Buildings are like books...
Claire Ricker '95, Senior City Planner
Advanced Degrees: Master in Urban Planning, Harvard University Graduate School of Design
Employer: Office of Planning and Economic Development, City of Holyoke, Ma
Ricker’s work overall involves the intersection of planning and infrastructure for the city of Holyoke. Her tasks include grants management and project management, where she applies to grants and overlooks projects and proposals for the city. She is also actively engaged on several committees, working with many Pioneer Valley partners and city commissions on Holyoke’s development.
One of her current projects includes researching a public law from the late 1990s, in which the Commonwealth of Massachusetts funded city projects for historic preservation and revitalization. She is working to have some of the funding that was not spent during that era reallocated to a project for a historic section of Holyoke.
In addition, she works with the Massachusetts Department of Transportation to earn funds for sidewalks and bike paths. She chairs the subcommittee that is working to create a bike-pedestrian “complete street” ordinance, which will require or encourage developers in Holyoke to consider bikes and pedestrians in the planning of streets.
Another committee that she works on is the City Façade Improvement Committee, which works to preserve and restore architectural designs of historic buildings. For businesses and developers seeking to redevelop their buildings, the committee requires plans that stay true to the historical appropriateness of the building and landscape.
She is also part of the public planning process for one of the last green fields in the city, where she and the city will work with neighborhood values to redevelop this parcel of land and increase property tax revenues for the city of Holyoke.
From Mount Holyoke to City Planner
Planning was something that was new to her; after graduating from Mount Holyoke, she knew she wanted to go to graduate school but was not sure what for. Her first choice was to begin studies for a Master’s in Library Science and History, after enjoying the research she did as an undergraduate on Mary Woolley. However, she decided to move to Boston to work, instead of attending school. Once in Boston, she became a licensed union electrician, and “loved learning this trade”.
In 2010, when the bottom fell out of the construction industry, she looked at graduate school again. As someone who liked law, history, and politics—“all the things you look at as a historian”—as well as historic preservation, she found that her interests converged together in the field of urban planning. She had never considered this type of career before, nor had known much about this work. However, she ended up applying to and attending Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design, where she graduated last May. After graduation, she got the job as the city planner of Holyoke.
Her history major in action
Ricker says she uses the skills she gained from her History major every day. She utilizes her research skills all the time for the various projects she works on, and her ability to write for the review of others has played a significant role in her work.
As someone who is interested in preservation and the built environment, she sees how history and her connection and love of primary sources is brought together in her work as a city planner: the environment and buildings themselves are like primary sources that she is preserving as an archivist in a sense. So knowing how there are various types of work that share the same skills and interests would have guided her sooner.
Her advice for starting a career in urban planning
For students, she suggests “talking to others and really asking themselves what they like most about the history major: Is it research? Looking at preservation? The built environment? Architecture?”
In planning, there are diverse sub-fields one can explore, such as design. For those interested in the designing aspect of planning, looking at or interning at a small private firm can give the most experience within the field. These types of positions would most likely require some computer skills in graphics, Adobe, Photoshop, and related applications. Planning also intersects with social justice work: getting involved with youth programs and a program centered on urban revival is a good way to see that interconnection.
For public planning, Rickers suggests that students look at in-planning departments: the City of Holyoke has internships open, and some well-established programs are run in the city of New York, Chicago, and beyond. Smaller cities and towns however can give students more of a hands-on experience and feel from the public end.
The value of a history degree
For students trying to make sense of their History degree and its worth, Ricker warns students to “don’t devalue [your degree] for other opportunities” besides traditional history-oriented paths, or think the skills gained are not transferrable in other fields. She wants students to see their degree as enhancing their opportunities, instead of limiting them.
She also recommends that students take a break to “look at your interests and explore them more fully,” in order to take the time to think critically of how they can apply the things they have learned, and how they can translate into desired work.
Overall, she suggests that students “really think about the reasons you are major in history: to look at what it is you find so interesting and evocative.”