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Big city planning directors share experiences with first-year MUP students

At a recent session of their core studio, first-year MUP students were visited by high-ranking officials from the planning departments of New York City, Washington, DC, Seattle, and San Francisco. These planning directors shared insights from their careers and offered the students advice on how to plan for the revitalization of a troubled inner city neighborhood.

The planning directors were in Cambridge to participate in a Big City Planners program organized by the Harvard University Graduate School of Design, the Lincoln Institute for Land Policy, and the American Planning Association. The program provides the planning directors of the thirty largest cities in the United States with an opportunity to learn about, discuss, and debate important issues within their practice. Along with briefings and lectures on current policy issues, the program participants have chances to share their experiences with their peers.

The planning directors who visited the core MUP studio took a moment to share the trajectories of their careers. A common theme was to expect your career to take twists that were not in your original plan. Ellen McCarthy (MCP '74), director the Washington, DC Office of Planning, said that as a first year planner at the GSD she was focused on becoming a health planner. Lack of job opportunities in that field led her, however, to rewarding work as a transportation planner with the U.S. Department of Transportation, public-private revitalization in Miami, and historic preservation in Washington, DC.

After the planning directors outlined their careers, the MUP students presented their current research regarding Dudley Square, a neighborhood of Boston in which the city hopes to spark revitalization. The planning directors offered thoughts on how to identify issues, engage with the community, and spark economic growth. For instance, Nathan Torgelson, Deputy Director of the Seattle Department of Planning and Development described how his city worked with community colleges to develop job training programs that are tailored to existing manufacturers.

Russell Koff (MUP ’16) found the information that the planning directors shared about economic development to be particularly rewarding. Said Koff, “[Boston] is making a huge investment in the Roxbury neighborhood, so it was helpful to learn how other cities have managed similar public sector investments and what strategies they used to catalyze local economic development.” Koff drew a parallel to the Seattle experience by identifying Roxbury Community College as a stakeholder that planners could seek to involve in new economic development initiatives.

The conversations that the students had with the planning directors were also a chance for them to hone their communication skills. Said Nathalie Janson (MUP ’16), “keeping the presentations brief but clear to someone not familiar with the neighborhood was a challenge—I hope we can improve on this in the future.”

The presence of the big city planners in Cambridge for a chance to learn from their peers suggests that the MUP students will have a lifetime of opportunities to enhance their skills.