Abby Crisostomo, an associate at the of the Metropolitan Planning Council, joins us today to discuss what it’s like to be a planner in the non-profit world. Abby grew up in Duluth, Minnesota but moved to Chicago to attend the University of Chicago and stayed to earn her master’s at the University of Illinois at Chicago. When not working hard to save water in Chicagoland, Abby enjoys swing dancing and chatting with @IllinoisWater on twitter.
Would you please explain what an Associate with the Metropolitan Planning Council does?
MPC is a small organization without too much hierarchy, so everyone ends up doing a lot of different types of work. Associates handle much of the day-to-day management of our various projects. MPC does research, advocacy and on-the-ground implementation, so daily work can vary wildly from doing research to convening partners to coordinating meetings to site visits to writing reports and blog posts to attending conferences and giving presentations, and more.
How did you end up at the Metropolitan Planning Council?
I interned here while I was in grad school and loved what I was doing. I stayed on past the internship period to do my master’s project, and ended up getting hired full-time just as I was completing my degree.
How did you become interested in planning?
I’ve always been interested in the interdisciplinary nature of planning. Growing up, I always thought I’d go into law, as I thought that was the only way to get such a broad exposure to issues, but then I discovered planning while in undergrad taking a class from the urban sociologist, Saskia Sassen. I spent the rest of my undergrad years trying to learn more about what planning was. After graduation, I moved to New York City to work at a law firm, but on the side, I got involved with my local community association. I went to events by an organization similar to MPC in NYC (Municipal Arts Society), and took classes through Rutgers’ planning school and New York University’s real estate school. When I moved back to Chicago, I worked at the Alliance for the Great Lakes for a few years, which reignited interest I had in water issues and environmental policy, so I knew I wanted to go back to grad school to combine all those things.
What kind of education does a planner need?
Planners do such varied jobs, that there’s no one-size-fits-all path. It’s pretty standard to get a master’s degree in planning, public policy, public administration, architecture, or a specific policy topic (such as, environmental policy). Beyond that, on-the-job experience through internships is almost, if not more, important.
You’re the first staff member of a non-profit to participate in our Water Jobs series—could you describe what working for a non-profit is like? How does it shape you day-to-day?
The great thing about working for a non-profit like MPC is that there’s a lot of flexibility to adjust your work plan and projects to the most pressing issues or innovative topics. You get the ability to think about projects more strategically and holistically, rather than having to worry as much about day-to-day issues and reacting to crises. The other nice benefit is that I get to learn a lot about a broad range of topics. No two days are the same for me and from month-to-month, I work on very different projects, so I never get bored. Though we do have to worry about how we’re funded, our hands are not as tied as government’s usually are. So with that, as well as the fact that we don’t have just one constituent base, it means that we’re able to convene and partner with a wide range of groups and organizations that might not normally interact with each other.
What motivates you in your work?
On a daily basis, I find that all my projects are just so fascinating and I am constantly learning something new. MPC has a fairly lofty goal of working towards a more equitable, livable, sustainable and competitive Chicago region, and knowing that each of the projects I do fits into that broader goal is a fantastic reason to show up to work every morning.
Would you tell us about your professional organization involvement—we’d really love to hear more about your involvement in Women in Planning + Development and in the American Planning Association Illinois Chapter Diversity Committee. What do those organization do, and why are you interested?
One of the things you quickly learn in the planning field is that so much of the work happens because of the relationships you cultivate with partners, so networking and getting our work out there and meeting new people is really important. I became a member of Women in Planning + Development to meet successful women in the field, particularly because the subset that works on water tends not to have as many women. It’s a great group that’s small enough that you really get to know people who come from a wide range of planning areas in different phases of their lives, so you learn a lot.
I joined the APA-IL Diversity Committee because, while there are not that many women doing the water side of planning, there are even fewer minorities! So, I was hoping to meet more people, as well as try to communicate back to the APA that there are sectors of planning (community development, housing, water, etc.) that are often underrepresented at their events. The group is just starting out, but we’ve gotten a few events put together, and I was able to present at the last APA-IL conference on linking community/economic development and stormwater management. I’ve recently started getting more involved with groups like Women in Green, Vital Lands Environmental Professionals of Color, and Calumet Stewardship Initiative. I just like meeting more people with the same interests as me and creating networks where we can all help each other out.
If you could see one change in Illinois from your work, what would that be?
Just one? I think the big question on people’s minds in the water world right now is the best way to implement stormwater management through green infrastructure. We’ve figured out the various tools and best management practices and have done a good job at getting those out into the mainstream, but I believe we now need to move to the next level of maturity for that field. MPC’s doing a lot of research into the most effective and strategic ways to prioritize grey and green infrastructure investments to make both sewershed/watershed impacts, but also behavioral/marketplace impacts, and I hope that we can make significant changes to the way this work is done in Illinois.
If you could go back in time and give your 18-year-old, just-starting-college-self advice, what would you tell her?
Ask more questions, get to know more people, and really explore all the options out there. College is a good time to not have to worry so much about whether you’re making the right or wrong career moves, so it’s better to just get out there and try things so you can understand more about what you like and are good at.
What do you wish people understood about water planning in Illinois?
People seem to know very little! What I really wish to impart to people is the value of water and ecosystem services. Everyone thinks that because we’re sitting next to this big lake, that water should be free or cheap and it doesn’t matter how much you use. They fail to recognize the fact that while the water itself may be “free,” it takes a lot of money, chemicals, energy, and labor to transport, treat and distribute that water. And then, when it rains hard, people expect that government should just be able to wave their magic wands and relieve them of flooding, not realizing that by overbuilding and destroying wetlands and green space, we’ve put ourselves into the position of having to deal with the consequences.