Wayne Feiden, FAICP — Director of Planning and Sustainability
My Career Journey as a Planner
Wayne Feiden is director of planning and sustainability for the City of Northampton, Massachusetts. His focus includes resilience, sustainability, downtown revitalization, multimodal transportation, open space preservation, assessments, and management.
Feiden led the city to earn the nation's first 5-STAR Communities award for sustainability, the highest "Commonwealth Capital" score for Massachusetts municipal sustainability efforts, and "Bicycle-Friendly," "Pedestrian-Friendly," "APA Great Places in America," and "National Historic Trust Distinctive Communities" designations. Under his tenure, Northampton has become one of the most livable and sustainable small cities in New England.
Is your career based on considered choices you planned or has it unfolded as part of a process you didn't necessarily foresee?
I always foresaw a mission-driven career working on quality of life and sustainability issues, but I never imagined where that work would be.
After I earned my undergraduate degree, I started my career working for a conservation nonprofit. I loved the freedom, creativity, and entrepreneurial spirit that I found there and expected to spend my entire career in that sector. When I left to earn a master's in planning, I fully expected to return to the nonprofit world. I took my first post-master's job as a municipal planner, intending to stay for just one year. Instead I discovered that I loved helping the community build their vision, changing the community paradigm for a vibrant and growing downtown, a sustainable city, a commitment to open space preservation, historic preservation, affordable housing, multimodal transportation, and I loved the nuts and bolts of implementing real and meaningful change.
As a result, my one-year gig has extended to three decades. With brief forays into consulting and fellowships, I found a world that let me achieve the rewards of a mission-driven agency and build a legacy.
What basic skills are important to develop and which do you recommend that might be overlooked?
I find that many planners excel at either keeping a big picture vision, helping communities think about where they are going, or at going deep into the weeds, working on the nuts and bolts of their subfield and specializing. I think it is critically important, however, to develop both of those skill sets.
Planners can be more effective advocates for healthy walkable communities, for example, when they understand the vehicle demands that traffic engineers must address. Likewise, planners can be more effective at land conservation when they are equally skilled at the nuances in zoning that encourage development in the right places.
John Muir's quote — "When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe" — applies equally how all aspects of planning are tied together. Over-generalization and superficiality is a risk, but likewise we cannot look at our challenges in isolation and overspecialization is a danger, but is an equal danger.
What has been the best surprise in your career?
I love that there are almost unlimited opportunities for planners to make a difference. I started my career in land use and environmental planning. I have been able to expand it into transportation, public health, climate adaptation, community development, and economic development simply by having the passion and the commitment.
At a personal level, as someone who loves traveling and seeing different settings, it has been astonishing to me the number of fellowships, collaborations, and exposure to different settings that our field offers us. My first mid-career fellowship was intended as a career move but instead it resulted in a conviction that I wanted to have a child, my best personal surprise.
How has that affected your work and teaching?
My own work and my collaborations and travels elsewhere have helped me identify precedents, both good and bad, that help my think about almost every project I work on and or teach about. Far more than what I learn from conferences, idea exchange and observations of different settings has been enormously helpful to my work.
My teaching, one of my favorite activities, draws on my work and collaborations, and not especially theory, to bring a practitioner perspective to the classroom.
How has your perception of planning changed since you first entered the field?
I have loved seeing planners and cities embrace the multi-discipline nature of planning, placemaking, and sustainability in a way that was not always apparent when I started my career. When I started my career, it seemed that planning in highly technical subfields were formally more narrowly focused, for example transportation planners or economic development planners building predictive models, while today those in these subfields seem as focused on engaging the community and building consensus as the rest of us, which makes our field more effective and responsive.
Likewise, it seems only a few years ago that energy, climate, health, and placemaking were a small part of planning, while now those areas are more properly integrated into all that most of us do.
Do you see global trends of urban revitalization?
Urban downtowns and mixed use core areas all over the world are generally stronger, with more emphasis on placemaking and planning, than they have been at any time in my career, making me incredibly optimistic about the future of our cities.
The lessons from great cities, livable cities, and sustainable cities are useful across cultures and legal systems. The threats, from growing social inequities, climate change, and obsolete or insufficient infrastructure, unfortunately, also cut across cities around the world. Truly global cities, across cultures and continents, often have more in common with each other than second tier cities within the same country.
Globally, I see the social and economic inequities for different populations and within urban areas, and weak long-term planning and risk assessment, especially about climate change and social stability, as our greatest risks.
Can you talk a bit about your most memorable fellowship experience?
Each fellowship has been amazing, memorable, life affirming, and life changing.
My first fellowship, an Eisenhower Fellowship to Hungary, opened my eyes to the differences and similarities to planning across cultures and how public participation emerges in a new democracy, yet it was even more important to me because along the way I decided to have a child.
My Fulbright Specialist fellowships let me teach in different settings (South Africa and New Zealand), with me learning as much from my students as they learned from me.
