Writer Paul Coelho said, “In the search for your destiny, you will often find yourself obliged to change direction.” Dan Engelberg (M.C.P. '14) took a lot of different turns in his path to urban planning, ironically bringing him back to where his journey began: College Park, Md. Dan grew up just down the street from UMD’s campus on Beechwood Road, later moving to Columbia, Md. He completed his bachelor’s degree in mathematics at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, following some friends out to California after graduation with his sights set on some traveling. Over the course of the next couple of years, Dan picked his way around the country in a series of odd jobs and adventures. He grew organic blueberries in Santa Cruz. He trimmed cannabis in Colorado (legally). He made cheese in Washington, Maine. He hitchhiked from Indiana to West Virginia with an off-duty detective. But, it was working at an urban youth farm in Chicago’s inner city that got him truly interested in planning. “I started to think about how this farm site—located in the middle of Chicago’s south side—connected to the surrounding neighborhood. How did it influence the health of the people who walked by it every day? How did it intersect with transportation? Tying these ideas together was so interesting to me, I contacted every Bates alum who had ‘urban planning’ next to their graduation year until I got one of them to write me back. We talked by phone and he gave me five books on planning to read, which I did—I realized pretty quickly that this was something I could do.” Five years after graduating with his Master’s in Urban and Community Planning from the University of Maryland—during which time he made a name for himself at UMD’s National Center for Smart Growth—Dan is off to MIT to pursue a Ph.D. Below, Dan talks about his path to planning, the merits of wanderlust and one more monster road trip:
You spent the first couple of years out of college trying out some really interesting, eclectic jobs. What’s the most important skill you learned? Well, I certainly learned about a lot of different things. I milked cows, tutored kids after school, developed urban gardens, picked fruit, surveyed forest health. Once I figured out I wanted to pursue urban planning, I moved back to Maryland and worked in economic development in Baltimore. Interestingly though, many of the life skills I gained I took from canvassing, which I did for several months. It taught me a lot about interacting with people. From a professional standpoint, it also teaches you to be emotionally even towards the work that you do. I recognized that my feedback as a canvasser could easily influence my performance; I could be having a bad day or feel strongly about the issue I was canvassing but, to do my job well, I needed to maintain neutrality. That’s a skill I still use today.
Shortly after graduating with your master’s degree you took a job with the National Center for Smart Growth (NCSG), where you helped lead a multi-year project called Prospects for Regional Sustainability for Tomorrow (PRESTO). I feel very lucky to have worked on PRESTO. Using a suite of modeling software, we developed four potential scenarios for the Baltimore-Washington region in 2040. It’s a bit like looking into a crystal ball, in that it shows how different “unpredictable” factors—like technological advances and autonomous vehicles—can affect where people will live, how they’ll get to work and how that will, in turn, impact the environment and our economic and social health. It’s the first time this has been done in the region and is one of only a handful of projects like it world-wide.
Was that the best part of your work at NCSG? Working on PRESTO was, without a doubt, one of the most rewarding and challenging experiences of my time at NCSG. But that wouldn’t have happened without the personal and intellectual respect I received—that everyone receives—as part of NCSG’s culture. What we do at the center is complex stuff, so there was always tough commentary on deliverables, but I had the autonomy to really make it my own, so long as the work got done. I had opportunities to work on and lead projects I wouldn’t have gotten anywhere else. PRESTO was a project that needed constant attention, so I just went for it. The modeling and planning around creating these future scenarios involved a lot of decision-making and figuring it out as we went along. It was an amazing experience. Again, I could say a lot about the work, but it all ties back to the respect and trust I received the minute I walked in the door.
After moving around so much, was it hard to stay in one place after graduate school? When I graduated with my master’s, I felt this bit of panic set in because I didn’t know if I could handle sitting at a desk all day. I remember thinking, “oh crap, I just got a degree to do office work.” But the right situation fulfills your curiosity and need for challenge; these are truly the only things you need for a fulfilling job.
What will you miss most about UMD? The people. I really love the people I was able to work with. I’ll miss going to conferences and hanging out with them outside of work.
What excites you most about MIT? Exploring something new. I’m excited to learn how to approach a very vague problem and better define it, develop methods and design a reasonable program and follow through with it. But I also look forward to collaborating with people at all sorts of levels. I’ll probably have a better answer to this question in a few years!
Before starting your Ph.D., you’ve got another road trip planned. Yes, my partner and I are biking across the country. We will start in Tybee Island, Georgia, and bike to Queets, Washington. We’ve given ourselves about three months (Editor’s note: as of this writing, Dan and Morgan were in Illinois which, sadly, isn’t as flat as advertised). It’s something we’ve been wanting to do and thought this would be a great way to reset ourselves before going back to school.