Local Planner Spotlight: Joan Isaacson. . . 25 Years and Counting!

When Carolina Ilic, our esteemed SDAPA Planning Journal Editor, asked me to write a piece for Local Planner Spotlight, I thought about the profiles of my respected colleagues who have been featured. They are people with deep, steady roots in their planning practices and long tenures working for a single agency or consulting firm, who have risen through the ranks in leadership and responsibility. She sent links to their Journal profiles, and with each click I thought, I don’t have this kind story, what can I possibly write about. . . But then I realized perhaps that’s the point – I have a different path of zig-and-zags to share, but nonetheless a path that may resonate with others.

In fact, an infographic would quickly illustrate the point. It could show the number of firms where I’ve worked over my 25+ years in consulting (8, including my own firm for two years), cities – scattered across the map – where I’ve conducted projects, and a bar chart with counts of project types – general plans, community plans, EIRs, resource and open space plans, transportation plans, haz mat cleanup projects, redevelopment, water, power. Means and medians by month for hours on train, freeway, and airplane would be helpful data points, as well as my personal record for number of workshop in different states (4 states in 4 consecutive days). It could also include icons for the planning greats that I’ve worked under – Rajeev Bhatia, John Bridges, Tony Lettieri, and Brian Mooney (in alphabetical order, gentlemen) plus EDAW, a legend of a firm. Finally, a timeline could illustrate varied schedules associated with parenting and the point where I pivoted from practicing planner to public participation and process facilitation. But Carolina’s deadline is upon me, and I have no time for an infographic.

Here’s the deal: In each new chapter of project, community, or geography, a new universe opens up. I jump in, fully committed to apply wit, knowledge, and care, and in turn I gain experience, insights, new practices, technical knowledge, and connections with people and place. And this gets paid forward, giving me an even more effective tool kit for my next assignment.

Ultimately, this is what our work as planners is about: Serving the communities in which we work and advancing places where people and ecosystems thrive. Notice my intentional use of the plural “communities.” The challenge of our charge is to balance the varied goals, needs, and concerns of the multiple communities that interface with place and project. As planners, our role is to facilitate viable, multi-benefit solutions. These principles underpin my 25+ years of consulting, and are the reason for new projects exciting me as much as my first.

One week last month, taking advantage of recent “empty nester” status, I traveled to five distant cities, for assorted presentations, public workshops, internal staff meetings, lunches with colleagues from former firms, by train/airplane/car/transit/feet. When I got home that Friday evening, my husband looked at me and said, “You should be exhausted, but you look. . . Well, you look exhilarated.” He was right, because as planners, that’s exactly the kind of week that fires our engines.

Here’s to 25 years and counting, and looking forward to each new horizon.

Joan Isaacson is a planner who has consulted in San Diego for 25+ years, and now focuses on public involvement and stakeholder facilitation. She is a Vice President with Kearns & West. Photo source: Her husband, Steve Isaacson.