Maria Galarza: Urban Planner

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Over 80% of Americans live in cities, but something I'd never stopped to realize before was that it's a job to plan out cities (!). When I met Maria Galarza, I knew I had to interview her and hear what it really meant to be a urban planner. Luckily for both of us, she was more than willing to share! Maria is an urban planner for the city of Detroit, and really enjoys her job. Below she shares about her most and least favorite things about it, and how her personal story fits perfectly with her work. 

Let’s start with the basics. What’s your official title?
I’m an Urban Planner. Technically a “Junior” Urban Planner, but you don’t have to add that!

Urban Planner II? Are there different levels of being an urban planner?
Basically, it’s the ladder that you move up from junior to senior planner to supervisory to director. But you could be an urban planner, you could be an urban designer. I went to school for urban planning, which is a little bit more about policy, economic development, and community development. Urban design is a little bit more about figuring out how the street should look, the measurements, the tree distances, the lights, things like that. More design of the physical space where urban planning can be more policy-oriented.

So are those the two main paths within urban planning?
There are basically two. Some schools are more design oriented, other schools are a little bit more policy oriented. I wanted to get a dual degree in architecture and urban planning, so I dabbled [in both]. I feel like you can do a little bit of both, depending on the nature of the job.

Can you describe what your team looks like?
What’s really cool and the reason why I took this job is that our teams are comprised of a landscape architect, an architect, and a planner. And the vision of our director is that cities are complicated, it doesn’t take just one discipline to figure it out, it takes multidisciplinary teams. So, I technically came in as an architect, but it also helped that I had an urban planning degree. It’s been really great, I’ve gotten to learn a lot about things like trees. Like, I always knew trees were important, but talking to landscape designers – they love open spaces and trees and it’s amazing, totally different mindsets. We have teams for each region of the city, the city is huge so I’m on the East Side Team.

Wait, before we get too far into it, let’s go into your background for a second! Can you tell me the story of your career so far?
I guess I always knew I wanted to do something creative. When I was in my teens, I wanted to be an interior designer because there was the show Trading Spaces on TLC–a cool show in the early 2000s–and I was like, ”That’s what I want to do.” Spaces that look really cool improve quality of life, you feel so much happier when you walk into a space that really speaks to you. My Mom was like, “Why would you want to design just a space when you could design an entire house?” and I was like, “Oh my God, genius! That’s what I want to do.” So, I went to architecture school in Texas, at Texas Tech.

Are you from Texas?
No, actually. I guess, if we go all the way back, I was born and raised in Quito. I’m from Ecuador. I came to the US when I was 13, so, huge culture shock. I think a little bit of what I do probably stems from that too. Quito is a really walkable city. When I was 10, I would take the bus, no problem. And then, coming to Houston, it’s very suburban, I couldn’t really move around, I wasn’t independent anymore. I didn’t think moving cities would make such a change in my life. And that’s why it really enforced that your environment has a huge impact on my life. Obviously in hindsight, that’s why I was so unhappy in Houston–I couldn’t walk around. So now, how do we make cities better?

So then, I went to Texas Tech for architecture school. And my last year, I actually took a class on Urban Design and I was like, “This is wonderful! I didn’t know you could just obsess about cities!” So for graduate school, I was really struggling because architecture school is really rigorous and some people love it and continue and go to grad school, and some people struggle and drop out and do something else. I was like, “Ahh, I love it but I don’t know…I also love Urban Planning and I want to do both.” I was actually one of the few people in my graduate class that got two degrees.  I love the fact that I went to architecture school. I don’t think I could have sat through lectures of social studies without design studio.

Urban Planning was just so different, it was a lot more about dealing with people and less about dealing with physical things like structures. I’m still conflicted, but I’m working in both. I went to Michigan for graduate school and while studying there, I did a summer service with Americorp. I worked in Southwest (Detroit) for about 3 months doing community development work for a nonprofit there and it was wonderful. I was like, “Oh my gosh, you get to talk to people!” It was so fascinating to go to community meetings and watch how passionate people were about their neighborhoods, like, “Oh my God, that’s totally how I grew up!”. That’s when I thought that maybe public service would be something I’d want to do, eventually, in my life. But for architecture, you have to complete certain hours to get your license, so I went and worked in the private sector for about 4 years, completed all my hours, started taking my exams, struggled, by the time I finished, this job came up. And I thought, “This is great, I already experienced the architecture part of my training, now I really want to get on my urban planning training”. And so far, so good. I love it.

That’s awesome! So, for how long have you had this position?
I’ve been in the city since October 2016, so a bit over a year. It’s crazy to think about!

So now that you’re doing it, what are your main responsibilities?
Answering all the emails. No I’m kidding!

Day-to-day, we try to be really responsive with community members: answer any questions they may have, redirect them to any department they might need. That’s sort of the customer service part of our job. It’s looking at a neighborhood and seeing what assets exist there, what’s the neighborhood struggling with, how can we use resources to improve it, which is really hard in a city that’s still struggling and is so huge. There’s also a lot of presentations because they realized that a way to digest information is through visuals and so now, part of my job is to take an idea that might be complicated and break it down into more digestible graphics and simpler texts.

