bring a generalist understanding that is often lacking. If you are interested in a particular application of planning, like transportation or policy - then finding the kinds of job environments that allow you to learn about that topic may be somewhat easier. My advice to anyone who comes in to talk to me, is to understand your strengths and interests, talk to lots of people from different organizations, and just dive in. Every job will teach you something!
That's so uplifting! Pivoting on that subject, in your opinion, what’s the biggest challenge facing the planning field right now?
So many urgent issues…but I don’t think there is enough discussion and planning around long-term environmental issues that will affect not just the Philadelphia region, but have global impacts. Part of the challenge is a lack of appetite to invest seriously in ideas that have long-range benefits instead of just short-term wins. As a culture, we suffer from short-term memory and a need for immediate gratification.
Well, hopefully some decision makers out there heed your words and take the steps to mitigate against those forces.
Thank you so much again for taking the time to chat with me, I'll let you out of here with one fun final question – what was the best thing you did in Philadelphia in the last year?
Get another 60 Citizen Planners graduated and out there doing good work!
Like what you read? Know someone who should be next? Leave a note in the comment section below!
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