Jennifer Sien Erickson — Regional Planner
I work for the Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC), the regional planning agency serving the Metropolitan Boston region. We serve a 101 city and town region that is home to 3.1 million people.
I currently serve as manager of MAPC's Technical Assistance Program and I am also starting up the agency's new arts and cultural planning practice.
Is your career based on considered choices you planned or has it unfolded as part of a process you didn't necessarily foresee?
My career path has been fortuitous and with many surprises. A high school experience in a girls' leadership program at a women's foundation taught me about civil rights, human rights, and social movements. It was a very unique learning community that equipped me with skills in self-reflection and systems thinking. It taught me to reflect on who I am, where I come from, and the ways in which I am and am not privileged.
Through that experience, I developed a passion for community service and social justice and started my career with jobs in the nonprofit sector and in philanthropy. I am also a practicing artist, so I have always been attracted to arts and culture. This led me to jobs working with an arts organization, a settlement house, a community development corporation, and foundations making grants in support of community development and arts and culture. It is actually through art that I found the field of urban planning.
The experience that shifted me towards urban planning was actually a public art project in my neighborhood. A few years after college, I got involved with my local community development corporation as a volunteer. I had the opportunity to serve as a resident advisor on a public art and placemaking project taking place at the end of my street. The goal of the project was to combine permanent public art with landscaping changes that could transform a swath of urban wild into a visual respite and buffer between our neighborhood and the highway and to also make it a safer space for passage (this area was also prone to illegal activities, including theft.) The process was facilitated by an urban planner.
My involvement in that project changed how I thought about art, culture, neighborhoods, and the built environment.
I became very interested in urban planning; it seemed like a great way to knit together my various interests in community development, places and spaces, and art.
Prior to that experience, I had no prior exposure to the profession during my elementary, middle, or high school years or in college. That early public art project experience is a great example of the field of practice we have come to know as creative placemaking. Coincidentally, it occurred around the time when the concept of creative placemaking was coined by the leadership at the National Endowment for the Arts. So, it was fortuitous for me to be involved with it, and it led me to the field of planning!
Before I decided to go to planning school, I left nonprofit organization work and returned to the field of philanthropy to work with foundations making grants to advance social and systems change in Massachusetts in areas like community development, education, and the arts. The grants were helping to advance positive changes at the neighborhood and municipal levels, but I was still drawn to planning. I enrolled in planning school in 2009 and at the same time I landed an internship at the agency where I currently work.
Fast forward and eight years later I've become a generalist planner with expertise in creative community development, cultural planning, and creative placemaking.
I've worked on over 20 planning projects to-date, including: housing production plans, fair housing plans, neighborhood visioning plans, economic development plans, transit-oriented development plans focused on mitigating displacement, research-based toolkits, and now, arts and cultural plans.
I've also worked in three different departments: Government Affairs, Communications, and Land Use. My understanding of the different dimensions of our regional planning work positioned me well for launching our new Arts & Culture Division.
What do you enjoy most about your current role?
I am grateful for the opportunity to establish and lead a division that is at the forefront of establishing arts and culture as a core competency and practice area for planners. My current team includes a Regional Arts & Cultural Planner and an Artist-in-Residence; they both have deep experience and connections in the planning and arts and cultural communities. Together, we bring expertise in cultural planning, creative placemaking, and socially engaged art. The division will work with cities and towns on innovative planning and community development projects like creative placemaking and cultural planning. These practice areas are still emerging in the United States, but they already have traction in other parts of the world due in part to the fact that many other countries have steady national government support for arts and culture.
The time is ripe for the fields of planning and community development to help pick up the slack and recognize that arts and culture has always been essential to fostering livable communities, and we need to plan like we believe it.
The division will also engage in research and policy work with cities and towns to identify changes in zoning, permitting, and administrative procedures that can facilitate the growth and development of arts and culture in the built environment and in civic places and spaces. We see both the planning and policy work as appropriately recognizing arts and culture's essential role in promoting livability and cultural vitality.
Shortly before starting our new Arts & Culture Division, I managed the agency's Technical Assistance Program (TAP) and served as a coordinator of two subregions, which regularly convened planning directors and senior planners working in different parts of the MAPC region. In these positions, I organized educational programs on different planning topics, stewarded the process of matching up the needs of our cities and towns with the staffing and funding sources available to make it happen, and managed and staffed municipal and regional planning projects.
Although my new role is focused on expanding our arts and cultural planning practice, I still identify as a regional planner.
