D.C. Urban Planner Knows You Can’t Please Everyone (and That’s OK)

Jenny Koch

Next City isn’t just a news website, we are a nonprofit organization with a mission to inspire social, economic and environmental change in cities. Part of how we do that is by connecting our readers to urban changemakers and holding an annual Vanguard conference bringing together 40 top young urban leaders.

Name: Jennifer (Jenny) Koch

Current Occupation: Urban planner, Rhodeside & Harwell, Inc.

Hometown: Berlin, Wisconsin

Current City: Washington, D.C.

Twitter Tag: @RHIPlanPlace

I drink: Coffee in the morning, tea in the afternoon

I am an: Ambivert, though probably on the introvert end of the scale

I get to work by: Bike or train

The area I grew up in is: A very small city surrounded by a lot of rural land

What was your first job? At the concession stand at the outdoor pool. I also worked seasonally at the Experimental Aircraft Association annual fly-in and eventually throughout the year at their museum. I met Chuck Yeager there. I also ate lunch with the late Cliff Robertson, who most people might recognize as the grandfather from the Spiderman movies. We discussed potato salad.

What do you do when you are not working? Organize sing-alongs, go to concerts, ride or wander around D.C., and learn how to fix my bike. I’m wrapping up an improv comedy class, which I would suggest to anyone. I also have a little project where I interview people working in climate change adaptation, and I am the secretary-treasurer for the American Planning Association’s Sustainable Communities Division. I keep busy.

Did you always want to be an urban planner? No, I switched my major a few times in undergrad, eventually landing on atmospheric and oceanic science. I remember taking a climatology class, and we did a group project where we did some basic modeling of what would happen if the permafrost melted and a lot of greenhouse gases were released. As I recall, the science of our work was spot on, but we were all a bit stumped when our professor said, “so, what happens to all of the people?” I was working with EPA when I got more interested in adaptation and the human element of climate change, as well as the role that natural systems in urban areas can play in making communities better places to live. I stumbled across the field of urban planning when I was trying to figure out which graduate programs would be most relevant to my interests. (I ended up in the MURP program at Portland State University.)

Site visit while working with CAUPD in Chongqing, China

What do you like most about your current job? I get to be involved in a lot of different types of projects, as well as many different aspects of our projects — including public outreach, mapping, writing proposals, project management, marketing, branding, etc. I enjoy working closely with very talented urban designers and landscape architects. They’ve given me a greater appreciation for places and spaces that are both functional and well-designed. We’ve also started a blog. I’ve only written one post so far, but I’m really enjoying developing ideas that are based around my personal passions and interests.

What are the hard parts about your job? The community members who come out to meetings tend to either want to see changes now, or they are opposed to any sort of change at all. It’s difficult to persuade those who straddle that line to spend the time to come out to meetings. It’s also easy to fall into a trap of trying to please everybody, which is hard enough to do when you’re trying to settle on a restaurant for a four-person dinner party, let alone a 30-year plan for a community.

What is the biggest challenge facing cities today? One overarching challenge seems to be a lack of communication within the many departments that help a city function. There’s a lot of stovepiping. Cities are facing the need to be more adaptive to changing transportation patterns, climate changes, economic swings, etc., and strategies need to be coordinated between all of the relevant actors. It’s like a chair — it can stand on four individual legs just fine under ideal conditions, but it’ll be stronger under pressure with lateral connections between the legs. Though it’s probably going to take longer to build that chair, it also won’t break down as often.

On a site visit in the Edgewood neighborhood of D.C.

What’s the best professional advice you have received? “Sometimes messengers have to wear bulletproof vests,” which might be more of a warning than advice, but I think it works. I’ve received a lot of my advice non-verbally, by observing those that I respect and admire.

What career advice would you give an emerging urban leader? Volunteer your time to causes that you deem worthy. Also, don’t be afraid of networking and being your own advocate. You should be able to talk yourself up, but also back that talk up.