Không bao giờ là quá sớm để học … quy hoạch

Tạp chí Planning — February 2011

Các trường trung học ở Mỹ đang chuẩn bị cho học sinh bước vào lĩnh vực quy hoạch:

It’s Never Too Soon to Start

High schools are zeroing in on urban planning.

By Nate Berg

Who says you have to be an adult to study urban planning? These days, more and more high schools are bringing planning to teenagers in grades 9 through 12. In fact, a handful of planning-focused high schools have opened recently in urban areas around the U.S.

From Milwaukee to Brooklyn to Philadelphia to Los Angeles, high school kids are being given the opportunity to delve into a world they might not typically encounter for years, if ever.

The idea of teaching planning to a bunch of Facebook-hopping, cell-phone-entranced adolescents may seem quixotic. But the educators behind these schools aren’t trying to prepare kids for the AICP exam. They’re using a holistic approach to help explore students’ roles in their communities, the process of change that goes on in the cities around them, and the potential for a future career in the field.

Nuts and bolts are largely avoided. How to apply for a zoning amendment? Not a priority. What function citizens can have in deciding which projects should and should not be built in their neighborhoods? Yes, absolutely.

“We’re trying to make them more proactive about bringing change to their community,” says Martin Buchman, a film and English teacher who helped to launch a pilot program in Los Angeles that is focused on urban planning. The East Los Angeles Renaissance Academy of Urban Planning and Design opened last fall in the LA Unified School District, and currently has about 375 students enrolled in three grades.

It’s part of the brand-new, five-academy Esteban Torres High School in East LA, a part of town where high schools cram in more than 4,000 kids. When the opportunity came up to pitch the school district on a themed pilot program, Buchman saw a chance to fill a niche and to create a school program that was relevant to students’ lives.

East LA is a heavily Latino area, with many first- and second-generation immigrants. Participation in government is fairly low here, but there is a history of activism. As the scene of student protests and walkouts over insufficient school facilities in the late 1960s, East LA was the heart of the Chicano civil rights movement. One of the movement’s demands: a new high school in this part of East Los Angeles. Forty years later, that school has finally been built.

“When we come across community members who know what urban planning is, they get very excited” about the new school, says Michael Leavy, an English teacher who helped start the academy. He says showing students how they can get involved in the changing city and world around them is empowering for them and for their families.

And although many students in this school elected to come here, not all of them care about “becoming empowered” or even becoming urban planners. Some, like Victor Borja, just thought it sounded interesting. “It kind of caught my eye because I’m an artist, and I thought I might be able to integrate that into urban design or urban planning,” says the 16-year-old junior.

The school offers elective courses in GIS, architectural drafting, and geography, in addition to state-required courses like math, history, and English. None of the school’s teachers are trained urban planners.

“Ideally we would have elective teachers who are all urban planning experts, but budgetary constraints won’t allow us to do that,” says Zoe Souliotis-Foley, an English and speech teacher in the program.

Volunteers help fill the gap. Graduate students from UCLA’s planning program have helped run workshops, and the nonprofit LA Education Partnership has helped to craft the curriculum and get the pilot idea approved. Urban planner James Rojas, a 20-year veteran in the LA planning scene, has advised the teachers on their curriculum and hosted interactive model-building workshops with the students.

About 375 students have enrolled in the East Los Angeles Renaissance Academy of Urban Planning and Design, which opened last fall

A general plan

But the East LA school is just the latest example of its kind. The first such program, the New York City Academy of Urban Planning, was started in 2003 in Brooklyn. It is a fairly traditional school with about 475 students and an eight-period school day. Urban planning is a running theme within the school’s curriculum, with teachers peppering it into class work rather than focusing on it intensely — a model that similar schools have followed as well.

“We don’t really ever talk about what urban planning is as a field; we talk about the things that go into urban planning,” says Josh Lapidus, an urban planning teacher at the academy whose own background is in urban geography. “The idea was always to be very expansive in the way we think about urban planning, and to use it as a tool to get students out of the classroom and into the community, understanding how things work and how they can be involved.”

“Even people who get master’s degrees in urban planning have difficulty explaining to their moms what they do. So it’s even harder for a high school student to understand what urban planning is,” says Lapidus. But students can grasp concepts like community organizing and community involvement, local government, local decision making, architecture, urban design, and transportation, he adds.

For a recent project, students researched a new city initiative aimed at building public plazas for traffic calming. They looked into how the program is run, what traffic problems the city is trying to address, and how proposals are selected. Students then identified streets in their community that would benefit from plazas and submitted proposals to the city. Lapidus says it was mainly a theoretical exercise, since actual projects must be maintained by an active community group, but the effort has helped the students understand local decision making.

With classes in urban ecology, urban geography, architecture, and design, the academy addresses the theme of urban planning broadly, but Lapidus says the school isn’t trying to proselytize. “We would certainly love it if students came out of here wanting to be urban planners. We would also love it if they wanted to be community organizers, or if they wanted to be architects or designers, or,” he says, if they “just went on to college in general.”

