The City Planner Behind Parks and Rec

Posted on October 6, 2015

Matt Wojnowski interviews the local government consultant from ELGL’s favorite TV show, “Parks and Recreation.”

Also, check out the GovLove podcast episode with Gary/Jerry/Larry – Podcast: Jerry! Jim O’Heir from NBC’s Parks & Rec.

As the NBC TV series Parks and Recreation began, I wondered who the producers and writers were talking with in local government to make sure they were getting it right. When I joined ELGL, I learned of their affinity towards Parks and Rec including creating the most distinguished award in local government the Knope of the Week. This led to my determination to find the local government genius behind the show.

Fun Fact: ELGL’s Knope of the Week has even been mentioned on a TedTalk as an innovative way of recognizing public sector employees.)

(Knope of the Week discussion starts around 13 minute mark)

Fast forward and Parks and Rec was nearing its finale. This rekindled my interest in connecting with the local government mastermind behind Parks and Rec. I wanted to learn more about the lucky city staff member who was schooling Parks and Rec producers on the intricacies of local government. My working assumption was my search would lead a city manager.

This assumption proved wrong. After a few quick Google searches (Parks and Rec Wikipedia article (writing section) and Mark Brendanawicz Wiki article), I discovered the lucky local government professional who was hired as a consultant for the show. My first thought before I tracked him down was…

The Mastermind

His name is Scott Albright (a.k.a Mark Brendanawicz). He is a city for the City of Santa Monica, CA. After the initial excitement of identifying Scott, I moved onto the next step which was trying to contact Scott to ask him about his role with the show.

I sent him a short email to ask the burning question – “are you the Scott Albright?”  After a few suspenseful hours of continuously checking my email, an email from Scott Albright appeared in my inbox. Was he the person that I was searching for……YES, he was local government consultant for Parks and Rec.

Equally as important, Scott was more than willing to discuss his experience with the show for this column.  (This willingness to share and his experience on ELGL’s favorite show clearly puts him in the Knope of the Week category.)

According to Wikipedia:

Mark Brendanawicz: Elements of the character were designed based on advice by Scott Albright, a California city planner who works as a consultant with Parks and Recreation. The discrepancy between Mark’s optimism in college and pragmatism after encountering the real world were inspired by feedback Albright provided about the urban planning profession. The Mark character underwent major changes after receiving feedback at press tours and focus group screenings. In the original pilot episode script, Mark was portrayed as slightly less likable than the final character became. For example, in the final episode Mark asked Ron Swanson to green-light the park project to help Leslie, but in the original script, he did so only because he was attracted to Ann and wanted another excuse to keep seeing her. During the first season, Paul Schneider said he was insecure about playing Mark in early episodes because he was still trying to figure out and understand the motivations of his character.

Lightning Round

jenga blocks
What is your favorite (or most influential) book? Rand McNally Road Atlas of the United States. As a kid in New Jersey, I loved looking at the detailed city maps and imagining what exotic places like Los Angeles, Phoenix or Las Vegas were like.

What is your favorite movie? I have to admit it….Muriel’s Wedding.  Fun characters, redeeming storyline and very quotable!

What is your favorite band? The Go-Go’s. To this day, 35 years later, their debut album, Beauty and the Beat, is still number 1 in my book and consistently played on my iPod. And just ask me how much their “Our Lips Are Sealed” video had influenced my life and decision making!

Did you ever play Sim City growing up? Yes, but I found the actual act of drawing imagined city street scenes and buildings to be more impressionable.

Favorite (or dream) vacation? Although I am living the dream in southern California, I just spent two weeks with my 18 year old son in France and Spain. I am surprised I came back.

Q & A

parks and recreation animated GIF
What is your educational and professional background?

I’m a Jersey guy who grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia. After graduating from Rutgers University in 1989 and working for a few local municipalities as a planner, I got the bug and moved out of New Jersey (as prescribed by Bruce Springsteen in the unofficial state song “Born to Run”) and headed west.

I was fortunate to land on my feet by continuing to work in planning, and have valued the diverse experiences and challenges presented in Prescott Valley, AZ; Las Vegas, NV; Malibu, CA; and, my current position with Santa Monica.

How did you get initially involved with show?

This is reason #1 why a planner should always pick up the phone regardless of when and where. You never know who is on the other end of the line! 

The producers of Parks and Rec contacted the City of Santa Monica Planning Division asking to speak to someone about the planning profession and the city’s planning processes. We agreed to a time to meet in our city hall, where they could witness the functioning of a local government at its heart. My cynical side figured the producers would hear what they want, and tire of my story telling after about five minutes, but in reality they were totally engaged in the conversation. Two hours would pass and I had barely scratched the surface. I had a captive audience.

Talk about who you met from the show and what they were like.

My initial meeting at the Santa Monica city hall was with Greg Daniels (producer and writer) and Mike Schur (producer and writer). We had a follow up meeting at their studio offices where several of the series writers were involved.

Paul Schneider, who in the first season played the city planner character Mark, visited the City of Santa Monica offices one day and shadowed a number of planners including myself.

Growing up in New Jersey but living in Los Angeles, stories of celebrity sightings are a fun topic at parties and family events. I was definitely excited to meet the producers, writers, and actors with Parks and Rec.

