Running in circles literally set Lauren Garrott on the path to become an urban planner.
During her freshman year studying architecture at Kansas State University, she realized that the demands of studio classes clashed with her schedule as a Division I track athlete. But pursuing a planning major would accommodate her training and competition in hurdles and pentathlon for the Wildcats.
Graduate studies for a master’s degree in Regional and Community Planning deepened her interest in urban problem-solving. Her recommendations for erasing barriers that limit women, particularly African American women, from fully benefitting from using public parks for physical activity won an award from the Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning.
Through a series of post-graduate jobs, including with a nonprofit through the AmeriCorps VISTA national service program and with the City of Austin Parks and Recreation Department, Lauren developed skills for working with elected officials and engaging the public in envisioning improvements for their communities.
Meeting Freese and Nichols planners Shad Comeaux and Alexis Garcia at a conference led to her joining Freese and Nichols’ Urban Planning + Design team in the Pearland, Texas, office at the end of 2019. Less than three months later, pandemic shutdowns forced cities to shift to digital tools to keep planning projects moving forward. Lauren got to quickly use her outreach skills and expand them.
The Freese and Nichols team helped one city transition to online activities within days. “We did a virtual open house, which helped the city achieve their goal,” Lauren said. “When we pull together and everything works so we can deliver what they want and exceed their expectations, that shows our strengths.”
“Planners learn to adapt and determine how to involve as many people as possible,” she said. That means going beyond typical public hearings. It could involve meeting people at churches, finding ways to reach Spanish speakers, and providing interactive online tools to share information and gather input.
“Engagement is core to planning work,” Lauren said. “A planner’s ultimate goals is to protect the common good, and public safety and health. Designing ways to get there is always changing.”
What does your job involve?
I help cities develop comprehensive plans, which look at citywide growth and the extraterritorial jurisdiction, the buffer area around the city. Texas is growing so fast, it’s a perfect time for cities to be planning. Each plan depends on what the city needs. We typically look at demographics and growth trends 20 to 30 years into the future.
When we collect public input through engagement, my job as a facilitator is to hear what people are saying about their community needs and translate that into recommendations for the policymakers. We follow sound planning principles for what a good city needs, including infrastructure, housing, transportation, economic development, services. The last chapter of the plan is always about implementation so it gets put into action: outlining roles and responsibilities, and showing costs and time frames for completing each recommendation.
What do you find rewarding about your work?
In each project, it’s important for the community to feel like they’re heard. Also, it’s rewarding when the client trusts you enough to recognize your skills and let you apply them.
There’s also lots of room to grow and stretch here. I’m learning to make websites. I helped one of our teams working on regional flood plans to set up websites and surveys for their planning areas. Through that, I’m learning about flood issues from different regions of the state.
Freese and Nichols’ interdisciplinary nature allows you to collaborate with other departments about projects. We team with other groups on things like infrastructure and transportation, and we help other groups with public engagement on their projects.
What’s your favorite part about working at Freese and Nichols?
Freese and Nichols is the biggest firm I’ve worked at, but it’s small for an engineering firm. Size can determine the level of interaction and experience you get. At a larger firm you might get pigeonholed. But I have a chance to show my skills here. I also have opportunities to reach out of my comfort zone. I work with good leaders who recognize my abilities.
What’s your advice to young professionals trying to get into the industry?
I serve on the Professional Advisory Board for K State, and my advice to master’s research students is to focus on something you’re passionate about. That work is your platform, and you’ll stand out as an expert on it if you tap into your passion.
Also, do every single company activity you can. Hang out with coworkers outside of work. Get involved in the community where you live.
I served on the Kansas City Board of Zoning Adjustment, so I got to hear about issues that were important to people in that community. I’ve served on nonprofit boards and the Planning & Zoning Commission for the City of Schertz in Texas. Those are opportunities to meet more people and form new skills.
What helped shape you?
My mother was in the military, so I was born in Washington, D.C., but we moved around quite a bit. I’m from everywhere and nowhere. Also, being a student athlete makes you develop your own set of skills: You’re coachable. You learn how to take critiques. You understand how practice can translate to work.
What do you do for fun?
I play volleyball with coworkers. I run to clear my head. I swim, kayak, anything with the water.
What would people be surprised to learn about you?
I spent my childhood in Germany, and I love how kid-friendly that country is. It’s also why I’m a huge Christmas fan. I also studied in Australia, where my uncle played basketball and now coaches.