Patrick Panza Talks 40 Under 40 and GAI Career Success

patrick panzaThis September marks the 18th year at GAI for Assistant Planning Manager Patrick Panza, AICP, a 2022 Orlando Business Journal 40 Under 40 Award recipient. While, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Millennials like Patrick average a tenure of just over 5 years in architecture and engineering occupations (with Baby Boomers averaging roughly double that), his longevity and growth at GAI comes as no surprise to those around him. Patrick embodies the importance GAI places on encouraging employees to thrive and advance in their roles—with the understanding that when an individual succeeds, everyone succeeds.

Patrick’s achievements have been earned through years of training, initiative, and a genuine desire to continuously learn and educate others on ways to improve the quality of life at GAI, Orlando, and beyond.

Gaining Skills on the Path toward Planning

One of Patrick’s first career milestones occurred in 2005; that year, he started working for GAI as a CAD drafter while still a senior at the University of Central Florida (UCF). Over the next several years, to address the evolving needs of his role, Patrick saw first-hand how geographic information system (GIS) applications were becoming increasingly more important in engineering and urban planning disciplines. So, he taught himself GIS.

Learning by doing, Patrick gained practical GIS experience while simultaneously pursuing a master’s degree in urban planning at UCF. This grew into a deeper understanding of the ways GIS can serve as a data-driven tool to help create policies that further urban planning initiatives. Patrick earned his master’s degree in 2013; then in 2015, when the Community Solutions Group (CSG) became part of GAI, the opportunity arose for Patrick to utilize his skills within CSG’s newly formed Urban Planning and Design practice. Fast forward to present day, and Patrick is now recognized as an instrumental leader in CSG’s evolving Urban Analytics practice—integrating the work of project teams to create GIS-based analytical processes and web-based tools that connect clients, stakeholders, and the community.

Creating Purpose through Practical Projects

Patrick has lent his expertise to several CSG projects geared toward improving Orlando’s less advantaged neighborhoods through location-aware planning and by engaging directly with city residents. Notable projects include the 2018 APA Florida chapter award-winning OBT Next master plan as well as work with LIFT Orlando and the 2020 APA award-winning STREAM Club at Pineloch Elementary—both of which stemmed from the OBT Next master plan. Having lived in Orlando since the age of 1, Patrick grew up observing the difficulties some Orlando residents face. And, seeing the progress the City has made since his youth fueled his determination to keep learning and taking a more active role in urban planning—particularly by applying his GIS skills to gain insight into contemporary planning issues and present data in public forums. GIS technology can be used to provide a real-time assessment of a community’s existing conditions so that residents can help plan for the future.

“Urban planning is deeply dependent on public engagement,” said Patrick. “Our team serves as an extension of the government, which often subjects us to negative perceptions held by the public regarding adequacy or equity of previous planning efforts. One of the greatest challenges in planning is earning the public’s trust.”

Pandemic Public Involvement

Another professional challenge occurred in March 2020 at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. The CSG Landscape Architecture team, led by Frank Bellomo, PLA, was working on the Rolling Hills Community Park master plan for Seminole County when all in-person contact abruptly came to a halt.

“Once again, there’s no urban planning without public involvement,” said Patrick. “All of a sudden, one of the most important tools in our toolbox was taken away. We had to pivot quickly to find new ways to reach the public when we couldn’t physically be there.”

One of these quick pivots was creating a project-specific website with integrated GIS mapping applications. Patrick, with the assistance of Andrea Penuela, PLA, created multiple opportunities for the public to engage virtually in the conceptual planning and design process, which enabled the project team to further refine the vision without reliance on in-person public engagement activities. Examples include an online survey in which users could place pin drops on maps to identify what amenities they’d like to see and where, a photo tour guiding readers through existing conditions, and before-and-after photo sliders presenting concept renderings for the park. “We drew upon our in-person experience and replicated it into an online platform the best we could,” said Patrick.

This alternative planning process was so successful that it led to overwhelming public and staff support for the adoption of the Rolling Hills master plan; GAI/CSG went on to successfully propose for the Rolling Hills Park design services contract and continues to utilize the project-specific website to engage the public during advanced phases of design and implementation. CSG continues to apply these online, interactive GIS-based tools on projects such as the East Tampa CRA master plan and multiple concurrent efforts for the City of St. Cloud.

40 Under 40

When asked how it felt to be in the spotlight, Patrick said: “It feels good. It’s hard to answer because the accolades were so unexpected. It has always been my nature to keep moving forward, learning, and seeking new opportunities, and that’s what I intend to keep doing. The most rewarding part was reading what my mentors wrote about me on the nomination form! And hearing all the recognition that has subsequently come from my peers. It just feels good to be recognized and knowing that other people find my work worthwhile. I’m grateful to be a part of GAI, working with people who helped me grow into the person I am—in particular, Pete Sechler, PLA, AICP; Blake Drury, AICP; and Owen Beitsch, PhD, FAICP, CRE. I don’t want to exclude anyone, so generally I’m thankful for all my colleagues and peers.”

…and Perhaps 60 Under 60?

GAI’s Mentorship Program pairs GAI employees with senior staff mentors in order to foster staff career development, leadership potential, and cross-organization engagement. The program seeks to build a stronger, better connected, more cohesive GAI that will continue to excel in offering proactive, responsive, innovative service to our clients.

Studies report that employees with higher job satisfaction work for firms that offer challenging roles, good and supportive management, and training, mentoring, and career growth opportunities.

Patrick credits his experience at GAI as a fundamental part of his success, as well as a catalyst for his roles in urban planning outside of the firm that are making a significant impact both in Orlando and the larger Central Florida region. He currently serves on the UCF Master of Urban and Regional Planning (MSURP) Advisory Board, which he joined in 2013. In 2021, Patrick was added as an Adjunct Professor for UCF’s MSURP program; that same year he was also appointed Chair of the Orlando Downtown Development Board Appearance Review Board, of which he has been a member since 2017. As an avid bicyclist, Patrick serves on the Bike/Walk Central Florida Board of Directors, to help effect change regarding bicycle safety and mobility in the region. Working alongside CSG’s Wayfinding team, Patrick provided GIS mapping to identify a 28-mile bicycle route across metro Orlando for the pro-bono Bike 5 Cities Wayfinding master plan, developed for BWCF.

As far as future plans go, Patrick plans to keep planning. “I want to keep seizing opportunities as they present themselves, staying on the right side of progress,” said Patrick. “At the end of the day, I just want what I have done to matter; hopefully in 20 years, I’ll be happy with my accomplishments.”

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