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City planner: What I do and how much I make

Melissa describes her responsibilities and compensation as a city planner (resiliency planner) in NYC.

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Video transcript

My name is Melissa Herlitz. I am 29 years old. I work for the New York City Department of City Planning as a city planner, and I make $62,000 a year. The Department of City Planning writes the zoning resolution, which is an enormous 2000- or 3000-page document that dictates what can be built where, and so we work with other city agencies. We work with the public to try to understand the best use for buildings within New York City, depending on their neighborhood and their context. Initially in my job, I was hired to work in the Queens office on a project in southern Queens in Old Howard Beach, Hamilton Beach and Broad Channel, and these are neighborhoods that are very vulnerable to sea level rise and future tidal flooding. What I love most about my job is working with the public. That's a love that I discovered when I was in college, and I had a professor who really taught me that successful city planning happens when you engage with the community. If you go in and figuratively bulldoze a community, and you don't get buy-in, your plan isn't going to be successful. It's easy for city planners and other government employees to sometimes forget that just because we're the experts doesn't mean we know everything about a neighborhood. So I actually really enjoy talking to people who have lived in these neighborhoods for years, learning from their experience. A lot of people living in coastal neighborhoods have observed their neighborhood change over time. They know that they are subject to more frequent flooding, and that's something that my maps can tell me in some way, but it's really much more powerful when you hear that from the public, and their story can back up your decisions. As for the most difficult part of the job, sometimes I would say that's working with the public. It's exhausting. You have to be on, communicating, talking, getting feedback, being polite, you know, writing everything down, synthesizing it, understanding it, and that's a lot of work, but I think the more frustrating part of my job is the slow pace of bureaucracy sometimes. I believe that government is sometimes necessarily slow. It's good to not do things in a hasty way, but there are certain things that slow down decision making that are really frustrating. For example, some things that are frustrating are when a new mayor is elected. So you could have been working on a project for the past two, three years that was gaining a lot of traction and maybe almost ready to implement, and a new mayor and a new administration might come in and say, "We don't care about that issue as much right now. "Keep working on it, but we're going to delay releasing "that report because we want to focus "on affordable housing." Maybe that issue is also a noble cause, but it's frustrating when you've been working on something so hard to have it be put on the back burner. Most of the setbacks in my work have been more bureaucratic in nature. I have to say in general when I looked at becoming a city planner I wasn't thinking about salary. I was thinking about how cool it would be to make maps, to work and understand a wide variety of issues, and to pull it all together, and to collaborate, and to work with the public. Those were all things that really interested me. Of course, I knew that city planning provided a fair income. You know, it's not at the low end. It's not at the high end, but it's a fair-paying job as a government employee, so I'm grateful for that. Raises in New York City Department of City Planning are not always easy to come by. I think a lot of us work there because we love the work we do, and we don't necessarily expect or rely on regular increases in pay. Part of the reason is that many of us at City Planning are grant funded. So there's often stipulations as part of like a federal grant as to how much money different people can make or how many people can make this higher amount. So some of us might be in the city planner one position for a long time if we don't want to move onto other projects. I could possibly get a promotion if I were to work on a non-resiliency project, but that's not really what I want to do. I think the different levels of titles in New York City go from city planner one to city planner four, if I'm not mistaken, and then after that, the other option for you is going into a managerial position or an administrative planner position. So that's someone who is really managing a group of people rather than their primary work being the city planning stuff that I love to do.