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Melanie Wilson is primarily a professional (land-use) planner. She is rare because of experience and holistic approach to the field of planning where often times she was either the youngest or first African American in some cases and the first female in others to hold important positions and roles. This interview reveals the true nature, power, and potential impact of her profession. In a historically male dominated area, especially at the leadership area, Melanie has cut a notch at the highest levels of her profession while maintaining a passion and position as a trailblazer and leading thinker in her field. I begin with an appreciation of the profession.
Land-use planning as defined by the American Planning Association is 'to further the welfare of people and their communities by creating convenient, equitable, healthful, efficient, and attractive environments for present and future generations.' The Canadian Institute of Planners states it 'means the scientific, aesthetic, and orderly disposition of land, resources, facilities and services with a view of securing the physical, economic and social efficiency, health and well-being of urban and rural communities'. Within a comprehensive plan, a land use plan offers a 25 to 30 year vision for development of defined planning boundaries for neighborhoods, districts, and cities. Land Use Planning terminology varies between regional planning, urban planning, and urban design depending on where in the USA it is being practiced. According to writer Anthony Youngʼs book 'Guidelines for Land Use Planing, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nation, Rome Italy "Land-use planning is the term used for a branch of public policy encompassing various disciplines which seek to order and regulate land use in an efficient and ethical way, thus preventing land-use conflicts."
"The ambiguous nature of the term "planning", as it relates to land use, is historically tied to the practice of zoning. Zoning in the US came about in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to protect the interest of property owners. Soon after, (the Supreme Court ruling in 1926) the Standard State Zoning Enabling Act gave authority to the states to regulate land use. Even so, the practice remains controversial today." According to the American Planning Association 2011.
'Plans are nothing; planning is everything' Eisenhower
Land-use planning contributes to public policy decision-making requiring the give and take of public opinion, government land-use plans, political self-interests, private sector development strategies, citizen involvement from affected communities, and the flow of money and influence. Planners work is risky. Winning policy makers vote for a comprehensive or any other land use
plan does not mean the efforts automatically lead to intended results for affected communities. Having good intentions, being certain, even persuasive, and well informed with thoughtful documented research could still be derailed by private sector interests or elected officials or a disgruntled community not clear or comfortable about the potential outcome. Planners are aware of communities affected though may not have been fully engaged. Regardless the planner's work becomes a backdrop of critical information that determines what happens with our quality of life. It is stressful. In public sector work when land use planning issues become controversial, planners or whole departments could be at risk of being replaced.
I spoke with Melanie Wilson about choosing planning; we discussed her pursuit of a holistic approach, where she found the most exciting job, her advocacy work in the industry, advice to low wealth or underserved communities and the future of planning. In leadership roles Melanie Wilson has distinguished herself as an expert working in most of the components in the profession. Why planning though? The work is twofold, on one hand Melanie held the 'highest profile' position as Director of the Planning Department a credible official inside the Wake County Government according to David Cooke in a press release at the time of her hiring in 2002, and yet expected to have a strategic low profile neutral role, in public as the messenger, to deliver critical information to decision-makers and for public consumption. Melanie's hero is Shirley Chisholm, Former Congressperson from Brooklyn, NY and Presidential Candidate; when challenged she'd ask 'what would Shirley do?'. With this we interviewed Melanie to explore her professional development path to becoming a role model in her field.
'Service is the rent that you pay for a room on this earth.' Shirley Chisholm
Background: Melanie headed to college from her hometown city of Newton, the County seat in Catawba, a small western North Carolina manufacturing town. Ms Wilson attended the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill where she initially wanted to obtain a degree in Industrial Relations but quickly decided that Political Science was more interesting. She was encouraged by a classmate to take an 'introduction to planning course', which encompassed law, sociology, land use etc. UNCʼs planning programs, along with the application of social science methods to practical problems of government, began in the 1940's, making it one of the top ten land-use planning programs in the Country. Melanie graduated from the UNC Chapel Hill, with a Bachelor Degree in Political Science. Seeking more urban design and environmental training, and with a HUD and Dupont Fellowship in hand, Melanie completed a Masters of Planning at the University of Virginia at Charlottesville (UVA). Their program included Urban Design,Housing/Community Development; Environmental Negotiations; Land Use and Growth Management; Historic Preservation Planning.
