The Best-Laid Plans Lead to Santa Barbara

Urban planner, historic preservation and architecture enthusiast, mom-to-be: Stephanie (Byrd) Swanson graduated from Woodbury in 2011 with an Architecture degree and a minor in Urban Studies, eventually earning a Master of Urban Planning from the University of Southern California. She subsequently applied her undergraduate education in architecture, graduate education in planning and preservation, and general enthusiasm for learning to a career that blends policy and practice. Our conversation with Stephanie follows.

 

You’ve been working in planning with the City and County of Santa Barbara for nearly five years. How did you wind up there?

My job started as an unpaid internship. In 2013, I graduated from USC with a Master of Urban Planning and a Certificate in Historic Preservation and was looking for full-time work while living in Santa Barbara. I was applying for jobs all over the country. I was doing phone and Skype interviews for positions every week. I was going crazy with job applications, and needed something to get me out of the house and be productive — even if it meant no money.

At that point, I was terrified. I didn’t think I could take any more rejection. I asked for an internship with the City of Santa Barbara, and the urban historian gave me a chance. I read through the municipal codes and websites of 200+ cities all over California and prepared a PowerPoint presentation comparing what Santa Barbara was doing to what other cities were doing in regards to historic preservation incentives.

Eventually, a paid position opened up. I applied and was given the chance to work for the city in code enforcement (and earn some money). I really loved the enforcement position. I didn’t love the angry applicants, but it was such a wonderful start because I had to learn the code to be able to enforce it. I worked there for about a year before being hired by the County of Santa Barbara as a Planner I, my first full-time position post-graduation — two years after receiving my master’s. I returned to the city two years later, and am now an Assistant Planner for the City.

I am so thankful for having the courage five years ago to ask about an unpaid internship. If there’s one thing I’d tell job searchers, it’s not to give up. The worst you’re going to be told is, “No,” and you never know which “Yes” will make all the difference.

What are your day-to-day duties as Assistant Planner?

Every day looks a little different. I work the public counter, taking in applications and answering general questions. I have six appointments a week for Modifications, talking with applicants about whether or not their proposal is supportable or not, or doing an intake meeting after someone has already confirmed if their project is supportable. I do site visits for projects that require Modifications and confirm that the submitted plans accurately reflect existing conditions. I write staff reports and present projects at public hearings. I review building permit plan checks and give people either comments or a “Zoning Approved” stamp on their plans. I review revisions to approved projects and see if it triggers a simple memo to the file or if the revision is substantial enough that it’s a new project.

What do various stakeholders – from developers to businesses to other city agencies to citizens at large – need to understand about the urban planning process?

Urban planning is not a one-stop shop. Planning looks at zoning compliance, Design Review looks at aesthetics, Transportation looks at maneuverability of a proposed garage, Public Works looks at the public right-of-way and if a new curb cut or street tree removal is needed, Building and Safety looks at building code compliance. Sometimes people get bogged down by one piece of the puzzle and think as soon as that’s resolved, everything else is done. Unfortunately, it rarely works out that way.

Prior to enrolling at Woodbury, had you planned to pursue architecture as a field of study?

I was fortunate enough to take interior design and architectural drafting classes my last three years of high school. I remember moving in high school and my mom was worried that our furniture wouldn’t fit in the new house, so I measured the rooms and furniture, and showed her how it could fit. My drafting teacher caught me working on my mom’s house and when I explained what I was doing, he gave me a Woodbury pamphlet and told me to check out the program. I did my research and agreed. Woodbury was the place for me.

What was the biggest takeaway from your academic career at Woodbury?

You may think you know exactly what you want, but you need to be open to change with the right mentorship. I started Woodbury right after high school, convinced I wanted to design housing projects. I had two amazing mentors who completely changed my life: Paulette Singley, professor of architecture, and Emily Bills, professor of urban studies. In my second year, Paulette took me aside and told me that I didn’t talk about my projects like an architect, I talked about them like a planner. I didn’t even know what planning really was. I ended up taking every class she offered. And I took all of Emily’s urban studies courses, filled with reading assignments and research projects connecting architecture and cities, trying to understand that you can’t have one without the other.

Where would you like to take your career next?

When I was interviewing for my current job as an Assistant Planner, I got a chuckle from my interview panel when I said something along the lines of, “the City Planner [my boss’s boss’s boss] has to retire sometime…and I’ll be here.” I’m a fixer, a do-er. I enjoy debating about ordinance interpretation and getting into the weeds about what a code section COULD imply, and how can we make it clearer, more effective. I like updating templates and handouts that are outdated because the new ones will be helpful and people in the future may not make the same mistake I did. I’m still young and finding my place in this field, but I know I’m where I belong. And when the City Planner retires…I’ll be here.

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