Career Paths for Addressing Urban Sprawl

by Rose

Visitor Question: I was wondering if you might be able to advise.

After spending a number of years in retail, I'm looking into changing careers to something that really makes a strong and positive difference to urban and suburban areas.

Over the years I've become utterly dismayed by the urban sprawl from my own city, which seems to be extending without control and without any sign of stopping.

Though I once thought low-density development was a grim inevitability of modernity, after having seen European cities that handle it so infinitely better than my own city, I began to have hope that something could possibly be done to reverse this problem. In particular, I’m most interested in a) doing something that increases the number and quality of light-rail and other rail systems in our communities and b) general beautification of our cities and suburbs.

What are your recommendations for careers/fields of study that would make the strongest impact in this area? Urban planning? Civil engineering with an emphasis on transportation? Something else altogether?

I appreciate your thoughts on it!

Editors Reply: Rose, you make many excellent points. We cannot resist the comment that European cities may seem to have done a better job at thwarting sprawl than American cities simply because European central governments were not as keen on doling out 90 or 95 percent funding for highway expansion. But that doesn't address your question.

Our collective opinion as editors is that urban planning is a far better choice than civil engineering for making an impact on sprawl and the need for more light or heavy rail systems that would limit it. We are biased, of course, since we are planners, but let me explain the reasoning.

Civil engineers are taught all the nuances of road building as part of their education, often a major part. Like all of us, they tend to want to uphold and apply what they were taught. As a profession, engineers tend to respond to demand for their services rather than think in a big picture manner about what is beneficial for society. Certainly there are individual exceptions, but that is our experience of civil engineering as a whole.

An urban planning education does not necessarily mean that you would land in a position having much influence over commuter rail or sprawl, so you would need to approach that education with a specific specialty in regional issues in mind.

Even then, the best regional planning possible in America must anticipate and react to federal transportation policy and incentives. The federal government funds the vast majority of transportation improvements in the U.S. The lack of federal commitment to greatly expanded rail services in large cities is a major driver of sprawl.

If you look further into urban planning and find that this career does not seem right for you, you might want to think for a few days about whether some type of communications or liberal arts approach to this problem would be right for you.

Sometimes we think that if more Americans could be exposed to the subway systems in London, Paris, Madrid, or Asia, they would understand about rail. Or maybe if suburbanites actually spent 24 hours a day in the robust and vital parts of central cities, they would understand why younger folks are attracted to an urban environment.

Media and social media approaches to those environments might be somewhat effective.
Maybe you would want to take a communications or political science pathway toward your goal.

While you are pondering these weighty choices, your second interest, beautification, might not require any additional education or experience at all. To explore such a career path, do a thorough inventory of all the organizations currently active in this arena in the Chicago area, and figure out if and how you might fit in. If something is missing, founding a new organization is a time-honored way to change careers. Although new organizations are work-intensive, the payoff in personal satisfaction and sense of accomplishment can be great.

Hopefully one of these observations will resonate with you.

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Thank you!
by: Rose

Thank you so much for your detailed and thoughtful response to my question. It was very helpful!

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