Katy Shackelford, AICP, PTP is an urban planner and a funding specialist for Stantec. Funding is always a critical concern for planners—requiring competitive processes during local and state budget processes as well as federal and state grant awards. Professionals like Shackelford, with a foot in the critical expertise of both planning and funding, can thus be an extremely helpful resource when it comes time to get the funding necessary to explore and implement the visions of planning processes.
Planetizen was pleased to interview Shackelford for the 7th Edition of the Planetizen Guide to Graduate Urban Planning Programs at a time of unprecedented levels of federal funding for planning work, thanks to the historic series of bills emerging from the Covid 19 pandemic, culminated by the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. While Shackelford says the funding largesse is likely to continue through the rest of the decade, it won’t last forever, and young planners shouldn’t get used to the kind of windfall funding programs that are currently driving the field forward. [The interview was conducted in March 2023 and lightly edited for clarity.]
Where do you work and how do you describe your work there?
I joined Stantec about a year ago, working for the North American funding program. Our team provides resources to clients and communities to help them navigate the very complex world of federal funding.
To make that possible, we work in three buckets. The first bucket is funding research, finding out where there are resources that fit the needs of the community or the client. We evaluate them for the level of effort, how complex they might be, how much time and materials it may take to put in an application. Is it worth your time if you need $5,000 to put $5,000 of effort into writing a grant application? We have a research team that keeps a close eye on programs as they roll out, and we’re very familiar with new and emerging funding resources. The second bucket comes after we’ve identified well suited funding solutions: we help clients and communities apply for those grants. Then the third bucket: when awarded, we provide services to administer those grants and loans and make sure they stay in federal compliance because there are a lot of rules tied to using public money.
I also supplement that work with the planning from my background to help round out the project. The different lens that I bring to this work is that I can make suggestions early on in a project’s development that would make it more fundable, more likely to receive federal or state funding. Sometimes, those projects that have the most ancillary benefits or what we call co-benefits from a project—not just achieving the thing that was intended, but achieving better results with that money—are more competitive for funding.
A lot of new federal funding has been available since the pandemic, and some state budgets have surpluses that they haven’t had in the past. What should a young planner emerging into this field understand about how all this new funding has changed planning work?
It’s an interesting time. We’re experiencing an influx of funding and major landmark legislations that have lots of dollars and really transformative impact. We anticipate that we’re going to see the impact all the way through the remainder of the 2020s. But one thing I would say for a planner just emerging in the field is that this is not normal. This will not continue. We don’t have the ability to spend money like this continuously.
For a very long time, we did not invest in operations and maintenance in a way that has been sustainable. We never get good grades on infrastructure report cards, because we have not funded operations and maintenance in a meaningful way. For planners entering the career and seeing that we’re spending tons of money to build new things, you also need to strategize how to pay for those things over the long haul or they will become liabilities and they won’t have the anticipated benefit to the community.
We’re not doing the same things we did a decade ago. Coming out of the Great Recession, there was a real push for “shovel ready” projects. What we found out from that experience was that shovel-ready projects weren’t always shovel-worthy projects. Things were getting built because we needed to spend money and we needed to employ people. But over the long term, it didn’t have the intended impact on the community. We need to be more strategic now about investments. We need to rely on really sound planning to prioritize what should be funded. That has been emerging in the past couple of months—this new federal legislation has so much more of an emphasis on doing the proper planning, making sure that you’ve done deep and meaningful community engagement and that you’re aligning with community needs, not just trying to churn economic development by throwing dollars at projects.
Another unique and new transition for federal funding is that we’re coming into an era of place-based funding. We’re not just funding projects; we’re funding places. Over the last 20 years, we’ve seen economic winners and losers. It’s kind of been a winner-take-all system. If you are winning, you were attracting investment and talent, but those that didn’t have natural advantages were getting left behind. Now we’re seeing the federal government make a concerted effort to address past inequity with their funding through Justice 40, using the flow of federal funds to rebalance the scales.
What was the career path that brought you to your current job and what are some of the lessons you learned along the way?
My career pathway is a little eclectic. I have an undergraduate degree in architecture. I graduated in 2009, which many people will recognize was not a great time to be an architect. Despite all the efforts I put into my undergraduate degree, my career pathway was forced to change.
One of the things that I appreciate about my undergrad at Ball State was the common first year program where I was exposed to landscape architecture and urban planning. I had a lot of great experiences in my planning classes. Planning can achieve the same mission that I had come to do, and I fell in love with it. It’s a passion for helping people and building better communities. My area of passion has always been shrinking cities, or post-industrial cities, like those in the Midwest where you see a lot of blight or vacancy. At first I thought, “I can design these places, and I can build these beautiful places for people so that they have the amenities that they deserve.” Then I took that a step further and realized I can create the policies and the planning that build places that help people live better. It’s been a real passion for me.
My career path took me to graduate school. I graduated and came back to the Midwest. During graduate school, like most people, I was broke. So, I never turned down a job opportunity. At one point in time, I had four unpaid internships simultaneously. I just wanted experience, because I could gather all the education that I wanted, but the thing that I needed was experience. Those experiences were really important to find the things that brought me joy in my work and the things that made me passionate about what I do.
