James M. Harris

BAUP 2011

What is your current job and how did your planning degree prepare you for it?

I currently am a Land Use Planner for the Zoning Board of Appeals of Cook County. I review and prepare all applications for zoning relief (variances, map amendments, special use and planned unit developments) filed on properties within unincorporated Cook County. I also produce other supplemental documents, maps and reports to aid the Zoning Board in their recommendation to the Cook County Board of Commissioners.

My degree has helped me prepare for my career because it taught me the planning process and how to work in groups. Anecdotally, during my interview for my current position, I was asked to locate a property on a Sidwell map. I was the only candidate to answer that interview question correctly and I have my University of Illinois professors to thank for teaching me about Sidwell maps. 

My first professional urban planning experience was as an intern for the Champaign County Regional Planning Commission. I conducted traffic counts using clickers, HiStar and tube counters for their Long Range Transportation Plan, which is updated every five years. I then went on to work as a Program Coordinator with the Active Transportation Alliance. There, I worked on the Better Blocks program, where I conducted workshops with parents from Chicago’s West Side to help activate them in lobbying their aldermen for pedestrian safety improvements for their neighborhoods. As an Assistant Planner with Will County, I had the great opportunity to help develop a county wide energy plan that will help shape energy policy making within Will County for the next decade. While in this position, I worked with task forces of community stakeholders for the public involvement phase of the plan’s development, as well as coordinated and facilitated all public meetings during the visioning process in accordance with the Illinois Open Meetings Act.

Why did you choose to study urban planning?

I have always been interested in the built environment and have always known that I wanted to have a career that in some way effected the built environment. Many career choices have temporary impacts on the world, but careers that impact the built environment have long-lasting impacts on the world around us. Originally I was interested in being an architect. It was through an exploration of urban planning courses, during my freshmen year, that I found my way to urban planning.

What advice would you share with someone who is considering a career in urban planning?

Urban planning is a great career path for those who seek flexibility, as well as those who are generally interested in the built environment. I believe anyone interested in real estate and architecture would also find much interest in urban planning. My advice to those just graduating (and to those seeking internships) is to go for every opportunity you find. I graduated in an economy that was rough, but through persistence I was able to continuously work in the field, find amazing opportunities, and work with incredible people who expanded my knowledge of urban planning.

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