In eleven years of encounters with individuals asking about my job, I have never once felt satisfied with my ability to answer the question. Many are asking casually, but I am particularly frustrated on occasions where I sense that the inquiry is really genuine. I suspect this isn’t particularly unusual. I find myself taken by the fact that there are many people whom I also know VERY well, but really haven’t the slightest idea of what they do at work. (i.e. what they do with the MAJORITY of their waking lives). I still do not think my wife or parents have a great sense for what I do. I finally decided to create something that I could point someone to, with genuine curiosity about my current career.
I work as a Principal Planner for the Lane Council of Governments (LCOG), in Eugene, Oregon, the County Seat of Lane County.
What is a “Council of Governments?”
A Council of Governments is exactly what it says: A "council" made up of different governing bodies. Any agency or organization in Lane County with an elected board can be a member of the Lane Council of Governments. For LCOG, this ranges from the County itself and its largest cities to utility districts, school districts and even library districts. The "Council" is essentially a Board of Directors made up of representatives from the "member" organizations (A County Commissioner, a Mayor, a City Councilor, library district chair, etc.).
At is most fundamental level, the Council of Governments exists to support its member agencies. This support comes in many forms, but those which I have had the most experience with, (and which serve as good examples), are 1) The benefit that small cities can gain by pooling resources with other small cities, and 2) the frequent need for a third party entity to facilitate significant regional efforts with neutrality, balance and sensitivity.
With very few exceptions, the Lane Council of Governments does not have a dedicated tax base. Our funding comes from our member agencies and/or state and federal grants. So, although there are not really tax "appropriations" for LCOG, we are indirectly funded by tax dollars (much the same way as a construction firm that contracts with a public agency is "funded" by tax dollars). The term often used to describe LCOG's dynamic is “quasi-governmental.” I bill my hours directly to contracts, and have to find and secure those contracts. In this way my work is similar to that of a private sector contractor. At the same time, LCOG is non-profit and I am eligible and enrolled in Oregon’s Public Employee Retirement System (PERS).
What does a Planner do?
The closest you'll come to generally defining my job is with the term "Urban Planner." An urban planner is someone who "develops plans and programs for the use of land. They use planning to create communities, accommodate growth, or revitalize physical facilities in towns, cities, counties, and metropolitan areas." This is a reasonable definition, but only explains about 30% of what I do. Wikipedia’s definition is better: “An urban planner may focus on a specific area of practice and have a title such as city planner, town planner, regional planner, long-range planner, transportation planner, infrastructure planner, environmental planner, parks planner, physical planner, health planner, planning analyst, urban designer, community development director, economic development specialist or other similar combinations.”
I have underlined above the planning roles that I have assumed at LCOG over the years. The division I work in at LCOG is called "Government Services." I have found this to be a much more comprehensive (albeit terribly vague) description of my work. In many ways, my job over the last decade has been to serve our members and other agencies with whatever planning (or other) needs they have. I have worked for the majority of our member agencies over the last decade. This is one reason why I have hard time responding to someone who asks –“So you work for the City of Eugene right?” or, “Jake works for Lane County.” I have to pause and figure out how to give an accurate, but not misleading, answer. “Yes I do... sort of.”
What qualifies me to do planning?
I have a Masters degree in Community and Regional Planning (University of Oregon, 2007) and a Bachelor’s of Science in “Recreation Resources Management” (USU, 2004). Like some of you, however, I have found that the primary thing that qualifies me to do planning is experience and an openness and willingness to continue learning.
What do I do?
Here are some key examples of work I have done and a brief summary of work I am doing:
Land use planners help establish the long and short term uses of land. This ranges from working with residents and public officials on broad and comprehensive ideas (like a general sense for where a City should expand, to working with property owners and developers to ensure that very specific decisions about land use are consistent with local policies and code (like how many feet your home can be from your front property line).
Long range projects can include things like Housing Needs Assessments, Buildable Lands Assessments, Economic Opportunities Analysis, Expansion Analysis and myriad other analyses, all with the express goal of preparing for the future by better understanding existing conditions and future expectations.
More than anything else, this work puts me in front of local decision making bodies (I would estimate that I have presented at over 100 Planning Commission and City Council meetings). In the past 11 years I have worked with the following Cities on these tasks: Coburg, Roseburg, Canyonville, Yoncalla, Creswell, Lowell, Westfir, Drain, Oakland, Dunes City, Florence, Junction City, Monroe, Eugene, Curry County, Lane County, Brookings.
*You may be asking yourself why some of these cities are outside of Lane County. Though not members, we serve any government entity that has needs that we can support – which is the case with many Southern Oregon cities.