I was fortunate that I landed a graduate assistantship with an organization called the Metropolitan Institute, which was a think tank at Virginia Tech. It was happenstance that I was working on a German Marshall Fund grant and was told I needed to do grant research so that we could continue what we were studying about legacy cities in Europe and the U.S. I learned a lot about grants at that time. I also learned that with the way the U.S. is run, in communities that lack financial resources, like in the legacy cities that I cared so much about, the best way to get over the hurdles was to find grants that could pay for the infrastructure when their general budgets couldn’t. My ability to find and navigate grants developed more out of necessity. It wasn’t something anybody taught me; it was necessary for us to do the work. We were going to have to go after grants to make things happen. Over time, I continued to practice and I got better and better. At this point, I have helped secure over $168 million in federal, state, and private funding.
People talk about New York or San Francisco or Austin more than they talk about St. Louis or Detroit or Cleveland. How does working in a city that’s losing population rather than gaining, change the equation of planning?
An important lesson I learned from an economic development professor is that growth and development are not the same. You can grow, but growth is not always in your best interest. As we see with sprawl and a lot of other things, growth has a lot of negative downsides. We want to develop and evolve and continue to provide better services or better growth has a lot of negative downsides. We want to develop and evolve and continue to provide better services or better quality of life for residents. It’s for planners to recognize that we have a finite number of resources on this planet. We can’t grow our way out of our problems—with climate change, with economic development, with anything. There are going to be limitations on what we can do. We need to be able to work within those limitations and still thrive. Growing does not mean you are thriving. That’s an important distinction to make. It is also important to recognize these cities often serve as a bellwether on the effectiveness of past policies and development strategies. In them, you can find a lot of lessons about the unintended consequences of land use and policy decisions.
Legacy cities have unique place-based needs and challenges and come with the baggage of deep social and spatial disparities. Vacancy, blight, and population decline are symptoms of much more complex issues. These are “wicked problems” that cannot be solved by a silver bullet. In tackling these problems, you need to think differently, to plan differently. You need to focus strategically on the place, on integrating planning with public investment and asset management, on addressing social and environmental justice. In my opinion, legacy cities are the hotbed of innovation and collaboration. We are redefining city building for the better.
What lessons did you learn in graduate school that you find yourself recalling regularly in your day to day?
That happens all the time. Graduate school is great because you really get to study what you love and are passionate about. You’re not as rigorously defined by what classes you need to take. The advice I was given going into school was to be curious, be creative, and think outside the box. Taking all the planning classes isn’t necessarily going to make you a better planner. In my case, I took a lot of public policy courses. I took a deep dive into power dynamics in local government and policy process that still informs how I do business today.
I also believe that you should find like-minded people, even if they’re not in your career space. The piece of advice I was given as an undergraduate that has been with me ever since was from a gentleman who said, “Stop trying to think outside the box and start thinking into other people’s boxes.” Other people are trying to solve the same problems you are from a different angle. You need to know what they’re doing. That made me less focused on being the best planner in the world and instead asking, “I want to know how to solve this problem. How are you trying to solve this problem and how can we solve this problem together?”
Given what you just said about those lessons that you’ve learned about thinking outside the box and learning from other planners, is there a strategy that you would recommend for potential graduate students to make the right choice for graduate school?
The advice I give to graduate students is to look at what they’re passionate about, what they really want to study, and also then look at the professors in their graduate program—what they’re researching. It’s important to know what your professors are passionate about. I was really fortunate that I came across an advisor who was as passionate about shrinking cities as I was. Because of him and his passion and his connections, I was able to make a lot of inroads in our field early on. When you look for a program, look at what the professors are researching and make sure that they align with your areas of interest or something that you want to learn, because they are ultimately going to be setting your curriculum and you’re going to be learning from them. I would not necessarily look at a school or program or reputations or ranking. Look for the people who fit with you, who share the same passion about things you want to tackle.
Is there any additional advice for young planners that you’d like to add?
It’s International Women’s Day, so I have to say that having professional women to go to has been amazing. One thing I advise people is that you don’t need one mentor, you need 15 mentors. No one person is going to be the guiding light for all of your decision making. You need a suite of people. Don’t be afraid to reach out and ask. Most people are very flattered that you want mentorship or even if you just want to get a coffee and pick their brain. If you want to learn from somebody, let them know, and be direct about it, because we’re all in this together. We’re trying to build a better field of professionals out there and the way to do that is to learn from other people’s experiences.
Make sure that you’re learning from diverse experiences—women, men, people of color, people of different ethnicities, people of different orientations—because how they’re experiencing the world is going to be different from you. You’re going to learn something from it about how to better serve the needs of everyone in the process.
Katy Shackelford is an award-winning urban planning professional and funding specialist. She specializes in transportation planning, economic development, and public policy. She has a talent for creating catalytic community impacts using infrastructure investment. As a member of Stantec’s North American Funding Program, Katy helps clients navigate complex funding opportunities and position their projects for maximum community benefits. Katy is passionate about building places people love and has helped communities and clients secure over $190M in federal, state, and private funding to bring their ideas to life.