But my prior job with the City of Malibu was where I got the opportunity to interact with many well-known personalities. These interactions were usually planning related — dealing with the professionally mundane and the not-so-glamorous aspects of civic life. It was not unusual for well-known people to show up at the front counter, or request that city staff visit their property in order to understand their issue or concern. Their issues usually involved a dispute about their personal views to the ocean being blocked by an adjacent property or not so adjacent new construction. Although very exciting at first, after a while they just became another applicant, or worse yet, another appellant.

Okay, I have to admit, meeting Barbra Streisand at her house, being given a tour of her three-home compound, and sitting in the kitchen discussing the impacts of her neighbor’s new construction on her views is something you remember. For the record, Barbara was absolutely friendly and charming. And yes, by my third trip to her house, we were on a first name basis which can happen during monotonous discussions on visual impacts due to a neighbor’s new construction.

Was your involvement more toward the planning side of the show or all aspects of local government?

I primarily spoke of my planning entitlement processes and experiences. I thought that stories of interesting and bizarre community engagement events would be interesting to the producers and writers. We, as government workers, experience all sorts of imaginable and unimaginable experiences. How could we not, we are dealing with the public. I enjoyed having the opportunity to share a sampling of my experiences with the Parks and Rec producers and writers. At times, the Parks and Rec folks give me that incredulous look of bewilderment or even disbelief about some of my stories, but I spoke only the truth. We, as government workers, can’t possibly make this stuff up.

How long were you involved with the show?

I was on contract for the first production year. We met on occasion and spoke on the phone frequently. I was being paid to talk and tell stories. A rarity for a city planner! But my worth was short lived.

Did you attend or participate in any of the filming sessions? 

I did not. Although we all dream of stardom, my career as a city planner is intact. Just as glamorous, right?! Besides, I probably had a commission or city council meeting on the night of filming.

What memorable experiences would you like to share?

The overall experience of unfiltered speech and storytelling was refreshing. Just telling our collective “government worker” story and knowing it would reach a greater audience was really fun. And seeing a Hollywood adaptation of something you’ve personally experienced is exciting. It is rumored that the original planner character on the show, Mark Brendanawicz, was based to some degree on me and my experiences.

My goal was to plan cities and promote good urban design and quality pedestrian realms. I would never have imagined a TV character based on me, some “average Joe” from the suburbs. I suspect that not too many at my 30-year high school reunion will have that claim to fame. I guess I’m glad I picked up the phone at work that fateful day!

How did this experience help you in your local government profession?

This experience reminded me that each of us have interesting stories to tell. And our experiences, although monotonous at times, are interesting and relevant. When I am at a social engagement and people find out that I work as a city planner, people love to tell me their personal experiences about a places around the city and what they mean to them.

I have attended parties with people from entertainment industry. In Los Angeles, those types are a dime a dozen. There is a collective blasé attitude about their profession. But, when I mention that I am a city planner, everyone suddenly has an opinion on something they’ve experienced and how they would make that experience better. That’s the joy of the planning profession. And that’s the joy that keeps me in this field, at least for the next seven years until I finally retire and do something I EQUALLY want to do.

Do you have a favorite episode or scene?

The first episode. The anticipation of hearing the dialog and learning if any of my characterizations made it to the small screen.
Editor’s Note: Here is additional information about the first season.

The show’s writers spent time researching local California politics and attending Los Angeles City Council meetings. Schur said they observed that many community hearings were attended only by those opposed, often angrily, to the proposals under consideration. This confirmed his existing impression: “I’ve been to some community meetings in my life, and it is often this feeling of utter sparseness. That nobody cares.” The depiction of public hearings in several Parks and Recreation episodes was inspired by this perspective, which was also the basis for the entire “Canvassing” episode. Schur asked urban planners in Claremont, California, whether efforts to turn a construction pit into a park could realistically take several months or longer. They told him that was entirely plausible, and that they had recently broken ground on a park that had been in various planning stages for 18 years.

The Pawnee residents vocally opposed to Leslie’s park proposal were based on real-life California residents the show’s producers encountered who fought the construction of parks in their hometowns. One such group, the Committee for a Better Park, was actually opposed to parks in general, and the deceptiveness of their name and mission inspired the producers’ writing for those characters. The Parks and Recreation staff worked with a number of consultants familiar with local government work, including Scott Albright, a California city planner who provided feedback for the Mark Brendanawicz character. Inspiration for Ron Swanson came from an encounter Schur had in Burbank with an elected official, a Libertarian who favored minimal government and admitted, “I don’t really believe in the mission of my job.”

Did any of your stories or local government idiosyncrasies make it into the show?

There were little things that made it to the small screen, like the way the public reacts during public meetings or the “territorial interdepartmental squabbling” between directors.  What I would have liked to have seen was more staff reaction to events, public debate, and discourse.

Fun Fact: Physically, the murals on the walls of Pawnee City Hall are based on the historic murals found within Santa Monica city hall. Also, if you look closely in one of the first episodes there is a colorful map in the background.  It’s a Santa Monica zoning map disguised as Pawnee, Indiana.

What similarities are there between planner Mark Brendawicz and yourself?

Besides the “five o’clock shadow,” we are both laid back with a calm demeanor.  A little jaded, but ultimately sincere!

Do you have any advice to local government leaders?

Listen more than you speak.  And never, Ever, EVER let “them” see you sweat!

Supplemental Reading

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