Meeting a need

NYC's Academy of Urban Planning opened in Brooklyn in 2003 and now has an enrollment of 475 students

The last goal tends to take on a bit more importance in schools like these. Most of them are located in underserved neighborhoods where school dropout rates are high. This is an especially critical issue at the School for Urban Planning and Architecture or SUPAR, a charter high school in Milwaukee that’s been operating since 2007. The school was created through a partnership between the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee and the Milwaukee Public Schools system.

Nancy Frank, AICP, an associate professor of urban planning at UWM, has been involved in SUPAR from the start. Like many educators elsewhere, she stresses the importance of helping students understand the role they can play as citizens in improving their communities and neighborhoods, but she also emphasizes the social importance of the project.

“We were seeing the need for the department of urban planning, from an ethical standpoint, to take some direct action to do something about the abysmal graduation rates in our local big city school systems,” says Frank, who calls the city’s graduation rates “horrendous.”

Two-thirds of high school students in the Milwaukee Public School system graduated in the 2008–2009 school year, according to the system’s communications office. Figures aren’t yet available for SUPAR, but Frank says that all seniors have gone on to graduate over the last three years.

As a charter school, SUPAR uses a project-based program, which means that little class time is spent on specific subjects. Under the guidance of teaching staff, faculty from UWM, and volunteer grad students, the students pick topics they’re interested in exploring, and then they explore. SUPAR advisor Cristine Parr says this kind of ownership helps get kids more involved in their education.

“Our program, aside from being project-based, is also really individualized, so it’s not necessarily that all the students are future architects or urban planners. The push is to get them to do something beyond high school,” Parr says.

While not every student chooses to explore a topic directly related to urban planning or architecture, students are exposed to many of the skills and processes of those fields. Freshmen learn GIS from UWM grad students, and students participate in creating civic projects like urban gardens and other community service efforts.

“One of the things that really is critical, especially for high school students and probably middle school, too, is seeing that connection between what they’re doing at school and the real world. That it’s not something that’s completely isolated from the school experience,” says Parr. “So we try to look at things from that perspective, in all areas of the curriculum.”

Seeing that connection between school and the real world also means seeing the possibility for a future career. “This phrase ‘urban planner’ means nothing to most students and probably most adults, but through that connection with UWM, they’ve started to see that there’s a whole bunch of careers that could be related,” Parr says.

A number of SUPAR graduates have begun studying architecture in college, and Josh Lapidus, from the Academy of Urban Planning in New York, says his former students have also jumped into the urban planning world, both in college and in practice. Reynold Martin, who graduated from the academy in 2007 as part of its first graduating class, immediately helped form the Young Planners Network, a nationwide organization of groups that are getting youth involved in urban planning issues. The network is preparing for its fourth national conference later this year in Chicago.

Martin currently works as a program coordinator for a nonprofit organization that promotes literacy through poetry, but he says he is looking forward to expanding his professional interests in urban planning, possibly focusing on policy making or community organizing. “I picture myself at a nonprofit that specializes in community development, using art to better the community, bringing people together to talk about housing and policy and neighborhood improvement projects,” says Martin. “There are so many issues that it’s hard to pick just one.”

Another project-based, urban-focused school is the Urban Leadership Academy at West Philadelphia High School. Preparing students for education after high school is a priority, as is exposing them to possible careers. The academy focuses on cities, offering courses in urban economics, urban ecology, and urban sociology. One course, called “Vacant Lot Management,” offers students a hands-on look at small-scale community development. However, recent performance issues and takeover talks have put the school’s future in question.

Reality check

But urban planning education isn’t limited to this handful of specialized schools. A mock development program created by the Urban Land Institute called UrbanPlan has been used in more than 20,000 classrooms nationwide since 2004. Its 15 class-hours stress economics and government. Students are organized into groups that respond to an RFP for the redevelopment of a blighted piece of land in a fictional city.

As with a true development project, students must respond to both market and nonmarket forces by dealing with zoning rules, politics, neighborhood groups, and design issues. Paula Blasier, the director of UrbanPlan, says the program aims to show students all sides of the development process, and especially how those sides can better interact.

“We look at how these things clash and collaborate to determine what’s going to be built, where, how much of it can be built, when. We thought this was an essential foundation” for anyone discussing development in a sophisticated way, Blasier says.

At the end, students present their projects to an ersatz city council, made up of ULI members, which discusses the merits and either grants approval or not. Blasier says the program tries to give students a comprehensive look at how development happens, as well as the various interests and players involved. About 150 schools nationwide currently offer the program.

Whether these sorts of programs will produce future urban planners is hard to say, but for most of the educators involved, that’s almost immaterial. The common theme throughout these programs is that planning offers a way to approach a variety of issues and concepts that are both based in reality and related to the lives of students.

“Everybody’s a planner. And everybody has an idea about cities,” says James Rojas in describing how to teach urban planning concepts to kids. “I just want to reinforce that their ideas are valid and valuable, and that this is how to articulate them.”

Nate Berg is a writer based in Los Angeles.


Images: Top — About 375 students have enrolled in the East Los Angeles Renaissance Academy of Urban Planning and Design, which opened last fall. Photo by Nate Berg. Bottom — NYC’s Academy of Urban Planning opened in Brooklyn in 2003 and now has an enrollment of 475 students. Photo Academy of Urban Planning.