Working for a mission-driven regional planning agency like MAPC means that we bring a holistic lens to our work, and many of the municipal and regional planning projects we do are multidisciplinary. I expect our arts and cultural planning practice to generate more municipal cultural plans, more comprehensive arts and cultural resources sections of comprehensive and master plans, and to infuse innovation and creativity into planning projects in areas like environmental preservation, natural resources protection, housing, economic development, community development, transportation, public health, and clean energy.
I especially enjoy projects that facilitate new connections, collaborations, and trust-building between local planners and other community partners including volunteer board and commission members, community development corporations, and nonprofit organizations. When I develop a project scope and budget, I have a lot of communication with municipal partners to see how we can do what they've requested us to do and, when there is the interest and the funding available, to introduce additional elements that can infuse innovation and creativity into the planning process and deliverable.
How has your perception of planning changed since you first entered the field? What has been the best surprise in your career?
Planning has prided itself as a profession that is primarily about the built form and technical expertise. When I was fresh out of planning school, I was equipped with theory and technical skills with the assumption that these would be the things that could effectively launch me into the practice.
But here's the reveal: Urban planning is equally about people and place. The best surprises in my career and the most rewarding projects I have worked on are ones that embrace the fact that planners are also in the business of engaging and mobilizing people to be invested in civic decisions — people from different walks of life and different abilities, incomes, ethnicities, etc.
The future of the planning profession is one that embraces diversity, inclusion, and has a balanced, equity-focused approach to people AND places. We need only face the ugly legacy of our planning past in condoning redlining and urban renewal and displacement to understand how much we've failed as planners and what the future of our field is really about. My perspective is that the future of this field rests in our ability to face the failings of planning from a civil rights and equity perspective and to develop cultural competencies that help us be principled stewards of smart growth and livability.
These are some of the reasons why I strongly believe that arts and culture and creative community development are essential to the future of the profession.
What skills and personality traits lend themselves to success in your field?
Traits: Curiosity; creativity; the ability to think about the big picture and to take the long view; the ability to see interconnectedness of the different disciplines of practice and to generate creative opportunities for cross-pollination to happen; patience; persistence! Nothing in this field happens quickly. Most things take three, five, seven, 10 years to gain traction. Also, a constant willingness to check assumptions and to reach towards growing edges. There is a status quo in planning. As planners working in political environments, we help to "set the table" by creating the vision and then implementing it with programs and policies (setting, amending, working with regulations) but all regulations are grounded in implicit values.
Since our field necessitates taking the long view, we should make the time to envision what's possible, to think about the values driving our planning and policy making, and retool as necessary.
There is some good stuff in the AICP Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct and it helps me to reference it periodically.
Skills: Project management; community engagement; relationship management; partnership development; mediation and negotiation; listening; empathy; writing; research; data analysis
I do believe that planners require a menu of non-technical social skills to succeed in our work. The social skills get far less air time in the conference sessions and professional development offerings we see. I believe the most successful planning projects are ones where planners inspire, share power, and build cross-sector partnerships that expand the base of allies for the long-term changes we seek to advance smart growth and livability.
What advice do you have for someone who hopes to find a job similar to yours?
Get involved with an APA division, interest group, or task force and reach out to planners doing work that you aspire to do! When I was in planning school, I started networking with people involved with APA national and proactively sought opportunities to present on local conference panels. Getting involved with national networks is a great way to get a break from local issues and can be reenergizing. Seek opportunities to volunteer with task forces and panels.
I've served with the APA Diversity Task Force, the APA People and Places Task Force, and I am a co-founder of the APA Arts and Planning Interest Group. Make time in your schedule to build your network. Every month, I try to hang out with new people who are doing things I think are very interesting. If evening mixers aren't your thing, ask to hang out over coffee/tea/lunch!
Also, find different mentors who will help you improve and grow in your practice as a planner and manager. I have received support from many people over the course of my career, and I also actively seek people out to serve as my mentors.
A mentor does not need to be someone who has your dream job. It can be someone who has characteristics that you aspire to develop.
I have different kinds of mentors: people who are great facilitators, people who are visionary, people who are very politically smart, and people who are very established managers.
What do you do outside of work that helps you be successful?
I make art. I'm a part of a cooperative pottery studio where I have regular interaction with people from different walks of life. It is great to make something with my hands. I'm literally working with the earth through clay!
Bachelor of Science in Global Studies from Lesley University and Master of Arts in Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning from Tufts University.