Name: Frank Ruchala, Jr. (MUP '05)
Hometown: Bayonne, NJ
Current City: New York, NY
What was your work experience/background before coming to the GSD?
While in college (Rutgers University), I obtained a bachelors’ degree in urban studies. I had the opportunity to take classes on physical planning. It was so eye-opening and made me realize what kind of work I wanted to do in my career. I was also lucky to get to work with Tony Nelessen at his firm during and in the year after college.
Why did you decide to pursue planning as a career?
Even as a child, I was always fascinated by cities. I remember the first time I saw urban planning was a career choice. ‘You could do that as a job!?!?’ I knew then and there that’s what I wanted to do.
What made you decide to come to the GSD?
The GSDs focus on physical planning was exactly what I was looking for in my education and in my career. Beyond that, having the opportunity to work so closely with students in other disciplines that also focus on the city (architecture, landscape architecture, etc.) made Harvard the obvious choice for me.
What is your current position?
I’m the Deputy Director for Zoning at the NYC Department of City Planning.
What areas in planning interest you the most?
I’ve always been interested in physical planning and how it can make better cities. These days, I’m more and more fascinated by the seeming societal shift back to cities. When I was a child, cities were supposedly dangerous places that people were trying to move away from. Now, cities throughout America are experiencing visible and sustained urban renaissances. It brings with it all sorts of new issues that planning hasn’t really had to deal with in quite a while. Most of the time the profession had been trying to figure out how to maintain cities, not handle their new growth. What’s even more interesting is that many cities throughout the world are experiencing the same shift at the same time. Planning, as a profession, is going to need a whole new series of tools and ideas to do this well in the long term.
I’m currently working with a series of stakeholders to develop a new planning and zoning framework for East Midtown, the core of the region’s commercial center. This area has historically been the most important business district in the City, but now faces a series of long-term challenges to maintaining that role. We’re all grappling with planning issues on hugely varied scales – all the way from the width of the sidewalk to the region’s future role in the global economy.
Can you summarize the path you have taken since graduation that has led to your current position and how the GSD prepared you for it?
After graduation, I worked as an urban designer in SOM New York. While there, I mainly worked on Columbia University’s expansion plan which gave me a great introduction to planning and development issues in New York. Working with all the great people at the Department of City Planning on that project, made me realize I wanted to work in the public sector and there specifically. Since 2007, I’ve been at DCP, originally as the project manager for Midtown Manhattan and now as Deputy Director for Zoning. In a typical day, I’m working with lawyers, architects, politicians and community members to help plan the City. And that work requires me making drawings, writing policies and giving presentations, to name just a few. The GSDs multi-disciplinary studio-based education really prepared me for this varied work.
What advice do you have for new planners?
The profession has a really rich history and there is much to learn from it – many of the issues planners are grappling with today have been facing cities for hundreds of years. On the other hand, the city – in its scale and global reach – is really an entirely different creature than it was when most of that history was written. There’s no clear way to balance that difference, but it is important to recognize it is there.
Besides that, remember that no matter how tough school may be, there really is no more fun and challenging profession. It is really great to be a planner!