Holy cow it's been a long time since I've put out a post - and with nary a warning, I'm sure my faithful readers were wondering if I would ever post again. Well I must admit things have gotten very busy for me these past few weeks, so I've had less and less time to devote to a good blog post - but at long last I have an interview to share with you all! This week's (month's?) interview subject is Jesse Blitzstein of The Enterprise Center. Jesse and I had the pleasure of working together a few years ago, and I thought his work and organization would be of interest to read. So without further ado, please enjoy 10 questions with Jesse!
Hi Jesse! Thanks so much for taking the time to be my interview subject. So, for those who don't know much about you, can you please describe your organization, your position, and basic responsibilities?
You're welcome Dan! I work at The Enterprise Center (TEC), where I’m our Director of Community Development. The Enterprise Center is a community and economic development nonprofit that has three interrelated areas of focus – we help people grow their small businesses, with a focus on minority and women entrepreneurs; we do small business lending, with a focus on entrepreneurs who may face challenges accessing capital through the traditional financing world; and we do on-the-ground community development work, with a focus on parts of West Philadelphia. My job is tied to this latter part. I help oversee our community engagement and neighborhood revitalization work, including the ongoing revitalization of a neighborhood commercial corridor and the implementation of a neighborhood plan.
Sounds like fulfilling work! So, what made you interested in planning?
I first got interested in city planning and community development during my senior year of college. I took a great class on urban politics, and at the same time I served in a position with the university’s student government where I was a student liaison to the local city council. Both really opened my eyes to the world of planning, policy, and politics at the local level and on an urban scale.
Clearly you went against the stereotype of student government being just a resume builder. And what led you specifically to join TEC?
I moved to Philadelphia for graduate school, and when I was finishing I was looking for an opportunity to stay in Philly and work in community development, which is what I focused on within my city planning studies. An opportunity came up with TEC that was not exactly what I wanted, but was a foot in the door with a dynamic organization. I took it and several years later my role has evolved and I’m in a somewhat more ideal position now.
Goes to show you what patience and perseverance can get you if you're in the right place for you. In that vein, what’s something that you learned along your career path that you wish you knew 5 years ago?
Relationships matter. That’s not necessarily something I didn’t know five years ago, it’s just an ongoing lesson throughout my professional career. In this line of work, being smart and knowledgeable from a technical standpoint will only get you so far. You have to develop strong relationships with partners, funders, community stakeholders, and coworkers to really accomplish anything of value. And that’s something that’s hard to teach in planning school, although I would argue that more time could be devoted to cultivating those types of professional soft skills with planning students, on top of the traditional skill, theory, and history training.
Very good points all around. So, if you weren’t in planning, what other career path do you think you’d have gone into? Why?
That’s a good question! I mean I’ve always wanted to be a professional athlete but . . . I’d just be doing that already if I could, so clearly it’s not that! I would probably still be working with youth in some fashion, which is what I was doing for a couple of years before I went back to school to get a planning degree.
It's not too late Jesse, I'm sure you can get a spot on the professional Curling circuit if you're really keen! Though given that it seems you're unlikely to be leaving the planning world any time soon, what do you find to be the most interesting part of your job?
The most interesting part might be the strategy development component of what we do, and within that the fact that there are so many gray areas to this type of work. There isn’t necessarily one right way to revitalize a neighborhood, to run a community meeting, or to redevelop a property, for example. There are strategies, best practices, guidelines, and so on. But there is a lot of variability to what we do. Building consensus among community stakeholders, leveraging finite resources, and developing strategies to achieve positive outcomes – it’s all interesting and challenging.
And the least interesting?
The least interesting part is probably the administrative side of the work. Paperwork, reporting out to funders, sitting through meetings – the nonprofit system is an imperfect beast.
I'm sensing a trend about paperwork...
But lets go back to interesting topics - what was something that you were really proud of that you worked on?
I’m going to flashback to graduate school for this. I was and still am proud of the work that my group and I did for our final studio project, where we looked at all the school closings at the time in Philadelphia (this was in 2013). We explored possible reuses for the school buildings, and beyond that we tried to think through how the city and school district could bring different policies and strategies to bear to reactivate these sites and mitigate some of the ill effects of closing these schools, so that the buildings didn’t just languish as vacant and become eyesores in their communities, many of which were already quite upset about the school closings in the first place. The work was interesting and collaborative. While city agencies and politicians ultimately ignored most of our recommendations, it’s been very interesting to see what has (and hasn’t) happened with the shuttered school buildings in the five years since then.
When you say interesting - what do you mean? Anything in line with what you recommended or wildly off base?
At the time, we recommended that other city departments and agencies be more involved in coordinating the disposition process, which to some extent happened (PIDC helped manage the process for the school district); but in particular we also recommended that the city make a concerted effort to to use tools like pre-existing development incentives and already-completed neighborhood plans to stimulate and guide the reuse of sites, particularly in the weaker neighborhood real estate markets. I'd say that never totally came to fruition.
