News | ASPD and METRANS Host 2021 State of Planning Roundtable

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by Kevin Argueta Flores, USC, Dual Masters of Urban Planning and Public Policy 2023

On April 14, 2021, Associated Students of Planning and Development (ASPD) and METRANS Transportation Consortium (METRANS) co-hosted the 2021 State of Planning. This virtual event   convened a panel of practitioners from both the public and private sectors to share an insider’s perspective on current planning careers, and the skills and tools used in today’s multidisciplinary planning environment. Kevin Argueta, Master of Urban Planning (MUP) and Master of Public Policy (MPP) student at Price, moderated the conversation.




“The State of Planning 2021 event is an essential extracurricular activity for students to not only put a face on what planners look like, do and think,” said Miguel Vasquez, Healthy Communities Urban Regional Planner, Riverside County Department of Public Health, “but also as a way to see themselves practicing the many facets of planning. I hope that one day when the students enter the profession and mature, they will find opportunities to share what they do as professionals, just as I did. Events like this one keep me inspired as a planning practitioner and optimistic about the future of our profession.”


Panelist included:


  • Lauren Ballard, Supervising Transportation Planner, Los Angeles Department of Transportation (LA DOT)
  • Morgan Caswell, Manager of Air Quality Practices, Port of Long Beach (POLB)
  • Dillon Miner, Air Pollution Specialist Freight Policy Section - Transportation & Toxics Division, California Air Resources Board (CARB)
  • Miguel Vasquez, Health Planner at Riverside County Department of Health


Argueta and his USC MUP colleague Haley Rundle made the event’s opening remarks and provided attendees with background information on ASPD and METRANS.  


The panel began by sharing their take on the status of planning careers at the moment.  Vasquez noted a decline in revenue in public sector jobs associated with the COVID-19 pandemic and said that this could cause a temporary challenge for launching and advancing careers. Vasquez added, though, that this may be offset in no small part by the vacancies left by a retiring workforce.


Caswell mentioned that the new White House administration focuses on environmental issues, which has created a higher interest in clean technology and its infrastructure. Ballard, who works on the LADOTs Vision Zero initiative, added that the pandemic has created opportunities that invite new ideas to advance initiatives that have been under development. Ballard also brought up that due to budget cuts caused by the pandemic, projects have been accelerated as others have been paused, which has caused a temporary hiring freeze. Providing a state agency perspective, Minner mentioned that the pandemic has highlighted the state’s challenges in housing, transportation, energy, and public health, resulting in options for future opportunities to address these shortcomings.  


The panel was asked what organizational collaboration looks like in the planning profession here in California. Minner said that “so much of the field is focused on being a bridge between stakeholders. Being able to communicate and understand the priorities of public and make plans to implement changes such that the community’s goals are accomplished.” Vazquez added that urban planning heavily relies on the impact communities have on public health as well. Therefore, collaboration amongst planning agencies and health departments is critical, especially as California recovers from the pandemic. Ballard added that LADOT also takes a public health approach into transportation planning to reduce traffic fatalities. This approach allows LADOT to enhance Vision Zero’s deliverables in reducing traffic-related fatalities in Los Angeles County by prioritizing resources that utilize a public health lens. To better address traffic challenges, Ballard mentioned that LADOT engages with community members, planning departments, housing departments, and advocacy groups. 


“Dillon Minner from CARB pointed to planners needing to understand the various intersections of areas of planning – energy, transportation, fueling infrastructure, public health, and equity. They are all interdependent and require planners to hone framing and problem-solving skills. POLB’s Morgan Caswell emphasized that this is a time of many stimulus packages and a growing opportunity for large-scale infrastructure projects related to zero-emission vehicles to reach carbon neutrality by 2045,” recalled Deanna Matsumoto, Education and Workforce Development Program Developer, Center for International Trade and Transportation at California State University Long Beach (CSULB).


Caswell mentioned that her POLB team predominantly engages with CARB to enhance the air quality and emissions, as CARB provides grant funds that support technology demonstration projects. The POLB also collaborates with the Southern California Assembly of Governments (SCAG) to help them reach the goal of having every drayage truck using the Port be zero-emissions by 2035. Caswell said that the collaboration between these and other regional planning agencies is critical to reaching equitable and substantial infrastructure development in and around the region. Minner added that he and his team work on locomotive regulation, allowing them to collaborate with POLB, Port of Los Angeles (POLA), rail operators, warehouse facilities, and local planning organizations. CARB’s collaboration also expands to working with research institutes, national laboratories, international climate panels, and manufacturers. 


The panelists shared that their agencies’ most desirable skills tend to be related to critical thinking skills that help frame problem solving, specifically when addressing equity issues, discriminatory policies, and environmental sustainability, as opposed to technical expertise.  They agreed that it is critical for the incoming workforce to develop soft skills that allow them to collaborate with various stakeholders and also to have the ability to be innovative and creative in solving large-scale problems. Creativity and innovation in problem-solving can allow for new ideas to move projects forward in a system that might not necessarily initially favor a new approach to tackling a particular issue. Related to this, Caswell said that “we need people to question the status quo of how we have always done things as planners.” The panelist also elaborated on how practicing emotional intelligence in a professional space, especially when dealing directly with projects that affect communities, is very important because this is a skill that allows planning and policy practitioners to synthesize problems and find equitable solutions in a compassionate matter. Vasquez added, “your ability to foster emotional intelligence begins with identifying whom you are serving. Emotional intelligence is a doorway to the arena of equity.”


The panel also shared a positive outlook in opportunities stemming from current and future policy developments and grant investments in California. There is a positive outlook on funding to invest in the state’s transportation and transportation infrastructure. In addition to the potential federal investment, California Governor Gavin Newsom has also spearheaded zero-emission transportation initiatives for 2035, which coincides with the state’s push to reach carbon neutrality by 2045 through alternative fuel technology and infrastructure. California is also investing its efforts to assess and improve health issues in disadvantaged communities. Locally, the City of Los Angeles seeks to expand its active transportation projects by leveraging state legislation related to speed limits and automated speed enforcement.


Attendees shared they appreciated the candid conversation and the up to date, real-world information about the state of planning and policy careers. Dominic Alletto, Associate Director of Employer Relations at USC Price, said, “as someone who is not a subject matter expert in planning, I found the panel extremely helpful in providing a glimpse into key areas of the field. I appreciated the holistic approach to issues like public health and equity were presented as being interconnected with housing, transportation, and climate resilience.” Alletto also adds that he found the panelists’ key strategies to critique systems to be quite useful.  They were:


  • Always be respectful and go through a supervisor or chain of command
  • Understand your audience and what works best; would they prefer a memo over a presentation?
  • If applicable to the situation, have the data to back it up.
  • Know your organization and build strong relations to cultivate allies that can support your ideas.


“I enjoyed the range of the panelists. It was interesting to hear from professionals who may not be ‘planners’ per se and work with planners and planning issues,” reflected Nicholas Tarpey, MUP Class of 2021. “This event helped broaden my conceptualization of what a ‘planning career’ is. All of the panelists gave pragmatic, authentic advice about choosing and growing in a planning career, especially as a young planner.”


To learn more about ASPD and other student organizations at USC Price, visit:

To learn more about METRANS Transportation Consortium, visit:


About the Author:

Kevin Argueta is a dual-degree graduate student in the Master of Public Policy and Master of Urban Planning programs at USC Price. His academic and research interests are urban development, economic development, transportation systems, and innovative urban technologies. At USC, Kevin is a member of the Associated Students of Planning and Development Board and a Research Assistant for the METRANS Transportation Center.