From Pandas to People: Three Lessons for Planners from My Time as a Zoo Designer

Can parallels be drawn between designing for zoos and designing for communities? Nick Chen, AICP, Community Planner and Urban Designer at Kimley-Horn, thinks so. Read on to see how his “nontraditional” experience designing for animals has helped him be a better designer for the communities in which he works.

When I was a designer at the San Diego Zoo, I “grew up” professionally in a setting experienced by millions of people each year. Taking into consideration the needs of the park residents (animals), visitors, and staff, I learned that though these groups experience the same space in different ways, they’re all looking for an immersive experience.

Working at Kimley-Horn, I’ve learned that those same principles apply to our communities, where numerous groups occupying the same space have differing needs. I’ve drawn several parallels to illustrate the lessons I learned from my time as a zoo designer that apply to the work I do now.

Animals and Residents

As the primary users of the designed and planned space, animals and community residents are the most important stakeholders. Though they express their thoughts in different ways, they’re both the most vocal groups involved. Understanding the needs of animals requires getting to know what’s unique about each species. Just like each new community I work with as a planner is a new experience, each new zoo exhibit brings with it a different set of challenges. Additionally, each exhibit and community works within a network—not separately.

Park Guests and Clients

As the main decision-makers in zoos and communities respectively, park guests and clients are the people we work for—both directly and indirectly. Each guest understands and interprets work product differently, which means we need to be flexible. Ultimately, residents and visitors to the areas we design are the people who will be most impacted by our work.  Getting their feedback early and often is key to the success of our projects.

Keepers/Staff and Business Community

Both the zookeepers/staff and business community members are instrumental to the well-being, livelihood, and experiences of their residents and visitors. While each of them has a different background, collaboration between them and the people they serve provides learning opportunities for them and for us as planners.

Planning for Animals = Planning for People (Sort of…)

There are three main lessons to be learned from the similarities between zoo design and planning for people:

  1. Doing your homework and understanding the needs and vision of all stakeholders involved is extremely important. Also understand that every community is different and there is no one-size- fits- all solution.
  2. Just like with works of art, different people interpret our planning and design work in their own way based on their own experiences. It doesn’t have to mean one group is wrong.
  3. Remaining open to collaboration and respectful of the opinions of others will result in the best end product for the collective group.

As planners, we should realize that we can draw experience and inspiration from “nontraditional” career paths. As a mentor with the University of California, Irvine’s MURP program, I see an overwhelming number of students who believe that working behind a counter or for a consultant is the only way to get experience. It simply isn’t true.