Planner Spotlight: Karen Wolf, FAICP

Karen Wolf, FAICP, is a Sr. Policy Analyst in the King County Office of Performance, Strategy, and Budget. She is in her second term as an elected member of the American Institute of Certified Planners (AICP) Commission, representing Region V and serving as the Chair of the AICP Ethics Committee and former Chair of the AICP Exam Committee. Ms. Wolf has more than 30 years of experience working on regional land use projects in King County to implement the Washington State Growth Management Act including serving as the project manager for the comprehensive plan. She facilitates the Interjurisdictional Staff Team, comprised of senior planning staff representing all jurisdictions in King County, which supports the Growth Management Planning Council and oversees the development and update of the countywide planning policies. 

Ms. Wolf also serves as a member of the Puget Sound Regional Council’s Regional Staff Committee guiding the update of the four-county regional plan, VISION 2050. Collaborations include a groundbreaking effort to curb sprawl and focus growth in urban areas while preserving environmentally sensitive rural areas and natural resource lands, the application of social justice in regional planning, a strong focus on how essential public services (such as sewers and schools) can be directed to manage growth, and advocacy for walkable and bikeable communities.

Ms. Wolf is also an active member of her community serving as a member of the Professionals Council to the University of Washington Department of Urban Design and Planning and serving as the chair of the Standing Advisory Committee for the expansion of Seattle Children’s Hospital. She is an adjunct instructor in the University of Washington Online Master of Infrastructure Planning and Management program. Ms. Wolf has a Masters in Urban Planning and a Bachelors in Economics, both degrees from the University of Washington. In her tenure at the County, she has mentored numerous younger staff that will be proud to carry her legacy forward.


Current Position: Senior Policy Analyst in the King County Executive’s Office

Total Years in Planning: 35

Why did you choose a career in planning?

Fell into it. I was always interested in neighborhoods – what’s going on around me – and being curious about the built environment, but I never thought of planning as a profession. I did my undergrad in economics and then started an MBA program that wasn’t for me. My brother’s roommate was getting a Master’s in Planning and I realized that it fit my passion.

What projects/initiatives are you most proud of?

I’m proud of the whole portfolio. My work has focused on long-range planning, and with long-range planning, we typically are not around to see the results of our work. I have seen the results of work started 30 years ago – protecting farm and forest land and enhancing the vibrancy of urban areas. I have seen that planning works and that visions can be implemented over time.

What was your first planning-related job?

I was hired as a temp (aren’t we all!) to work with a senior planner on evaluating the 1985 King County comprehensive plan.

What advice would you give to a new planner?

would advise planners to have a solid basic skill set – critical thinking and analysis and understanding the history of where we’ve been and where we’re going. Don’t carve out a narrow career pathway. New planners should be open to opportunities and ok to take a divergent pathway than what they sent out on. It’s ok to take a path you did not anticipate.

Why should planners get involved in APA?

There is no better way to network than APA. You get to meet planners in all stages of their careers. Also, it’s a very collegial and supportive environment where planners can help you prepare for the next stage of your career.

If you could have any job for a day, what would it be? 

I would love to be the planning director for a big city like Washington DC. It would be so interesting to understand how all the different facets of a big city work together. It would be great to have the opportunity to make difference in a city and to focus on underrepresented communities.

Favorite planning-related book or resource? 

The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America by Richard Rothstein. It needs to be required reading in all planning courses. It was eye-opening to learn more about the role of planners and planning in creating the inequalities we see today. I also really like the APA Planning magazine. I look forward to every issue and it’s a great way to stay up to date on what is happening in the profession and connect with work planners are doing across the county.