Edith Hsu-Chen and Erik Botsford

9 Jan 2024

Warning: This recording includes immoderate flattery, self-aggrandisement (on my part), claims of New York being the greatest city and LOLs.

I had the dreamy opportunity to speak with Edith Hsu-Chen, Executive Director of the New York City Department of City Planning [read: planning honcho for the entire City of New York] and Erik Botsford, Director of the Manhattan Office [read: planning honcho for the entire island of Manhattan, unless Edith says otherwise.]

Working at the New York City Department of City Planning made such a deeply consequential impression on me. Although I left almost seven years ago, my experience there is a big part of who I am. At the time, I was a newer planner, I was completely overwhelmed and I took everything too seriously. Fortunately, over-eager, tautly-strung Karolina was in the right hands. In the wrong hands, there would certainly be no pinching myself today.

I make no secret of the fact that Pinch Yourself exists because of the sharply contrasting experiences I had working in New York and then initially in London. A lot of the shock I can attribute to expectations, a big move and general life shake-up. All of that doesn't change that I felt the difference. I was a very happy planner and then a very unhappy planner. Does that make one place a perfect employer and the other imperfect? Absolutely not - as in all things, it was my individual experience at that particular time. What the move has afforded me is 1) a chance to reflect on what I think contributes to a positive planning workplace and 2) the desire to encourage others to promote a positive planning workplace that brings the best out of them.

In my time at City Planning, Edith Hsu-Chen was the director of the Manhattan Office and Erik Botsford was deputy director. [NB: Adam Wolff was my original deputy and is every bit the hero to me that Edith and Erik are.] In my mind, our office was buzzing with energy, ambition, conscientiousness (does that buzz? not sure), smarts and a lot, a lot of laughter. Edith brought the ultra-silly giggle humour. Erik perfectly complemented with the dry quips. If there's funny, you know you're in a safe place, no matter the pressure.

Within a few weeks of my arrival, Edith let me know that my desperate-to-please efforts were recognised with the most genuine and unpretentious words. Her reflection made me feel that I'm capable - not just a ball of frantic struggle - I could feel confident in my abilities. On so many occasions, I walked into Edith's office and apologised for being a ground-please-swallow-me-up embarrassment for one reason or another. With absolute composure and a smile she'd say, "I'm not fazed" and "It's only when we're too confident/don't care [paraphrasing] that it's a problem." While being completely poised, Edith also presented herself to staff as being absolutely human. She was never an infallible executive - she just worked darn hard. I won't go into the time Edith gave me official instruction to photo-document a mislaid sandwich cookie. She would not want me to share that there were many days I worked so hard I forgot to take comfort breaks - but work always felt gratifying, mission-driven and fun.

In this conversation, Erik shares how Edith has inspired him. In many ways, Erik is to me who Edith is to him. Erik was my direct manager - I've told him he was a lot like a big brother to me. I was planner for Erik's old patch - West Chelsea - where Erik was lead during establishment of the High Line and reinvigoration of the neighbourhood - in which planning and zoning had a driving role. Erik returned to City Planning when I was already in-post after he spent four full-time years with his twin boys. I'm sure I was intimidated at first - he was the High Line planner and I was a poor imitator. I felt better when Erik insisted he couldn't remember the details of any decision. It gave me license to make things up. As a manager, Erik was always partner. He deferred to us, made sure we knew we were at the front, responsible. He's so smart, but never suggested he knew better or undercut our roles. He whole-heartedly and generously gave credit and called out deserving work. We operated as one dutiful team, with transparent communication, supporting one another as we went. I was always impressed by Erik's polished and thoughtful demeanour. He is a uniquely passionate planner with authentic vision. On my last day at City Planning, with Kleenex in one hand and a mini bottle of tequila in the other, I told Erik that one day, when I grew up, I hoped to be even a little like him. Still hoping.