Optimism and a New Career

By: Ben Anderson, Planner - City of Aspen

Yesterday, I received a thank you note from two middle school students who had contacted me to talk about a class project. I met with them this past fall to talk about their ideas in making Aspen more bicycle and pedestrian friendly toward improved environmental sustainability. It was a great conversation. They were very prepared with thoughtful questions. I left the meeting with a lot of optimism. They left the meeting with an understanding of NACTO and Complete Streets, and were impressed with the possibilities offered by

I have been working as a Planner I within the City of Aspen’s Community Development Department for just over 18 months now. For those of you with experience as municipal planners, what this means is clear. I know just enough to be dangerous, but the struggle is real in keeping up with the fluency of my more senior colleagues in applying a complex code to even more complex land use issues. Slowly, slowly, I am becoming more confident in the nuances of development review.

This position in Aspen is my first planning job after a long career as a high school social studies teacher. The pull to land use planning started with an experience as a P&Z commissioner and as a member of a citizen’s advisory committee for a regional plan. As is all too common, even though I still enjoyed teaching world history to 17 year olds, the whole of the teaching profession was becoming less fun for me. I knew if I stayed on any longer, I would increasingly become the grumpy old guy that we all suffered through at some point in our education. To avoid this fate, I chose the only sensible path. At age 42, I quit my job, enrolled in a Master’s in Planning program located a four hour drive away from my wife and our house, and began life as a student with peers, many of whom were half my age. Three years later, I find myself still happily married, living in a lovely mountain town, surrounded by supportive and fun colleagues, but often feeling totally insecure in this new career.

Sometimes, as I am drafting notices of approval for administrative reviews, or checking to make sure that a project is compliant with our setback requirements, I question whether or not I made the right choice. Am I making as much of an impact now, in this role, as I was in guiding teenagers through questions of philosophy or civics? I don’t know if I have yet landed on a complete answer to this question, but the meeting with the middle school students offered a reminder that might be helpful to us all in the planning profession. In the thank you note, the last lines said, “Thanks for all of the information. We plan to use it to re-plan the streets of Aspen.” These kids’ optimism that good planning makes our communities better is probably what first lured most of us down this path.


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