With City Council’s two new members installed last month, the addition of one of them also doubles the total number of council members with a background in professional city planning.
Councilmember Chip Smith (D–Ward 5) joins Kirk Westphal (D–Ward 2) as the second a council member with an urban planner’s background.
As urban planners and council members, they both said they aspire to proactively shape Ann Arbor into an accessible and affordable place to live.
“It is really important for us as a community to decide what we want to be when we grow up, to put it simply,” Smith said.
Smith, who is a professional urban planner certified by the American Institute of Certified Planners, currently works for Wade Trim in Detroit, a design and civil engineering firm. Westphal, who holds a masters in urban planning from the University, is the owner of Westphal Associates, a firm focused on aiding businesses with research and advertising.
Westphal said he’s found himself using his degree in urban planning in a unique way as a member of the council, recalling a time in his graduate program when a professor asked whether one had to be a professional planner to do city planning.
The answer to this question, for Westphal, was no.
“Some people do (city planning) through journalism, some people do it through teaching, some people go onto transportation, some people environmental studies,” he said. “The thing that wasn’t mentioned but what I found myself in was getting involved with local politics.”
Urban planners, Smith said, are able to bring “big picture” thinking to the body, which is important in thinking about topics like city development, a frequent discussion point among council members.
“The more people on Council that understand the intricacies of development, the better that we can address the growth and development issues,” he said.
For Westphal, his desire to be an urban planner came first, and his City Council aspirations second, but he said he’s found they both work together well.
“Cities and neighborhoods and transportation had always fascinated me, and I thought that urban planning would really help me scratch that itch,” Westphal said. “I never intended to be an elected official but I saw how my background in urban planning could help inform council discussions for the city as a whole.”
Smith echoed Westphal, saying his background has helped him understand the consequences and benefits of development.
“(Urban planners) have a keener understanding of the development process and how that process impacts the environment; the human environment and the natural environment,” he said.
For both, they said, when it came to policy, creating affordable housing and transit were development priorities for them.
“Expanding opportunities for anybody, whether they’re students or not to be able to live here more affordably, will take a lot of political courage and acknowledging that we are willing to change the appearance of parts of the city to accommodate more people,” he said. “And this is difficult to do. We’ve invested a lot more in transit and it’s the perfect opportunity to allow people to live in a way that’s less reliant on cars.”