Urban Planning People and Events

Interview with Kendall Gilbert

Q:  Where did you grow up, and how might that have affected your outlook or insights as a planner?

A: I grew up in a suburb of Detroit on the east side of the state. We lived on a rural road in the middle of a nature preserve, and I got to grow up with the benefit of being in close proximity to beautiful wooded areas and a large metropolitan city. During most of the 90’s, Detroit did not have the metropolitan draw that it does today. My dad, an urban planner, used to like to take us as kids to the city to drive around and in his words “observe the urban decay.” He was the only person I knew who wasn’t afraid to take a walk down a block of abandoned buildings in one of the nation’s most crime ridden cities. This had a lasting impression on me. We watched the Hudson Building get blown up. I grew up fascinated with cities, and the forces that shape them.

I got interested in historic preservation when I saw my neighbors sell off their 150 year old Centennial Farm which was being encroached upon by suburban-style housing developments. I watched two high school students from my neighborhood work tirelessly to start a non-profit group to save the decaying Quo Vadis Theater in Westland, one of only eleven structures designed by Minoru Yamasaki, most notable for designing the World Trade Center. The movie palace was the first of its kind and was demolished in 2011, replaced by a strip mall. The intimate connections we make with our home stays with us forever. The further our memories move from current realities, the more we have to reconcile the fact that some changes were for the better, and some are irreversibly for the worst.

Q:  What other reason(s) were you were attracted to the field of planning (as a profession and/or major)?

A: Entering college I chose to study art and then I switched to anthropology. I loved learning about the ways groups of people lived. I quickly realized that geography was the perfect parallel study to anthropology. One week we read Jared Diamond’s book Guns, Germs, and Steel in one of my anthropology classes and in one of my geography classes. Our anthropology professor reasoned the book was misguided and Diamond leans too heavily on environmental determinism as a factor in explaining how cultures developed. My geography professor though the book had reached unprecedented explanations for why things are the way they are. This conflict of disciplines was fascinating to me, and I wanted to explore the relationship between how we live and where we live and what it means. After entering the urban planning program I began to realize that in the 21st century, good policies, good practices, and good design-when interwoven- are the strongest tools we have to implement change and affect the way we live.

Q:  When you were a student, was there a book or author in Urban Planning that was particularly influential to you in your thinking about the field or the world?

A: I did not have the experience of reading any urban planning books that I can remember when I was a student, and I guess I wasn’t aware what was out there. But I read several exceptional books as part of my natural resources management and environmental studies courses. The most influential was A Sand County Almanac, written by Aldo Leopold. He wrote the book on the premise of “there are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot. These essays are the delights and dilemmas of one who cannot.”  The essays wove together responsible living, an environmental ethic, and the necessity of thinking about the future of our planet. He was the first person I had read who talked about how a healthy body and mind is sustained first by living in a healthy place.  

Q:  What geography requirements—beyond your planning courses—became most useful to you as a planner and why?

A: Learning GIS. You should always walk away from college with one hard technical skill I think. I am in no way as competent as I could be in the field of GIS, but I was able to apply for an internship entitled GIS Assistant and was able to become a community planner from that internship. It is a highly marketable skill in a growing (and lucrative) field. It is the one thing you can turn to your parents and say, “this is how I plan to get a job after college with a geography degree”.

I also think you need to leave college with strong writing skills, above all else in writing you need to be able to be persuasive, concise, and accurate if you are entering the planning field. And public speaking skills are important. Again, you must be persuasive, be able to convey your ideas clearly, and must be committed to understanding the topics you are talking about by doing your research.

Q:  Which of the areas in planning would you say you specialize in at work today (housing, zoning, site design, environmental planning, “place making,” economic development etc.)?

A: As a community planner and regional geographer working in Grand Rapids I currently specialize in place making. Most of my work has been area specific planning, master plan updates, and community visioning projects. I was fortunate enough to get to work on an entirely place making project this past summer (2013) called Build a Better Block Grand Rapids re//STATE. It was a tactical urbanist event in which we implemented projects along a single corridor in downtown Grand Rapids. We helped the public visualize change by adding bike lanes to the street, filling in abandoned buildings with retail, creating public spaces like a food truck lot, a beer garden, and mini-parks in on-street parking spaces. Our job is becoming less about finding out how centralized municipal entities envision the future of their cities and more about how the public and entire communities envision the future of the places they live. With a focus on place making, you often incorporate the ideas of equitable housing, sensible zoning, intentional environmental planning, and economic development.

Q:  What kinds of work tasks that are part of your average week do you find particularly meaningful or enjoyable? Why?

A:  I spend a lot of time during the week utilizing my graphic design skills to put projects together and move our organizational materials forward. I found this to be an unexpected yet rewarding part of my job because I used to study graphic design. I now get to synthesize ideas I care about and turn them into visual information. Companies of all sizes are becoming aware of how important design is in translating their message quickly and effectively. I am constantly blown away by how the field of information design is changing the way people learn. I am even considering continuing my studies in the field of urban design, because I love the tools skilled designers are using these days to show people what ideas on paper actually look and feel like.

Q: What topics in planning would you like to learn more about in the year ahead and why?  How do you keep learning?

A: As stated above, I am very interested in learning about digital design and graphics as it applies to urban design. Grand Rapids Community College has several courses in architectural design and rendering, and I think this would be a useful skill, particularly when we are working on area specific plans, recreation plans, and long term visioning plans. I also want to at some point return to my first love in planning, which was historic preservation. Our firm gets some work in this area; I have yet to work on a project though.

I continue to learn post-college through attending community events, going to conferences like the Michigan Association of Planning annual conference this October, and looking for professional development opportunities. Volunteering is a great way to be informed of regional planning issues. And workshops, I just finished up a three day public meeting training workshop hosted by the National Charrette Training Institute in Lansing. It is important for your employer to recognize opportunities for you to learn as a young professional, and it is great when they are willing to contribute to your continued education.

Page last modified October 5, 2013