Through examining personal narratives, this series hopes to explore the diverse backgrounds and aspirations of our peers. We are inspired by the concept of making planning personal and the capacity of passion to motivate action and meaningful public policy. What drove you to become a planner? How have your personal experiences influenced your spatial and policy thinking? Feel free to share any personal experiences, family histories, and inspirational stories about cities where you lived or traveled. Send us your story at agoralayout@gmail.com.

 

My name is Jacob Yan, and I have been studying urban planning for six years now. I plan to keep studying it for about another five years until I get a doctoral degree. I am determined to devote myself to the field of urban planning. However, my career path to become an urban planner and scholar is not as plain as it seems.

Like most Chinese students growing up in the rural areas, before college I was so engaged in studying to get good grades in Gaokao (the Chinese college entrance exam, which is the only criteria for college admission) that I had no idea of most majors and their related careers. Therefore, my father chose my major for me. He told me “urban planning looks like a good choice because it needs five years to get the degree.” My father also wanted me to become a civil servant and he believed urban planning fit into that career goal. I followed my father’s words and thought I would end up in Chinese government.

However, after five years of training in China’s urban planning practice, I realized that I had no passion for it. As I went to a university in a major city and was exposed to all kinds of people and ideas, I gained more knowledge about the society surrounding me and also knew more about myself. Urban planning in China is considered the same as engineering. My involvement in some planning projects convinced me that in most cases governmental leaders are the real planners, and the professionals with a planning degree are only engineers who put those planning ideas onto maps. I once read a debate about whether or not urban planning is science. The comment that impressed me the most was that “I do not mind that planning is not science but is politics, but I feel sad when people say that planning is science in order to justify the political interests behind it.” I do not want to become this kind of planner, and I do not want to become a Chinese civil servant, which means I have to either sacrifice myself to go for a career I do not like or go against my father’s will.

Luckily my life story did not end so sadly. Although I do not like the urban planning practices in China, I do like urban studies. Having lived in a small village before the age of 10, moving to a town from the age of 10 to 16, and finally settling in a big city since 16, I feel I have experienced the urbanization process. Because of these experiences, I have gained perspectives from people living in different settings. In the meantime, I witnessed that each year more than two hundred million rural residents migrate to work in cities while living without a citizen status (including my parents). So I made up my mind that I wanted to become an urban scholar who studies these rural workers and helps to improve their lives by influencing local and national policies.

“I want to become a professor,” I told my father. He felt upset because professor was not the career future he planned for me and he was concerned about the loans I had to make to study in the United States, but he agreed anyway as he saw my determination and I had never let him down.

As I study in Michigan’s planning program, I feel so glad about my choice to study abroad and my plan to pursue a PhD. degree after my graduation. The experiences here make me love urban planning more than ever before. I thought social justice and sustainability were just two common research topics when I first heard of it, but as I stay in the program I realize how these two concepts shape the field of urban planning and how critical they are for planners. I used to think of planning as a “scientific arrangement of a series of long-term activities in the future,” because it was the definition I was taught for the five years as an undergraduate, but how pale this definition is when I heard John Forester said, “planning is hope!” Studying in the United States makes me realized planners are not technocrats and the toughest job in this field is not dealing with technical skills, but human values and ideologies.

Most people believe the future of humanity is in cities, yet almost all cities in the world are struggling with problems such as income inequity, residential segregation, traffic congestion, environmental pollution, etc. These problems are “wicked” planning problems that have long plagued cities, but urban planners have to deal with them anyway and I am ready to take the job no matter how challenging it is.

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