More specifically, I think several of the buildings are in the midst of conversions to housing in one form or another, or will be soon, which is kind of what we expected. Three different sites (two in West Philly and one by Temple) were acquired by universities and demolished for new development associated with those universities, which we also anticipated. At least one, Bok in South Philly (which is a beast of a building) is being reused in some creative ways, although not without some controversy regarding gentrification. Lastly, the sites that my partner and I had looked at for our case study, Vaux and Reynolds and the area around them in North Philly, are actually being repurposed in a somewhat similar manner to what we had recommended! They are part of the Philadelphia Housing Authority's Sharswood Blumberg Choice Neighborhoods initiative (which is a controversial initiative unto itself, but that's a whole 'nother story!).
Schools in Philly are always a delicate subject, and certainly the urban planning around them is even more so. Given what you've seen the last few years, is the Philadelphia region right now a good place to be a planner?
Tough question. I think it’s a good place in the sense that there is a lot going on in the city and region. Philadelphia is one of the largest major cities in the country, and it has an amazing history and a great downtown. It is experiencing exciting growth and newfound real estate development, and yet faces serious challenges related to poverty, inequity, gentrification, and the ongoing effects of decades of disinvestment. These are challenges that are interesting yet daunting from a planning perspective. But as for the job market for planning-related work in the Philadelphia area, that might be a different story! I think the job pool is somewhat constrained for planners.
I might tend to agree with your latter statement, though hopefully things loosen up as all that development keeps happening. Pivoting, you mentioned gentrification and that's often a major issue planners have to address both publicly and privately. In your opinion, what’s the biggest challenge facing the planning field right now?
I think the biggest challenge facing the planning field right now is the ability to affect change. To be not just planers but doers. To take what are often complex concepts and analyses and make them digestible for constituents and policymakers so that smart city and community building can occur. And to do this in a way that is mutually beneficial to the diverse populations that make up our cities and communities, not just to the benefit of the wealthiest or most influential among us.
How do you mean? And how do you suggest planners be better at being doers?
I think the planning stereotype of "plans sitting on the shelf collecting dust" exists for a reason. Too often it actually happens. So, for example, if you're a planning consulting firm that does neighborhood plans, how are you sticking with an organization or neighborhood to make sure aspects of the plan actually get implemented? Could you alter your business model or fee structure to actually build in some ongoing technical assistance after the plan itself is completed? I think another specific example I see in Philadelphia is around zoning, where so much effort has been made in the last decade to revise the zoning code and rezone swaths of the city, and yet so little planning support is offered to the everyday residents who deal with zoning variance requests from developers under the "Registered Community Organization" system that came with the new zoning code. The Citizens Planning Institute is a great program, but I'd argue it doesn't have the bandwidth to really empower community members all over the city to more effectively shape their own neighborhoods, from a planning and development perspective.
Unfortunately in Philadelphia, like many other cities, planners are hamstrung by the local political processes, resulting in barriers to implement these seemingly smart plans and policies. I think one thing the planning field could do though (at least based on my experience) is to do a better job of integrating the study of politics and policy into the planning school curriculum, so that professional planners are prepared not just to conduct analyses, design sites, make maps, and run proformas, but also to navigate political systems and influence policymaking.
And that last bit, about navigating political systems and influencing policy ties back neatly to your earlier point about the importance of relationships in planning. Final question, and it's an easy one – what was the best thing you did in Philadelphia in 2017?
That’s easy – the best thing I did in Philadelphia in 2017 was get married! I met my wife in planning school and that’s by far the best thing I got out of it.
Now THAT'S an important relationship. John Landis take note! Thanks Jesse and all the best to you and your lovely wife.
Like what you read? Know someone who should be next? Leave a note in the comment section below!
Hello out there! As mentioned a few weeks ago, I wanted to start highlighting people in the planning world that are usually the kind of folks that are a bit below the radar when it comes to public-facing interviews and promotional activities. These aren't CEOs, Presidents, or other high-ranking members of the planning world, and as such, they aren't often sought out by the media for their input - much to our collective detriment!
This week, our conversation is with Christina Arlt, Senior Planner at the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission. Christina felt like a perfect choice to be the first in what I hope to be a long running series on this blog, what with impeccable credentials and connections (Penn Grad, taught my workshop class...). As mentioned in previous posts, I'm always looking for suggestions for who next to interview, so if you know of anyone - or you yourself are interested - please leave me a comment in the comments section below. Thanks!
Hi Christina! Thanks so much for taking the time to answer these questions for the blog. So, my first question - what made you interested in planning?
My interest in planning was sparked by a sidebar about Pierre L'Enfant's plan for Washington, D.C. in my 8th grade math textbook.
That's pretty random - how'd a sidebar in a math book lead you into the planning world?
Up until that point, it hadn't occurred to me that anyone was "responsible" for designing cities and thinking about how they grow and change. So I decided to learn more about urban planning as a career.
Crazy how inspiration strikes us in the most unlikely of places. So, what made you want to join the organization you’re at now?