My German Marshall Fund gave me the most freedom to explore my own project, looking at lessons from small opportunity cities and neighborhoods in Europe to consider what is transferrable to my own work. I have made a clear choice to give up potential career advancement in the United States in order to have the time for these fellowships, and they have been among the most exciting and worthwhile aspects of my career.
Looking back, is there anything you would do differently?
I discovered fellowships mid-career. If I was doing it over again, I would almost certainly try to start fellowships and international work while in college. Beyond that, I have loved my career and the opportunity to work at so many different settings and if anything would want to continue to expand the subfields I work in, while always trying to master the details of each subfield.
First planning job:
Technical Services Coordinator, Vermont Association of Conservation Districts
University of Michigan, Ann Arbor: BS in Natural Resources
University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill: Master of City and Regional Planning
My biggest influence has simply been the emergence of planning for cities with a focus on a quality of life and placemaking. I came of age in a New York City suburb when many northeastern, midwestern, and older cities had disturbing trends: rising crime, derelict and inaccessible waterfronts, brutalist or soulless architecture and streetscapes, businesses, industrial, and residential flight to the suburbs, deindustrialization, urban disinvestment. [This was] when President Ford was willing to let New York go bankrupt (as the New York Daily News put it, "Ford to City: Drop Dead").
All of which made a career in conservation, natural resources, and environmental advocacy my goal. The reversal of fortunes and emphasis that reenergized New York, Pittsburgh, Providence, Derry, Belfast, and hundreds of other cities, or at least their downtowns, re-piqued my interest in cities and expanded my career from conservation and regional planning to urban planning.
The sustainability movement today is so much more heavily focused on the quality of life for our communities than the environmental movement of my childhood that it seems so much easier to fuller integrate all of those things that should be part of planning.
The people I found most influential were not necessarily because of their contributions to the field but because how they mentored me and help me think about what was important for my values to help me identify where I wanted to go. I find these personal connections and nurturing more important to me the thought leaders in our field.
For me this was Bill Stapp, my University of Michigan professor who first taught me about community engagement; Marion Dresner, my University of Michigan teaching assistant who made collaboration come alive; Raymond Burby, my University of North Carolina professor who helped me get excited about the nuts and bolts and being productive; Mary Hooper, at the Vermont Association of Conservation Districts and then the state legislature, who helped me think through what it all means; and Carolyn Misch, a colleague at the City of Northampton who helps keep me grounded and always reaching for the next project.
I have always loved playing with the big picture, whether it is exploring what makes my own community, Northampton, great; what allows democracy and pluralism to thrive in newly democratic Hungary and South Africa; what are the successes of cities in North America, Europe, and Malaysia.
I have always tried to practice, in my planning, my teaching, and my publications, going deep into the tools, however, so that our solutions are not just platitudes. My publications for APA are on financial performance guarantees, decentralized sewage treatment, assessing sustainability, and management of local planning offices. Very deliberately, none of these are sexy subjects, but without mastering these tools planners cannot be effective and end up deferring to other professions (e.g., lawyers, engineers, public administrators) who may not serve our plans, our norms, and all of our diverse populations.
Planners need to build collaborative teams with all fields (my most common collaborations are with architects and engineers), but understand the tools, the weeds, enough to build collaborations based on mutual understanding.
Can you talk a bit about your role in developing a Cadre of Sustainability Professionals?
Beyond APA's "Making Great Communities Happen," creating a good planning elevator talk is one of the hardest things for most planners. The Urban Sustainability Directors' Network "creating a healthier environment, economic prosperity, and increased social equity" maybe the equivalent quick but shallow elevator talk for sustainability professionals.
Many of us strive to be both planners and sustainability professionals. Yet, for all the diversity seen in individual planners and employment settings, planning has a clear professional status, career options, and academic pedigree. Local government sustainability professionals come from even more diverse academic and professional backgrounds, including but not limited to planning.
As someone whose career, teaching, publications, and interests spans planning and sustainability, and is proudly a member of AICP, APA, and USDN, and a site visitor for the Planning Accreditation Board, I am very interested in where sustainability and resiliency professionals come from, what relevant sustainability skills are being taught in academic programs, and how the sustainability and resiliency fields will evolve with and independently of planning.
The Rockefeller Foundation has given me a Bellagio Residency, an opportunity to retreat from the world in an amazing setting to try to make sense of these trends.
I think that there are probably four things that are most critical for an emerging planner to be successful.
First, is a clear overall understanding of the planning field and new trends and opportunities, which is typically what new planners bring from their academic experience.
Second, is a clear passion for the work, which can come from school, internships, first jobs, international experiences, or other sources, but should stand out in an application (albeit tempered with a reality that communities hire balanced professionals and not raw or naive advocates).
Third, is having clearly marketable skills that mid and later career planners may not have (e.g., GIS, Adobe Illustrator, zoning analysis, quantitative analysis, housing or development proformas).
Finally, simply having job experience in planning or related fields and a demonstrated ability to perform. New planners can look at their own CVs and identify which area they are weakest in and fill in the gaps, through classes, self-study, paid or unpaid internships, jobs, etc.