Dana Burghdoff’s decision to study city planning came down to two simple thoughts: first, as a younger version of herself at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who couldn’t decide what to study; second, as a process of elimination. 

“It’s a field that’s broad. And so it touches on a lot of different topics that I was interested in,” she said. “A lot of the majors were engineering, and I decided that I wasn’t going to be an engineer.”

For her, city planning combined her love of math and science with human interaction. And those two passions can be traced back to her parents. Her father was an engineer at General Motors while her mother, who she credits as an influential person in her life, worked as a public health nurse.

My mother “would talk about the sort of social services side of her job, and being able to not just be a nurse, but be a public health nurse, where you’re dealing with families and working in low-income communities and trying to better their lives,” Burghdoff said. 

Today, the 50-year-old is one of five Fort Worth assistant city managers and oversees four departments — aviation, development services, property management and water/waste.

Burghdoff knows she can’t be an expert in every topic she deals with every day but understands the importance of including diverse perspectives in her work to ensure the best quality of life. After all, she said, it’s all interrelated. 

“You need to be open to it and understand the challenges that people live with on a daily basis,” she said. “It’s its own system; it all comes together. You can’t just look at housing, without also looking at transportation, and then also looking at education without also looking at health, without also looking at the environment.”

Burghdoff began her career in the small town of Waltham, Massachusetts, working in community development through the use of federal funds as a planner. She administered those federal dollars toward projects like improved sidewalks, pedestrian bridges and streetscapes. She also had the opportunity to work on a first-time home buyer program, as well as with social services agencies that focused on addressing low-income and high-unemployment areas.

“Housing and community development had been the focus of my master’s degree in city planning. So working on that was a great fit,” Burghdoff said. 

Fernando Costa, also an assistant city manager, hired Burghdoff in 1999 when he was head of the planning department. He described her as someone who is universally respected and admired by city employees. 

“She’s such a valuable asset to the organization. And she volunteers in the community and is often out at community events, interacting with residents either at public meetings or informally in other activities,” Costa said. “It’s important for leaders in the organization because we can be effective in our leadership roles to the extent that we can build strong working relationships with our residents and build trust that enables us to do good things.”

In the years since her start as a planner, Burghdoff has helped the city think differently about complex topics such as transportation, development and the environment, Costa said. 

“She’s made an impact in every corner of Fort Worth,” Costa said. “Dana understands (these complex issues) well and helps us to address them in a responsible manner, and Fort Worth is, consequently, fortunate to derive the benefits of her leadership.”

Rebecca Montgomery, CEO and founder of Montgomery Strategies, serves on the Women’s Policy Forum of Tarrant County with Burghdoff. She described the assistant city manager as a servant leader.

“She definitely brings a level of excellence to everything she touches. She’s a hard worker in the details and a true class act,” Montgomery said. “I believe she’s one of those that can mentor, that younger folks can look up to — young women — and be inspired and know that they have the same opportunities.”

Burghdoff is someone who cares about others, Montgomery said. 

“Dana has the kindest, most caring, genuine heart,” she said. 

With Fort Worth approaching the million mark for population soon, Burghdoff and the other assistant city managers are tasked with preparing the city for that boom both in the short term and long term. 

It’s not about whether the city will be able to serve residents but when, Burghdoff said. 

“We can’t always be ahead of it, but we at least don’t want to be lagging too far behind,” she said. 

Sandra Sadek is a Report for America corps member, covering growth for the Fort Worth Report. You can contact her at sandra.sadek@fortworthreport.org or follow her on Twitter at @ssadek19.

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Dana’s Bio:

Birthplace: Lansing, Michigan

Moved to Fort Worth: 1999

Family: Husband Brandon Bennett, dog Henry, and cat Scout

Education: MIT, bachelor of science and master of city planning

Work experience: Planner for city of Waltham, Massachusetts; planner, planning manager, assistant director, assistant city manager for city of Fort Worth

Volunteer experience: Currently serve on boards for Center for Nonprofit Management, Girl Scouts of Texas-Oklahoma Plains, and Women’s Policy Forum of Tarrant County

First job: Mowing lawns and local drive-thru

Advice for someone learning to be a leader: Find a good boss or mentor with high expectations who will give your learning opportunities and provide you with constructive criticism

Best advice ever received: Be inclusive, readily share information with others and consult with people affected by your decisions

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Sandra Sadek is the growth reporter for the Fort Worth Report and a Report for America corps member. She writes about Fort Worth's affordable housing crisis, infrastructure and development. Originally...