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Who are you presenting to?
Often it’s other departments. It’s also the Mayor, which is cool. We have a mix of people working in the planning department, a lot of us have design backgrounds. They realized really cool presentations make a difference– you can get an idea across clearly.

You’re focused on the East Side, which is a ginormous part of the city! Is its size difficult? I’m not even sure where it starts and where it ends!
Yeah, exactly. We’re really sensitive about that, because everybody perceives boundaries really differently. Because of the nature of the work, we have to draw lines and specify some things. But we definitely try to engage with as many people in the space as possible. So, when we do a neighborhood plan, we focus on the area. Part of my job is covering District 4, so I talk to residents about what they’re working on in the neighborhood. There’s a lot of amazing projects happening in different parts, and a lot of people are excited to just talk to me and or to just call the city’s attention to what they’re doing. So I go meet with them and it’s so inspiring. I went to a community meeting late last summer and literally I got a pound of jalapenos from a garden! And they were like, “Please take them!” Detroit is so unique like that, and people are so proud of their neighborhoods – it makes you want to do your job better.

Do you have a 5 year, 10 year vision for the East Side? Is that how you look at it?
There’s some areas where we feel like there’s a lot of community organizations already there, so that’s where we’re starting and because we have so few staff. But we always start with people first, so conversations and getting to know residents in the neighborhood a year in advance. We never have a full on vision for what a neighborhood could be, because we have to talk to residents first. But, our hope is that people don’t see city planning as one process and their neighborhood projects as another. We want them to see it as all projects that they can do and we can do and we can all do together. That’s probably where city planning has failed in the past, when they’ve made plans without any sort of context about what’s happening. I think we’ve come a long way to not make those mistakes anymore.

That was my next question. How do you make the neighborhood residents feel included in the process?
It’s so hard. A few months ago, I learned something from Dan Pitera who’s in the space of community engagement. He’s done a bunch of work in Detroit and he said, “You know, ‘community engagement,’ it’s a spectrum. There’s people who are going to be like, ‘Okay, enough meetings, let’s do something!’ And then there’ll be people who are like ‘You never told me you were going to do this!’” So you have to try to keep a balance and make sure that yes, you’re doing your best effort to put the word out and keep people engaged and informed. But you know, at some point you have to follow with some actions. Think about your family: making a decision it’s hard and sometimes there’s decisions that you don’t agree with and that’s probably the toughest part of the job, getting consensus. But if people are engaged and see that there’s a true, genuine effort to engage everyone, people are like, “I might not agree, but you asked me the question, and that feels meaningful.” And hopefully the ideas that emerge come from the engagement process, that’s how know if we’re doing the job right.

How does your work cycle change throughout the year?
Oh man! I really thought it would be slower in the winter... I would say that people meet more in the fall and spring, and there’s more activities to check out. We always think of our work as two shifts: the shift in the office and the shift out there, when you’re meeting community members. I’m definitely looking forward to more sunlight, longer days, the two shifts deal. But in terms of workload, it’s brutal, it’s a lot. Which is good! There’s so many exciting things and I’m so grateful to be a part of it.

What is your most favorite and least favorite parts of your job?
My least favorite is probably the amount of emails. Not necessarily from anyone, I think it’s just the nature of the work now, everyone’s like “Oh, I’m just going to send a quick email.” I’m like, “Oh my God, just call me, it’s just one question!” I’m a little OCD, so I try to archive all my emails in folders by topic and I’m like, “What am I doing with my life?”. Organizing emails, it’s brutal. But it’s the nature of any job I suppose.

My favorite thing is getting to know residents. I remember when I was little, my neighbors would do little kids programs or try to get us all together to go to a day camp or things like that. And I see those residents in a lot of the neighborhoods that we work in and it’s like, “It truly does take a village.” That’s how I grew up and it was hugely influential for me, so to be part of that system–it’s just so crazy, so cool.

What’s the best preparation, beyond school, for an aspiring urban planner?
Things have come such a long way from when I was looking what to do. Next City is this blog/news site where they post a bunch of information about what cities are doing all over the US and probably all over the world. I’d do a little bit more reading on those types of sites and probably just getting to know other cities.

It’s funny how sometimes you write off smaller cities, I went to Cleveland this past fall and it was so cool, I was like, “Nobody told me!” When you start to question why some cities might be better than others, like why New York and not Houston, it’s like “Oh, there aren’t sidewalks in parts of Houston,” or “The sidewalks are huge in New York.”. And when you begin to notice those things, you know that’s what you want to be doing to improve quality of life. And it depends so much on the school you go to too and the person that you are. I’m a little more design oriented but there are people who are obsessed with numbers and policy and changing the law,  and that’s hugely important too. And that’s what’s cool too, that you can be surrounded by people who like and do different things.

Okay, but what do you do? Please write your answer as if you're explaining to your ten-year-old self.

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Thanks so much, Maria! You were such a pleasure to talk to, and Detroit is better off with you on staff. Thank you for all you do! Readers, after re-downloading Sim City, come back next week to hear once more from Maria for a special how-to. (Photo credit Julio Cedano and Ali Lapetina)