Planner Profiles: Rob James

This planner profile article features Rob James. Rob is a senior associate with HHF Planners and the project manager for a variety of the firm's projects with specific focus on projects for the U.S. Navy. He was the project manager for the U.S. Navy's Shipyard Infrastructure Optimization Plan Phase 1 project, which received the APA National Federal Planning Division's 2019 Citation Award. Mahalo, Rob, for sharing your thoughts and perspective!


Rob is a senior associate with HHF Planners and serves as the project manager for a variety of the firm’s projects. His experience as a GIS specialist allows him to integrate GIS software and its varied disciplines into HHF’s projects. Rob and his team were recently awarded the APA Federal Planning Division’s Citation Award for their Shipyard Infrastructure Optimization Plan Phase 1 project. This project resulted in a long-range planning vision to aid the U.S. Navy in addressing shore deficiencies at its four public shipyards. Rob holds professional certifications from the APA and the GIS Certification Institute.

1. Congratulations on receiving the APA Federal Planning Division’s 2019 Citation Award for your work on the U.S. Navy’s Shipyard Infrastructure Optimization Plan Phase 1 project. Please tell us a bit about this project and why you believe it was competitive for this award.

Our team, which included Jerilyn Hanohano, Gene Yong, and Dave Curry, were excited to receive this award from the APA Federal Planning Division. The Shipyard Infrastructure Optimization Plan Phase 1 (SIOP Phase 1) project was prepared as part of the Navy’s Strategic Plan to address shore infrastructure deficiencies at their four public shipyards. These shipyards are comprised of infrastructure from the 19th and 20th centuries, which directly leads to inefficiencies during the maintenance of 21st century naval assets. The current layouts of the shipyards are suboptimal for the modern shipyard mission, and a major recapitalization has not occurred since the early 20th century. Our project utilized an innovative planning analysis to identify inefficiencies in current shipyard operations, and tie that to the return-on-investment if the Navy were to pursue a major infrastructure recapitalization.

We worked with the shipyards to develop a high-level industrial engineering analysis based on LEAN manufacturing principles for waste reduction. This analytical method allowed us to target reductions in the transportation and motion of personnel, materials, and ship components across the shipyards. These current state process flows were mapped in GIS to quantify, at a very high-level, the required distance traveled for select maintenance availabilities. We then re-imagined each shipyard’s physical plant based on a set of development zones that maximized the productive capacity at the waterfront, which is a very limited asset in a shipyard. These zones, radiating out from the waterfront, were the basis for “Optimal Facility Layout Plans” for each shipyard. We then re-mapped the process flows to their new facility locations, which allowed us to quantify the delta of transportation and motion between the current and the future, optimal facility state. The analysis identified a significant reduction in transportation and motion during maintenance availabilities that could be realized by implementing a new facilities vision of the naval shipyards. If implemented, that vision is expected to have a direct positive effect on the quality of life of the shipyard workforce, but most importantly, increase the timeliness and decrease the cost of ship maintenance.

The plan was submitted as a Report to Congress in February 2018 as part of the Navy’s on-going effort to modernize their shipyards, and helped to justify the creation of a Program Management Office to oversee these efforts over the long-term.

2. From a professional perspective, what initially drew you to planning? What was the career path you took to arrive at your current position?

I’ve always been interested in how Hawai‘i’s land use policies have guided development on O‘ahu. This interest influenced my decision to pursue graduate studies in geography at UH Manoa’s Department of Geography and Environment. While at UH, I got really into cartography and GIS, which looking back was a really new and immature technology at the time. I ended up doing my Master’s thesis on a predictive land use model that used GIS to model urban development on O‘ahu. My thesis allowed me to use the technical skills I’d developed to explore an area of inquiry that’s relevant to both geographers and planners. While I was a graduate student, I was hired by HHF Planners to help develop the firm’s GIS capabilities. As HHF’s GIS specialist, I primarily supported projects for the firm’s DoD clients, as the Navy was one of the only entities requiring GIS services at the time. In that role, I also supported many of HHF’s planning efforts, which exposed me to a wide variety of projects. I came to realize that planning allowed me to apply my interest in land use and my knowledge of geospatial analytical methods to develop solutions to inherently spatial problems. Transitioning from a GIS specialist to a planner was a natural progression as my technical skills helped me develop solutions to the planning issues each project presented. I now serve as a project manager for a variety of the firm’s work, but primarily still Navy projects.

3. Planning is multidisciplinary and multifaceted. How do you explain what planning is to someone outside our profession?

At the most basic level, I view planning as problem solving. How do you get from here to there? What are the options to get from here to there? Do you even want to be there?

4. Your educational background is in geography. How does your perspective and experience as a geographer contribute to your planning practice?

This perspective helps us understand why the world around us is formed the way it is and helps assess how the world might look in the future. A phrase I feel sums up a geographer’s perspective is, “Why, Here, Now?” As a geographer and planner, it’s essential to understand why any use or function is at its current location. Once you understand this, you can question whether the use needs to be at its current location and understand whether the location could be used for a better purpose, given other changes over time.

5. What advice do you have for planners beginning their careers?

Two things come to mind. Junior planners should find good mentors they can learn from. A good mentor helps you understand the practice of planning. Junior planners should also look outside planning and explore how other disciplines might enhance their practice. My practice has benefited from the skills I’ve developed as a geographer and the unique perspective my work in this discipline brings. Whether it’s architecture, engineering, or business, planners have a lot to learn from other, related disciplines.

6. What achievement in your career are you proudest of?

I’m proud of the work we did to make the SIOP Phase I project successful and the recognition we received from the APA’s Federal Planning Division. But there have been many wins over the years!