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. Stephanie Hacker is a member of the 2012 Vanguard class.
Name: Stephanie Hacker
Current Occupation: Senior Planner at GRAEF, and Adjunct Professor at UWM
Hometown: Batavia, IL
Current City: Milwaukee, WI
Twitter Tag: @_GRAEF_
I drink: Coffee & Tea–specifically Anodyne, Stone Creek, & Valentine Coffee, and Rishi Tea
I am a: combination extrovert/introvert
I get to work by: I travel roughly 90 blocks by car. It’s a completely doable trek by bike. Those 90 blocks need safe and more accommodating cycling infrastructure. I intend to have a hand in boosting this infrastructure in the years to come.
The area in which I was raised was: a patchwork of urban, suburban, and rural landscapes. It still is. They’re all great and wondrous in their own right, and they all need better solutions to vastly different problems. That’s why planners exist.
What was your first job? In my first-ever paid position, I was the fountain girl at a local café situated along a statewide off-street bike/ped path. At least a third of our customers sported biking shorts, helmets, and grass stains. You could say that was my first “real” job was as an AmeriCorps VISTA working in neighborhood revitalization in Baltimore at the Greater Homewood Community Corporation. Still today, GHCC helps newbies, like I was then, learn about the complexities that come with maintaining community trust, fighting the negative perception of wealthy academic institutions, and overcoming historic socioeconomic status.
What is your favorite city and why? For American cities, it’s a tie: Baltimore, MD and Milwaukee, WI. Coincidentally, they both have a lot of old buildings. Hands down, cities with a high concentration of old buildings are, well, better. You can quote me on that. Here’s the rub: Both are facing critical issues with water and water infrastructure. Salt water rising, freshwater falling. How will mid-sized cities like Baltimore and Milwaukee innovate in the face of these challenges? Pondering that, I realize that both are favorites because, well, what they do about these challenges will indicate how many other American cities can feasibly and financially tackle water crises.
What do you do when you are not working? So, my daughter is 18 months old. And in the spirit of being a mentor, I spend every waking minute I can teaching her about the world. When not at work, I take her to local bookstores and to state forests. Life is full when precious and curious young minds remind us how the world looks with a fresh set of eyes.
What do you like most about your current job? I collaborate at GRAEF and teach at UWM. I teach through GRAEF and collaborate through UWM. It’s a great exchange. In both roles, I, along with a small number of allies in the region, enjoy pushing others to rediscover and reoccupy existing buildings and neighborhoods. I love the daily job of making others see the value we have already created.
What is the coolest project you worked on? The coolest project that I have facilitated in my current role is the formation of the Transform Milwaukee Strategic Action Plan. It hasn’t yet been released, but most of the work has been in retraining all of our brains around who can and should make plans, what plans are supposed to accomplish, how to transcend politics, and how to infuse high-level economic development theory with simple, legible, on-the-ground strategies for change.
What are the hard parts about your job? Working with other motivated people equates to having at least 10 people all fire idea shotguns in 10 different directions. We want to make a widespread, positive impact, yet have to continually respect that we have limited time. As we all know, making a tangible impact requires focus, attention, and a long-term commitment.
What is the biggest challenge facing cities today? The biggest challenge, internationally, is to be resilient, particularly by understanding and investing in our infrastructure. Infrastructure trusts and other new strategies are popping up and growing. That’s one thing. But the other thing is shared knowledge. How many of us can visualize the infrastructure we rely on a daily basis? The utilities we use to heat our home, drink water and remove waste is invisible to most of us and that makes us helpless. Quickly, we must expand our knowledge and wherewithal to understand what we can’t see.
What makes a successful leader? Successful leaders have a) an internal compass, b) a pair of sizable ears, and c) the ability to act.
What’s your BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal)? My BHAG is to make a new typology of urban design and planning the frontrunner of our processes nationwide — ahead of sheer roadway building, ahead of real estate development, and ahead of policymaking. (No hard feelings, colleagues.) Urban design and planning aren’t valued like architecture or engineering. The latter are seen as essential while the former are seen as ‘optional’ services. And by foregoing plans and designs, we pay for it over and over again. We don’t acknowledge the importance of urban design and planning in this country. I plan to change that, little by little.
What’s the best professional advice you have received? The world is not a mathematical equation, Stephanie. You won’t always discover or create the “right” answer.
Who do you most admire? Larry Witzling: he and his wife built a thriving, coveted urban design practice (Planning and Design Institute, now part of GRAEF) that provided a niche playground in which so many of us could learn and lead. Mike Hacker: He has an internal compass, he listens and he has the ability to act. He’s a successful leader. Linda Allewalt, Larry Allewalt, and Jessica Allewalt. The whole aforementioned notion of providing focus, attention, and a long-term commitment applies to everything they do. If you live in Kentucky or Montana, get to know them.
What do you look for when hiring someone? I look for candidates who can take a single idea from 0 to 100. I also ask candidates to tell me the one endeavor they would like to pursue (anything, anywhere), why that pursuit, and how we could get it done together.
What career advice would you give an emerging urban leader? Advocate early and often, but don’t lose your ability to listen.