Faces of Food Systems Planning: Janice Hill

Name: Janice Hill, AICP

Current Position: Executive Planner and Farmland Protection Manager; Owner, Acreage43560, LLC – A Local Food and Farmland Consulting Firm. Janice Hill, AICP, has worked in the planning field for 37 years. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania where she envisioned local food production in North Philadelphia in the early 1980s, Janice works as executive planner for Kane County, IL. She is also the owner of Acreage43560 LLC, a farmland consultancy.

What do you currently enjoy about your work?

I enjoy the mix of computer and field work.  Taking a trip “into the field” is usually the best part of my week, camera in hand always. I cannot understand why some planners only use google maps; there is no substitute for eyeing your subject area in person. 

Similarly, what do you find challenging about your work?

In the past as a municipal planner, it was the planning commission night meetings, and then the long drive home.  At the same time, plan commissioners are some of my favorite people, dedicated to making their communities the best, volunteering their time.  I’ve learned a lot from the municipal and county commissioners I’ve worked with during my 37 years in planning.

What areas of the food system do you focus on in your work, and where does that fit in with the rest of the work that you do?

It’s hard to separate a portion of the food system out from the rest, but I am first a land use planner, it’s the first lens I use in all my work. We need the land base to produce food (even food grown in the built environment) and I believe all planners should first be well-schooled in land use.

Do you consider yourself a food systems planner? Why or why not? 

I’m a land use planner first, systems thinker second, farmland protection specialist third and local food planner and advocate, not only as a professional but as a farm family granddaughter.  I don’t take it for granted and I believe all people deserve fresh and local food, and menu items cooked from scratch. 

What is the biggest food systems planning-related hurdle your community/organization faced in recent years and how was it dealt with?

The greatest challenge was overcoming a disappointment when a multi-year project failed when handed over to a private operator after being in the public/community hands for years. I still have faith in public/private partnerships, but in the food and farm sector we still have a lot to learn about making the relationship work successfully.  It has been done more in other sectors like transportation; growing local foods isn’t the same as building local roads. 

How has your perception of food systems planning changed since you first entered the planning field?

Many of us feel that the pandemic pushed the average shopper into awareness of the local food system by showing the weaknesses of our current centralized system.  Also the results of the highly processed foods are showing in our health. 

Who has had the most influence on you as a planner? As a food systems planner?

My first mentor and influencer is my dear friend since undergrad days, Barry Miller, a planner extraordinaire from Berkeley, CA. We’ve been friends since age 18, and I remember I suggested first, after seeing his hand-drawn maps, that he should be a planner; and two years later, when I was dissatisfied with clinical psych classes, he suggested I take a social planning class. We both have extremely successful careers and I can’t imagine either of us taking different career paths.

Do you have any advice for someone entering the food systems planning field? What makes you successful in your work? What skills do you use the most in your food systems planning-related work?

I believe all planners should be trained in land use and zoning first and should spend time in public sector planning working “at the counter” at some planning office.  And field work is essential. I worry that too many planners rely on the screen instead of their own field work.  Push away from the screen: aerial photography doesn’t begin to show everything.  Also talk to people, find out what their ideas and thoughts are about their environment, neighborhood, gardens, farms, tabletops, shops, etc. 

I strongly believe that planners should build their design skillset: photography, film, map-making. I believe policy comes second to design and spatial skills.  Training planners to understand fundamentals of land use, design, geography, soils, and water resources must come before learning about change.

What do you wish you would have known before going to planning school?

Nothing, it was perfect for me.  I was ready but I had already taken a few courses as an undergraduate in an undergraduate planning program, which there aren’t that many of. If I was starting now without undergraduate coursework, I’d become familiar with map-making, basic hand-drawing, photography, videography, public speaking, and work on my social skills to be comfortable engaging with all kinds of people.

How do you think COVID 19 will shape/change your job/food systems?

I’m hopeful that in the future every school has large garden, greenhouse and chef and that kids don’t start to study local foods in grad school; they start in kindergarten!

*Some portions edited for length.

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