I Have to Ask You: Urban Planning

In this series, guest columnists respond to one of three topics selected by ELGL co-founder Kent Wyatt. Shannon Malik Jarmusz, Senior Planner, Village of Itasca, IL, writes about Professor Prinz and his role in her career decisions. 


My path to a career in local government was unintentional.  I was working on an English degree as an undergrad student, and had always been somewhat artsy and creative.  Deep down, I wanted to be a writer and had decided that the path forward included becoming a high school English teacher.  I had qualified for the teaching program at Elmhurst College and enrolled in the introductory classes, but then two things happened to thwart my plans.  

First, I didn’t enjoy the coursework and, at least at the time, could not see myself completing the program and actually teaching.  

Second, in order to satisfy a general education requirement in a subject area termed, “People, Power, and Politics”, I had enrolled in a course called “Suburbia: People, Problems, and Policies”, which landed me in a classroom with beloved Urban Studies professor Andy K. Prinz, who created the program curriculum in the 1960’s and taught for nearly 40 years before passing away in 2009.  

That single choice completely changed the tenor of my entire life.  Dr. Prinz awoke my passion for cities and how they work.  Why was a settlement located in a particular place? Why is a street named a certain way? Who are the players that shape our surroundings? I could now sit riveted during courses such as, “State and Local Government.”  Who had I become? I was looking at art schools when I was a high school junior!

But there I was, soaking in Dr. Prinz’s passion for cities, discovering an interest in urban planning and public policy which surprised no one more than myself.  Dr. Prinz’s declarations, “but in three more courses, you’ll have a minor” and later, “well, in four more courses you’ll have a double major,” culminated in my accidental procurement of a B.A. with majors in both English and Urban Studies. I graduated in 2001, and by 2002 I was enrolled in the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Masters in Urban Planning and Policy program knowing I was a meant to be a practitioner instead of a politician.  

I’ve worked in community development and planning for nearly two decades.  I’ve gained a wide variety of experiences working on current and long range planning projects, economic development, marketing and social media, managing personnel and budgeting, community outreach, and code enforcement. There is never a dull moment, as I typically work for smaller organizations that afford an opportunity to roll up my sleeves and do a little bit of everything.  

This keeps things interesting and allows my work to have a different kind of reach than it might in larger organizations.  It also helps me focus on doing what I love – guiding development concepts through the process while encouraging the best possible outcome for the community.  I find that my work is a great match for my creative inclinations and desire to write and serve the public.  

Through my work, I occasionally have the opportunity to travel to see best practices in other cities that may benefit my own community.  I’ve given back to my profession by mentoring emerging professionals and speaking at conferences and trade shows.  All of this has made for an extremely satisfying profession.

As I shockingly find myself mid-career (how did that happen so fast?!?), ELGL asked me to reflect upon what other career in local government would have appealed to me had I not gone down the planning track.  The truest answer would be none.  My interest in local government was derived from a fascination with why places are as we find them.  I cannot imagine an alternate universe where I have the desire to become a city administrator or engineer.  

Had I not been a planner through and through, I might have taken my public service career in a different direction by working for special districts or consulting.  My degree in English would have lent itself nicely to a Masters in Library Science (ask me about my 2018 Goodreads challenge!).  I could also see myself engaged in a municipal consulting role regarding marketing and social media or engagement or working in a planning capacity for a park district or similar organization.  

Perhaps it is out of loyalty to Dr. Prinz, the great proponent of the city as laboratory, but I can’t see myself removed from being of service to cities and people.  My need to make a positive impact on the built environment is as critical as my need to draw breath.  Some days the successes are bigger than others, but it is my hope that over the course of my career, I will make a positive difference.  I think this is the case, even from this mid-career vantage point.  

Now excuse me while I go write my memoir.  There will be a story about splitting a muffuletta with a favorite storied professor on the banks of the Mississippi while on travel study in New Orleans. And a story or two about driving friends and family crazy by pulling over the car to take photographs of well executed parking decks and nicely articulated pedestrian parking lot paths.  


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