Planes, Trains and Waterfronts: An Interview with Six Planners

We asked planning professionals about big challenges facing today’s communities, their favorite places, inspiration, and advice for future planners, among other questions.

Collectively, their answers highlight a few key trends: The growing need for more transportation options, the hidden potential of a community’s natural resources, and how intertwined the planning process is with the future of everything.

First of all, where is your favorite place of all time? How has it influenced your practice?

Kristin Petersen: My favorite place of all time is on an airplane because it means you are either starting or returning from a journey. From its little porthole window, you can observe earth’s natural forms and how they are shaped by man’s influence. You can see dense metropolitan cities fade into farmland and then rise into mountains. You can take off in snow and arrive in the tropics. Each journey exposes you to new perspectives and, in turn, shapes how we practice.

Mark Engel: My favorite places allow you to feel very small in the context of the world. They inspire me to do my small part in the context of the larger world around us. Such as hiking along the Appalachian Trail, viewing Lake Superior from the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, or kayaking to see the Apostle Islands Sea Caves.

Andrew Dane: The Memorial Union Terrace in Madison, Wisconsin. I love how the entire community embraces the Lake Mendota waterfront, a true "third place" that brings people together for music, talking, recreating, and celebrating. I spent time on the Terrace first as a little kid, exploring the union, swimming in the lake. As I grew older, I continued to revisit this favorite watering hole, as a teenager and later as a college student. Now I bring my kids there, to grab a brat and some sunshine or play a game a chess.

Jon Ruble: The City of Chicago. It has a large and dense urban population, renowned architecture with great public spaces and a well-connected lakefront. Additionally, the public transportation is, in my opinion, second only to New York City in the U.S. This has influenced me in the aspects of transportation connectivity, along with understanding the proper proportions for the human scale in the natural/urban environment.

Mark Flicker: The woods and lakes of northern Minnesota. I love how the diversity of landscapes can come together in unison. My memories of this diverse mesh of landscapes helps me when designing to keep built environments looking as natural as possible.

Bob Kost: The Art Institute of Chicago garden, designed by Dan Kiley. It has a great definition of space, beautiful detailing, it creates a serene, contemplative environment in a very bustling, windy city. I spent many Saturday afternoons hanging out and sketching when I was growing up in Chicago. It influenced me to study landscape architecture and city planning.

“The creative energy of their people…” A community shows up to lend their diverse voices to a planning project. Their input incorporated by SEH planners implementing the NCI Charrette System™.

What single major challenge do you see affecting many of today’s communities?

Dane: We still need to figure out how to build more compact, transit-friendly communities that work for people of all ages and phases in their lives. Without finding out ways to create greater density while at the same time creating a higher quality of life, our communities will continue to grow outward, undermining longer-term efforts to create more sustainable communities.

Engel: Balancing the needs of community development while meeting the communities desire to protect or enhance those community assets that provide the community their identity or sense of place.

Kost: Repairing suburban sprawl.

Petersen: The biggest challenge facing urban and rural communities will be to align growth and development with better transportation and transit choices. Communities will need to serve those that drive equally as well as those that cannot or choose not to drive.

Ruble: Agree. The continued reliance on the automobile and the resistance of change.


Name one aspect of the planning profession you never expected.

Dane: I never realized how broad a field planning is. A career in planning can mean so many different things, and provides one the opportunity to learn about land use, transportation, sustainability, energy, local food systems and so much more.

Kost: How our world is so profoundly shaped by planning policies and zoning regulations.

Engel: How interconnected our profession is with the design, engineering, transportation and environmental worlds.

Ruble: I never anticipated the length of time needed for a proper planning document and the public involvement and acceptance. Often these projects can span multiple years.

Flicker: I was surprised at how quickly a large-scale master plan can be implemented and built.

Petersen: That I would be one! I came into planning via Architecture and quickly realized my passion for transportation planning and public involvement.

What assets could communities be taking better advantage of?

Ruble: Embrace natural resources. Often, natural areas have been separated from communities through early town development (railroads or industry, for example), and many communities are now trying to reclaim and reconnect these resources for the public.

Dane: Yes. In Wisconsin and across the Midwest most of our small and medium-sized communities still have huge waterfront opportunities.

Engel: There is so much potential in a community’s natural resources: waterfronts, yes, but also parks, trails, open spaces … views.

Kost: I’d say the creative energy of their people — young, old, rich, poor.

Petersen: There’s nothing like good old-fashioned community interaction. Locally-supplied farmers markets, music and art festivals, parades, and Open Street events that celebrate biking and walking all help to reveal and build the character of a community. These events build bonds and create relationships that can support the health and future goals of a community.

The City of Cloquet, Minnesota, is rediscovering its waterfront.

What advice would you share with a younger version of yourself, just entering the field?

Engel: Take advantage of opportunities to work with other professionals and groups that have differing political and cultural viewpoints … and listen to what they are saying.

Dane: Network and intern all your way through college. Meet as many people as you can, expose yourself to as many different career opportunities as you can.

Kost: Be a passionate advocate for creating a more beautiful, equitable and sustainable world.

Ruble: Learn to accept compromise.

Flicker: Be a sponge and soak up all information.

Petersen: Listen carefully, then speak up. Some of my most successful contributions to projects have been things that weren’t asked for, but that I saw an opportunity for and explored. Don’t be afraid to ask why, suggest something new, or share your ideas. Oh yes, and network, network, network.

Last question. Finish this sentence with the first word or phrase that comes to your mind. “Planning is about_____.”

Kost: Everything.

Engel: Communicating with people.

Dane: Creating memorable places and spaces.

Petersen: Bridging disciplines and serving communities.

Flicker: User experience.

Ruble: The future.

About the Planners

Bob Kost – Sr. Landscape Architect, St. Paul, Minn.
Mark Engel – Landscape Architect, Rochester. Minn.
Andrew Dane – Sr. Community Development Specialist, Appleton, Wis.
Jon Ruble – Landscape Architect, Munster, Ind.
Kristin Petersen – Planner, St. Paul, Minn.
Mark Flicker – Graduate Landscape Architect, Rochester, Minn.

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