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Questions to Ask (and Traps to Avoid) When Considering a Career in Placemaking

Kristen Jeffers writing at Union Station in Kansas City, MO, Spring 2016

Have you ever wondered how a person becomes involved in the world of placemaking and development as a career?

Is it just people buying up properties to manage and flip? Is it just people being city planners, working in their city’s zoning or long-range planning department? Could I be part of the industry as a writer, like you? Or, do real estate agents or tradespeople count? Could I just open a coffee shop in a neighborhood that needs one and open up my doors on a regular basis to community folks?

Also, what kind of schooling or training do I need to have? What’s right for me? There seem to be lots of choices and no one unique path for some of those choices. How do I make this work for me?

I’m going to assume in this conversation that you’re a person between the ages of 16-40, and you live in the United States or Canada and you haven’t made any money in the sector at all. Although some of these personal development exercises could be translated and applied to people in other countries or at different ages or even volunteer roles that have similar rules and roles around property development and management.

To get into the meat of the process there are nine questions to ask yourself, four traps to avoid and a handful of things to do next.These are all things I’ve thought through and learned as I build my business, all while considering new courses, contracts and bridge jobs to take to sustain myself.

Let’s start with the questions and my explanations of the smaller questions they generate:

What type of work do I want to do?
Do you want to build or refurbish homes by hand or as a trade contractor? Commercial spaces? Do you want to sell real estate? Do you want to be more like me and be a writer and theorist? Do you want to facilitate community meetings? Do you want to be a local government manager/planner/etc? Do you want to be an engineer or architect?

What specific skills do I want?
Do you want to draw? Write? Build? Make deals? Develop research or policy? If you choose the path of engineering or architecture, both inside and outside, there are things that you need to be aware of and certifications you absolutely have to have in order to be able to do work in your sector of the field. Also, if you are selling real estate, installing anything, planning anything or even working in an office or a university, you could do some of these things by yourself, without licensure, but licensure and continuing education credits make you look sharper and may help you make more money over time. Or even get you the job in the first place, in a complicated market.

What kind of debt am I willing to live with?
This isn’t just student debt. This is business debt. I’m currently starting a payback plan of debts I incurred when I decided to add being a public engagement specialist to my business. Also, while in the States, you can write things off, you often have to pay taxes on your business, especially if that’s all your doing and you don’t have an employer to absorb that. Some firms pay great, some don’t. Some sectors of our business allow you to make cash as fast as you can hang a light fixture. Others require you to intern at several places and create your own pathway, which may take years and lots of money. Don’t be like me and let the debt scare you or overtake you. Also, don’t let the idea of having to raise money or be in debt temporarily keep you away from the field, especially if it’s your ultimate purpose. More on that later. Lastly, do your best to avoid debt, by considering a graduated plan into the field or financial help.

Where do I want to do this work?
Selling houses in Florida is very different than selling houses in California. Same with building, designing and even how you promote homes and plan neighborhoods. Different cities have very different cultures around how work is done. Same with design firms. Also, you need to be moderately comfortable and able to find a social network, separate from the industry, wherever you are. You also need to be somewhere that you can be alone at, as often some of the best-paid local government jobs are in towns and cities you’ve possibly never heard of and may not have anyone who looks or thinks like you there.

How do I want to work?
Do you want to be on your computer in a cube or open office? Do you want to be in a closed-door office? Do you want to get dirty in the field? Do you want to talk to people? Do you want someone else to talk about your projects for you? The process and the procedure of how you do the work are not always what they look like on paper.

How will I cope with external setbacks?
This is a business where you will learn quickly that everyone is not your friend. Also, funding for design projects can change at the tip of a hat, especially if the money is coming from a government source. Plus, if you’re involved in active home building, supplies may not come on time. If you’re studying an urban phenomenon, you may find that your hypothesis is dead wrong and you may not be the expert in what you thought. You could be well loved in the field one day and hated the next. Which gets me to my next question.

How will I cope with swings in my mental health?
Having a therapist or at least a support group is critical. Even if it starts out as online, self-paid care and forums and you only do it once a month.  I would not still be here today were it not for professionals trained to talk me through some of the mental blocks and changes that I’m going through right now. Also, I’ll add that you want other business coaching or mentoring, but often, these folks will not be your therapist. Also, family and friends can be great too, but often, they may not understand exactly the rigors of your profession and they may discourage you without meaning to because they operate under a slightly different set of workplace rules.

What alternatives am I willing to consider?
If being a licensed practitioner doesn’t work out, could you be happy joining the blogosphere? How about getting appointed to the zoning board? Or planning a block party or farmers market or concert or some sort of community event every month, that builds a community behind it? Placemaking and community building is not just the licensed and regulated trades.

What is my ultimate purpose?
This is the thing that gets you out of bed in the morning. This is what you’ll look back over your life and be happy you did. This is what you hope your involvement in the sector will do both to you and the community you’re working with.

With that said, let’s address a few traps to avoid:

  1. Narrow ideas of your goal— gets back to the alternatives question. You should have a Plan B or C (maybe D, E and F).
  2. Defining yourself strictly — some may mock you for having different talents or even wanting to have just one particular talent. Silence them by doing what you do well and being flexible and a lifelong learner.
  3. Not defining yourself at all— You do want to have some idea of what you do, even if that idea is being a person known as a multi-passionate. This video and blog post is a great nudge to people like us who have many ideas.  This person also bootstrapped their business by working in a completely different field. Oh and the field they’re in now is something that only a handful of people do well and understand. Sounds familiar…?
  4. Depending on external validation (both to lift you up or to help you make the right decision in the moment) — This does not excuse you from making sure the measurements on the structure you’re building stand up. If you choose to go into architecture or engineering, your buildings do have to stand up. Even with decorating, designing and planning, you need a clear vision if the goal is to convince a neighborhood or developer to build or allow you to build. However, sometimes, you do know what’s best, especially if your measurement tool is actually a yardstick and not a subjective idea. And sometimes, you may be a junior planner on a project that going to ruin a neighborhood, but as a junior planner, there’s only so much you can say and you may not get all the validation you need. However, use this as a lesson to learn what you really want to do and know that you don’t have to just be a junior planner to have a role in creating and maintaining the world around you.

Ok. You’ve asked yourself the questions and you’ve made note of the traps. What’s next?

  • Create a list of schools, funding sources, and jobs you want to go after. Get to know what these opportunities require and create a plan to go after them.
  • Start talking to any and everyone in the business to get to know them. The journalist/activist in me would often go into these meetings with a heavy dose of skepticism, automatically assuming I knew what people would say or what they were about. However, as a student or at least student-minded, go into these meetings, listen and make notes of things you want to remember. Don’t be like me and learn this the hard way.
  • Make note also of HOW people conduct business, arrange their offices and even things such as grooming and body language.
  • Finally, recognize that even if you never nail a nail, or draft a plan, if you have any idea how you want your community to run or even a policy idea worth testing, you have a role in this space. Once upon a time, homes were built by gathering together all the able-bodied adults to create the raw materials and then put the frames up. Regulations and licenses aid in making sure that process can be done over and over, but every discipline started as someone’s idea in a sketchbook and got professionalized over time.

Good luck in your search! Feel free to reach out to me for more insight and support!

I’m Kristen. I started blogging here to make sense of the built environment around me. You can find me on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. You can find out more about me at my main website, www.kristenejeffers.com. Get job listings, interesting articles, links to future posts and more from me via my weekly email. Support my work on Patreon.

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