Lillian: How did you choose and develop into a planning career?
Melanie: "I took the course 'Introduction to Planning' and I was hooked. As black kids we did not have someone in the community that was visible as a professional planner. In growing up, I had no idea about the profession and how important it was to society. I did not get that until I took the class which allowed me the opportunity to study and work in a profession that would make a difference in the community."
"As I went through the process, I realized you needed to have an ability to understand design and read a site plan as well as understanding of how things are paid for. Planning became a very flexible degree for me to have, offering wonderful job opportunities because of it. "What is it I may need in the future?" I took a construction management course, to learn project pricing and community development, having asked myself, how can I use this to help me in the future and what would I need to know to help the African-American community and understand the impact land use would have on their 'quality of life'? Those thoughts about the community as a whole is what motivates me today, is that people are aware and understand and have good information."
At UNC Chapel Hill, Melanie spoke about being influenced by Dr. Shirley Wiess 'known as the mother of Planning' who received a PH.D in Economics from Duke University and was the first female faculty member at UNC in the Department of City and Regional Planning. Melanie was mentored by Dr. Linda Lacy, presently Dean at the New Mexico State University at Las Cruces, who formerly taught international development planning and provided technical assistance in the area of health care in 12 countries as Professor of City and Regional Planning at UNC.
Background: Early in Melanie's career she experienced innovative approaches to working with the public at Winston Salem City Planning Board. This aspect of planning has become a part of her fundamental strategic approach to engaging communities.
Lillian: Say more about your 'holistic' view to planning?
Melanie: "I have a holistic view of planning in Winston-Salem under Dr. Carroll's leadership… we did some innovative things that were 'outside of the box' by providing documents that were well understood, easily readable including talents of a graphic artist, as well as working in the community talking with people. In the mid 80ʼs, I was appointed to the NC Housing Finance Agency, which also helped me to understand more about who the players where in the affordable housing market and what public financing options were available that supported those efforts.
“By holistic view, I mean it from the standpoint of, it is important, that as a professional planner, policies and information are presented in a way that people can understand, helping them to make policy decisions through involvement in the process. The average person on the street, who in many cases does not know what may be going on in their community, need to understand how decisions affect them. It could be something they don't want. Efforts through advertising, making sure that people were made aware of what was being planned, I went way above basic advertising by outreaching to ensure, my team had things put in a format that was understandable, and I was available as well as staff to talk and meet. I comprehensively looked at everything."
Background: Melanie was the incoming chair of the national organization Planning and the Black Community Division (PBCD) of the American Planning Association with goals that offer technical assistance to low wealth communities. Their work had produced a well received and used documented study of a 'Broadway' corridor in Gary, Indiana, involving members of PBCD. I asked Melanie about her vision for this organization.
Lillian: What do you envision during your tenure as the chair of the PBCD?
Melanie: "Make sure we use our mentorship program…for our African-American planners to have a mentor that they can talk with, often people in the black communities do not realize there is an African-American planner. When something happens these planners has no one to talk to resulting in those planners leaving to go elsewhere. We speak with both white and black planning directors when reaching out to the community, requesting they be mindful of the environment they are placing their planning people in. I also speak about the importance of understanding the financial pieces, how to read a performa, looking at what the overall cost of some policies that we work create, whether a plan can be implemented, not end up on a shelf, and appreciate development of budgets for financing when creating those plans."
Background: Melanie Wilson has worked as a planner, deputy director and director for the city of Reidsville, NC, Town of Garner, NC; Housing Authority of the City of Raleigh, ICF Kaiser, Baltimore City Planning Commission, National Capital Planning Commission, DC, Maryland Governor's Office of Smart Growth, and Wake County Government.
Lillian: What was your favorite Planning job and why?
