Cal Poly COSAM photo by Antonio Turretto Ramos

Congratulations to Betsy McCullough on her election to the College of Fellows of the AICP! She receives this honor for her excellence in the category of Community Service and Leadership.

She and I recently talked about her history in planning, the wisdom gained over those years, and what the future holds for her and the profession.

Betsy began her college education by studying anthropology at Northeastern University in Boston. She worked for a professor at MIT who was researching the impacts of airport noise on surrounding communities.  This was interesting to her because her parents were active in a group raising awareness of the effects of Logan Airport noise on communities surrounding Boston and this was key to shifting her interest in the direction of planning.  She headed to San Diego and completed her degree in the new Urban and Rural Studies major at then “Third College” at UCSD. She went on to receive her Master’s degree in Public Administration from SDSU. After several internships, including one in the City of San Diego’s first Residential Growth Management Program, she became a junior planner at the City of San Diego in the Environmental Quality Division – one of only two women in the division at the time.  She was inspired by the hard work and high ethics of her coworkers and planning directors who sought planning solutions that were “outside the box”, and equally by the citizens that participated in the planning process with the goal of making their communities better.

She spent her professional career of 35 years at the City of San Diego working on varied assignments such as growth management, rewriting the Land Development Code, holding the position of Committee Consultant for the Land Use and Transportation Committee, and being a Deputy Planning Director overseeing Long Range Planning.  After she officially retired, she continued to work with the City’s community planning groups to help them establish and retain a credible voice in the planning process.

Her philosophies were shaped by her work with decision makers, task forces, staff, and planning groups. It was here she learned “don’t ambush your decision makers and they won’t ambush you” and the importance of giving decision makers viable professional options to allow them to make informed decisions.  She also told me she had a ‘slick board’ at work with phrases she used to remind herself and her staff about practicing in your career at a public agency:  “Planning is process”, “Disjoint incrementalism”, “The job of a citizen is to keep their mouths open”, and “Sometimes it’s better to be done than be right” – meaning that in a public agency process you just can’t expect to share a final product as a first draft because the public is involved, so take the plunge and get something out for public review and input and expect change.

As a new planner, I wanted to know what qualities she felt were essential for our profession.  Her list was:

Passion – Enjoy what you are doing or find something different that you will enjoy.

Communication Skills – Be willing to be present, listen and learn.  Learn and teach simultaneously.  Recognize that the public planning process is interactive and iterative.   Remember that you are writing and speaking for public consumption.

Awareness – Know what knowledge and skills you need in order to advance. Admit if you don’t know.  Let the people around you know your strengths and weaknesses; they want you to succeed and may be able to provide you with the training and mentorship you require.   Keep track of your accomplishments, even small things are transferable and represent your qualities.

Capacity for Leadership – If you aspire to lead, realize that leadership is multi-dimensional and has to be established and demonstrated over time in the same way that the planning process itself is incremental.

Having the benefit of years of observation, we talked about what has changed in the planning arena since she started.

She has seen the role and status of planning ebb and flow as organizational changes have elevated but also derailed momentum and morale in planning projects and staff.

When she started, there were many fewer women in planning management.

The physical landscape has changed, there is no longer an abundance of raw land to build on, and so the challenge is accommodating additional growth within existing communities. At the same time, we need to deal with the issues of failing or undersized infrastructure and changing populations that affect the needs in our neighborhoods.


Communication has changed: information used to flow from the City through postal mail and public meetings, and now both official and ‘behind the scenes’ avenues guide discussion with the opportunity for false information to gain a foothold because its pathway and readers are undisclosed during the process.

Our profession’s ranks need to reflect the communities that we are serving by recruiting and mentoring new planners, especially those from under-represented populations.

My last question for Betsy was if there was anything related to her planning career that she wished she’d done differently. Without hesitation she said “No” but then added “When you’re moving through your career, you don’t realize the impact you can have and have had”.  Looking back on the work she’s done, she feels very satisfied.   She looks forward to continuing to give back by working with the APA and mentoring newer planners by providing them with leadership and management skills.

Thank you Betsy, for all your service and we look forward to continuing to work with you.

Editor’s Note: Betsy McCullough is the first woman from the San Diego region to be elected to the College of Fellows of the AICP. She was inducted as a Fellow at the National Planning Conference in New Orleans on April 22, 2018. Congratulations Betsy McCullough, FAICP! You make us proud!