I interned at the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission (DVRPC) when I was in graduate school, so I was familiar with the organization and the people who worked here before I applied for a full-time position. The job appealed to me because I would get to work on a lot of different projects and learn about new topics on a regular basis.
Funny, I got my first job at The Enterprise Center the same way. Moving on to some more reflective questions - what’s something that you learned along your career path that you wish you knew 5 or 10 years ago?
So much of planning is about communication and meeting facilitation, but that's not something that planning programs spend a lot of time teaching. Learning to lead a public meeting is a definitely a skill that requires practice.
I completely agree. I definitely remember making that same comment during my grad school days. So, if you hadn't gone into planning, what other career path do you think you’d have gone into?
I like helping people learn so I would probably be either a college professor or a librarian. It would allow me to connect people with the information and resources they need to be successful.
Probably no coincidence then that you're still teaching Workshop at Penn! So what do you find is the most interesting part of your job?
The most interesting part of my job is learning something new every day. Recently I worked on a project where I got to interview police, fire, and facilities professionals from New York, Chicago, Boston, Baltimore, and Washington, DC. I didn't know much about police and fire facilities before I started the project, so I learned a great deal about the challenges police and fire departments face and was able to share this information with the City of Philadelphia as they explore rightsizing their own police and fire facilities.
That does sound interesting, and certainly relevant with municipal budgets under the strain they're in at the moment. Follow up question - what aspect of your work do you find the least interesting?
Probably the administrative tasks, like timesheets, requisitions, and expense reports that need to be completed but sometimes feel like they're pulling my attention away from the "real" work of planning.
I can feel my readers nodding in agreement. So you seem to have worked on a lot of different projects, can you please describe for me a time when you were really proud of something you worked on?
My colleagues and I worked on a project looking at land use and zoning around the stations of the Glassboro-Camden Line (GCL), a proposed rail extension in southern New Jersey. The proposed route had numerous stops in affluent suburbs but seemed to skip over certain neighborhoods in Camden, whose residents would have directly benefited from reliable transit service to get them to work, school, and medical appointments. We recommended adding an additional stop in Camden. Although the train line hasn't been built yet, it's rewarding to know that the stop will eventually expand opportunities for residents.
And even getting to that recommendation is a big step in the process to getting funding for implementation, which is often the last, if not hardest hurdle. That brings me to my next question - given the various funding and practical challenges out there for our field, do you think the Philadelphia region is a good place right now to be a planner?
I think Philadelphia is a great place to be a planner right now! With the city's population increasing in the last ten years or so, there's a great energy here. The Philadelphia City Planning Commission is wrapping up the district plans for Philadelphia 2035, DVRPC just released our latest long range plan, Connections 2045, and we've had tons of big events (the Pope's visit, the NFL draft, the Democratic National Convention, and the Eagles Super Bowl parade) that have brought international attention to the city. We are the first World Heritage City in the United States and we're on the short list for Amazon's HQ2. The Water Department is going great things with their Green City, Clean Waters plan, and The William Penn Foundation is investing in clean water and our regional trail system. So whether it's land use, transportation, community development, economic development, or environmental planning, there's something of interest to every type of planner!
That's refreshing to hear, and clearly there's momentum in Philly! Of course, part of our role as planners is to push proverbial boulders uphill. In your opinion, what’s the biggest challenge facing the planning field right now?
I think equity is a big challenge that we don't talk about enough. I'm especially concerned about the intersection of equity and algorithms. Data plays a huge role in how we allocate resources. Planners need to pay attention to how decisions are being made to ensure that they don't replicate past inequities.
What kind of decisions are you referring to?
For example, decisions about how funding formulas are written or how program criteria are determined - especially when those processes use big data or automation. I heard some really good interviews on the radio lately with the authors of books like "Automating Inequality: How High-Tech Tools Profile, Police and Punish the Poor" and "Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy."
That seems very relevant in the age of Big Data/Open Data that we are in the middle of right now. So, thank you so much for taking the time to answer these questions, I'll leave you with one fun final question – what was the best thing you did in Philadelphia in 2017?
I joined a Cookbook Club at the Free Library of Philadelphia. I met new friends, made new recipes, and it helped me achieve my 2017 New Year's resolution, which was to make one new recipe per week every week for the entire year!
You can follow Christina on Twitter at @ChristinaArlt
Have something to contribute to the conversation? Comment below!
As part of this blog, I wanted to get insight from people who don't normally get interviewed in the planning world. So, I'm looking for nominations, either for yourself or for another person, who doesn't normally get invited to speak publicly or on record in planning journals and magazines.
The overwhelming majority of planners/economic development practitioners out there barely get noticed outside of their own organization - I'd like to change that! So, in the coming weeks and months, I intend to do an ongoing interview series that focuses on these individuals. Questions will range from the mundane (why did you get into planning?) to the fun and quirky. This series is designed to showcase each person's individual personality, since that's more fun to write and to read!
Please nominate yourself or another person you want to hear from below in the comments or through a direct email with contact information.
Thanks and please come back next week for the first interview!
General thoughts and musings about the work SSC Solutions does and other things happening in and around Philadelphia