I have, and continue to, staff a number of regional efforts. These are typically made up of managers from separate public agencies who need to, or simply recognize the benefits and importance of, coordination in their efforts. One example of this is the River Districts Group. It is made up of representatives from City of Springfield, City of Eugene, Lane Transit District, University of Oregon, Willamalane and Lane County. The group was organized around an established vision for the area between downtown Eugene and downtown Springfield along the Willamette River and Franklin Blvd. The group shares project information and tries to leverage opportunities for efficiency and synergy – both in funding, planning and execution of projects. This area is seeing significant development activity (redevelopment in Glenwood, U of O Knight Campus, EmX, Eugene Downtown Riverfront Development). A regional project I helped facilitate that underpins the River Districts group is the Lane Livability Consortium. This is a site I designed to support that effort.
In a way every project is a facilitation and coordination project because, ultimately, a planner’s job is to obtain, in whatever means possible, the will of the public and public officials in establishing fundamental direction for their work. It is, in many ways the great joy, the great headache, and the great challenge of the task.
I received my bachelors degree from Utah State’s College of Natural Resources. My entry point to planning was through consideration for our natural environment. As such I have provided support to and directed many natural resource oriented projects. This includes helping eight small cities work together to more efficiently (less expensively) pursue wetland inventories and protection policies. This included a lot of sensitive public outreach and decision maker meetings. Wetlands on your property can mean development hassle (at its best) or prohibition (at its worst). People skills have come in handy in these endeavors.
Other projects have included writing Natural Resource chapters for local Comprehensive Plans, helping communities and stakeholders (including farmers) monitor and manage groundwater quality issues, creating a website to help City’s recognize the functions and values of wetlands, and helping communities develop drinking water plans to ensure that the water they drink is safe (now and going forward).
I know, weird right? Increasingly, telecommunications (or at least access to the internet), is being viewed more like a traditional public service, like roads or an airport. Some infrastructure becomes critical enough that there is a true public interest in ensuring that it is generally available and reasonably affordable.
I manage the Willamette Internet Exchange, which is, in part, a hub to the largest open access fiber optic network in Oregon. A “fiber network” connects individual buildings to the internet via a central connection point (the Willamette Internet Exchange) with fiber-optic cable. “Open access” means that the fiber strands are managed by a public agency (i.e. are publicly owned), but open to all. In the same way that a private airline has a hub and at publicly owned airport, or freight trucks use publicly owned interstate highways and local streets, network communications occur on publicly owned/leased fiber infrastructure.
As the manager of the Willamette Internet Exchange, I manage our publicly owned fiber assets (including mapping, contracting, maintenance and splicing) and also manage the physical cabinets within which all of the connections are made. This does not require a depth of IT expertise, but it does require some basic knowledge of terminology and equipment.
A day in the life on this front includes writing contracts and leases, making sure our fiber is safe (and knowing where it is). I also need to make sure that the Consortium of agencies that collectively own fiber are kept aware of important matters, and that they have a functional arrangement for governance and decisions around the fiber.
EUGNet is one cool example of things that emerge from “open access” networks. This is a project I am on the partner team for and I am very proud of it. This is a site I designed and maintain for the project. EUGNet’s increased speed and reduced cost is expanding in downtown Eugene and is a key enabling factor for growth in the City’s tech industry.
Downtown Plan in Lowell, Multi-Use Path Strategy in Oakland, Water Rate Study in Coburg, Development Code Updates in Oakland, Coburg and Yoncalla, UGB Expansion Study in Roseburg, Coburg and Canyonville.
Faculty at University of Oregon:
A dynamic that has caused considerable confusion among those who know me well is my relationship with the University of Oregon. “What do you mean your teaching a class? I thought you worked for the County.” In 2009, I accepted a position to teach a course in Geographic Information Systems at the University of Oregon (my Alma Mador). I have taught regular terms and summer terms, and am currently teaching my 14th term.
So there you go:All of this work has strengthened my appreciation of varying perspectives. Recognizing the incredible risks that developers assume in pursuing projects that are often critical for moving a community forward. Relating better to the complexities of a neighborhood that really wants more affordable housing options in their community, but not right next to them. The exercise of managing the exchange between a property owner seeking to pursue their property rights by dividing their lot and their neighbor seeking adamantly to stop it in order preserve what they perceive to be their rights. Observing a community that is resistant to regulation of any kind, warm up to a wetland ordinance because they come to recognize how wetlands can manage their seasonal (and costly) flooding issues. The complexity of the world around us is highlighted and the exercise is consistently one of thoughtful observation and problem solving.
I feel fortunate to love my job!