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Alumni Q&A: William (Bill) Anderson

Nov 21, 2013

William (Bill) Anderson, FAICP (MCRP ’83) is a planner living in the Mission Hills neighborhood of San Diego with his wife, two kids and their dog. He is a principal and vice-president at AECOM, overseeing the Economics + Planning practice for the western US Design + Planning group. Previously, as director of city planning and community investment for the City of San Diego, he oversaw planning, economic development, redevelopment, urban form, and facilities financing and directed the update to San Diego’s General Plan, which received the American Planning Association’s Daniel Burnham Award for Excellence in Comprehensive Planning. In April, Anderson was named president of the American Planning Association.

Anderson received his planning degree from Harvard at a time when the program was housed at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. However, he cross-registered for courses at the GSD and built a personal GSD alumni network that feeds both his professional and creative endeavors. This fall we asked him to participate in our alumni Q & A profile series. Please enjoy his thoughtful responses below.

Where do you call home today? San Diego, California

What’s your favorite city or place? Why? My favorite place is Big Sur. 

I’m partial to coastal cities–Sydney, San Francisco, Vancouver, Seattle, Boston, Barcelona, and Copenhagen come to mind. 

San Diego is home and a unique environment with the canyons and river valleys that provide open space relief within the city, connect the coast to the mountains and desert, and define communities based on their topography. San Diego is within a bi-national region of around 5.5-6.0 million people – it sits next to Mexico, linked by commerce, culture, habitat, and families. As a professional planner, San Diego is an exciting place in transition where important decisions are currently being made that will define the type of city it will become for centuries.

What object(s) most inspires you? Why? The ocean and the desert, especially when they touch. I’m attracted to the vastness and simplicity, the contrast, the timelessness.

How does your environment impact your work? We live in an inner-ring craftsman and bungalow neighborhood called Mission Hills, about three to four miles north of downtown. I have seven different ways of getting to work by transit, car or bike. Mission Hills is a walkable community. It’s also a mixed-income community, from high to moderate to low-income housing within a mile or two of each other, sometimes within a few blocks, many sending their kids to the same schools.

Our back faces a deep canyon, which is a wildlife conservation area. It’s a nice role model for me as a planner. I have a little office in the back that looks upon the back and the canyon. It’s where I like to do my concentrated work.

Who inspires you in your work? Neal Peirce, for whom I interned, who keeps his curiosity after more than a half century of writing, and who impressed upon me that the many states, regions and cities are laboratories of American innovation in planning, policy, and governance. I am also influenced by Kevin Lynch and Donald Appleyard’s Temporary Paradise, prepared for the San Diego region in the early 1970s; Jane Jacob’s observations and criticisms; and Ian McHarg’s Design with Nature.

What is your biggest professional accomplishment? San Diego’s City of Villages Plan, Santa Monica’s Third Street Specific Plan, West Hollywood’s first Economic Development Strategy and General Plan, Boulder’s Healthy Economy Strategy, San Diego’s Mid-City’s revitalization, the Mercado del Barrio affordable housing project, and APA's Sustaining Places program. Planning is a team effort with many contributors, rarely with a single author. Accomplishments are not my own, but shared with others, with my role varying in degree. 

Planners, unfortunately, often don’t see the fruits of their work until a decade or later given the length of the planning and implementation process, especially for transformative projects. My very first professional job was to help prepare the socio-economic impact analysis of Boston’s Third Harbor Tunnel–now the Ted Williams. I haven’t looked back to see if my conclusions were close.

Describe the role you play professionally? I apply an urban economics perspective to planning. It has evolved from playing a niche, specialty role as a subcontractor on comprehensive planning teams, to now taking a leading role more often as the prime contractor when the client is looking to the comprehensive plan to help achieve economic prosperity goals, or economic based strategies for achieving sustainability and community development objectives.

What’s on your bedside table right now? My iPad with Flipboard, Wrestling with Moses by Anthony Flint about the tug-a-war between Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses, and A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking about the ultimate place-making–the universeon it. Last year I read Brunelleschi’s Dome, by Ross King, a must for anyone frustrated with clients and the design and approval process today.

How do you spend your summers? The best trips are family road trips with time in a major city and time touring their back-countries.

How much do you rely upon your GSD network in your work today? Since I went to HKS, I didn’t develop an extensive GSD network while at school. However, I have developed a strong GSD network through professional collaborations over my career. I work with several alumni, both at AECOM and from other firms and agencies. A GSD alumni group in San Diego is organizing with the intention to take a greater leadership role in the region.

I rely on my GSD friends for creativity and inspiration, a bit of seriousness, commitment to the public good, and, of course, fun. I still get together with 20-30 of my classmates every five years at unofficial reunions in Cambridge or elsewhere in the country. They continue to influence me.

What is the most significant thing you learned at the GSD? I took an urban design class for non-designers. I guess you might call it an early version of Design for Dummies. While I can’t draw, I did learn to appreciate the design disciplines and about the importance of urban design and urban form.

Much of my career is spent collaborating with landscape architects, architects, and urban designers regarding program, evaluating the feasibility and impact of different design approaches, and making the economic case for good urban, environmental, and public space design. Planning policy eventually has to manifest itself into physical form and that’s what people will remember.

What advice would you have for young GSD alumni? Never stop learning, from other disciplines, clients, the public, friends, your colleagues, neighbors, and people who didn’t go to Harvard.

What's your favorite memory of the GSD? Halloween.



Academic Programs: Urban Planning and Design

News: Alumni Q&A: William (Bill) Anderson

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