Melanie: “Iʼve been fortunate to have some great jobs that gave me the opportunity and exposure to do interesting stuff. My favorite was the Baltimore job, as deputy director for Baltimore Planning Commission, because of the way they were structured. I got to work with staff to prepare Capital Improvement Plans (CIP). The Finance department was involved,CIP agency guidelines were in place for six year projections, and Planning staff performed detailed analysis. Capital improvement plans provided a link between the visions articulated by mayor or comprehensive plans and annual capital expenditure budgets, this collaborative approach was very unusual because, Baltimore happened to be one of two cities in the country at the time, where the Planning staff had that function. Design of buildings on the harbor required signature buildings and I worked with the best designers in the country. As part of the planning staff we partnered with the Baltimore Development Corporation on policy and design review. The Empowerment Management Corporation, was setup to provide economic and job opportunities to residence, and the Health and Police Commissioners looking at health and crime prevention, drug addition, STDʼs patterns and vacant buildings and land use patterns respectively. An opportunity was afforded me to teach Planning and Public Policy graduate courses as Adjunct Professor at the University of Baltimore. I really enjoyed having those kinds of professional experiences."
Lillian: What advice do you have for the community?
Melanie: "The community needs to get involved, when they see a sign go up, call and find out what is being proposed. Ask for copies or use the internet for city or county meeting agendas and look under ʻitems or requestʼ then show up at the meetings to learn more about issues that concern them. When you see vacant land call planning or community development and find out what the status of land, you cannot make assumptions that it will be there. Citizens also need to look into transportation plans and land use maps when seeking to acquire a home making sure there are no roads to be developed in the area that will have affect property value. Mostly the community need to be active since the days of depending on one person to do the bidding for the masses is over. You must advocate for yourself and for your community. I do think that is important to pay attention to policies.
Lillian: What is the future of Planning?
Melanie: "That is the question! We have to figure out reinventing ourselves and part of that rediscovery as planners we have to think more strategically and more comprehensively about what training we are receiving. The marketing piece is intriguing as we have to figure out how to better promote ourselves in the profession, promoting the value of what we do, and be more entrepreneurial in how we work. The current tide is that people are getting rid of planning departments; they are not funding programs that are not publicly mandated Leaving planning functions on the shoulders of those only familiar with planning, for example those with a Public Administration, Engineering, etc. background, or who may not be experienced or technically trained in the complexities of planning. When one considers that many planning departments are going away or being combined with other departments and diminished, you have to note that people need to pay more attention to what is going on in the environment. Planners have to ask themselves, how do you rise above that and continue as a planner to reinvent yourself."
"Planners have to be better at being persuasive with the community, at the end of the day, the worse thing someone can say is that a policy can be detrimental to the tax base or community, on the other hand if you are persuasive enough to make the case for the bigger picture in the long run and that the policy will benefit the community, this would be considered a job well done. I think planners have to understand economic development, transportation planning (a specialty), being strategic, able to advocate for yourself. It is important to make sure to keep your skill set up, and look more comprehensively regarding other areas where planning degrees can work for you."
"The planning profession now have to compete with a lot of other folks; traditionally planners knew some social stuff and maybe knew how to read a site plan. Now engineers and architects are planners; a lot have taken the 'AICP' (American Institute of Certified Planners) exams and are now considered planners. It becomes all the more important that as a planner you are able to better market and promote yourself and the value of the profession"
Melanie ends her comments with a chuckle that planners "endeavor to persevere"!
Melanie has crisscrossed planning from the social science and public housing to architecture, experienced public finance, emphasized the importance of civic engagement in updating comprehensive plans and development standards especially to reflect the changing environment and sustainability, gained experience in the private sector, all the while increasing her capacity and mastery over land-use planning in other areas. Indeed the future Melanie speaks of may already be embodied in her as the much needed professional planner role model for now and the future.
Melanie Wilson is presently the Planning and Development Director for Augusta, GA. At the writing of this article she was Director of Planning and Sr. Project Manager for Bree & Associates, Raleigh, NC.
Trends Navigator Newsletter ʻA Newsletter for Underserved Populationsʼ (c) Trends Management Consulting, Inc. 2011
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About the Author
Lillian L Thompson
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